I have to share this amazing short film I discovered recently thanks to nofilmschool.com. HENRi is a 20 minute crowd-funded sci-fi movie about a computer that builds a robot body for itself and tries to become human. It stars Margot Kidder (best known as Lois Lane in the original Superman movies) and Keir Dullea, who flips his famous role as David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey to play the titular computer. But the human characters are only a small part of this film. Shot on beautiful quarter-scale sets, the real star is the HENRi robot, realised through a combination of rod puppetry and first rate CGI. Trust me, this is one of the most unique and awesome shorts you will ever see and well worth every penny of the £1.19 rental fee.
Over a month ago I wrote a post about the advantages of computer generated imagery over more traditional ways of creating visual effects. Apologies for the delay, but here at last is the flipside of that coin: the advantages of old-school technqiues.
Here’s an alternate ending from Blade (1998)….
It was ditched after test audiences responded poorly to it. They had invested in the film’s villain throughout the movie and they felt cheated to see him turn into a CGI blobby thing for the final battle. The filmmakers cut the scene and replaced it with a sword duel between Blade and the baddie in human form.
This highlights CGI’s chief difficulty – it’s unreality. There is something disappointing about being served up an image that has been created with ones and zeros. It feels like a cheat. And that can take an audience out of the story.
In contrast to CGI, model shots tend to look more realistic but move less realistically, due to the unavoidable physics involved. But there can often be a charm to this motion that allows us to forgive it. Indeed, I think the best reason to use traditional effects today is when you want things to look unreal in a very appealing way. Take for example Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which used forced perspective and painted backdrops to create a beautiful fantasy world. Or The Life Aquatic’s stop motion marine creatures…. except that the animation was so good they looked real.
Some other advantages of traditional techniques over CGI:
- Some techniques, like puppetry, can be achieved in camera, giving the actors something real to react to.
- All the randomness of nature is automatically built in.
- Effects like fire and water are theoretically easier, though in practice can be difficult to control and to scale correctly.
- Today’s audiences are used to CGI and can generally recognise it, but model shots are perhaps more likely to fool them.
In writing this post I’ve realised how CGI has advanced even in the few years since I stopped actively developing The Dark Side of the Earth (an ambitious fantasy feature intended to include stop motion, puppetry, miniatures and matte paintings).
Almost no-one today is still shooting miniatures without enhancing them digitally. Savvy filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Duncan Jones and Sam Mendes combine models and CGI to get the best of both worlds. It seems traditional techniques alone can really only be used now as a deliberate stylistic choice. That saddens me. I’d be delighted if anyone can prove me wrong.
If anyone out there is contemplating using miniatures in their indie film, here are some tips…
As promised, here is the VFX breakdown for the main shot of the ghost train in my recent Virgin Media Shorts entry:
Due to the looming nature of the competition deadline, this was a pretty quick and dirty shot. Having said that, my VFX skills are pretty limited and I doubt I could have significantly improved it even if I’d had more time. It took a couple of hours to set up and shoot the miniature, and no more than an hour to do the compositing you see above. (I re-used smoke footage shot for Soul Searcher.)
As always, my approach was low-tech, avoiding any CG elements, and I did all the compositing work in Final Cut Pro. Soul Searcher had loads of shots that utilised this low-tech method, creating effects with everything from indoor sparklers to milk being poured into a fish tank. You can see a breakdown of all those effects as part of the Deluxe Package rental of Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher. And remember, if you embed this video on your own site, you get a cut of any sales made through it.
Last weekend I recorded the model shots for Ghost-trainspotting. The script was written with the train miniature from my 2005 feature film Soul Searcher in mind.
This model was built by Jonathan Hayes, with the wheels and linkages by my uncle and my late grandfather, and even some detailing by Yours Truly. If you’ve seen Going to Hell: The Making of Soul Searcher you’ll know what an absolute pain in the arse this train was to shoot back in the autumn of ’04. You can also check out the key blog entries here, here and here to experience the pain.
I’m pleased to report that filming the train this time around was considerably easier. The model has been sitting in my parents’ loft conversion for the last eight years, and that’s where I filmed it. All I had to do was rig some black drapes and line up the camera angles to the live action plates.
In the past, whenever I’ve needed to shoot a VFX element that had to match another, pre-existing element, I’ve used acetate. I would play back the existing element, typically a live action plate from principal photography, on a TV or monitor. I’d tape a sheet of acetate – the stuff teachers used to use on overhead projectors – over the screen and draw around the important landmarks with a felt-tip. Then I’d plug the camera into the same TV and adjust the camera angle until it matched the lines on the acetate. Low-tech, but effective.
Thanks to Magic Lantern – a firmware hack for the Canon HD-DSLRs – there’s now a more elegant solution. Magic Lantern provides a large number of handy features that Canon themselves were too tight or too lazy to include, but there are only two I regularly use: manual white balance, which lets you dial in the colour temperature in degrees kelvin, rather than relying on presets or holding up a white sheet of paper, and crop marks.
On Stop/Eject I used the crop marks to show us the 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio we were framing to, but you can actually overlay any monochrome image on the viewfinder by simply creating a .BMP image of the correct specifications on your computer and saving it to your SDHC card. So for Ghost-trainspotting, I loaded still frames from the two live action plates into Photoshop, and outlined them with the paint tool. After saving these outlines to the memory card as bitmaps, I could superimpose them on the Live View image on my Canon 600D’s flip-out screen. This made it a doddle to line up the shots.
So, the model shots are now in the can and yesterday I incorporated them into the film. I also tightened up the edit – finally getting it down to 2’20 exactly, including credits – mixed the audio and graded the images. The film is very nearly finished now; I’m just trying to decide whether to change the ending….
If you’re lucky, there may be a little VFX breakdown of the train shots coming in the next week or so. Meanwhile, here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice about shooting miniatures:
Just wanted to share this video I came across on YouTube. A very recent but classic example of a miniature sequence that no-one would ever have known wasn’t done full-scale. Try doing that with CGI!
Additional (26/10/11): On a similar subject, check out Gavin Rothery’s blog about the making of the excellent Moon. Gavin was the conceptual designer and visual effects supervisor on the film, apparently having a creative involvement in the project second only to writer-director Duncan Jones. His blog reveals all kinds of interesting nuggets from what military vehicles were originally going to be used to portray the moon buggies, to how he and Duncan used to lock themselves in the studio overnight, hiding from the security guards, to work on the set. Thanks to Matt Collett for this link.