Press Release from Elender
(January 28, 2011) – “Lisl and the Lorlok”, winner of the Best Feature award at the 2011 Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema, features a creature character animated solely with the opensource 3D animation program Blender. This is the first American feature to use Blender exclusively for animation and compositing in a live-action project.
The film, described by its creators as a “dark fairy tale”, was a hit at the 2011 IIFC, gaining a nomination for Best Director as well as winning Best Actor for Ivan Borntrager in addition to Best Feature.
“Lisl” is the first feature from director Ignatius Fischer. Fischer got his start in the film industry fabricating miniatures and visual effects on features such as Titanic and The Fifth Element. “I was always a writer at heart, writing short stories, attempting a novel, etc. Once in the film industry, I began toying with screenplay format.”
A feature-length science fiction screenplay he’d written and helped produce, The Men Who Fell, was picked up for international distribution.
“It was the best film school ever,” said Fischer, “It became a no-brainer that I'd want to write and direct my own film.”
Fischer met his co-producer and “Lisl” screenwriter Brian Dillon, of Temecula, on the set of one of Dillon’s projects. They began a partnership that started with short films using local actors and crewmembers. They found their work styles meshed, and this evolved into a professional partnership. Both wanted to do a feature film and began discussing possible story ideas.
“I have always read a lot, and I love suspense stories, fantasies, and science fiction. I had written a hefty short story, almost a novella, called Queen Of Heads (The Harrow, 1998) in which I explored this sort of twisted Alice-In-Wonderland nightmare space, but one classic element was the monster that came out from under the bed and dragged people down to nightmare land. It was this particular scene - the monster under the bed – that intrigued me as far as making a small independent movie.”
Dillon's roots are in similar soil.
“My earliest memory is watching Poltergeist and being terrified out of my wits, so the notion of toying with those irrational fears was always in interesting one,” said Dillon. “Also, I've always been a fan of dark material, and everyone can associate with the fear of what lurks in the shadows, under the bed, in the closet, etc - exaggerated by the filter of a child's imagination. To breath life into that monster was an easy step for me.”
“Brian and I discussed what kind of a story I wanted to do and what kind of a story would fit in that location. The classic "fairy tale" and the "monster under the bed" became the two themes powering the script ideas. We eventually settled on a little girl stuck in a large house with a creature. We also based the story elements on an allegory (addiction as seen through the eyes of a child).”
The project was cast using local actors they had worked with or seen in community theater presentations. Fischer was able to involve Kimberly Parmon, one of the stars in The Men Who Fell, who had achieved some fame as the demon-slayer. And then something happened which they could not have prepared for, something that almost derailed the production.
“We hired a professional creature effects fabricator - whom I'd worked with on other professional productions - paying him to create a 1:1 scale puppet of the Lorlok,” said Fischer. “Ten days prior to our shoot date, he vanished. He stopped returning phone calls and literally disappeared. So we were out the sum we'd paid (nearly 20% of our budget) and we had no creature.”
They faced a tough decision: postpone production until another creature could be fabricated (setting them back months) or plow ahead and add the creature in postproduction using computer graphics. They forged ahead, opting to shoot "Lisl" and hoping for the best.
“After we'd completed principle photography, a close friend of mine, artist Sohail Wasif, designed and sculpted the Lorlok in Maya 3D software.”
But the creature still needed to be animated.
“I discovered Blender, an open-source 3D animation package available online for free. So eighteen months after filming, I was resolved to sit down and animate the creature myself. I went to the official Blender site and posted one question on their forum, something like ‘Hey, I need to animate a creature for my feature - could someone help me out with some pointers?’ Roger Wickes responded, asking for the script. I sent him a copy and he came back with, essentially, ‘I like this story! I'll do it for you.’ Turns out Roger does the tutorials on how to use Blender!”
“I was drawn to the project primarily because of the shooting script,” said Wickes, who lives in Atlanta. “I thought it was both a good storyline and metaphor, and the scripted shots were very well thought-out and Hitchcock-esque. I get lots of requests to work on projects, and have to be careful that I spend my time on the ones that will pay off. After reading Brian's script, I felt that I could really get behind the project and do my best to make it successful. The second reason was the chance to work on a full-length feature film so that I could apply my animation and compositing skills to an American independent feature using Blender, which was a first for both myself and Blender.”
For the uninitiated, Blender is a software application for animation and visual effects that anyone can download and run on their PC for free. Any video that they produce is royalty-free. The Blender Foundation supports and directs the development of Blender at www.blender.org  and their goal is to make great free no-strings-attached tools and content for artists (and film makers) to use in producing video and imagery of all kinds.
“Blender has a huge international following,” said Wickes. “I have used it to create animation and VFX for TV commercials and professional games.” He also wrote Foundation Blender Compositing, a book that walks users through using Blender's nodebased compositor and non-linear editor for doing VFX work and assembling shots. He also wrote a complete course in Blender for Lynda.com.
Blender has been used to produce music videos, shorts, TV commercials. It’s also been used on feature-length films in other countries. Prior to “Lisl”, it had not been used as the sole animation package in a full-length feature film produced in the US. “This was an opportunity for me to participate in another first in my career, and hopefully pave the way to get Blender used in more American features.”
Falling Sky Entertainment, the production company behind the award-winning science fiction film The Man From Earth, produced “Lisl” with Fischer’s Witness Pictures.