There is a point in everyone's life, when you look back at the last few months, years, or - depending on your age - decades, and ask yourself: Why the hell am I doing this?
For some, this might happen only once, for others once a week. It usually happens to me when I'm standing on set at 5am, freezing my ass off in some remote location. I just got dropped off by helicopter, and now I'm standing alone on this glacier, shooting HDRI stills. Or, I'm standing in heavy rain next to a garbage dump (well, that's the location) after an 16-hour day (so far), my clothes are starting to soak all the way through, while there's a crew of 200 people buzzing around, trying to make the last shot of the day before losing the light.
So why the hell am I doing this?
I grew up in a small town in Germany. We had 5 TV channels, two of which were totally useless because they were broadcast in black and white from then-communist East Germany.
My parents had a TV set the size of a small microwave oven, and all feature films were shown in letterbox format, leaving a cinemascope movie to be the size of a postage stamp (widescreen postage stamp).
One night, Lawrence of Arabia was playing in our microwave oven. And that changed my life. After I saw the first cinemascope frames of "El Orence" riding across a giant morning sun in the Arabian desert, as the camera cranes up, accompanied by Maurice Jarre's phenomenal soundtrack, I begged my parents to let me stay up to see the whole film. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was eleven years old.
When the film ended, I knew: This is what I want to do. I want to make movies. Not just any movies. Films of grand scale. Epic stories.
So I started experimenting with my Super8 camera. Making and shooting miniatures, blowing them up in the basement, trying hard not to burn the house down. And I noticed pretty early on that it's difficult being epic in your basement, with 8mm film that costs a fortune, considering the weekly allowance of a twelve-year-old. But I had a feeling that somehow I was on the right path. If I could only learn more how to make these miniatures work, combine them with footage of actors (i.e. friends from high school)...
Eventually, with only grudging support from my parents, I applied for film school. My parents would have rather seen me become a banker/lawyer/doctor or street cleaner, ANY real job would do, just not "artist".
While I was studying directing and producing, "Terminator 2" was released. And that, again, changed my life. Not so much the movie, but rather the fact that our film school got a delivery of 5 SGI workstations with Alias Wavefront software - the same used to make the then-mind-blowing 7 minutes of VFX in the movie. Problem was, there was nobody there to teach that yet. So I got three manuals about the size of a small refridgerator and started reading and trying. And that's how I really got into Visual Effects. I also got to know my good friend and business partner Volker Engel. We were usually the only ones left at 2am, he doing a stop-motion movie in 35mm, me moving pixels.
Two Years later, in April 1994, I arrived in Los Angeles to start an internship at a production company (no, not for visual effects) and befriended a guy from India, who built his own PCs, and had a seemingly limitless supply of "liberated" software programs. So we built our first PC workstation, with a RAID array of some odd-hundred Mega-bytes.
And that changed my life again. There was a slight problem with SGI machines. And that was that they cost somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 Dollars including software, for the lower end machines. So absolutely unaffordable for most of us. But if you could build your own machine for just a few grand, and "borrow" a software until you were able to make money with it - that was a different story. When Volker asked me to become VFX project manager on "Independence Day", which he was supervising, I took the chance and used my weekends to try out different configurations and software, and finally did one VFX shot for ID4 with a PC running Digital Fusion for DOS.
That, for me, was the start of the democratizing of the Visual Effects industry, and, eventually, the film industry. Now, it IS possible to make an epic in your basement. And that's what I'd like to celebrate with this blog. That's what I'd like to dedicate next weeks or months (or however long they let me do this…) to. Every month, it seems, there is something new being released or invented, that actively changes the way we make movies. A lot of them are not even invented for our industry, but can be adapted. A lot of them might still be way too expensive or inefficient, but give it two or three years...
What are the new technologies - hardware, software, or just ideas - that can put the power of visuals, ANY visuals we want to create, in our hands? Into anybody's hands, who is dedicated to learning them, working his or her ass off to make it happen. That's what I'd like to talk about here, and I welcome any comments, tips, links, suggestions, that show what's possible, or what will be possible.
Anything that costs a hundred grand today might only be a hundred Dollars in few years. Anything that can only be done by ILM and 50 people today, might be done by two people in their basement tomorrow.
So, back to the question - why am I doing this?
Because I love it. I HAVE TO DO IT. I love film. And even though it dawned on me over the years that it's way more difficult to make a movie than to watch one, I never regretted it. This is the best damn job I could ever imagine. I've shot all over the world, with lots of different people, in locations you would never get to on vacation. Every project is a new challenge. A new story, new characters, new research, new technology, new emotions, music, sound, visuals.
And next time I'm standing alone on that glacier at 5am, I will for sure remember that.
"Tracking Marc" will return next week, with THE WORLD'S FIRST SIDE-BY-SIDE TEST OF THE NEW ARRI ALEXA AND RED MYSTERIUM X.