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The Summer Update – (It’s Been Too Long Edition)

May 22, 2014

So the last post was five months ago and I am deeply behind on this blog business; so behind, actually, that I created and released my first short film since Spaceship Over McAllen without any warning, behind-the-scenes stuff, or blog-related updates (blupdates?). There’s a lot to talk about there, but this semester of college was so action-packed that there’s even more cool film-related things going on than the release of IN TRANSIT. So in this entry, we’ll be playing catch-up. Buckle up. And wear your favorite Hawaiian shirt. Because summer mode is ON.

Cue fun summer grooves.

 

IN TRANSIT

Before I talk about it, give it a watch with HD on, fullscreen, and the audio turned up.

 

So there it is. Let’s talk about it!

The film class I took this semester was exciting because it was the first film class where some sort of actual production was involved, though it was still an intro class so everything was toned down a few notches. We had three projects to do throughout the time in class; the first two were photography-based projects, and the last was a real short film, albeit with restrictions. The restrictions were to create a short film with sound design but no dialogue, and it had to be between two and five minutes long. The prompt also stated that the film had to surround a strong emotion we felt.

Posted on the night we got the prompt. The fun begins.

Posted on the night we got the prompt. The fun begins.

Having sort of rushed the first two projects in the class, I really wanted this one to be truly exceptional. I wanted to do something no other student would probably do, and go above and beyond what would be a traditional story in a traditional setting. So one of the first ideas that defined In Transit was the choice to have it take place in the future. With the film taking place in the future, I had the opportunity to create some truly special visual moments, something I consider a trademark of sorts in my filmmaking philosophy.

As more ideas accreted in my head, I knew that this film had to be more personal than anything I’ve made before. Since my past shorts were either campy comedies, visual effect pieces, or concept demos, I felt it was time to make a serious, character-driven piece. Coming out of a rather dark and isolated first semester in Austin, emotionally, I sought to see how I could translate those feelings and emotion into the project along with themes of transition, despair, and a longing to make some sort of impact on the world.

The goal then was for the film to communicate these themes and emotions effectively in its future setting, even if I had to resort to more abstract storytelling. If you view the script, you can see how the themes manifested in the plot: the main character being this troubled individual who feels contempt towards the society he lives in, searching for some otherworldly peace, and ultimately taking his own life. Along with the emotional tenets of the film, I also found that the future setting allowed the interesting opportunity to comment on modern-day culture, hyperbolized into the future.

The first promotional image for In Transit.

The first promotional image for In Transit.

With the script finished in a couple of days, production started immediately. The first two minutes or so of In Transit were designed to be one continuous take. Due to issues regarding locations, I ended up having to join three shots in two different locations as seamlessly as possible to create the illusion I needed. The first thing we shot was the opening reveal of the city, and our main character’s long, lonely walk through a small crowd of people absorbed with their hand-devices. For the shot, I had about twelve or so extras on hand as the pedestrians. We practiced the 50-second walk and some of the small interactions (like bumping into each other) on a quiet sidewalk on campus. After that, we hit the streets and it did for real; 17 times, in 4 different locations in the city. With 17 takes of the same walk, I had a lot of variety to choose from, and ended up choosing the take where I thought most of the elements were the strongest. You can see a fun little montage of all the takes below. Shot on a 5D mk II (Thanks Jean Paul!)

After that short scene was shot, it went immediately into post, taking about five days to finish. At around that point, I shot the car stuff, apartment interiors, and the other 50-second take that goes on before the main character gets to the street (the elevator ride). The elevator ride was then joined with the street take, resulting in the first two minutes of the film. It was about two-and-a-half weeks before most of the film was in a rough stage of completion, but the critical final act of the movie (the climactic car flying scene to the building and the swelling soundtrack) was still missing. The final scene needed more CG work than all the scenes before it combined. And I only had a week left before the project was due. Enter stress mode.

The rough timeline in Adobe Premiere for In Transit

The rough timeline in Adobe Premiere for In Transit

For around six days, I probably spent anywhere from 12-16 hours a day working on the VFX so it would be done before the due date. Among the more challenging shots was the fully-CG shot of the car’s main jet firing, and all of the fully-CG exteriors of Austin in the future. The jet-firing shot was a particularly challenging one because my aging copy of 3DS Max along with the aging VRay renderer (which I still don’t know how to use too well) was giving me annoying issues. Besides taking way too long to render, the final render of the car lifting off had a shadow that was somehow white instead of black, and no street running underneath it. I then had to carefully mess with the alpha channels inside of After Effects to turn the shadow back to its normal color, and create the highway running along underneath the car inside of AE from scratch. The solution was a 2D road texture; switched to a 3D layer, perspective-matched following the 3D camera movement, motion-tiled to repeat twenty or so times (mind-you a very inefficient way to do it, render-wise), and then finally keyframing the z-position until it looked like the car was going very fast. With the road running underneath the car, and the car looking halfway decent, the last step was adding a few particles coming out of the jet (again inside of AE) and color grading it so it meshed well with the other footage. The result was okay.

A total of four hours to render, and it didn't even come out remotely close to looking good afterwards.

A total of four hours to render, and it required more work to fix the rendering mistakes than it took to create the damned animation in the first place.

The next big CG shot (the camera dollying to the left as the car flies up towards the sky) was something I’m less proud of, but had to happen as-is due to time constraints and more issues with VRay; mainly not getting the the daylight lighting system to properly light the car. I had to render it with incorrect lighting and as a result, the car looks very out of place. Couple that with background footage that lost a lot of detail to stabilization (I shot all my live action backgrounds out of a moving car on the highway), and some less than ideal compositing for the buildings in the background, and the shot ended up looking barely passable compared to other shots. Oh well, you learn from your mistakes.

The few CG shots that were taken from an aerial perspective were possible thanks to Google Earth. GE, very fortunately had the city of Austin modeled entirely in 3D, allowing for virtually any camera perspective of the city. Making sure the quality settings inside of GE were turned all the way up, a simple screengrab set up the foundation for the shot. Small touch-ups, like doing a box blur of about 0.5, and basic color correction removes the artificial feel of the city and gets rid of any aliasing issues in the screengrab. After that, it was as simple as inserting the futuristic buildings via the extremely handy future city 3D model pack via Element 3D, matching lighting conditions, and doing final coloring work so it looks right. That alone would have sold the shot, but the flying cars as a particle system in Trapcode’s Particular were added to further sell the future setting.

The rest of the VFX were pretty basic stuff, mostly doing a lot of tracking and inserting. Track and insert a screen here, track and insert a building, track and insert some graffiti, that was pretty much it for the other shots. Take a look at the VFX breakdown for some of the shots of In Transit to see how they were made, with an awesome accompanying musical piece!

Some other notable things about creating this short: it was my first time shooting and working with a Canon 5D (the mk. II specifically). Coming from doing VFX work mostly on t3i footage, the 5D mkII is a vast improvement in many ways you don’t notice until you start playing around with the footage. The color information on the 5D is miles ahead of the T3i, understandably as both cameras carry pretty different price tags (and data rates; CF cards will always outperform SD card data rates). But the 5D seriously allows you much more flexibility in coloring, and doing VFX that depends a lot on color data that the camera gives, like chroma keying, grading, color swapping or any sort of detailed color work. While the dynamic range wasn’t the nicest, and most of the sky in the footage got blown out, it still held its own when it needed to.

Now, I own a Blackmagic Cinema Camera that shoots in 10-bit ProRes and carries huge, cinematic latitude. The color information surpasses even the 5D’s by orders of magnitude. Why did I use a DSLR instead? It came down to sensor size, plain and simple. The 5D’s massive full-frame sensor produces a field-of-view that literally dwarfs that of the BMCC’s. When going for that run-and-gun, wide documentary look I wanted for In Transit, the BMCC just did not cut it. The crop factor is crippling, to the point where my options for some shots, using the BMCC, were to either knock down some walls so I had enough space to stand back and frame my shots correctly, or resort to using my Rokinon 8mm fisheye and it’s bad distortion to get things to fit inside the frame. For big, well-prepared productions, the BMCC is a fantastic camera, especially with a good amount of lens options to handle that epic crop factor. But for In Transit, a no-budget run-and-gun shoot which required shots in very small, cramped spaces, it just couldn’t be done. It helps that the 5D’s form factor is very workable, its small and light. The BMCC is large, bulky, heavy, and requires another heavy external battery for shoots lasting longer than an hour. Again, large obstacles for this type of production.

It’s important to note that In Transit went through a few cuts before settling on the final version on Vimeo and YouTube. The earliest cut that was first turned in had a good, but tacky electronic song that served as the music for the finale. While certainly epic and fitting, I decided to refrain from getting into copyright trouble, and having more control over the music through an original score worked better. Returning as the premier music producer and electronic music master was none other than Axphite, or Phillip Jordan. Take a look at his soundcloud (Heartstopper is my personal fav). Anyways, the version turned in, and eventually screened on the last day of class, was also lacking the last scene after the title with several voices commenting on what happened. I felt the movie was incomplete without some sort of resolution addressing the main character’s pretty morally dubious actions, and bring in a sort of political element I wanted to introduce to the viewer. One of the goals with the story was to create some kind of conversation, if only mentally, about what the main character ends up doing, and his arc throughout the film.

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When In Transit was finally released, it got a pretty impressive amount of exposure. I was expecting a few hundred views on the first day, not a couple thousand, so that really blew my mind. It couldn’t have gotten the exposure without the help of so many of my friends who shared it on Facebook and showed some love. So thank you guys for that. I really do feel proud of In Transit, I feel like I was able to accomplish something I’m proud of in a short amount of time, but at the same time I am so ready to move on and make something else without the constraints of a class project, like the no dialogue rule among other things. I’m ready to make something bigger and better than In Transit, and getting the help of all the really talented folk I’ve befriended so far in film school at UT. Exciting things are happening, and I can’t wait to tell you about them.

So Let’s Tell You About These Exciting Things

With In Transit completed, what does the future look like for Blulight Studios? It looks a little something like this:

An exciting script is on the way.

The oh-so-glamorous process of writing screenplays.

I’m currently writing out a script! If everything goes right in the next few months, (and I’ll actually be updating the ‘ol blogasauras rex more frequently now) this short film should enter production sometime at the end of summer. I’d love to get into details about what it actually is, but it’s so incomplete at this point that I’d rather not pull another entry like the last one where I talked about getting all excited about an idea but it never turned into much else. Honestly though, that was more because the idea I talked about in the last blog entry ended up being a short film that would need some pretty massive production resources that I’d like to wait on to make until later in the future. The current script is being written with production during school in mind, so feasibility shouldn’t be an issue. Also it has a superhero in it. Excited now? Hopefully. I know I am.

So what else is going on? It should definitely be mentioned that I DP’d and am currently editing a wonderful short written and directed by the talented Mark Hewitt. We went all the way over to Abilene, Texas to shoot this bad boy, and there’s a lot to talk about what I learned (and am still learning) working under a different director for one of the first times. But, I’m not sure how much I can talk about it until it’s either released or I get permission. But there’s enough stuff to talk about that it warrants another blog entry. So be on the lookout for that one soon!

In addition to that project, I pulled some VFX work for other friend’s shorts this semester. One of them is Jason Garza’s short, Anthropic, (made for the same class), its a very cool exploration of quantum theory. The VFX in question was a pretty large FumeFX simulation of an explosion and some accompanying debris, although I will probably simulate a better explosion and work on some detail that’s missing in a later version, hopefully.

It’s Been A Hell Of A Semester

 

It has indeed. Any other news I’m forgetting about will probably be written about in the next entry! So that’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed reading about all of this film nonsense, and if you didn’t, well.. I don’t really know. Sorry I guess? Hopefully there was at least something useful in the 2,731 words that comprise this blog post. I’ll be back soon. Thanks for reading, and as always, stay classy.

I think someone somewhere asked where they can download a Blulight Studios desktop background. Get it here!

 

 

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