Find out the secret behind a hot VFX short and a feature deal with Sam Raimi.
Last November, Fede Alvarez went from being an obscure Uruguayan filmmaker to an overnight sensation after uploading his $300 short to YouTube about a massive robot invasion of Montevideo. The apocalypse went viral (it currently has around 6 million hits), Hollywood came calling and before he knew it, Alvarez had a seven-figure deal to direct a $30 million feature for Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures. The 31-year-old explains how he did it and updates us on his proposed feature.
Bill Desowitz: Congratulations on your great success with the short. What's the latest with the feature?
We brought a new writer on board, John Hlavin, who wrote the last season of Shield and he just penned also Underworld 4. We worked together on the story and now he's writing the script. He's been working with us here in Montevideo and flew back to L.A. And I will be going back to L.A. in the next week or so.
BD: What can you say about it?
FA: This movie is not going to be a long feature version of Panic Attack!. I read that somewhere -- and it's not. So there are no big robots this time, but it's a new take on an alien invasion movie. I heard that there are a lot of new alien invasion movies coming, but, nothing like this one. In a way, it's impossible to deny that this is following District 9 in some way, but it wasn't my intention. I started Panic Attack! in 2006. It was a project independent of that and not inspired by it at all, but then a lot of people think I'm following District 9, which is dumb and doesn't even make sense.
BD: But you were obviously influenced by War of the Worlds?
FA: The thing that was inspiring about War of the Worlds for Panic Attack! was this idea of just the point of view of one person during the invasion. You never move away from Tom Cruise's point of view. That was kind of cool. Honestly, Panic Attack! was inspired by an intro [Tyrants from Afar] I saw in Amsterdam for a film festival, where I was living in 2004 taking a masters in screenwriting. Basically, it was the first time that I saw something like that: it was a huge scale robot invasion with just three or four CG shots. I thought: "Wow! This is close to the place where I was living where all the action is happening!" So it was the first time I understood big sci-fi movies. I always liked them, but I never got the feeling before of living in the place where the movie is actually taking place. People from L.A. or New York or even London or Paris get this feeling all the time, but if you're from Uruguay you never get that feeling.
BD: So, how's the feature been going so far?
FA: Now we have the whole plot. It wasn't hard because when you have creative freedom to do the movie you want, it's easier and a more natural process. We just sat down and figured out what would [please us]. That's basically what Raimi said to me during our first call: "Just make sure you do the movie that you always wanted to go to the theater to watch." I hope we make it.
BD: What's it been like working with Raimi?
FA: He's the coolest guy ever -- he's really been there for us. He's been very protective -- that's why he offered the deal the way he did. He wanted me to do this movie outside the studio system to allow more creative control. I think his goal is to make sure that it's my movie and I'm happy with the process. Of course, when he thinks we've made a bad decision, he's going to say something. He's an advisor; he's the godfather of the project.
BD: And the role of visual effects?
Of course, it's going to have a lot of CGI -- it's the way to make this movie cheaper. In a way, that's what Hollywood is trying to do by making things look bigger on a small budget. On Panic Attack! I did all the stuff myself but now it's not going to be the case, of course. But the good thing about having a director who knows vfx, I know what I can do with vfx and what I cannot. I know that an explosion is not going to look good in CGI, so, again, we can do it for real like in Panic Attack!
So let's talk about the making of the short and working with Mauro Rondan, who did the rigging and modeling.
Yeah, I needed help with the models and I knew this guy was great and basically it was the two of us in the beginning. He was the modeler and I'm very bad at modeling, so we started working on it together and tried to get really good textures. It's very important if you're going to have huge scale to have textures from the same scale. If you take a picture of a small piece of metal and then resize it, it's always going to look bad.
BD: What software did you use?
FA: We used a bunch of stuff but basically [3ds Max]. So we went to the harbor and took lots of pictures of the hull of big ships and with that we did the texture of the robots to make them look real. And we did all the modeling in [3ds Max] and then, of course, in 2006 the technology wasn't as good as the way we did it in the end. That's why the project was on hold through all of 2007. I did the whole thing almost from scratch in 2008. We used FumeFX for all the explosions. I think maybe we did 90 vfx shots for the whole movie.
BD: And what else did you use?
FA: Of course, there was a lot of boujou for the tracking. It's very important in a short movie and what makes it look different and fresher. I mean the fact that all the cameras are totally free and hand-held and very amateur style. I tried to get that spirit of 9/11 so we needed to have three hand-held cameras, so, in that manner, we used the image tracker to track all the shots. We also used Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop and Glu3d.
BD: So given the wild success of Panic Attack!, how has this boosted your post company, Aparato?
FA: We've definitely gotten more work, but, in a way, I'm not going to be working there anymore. Now we have a big team -- probably 10 people with a lot of freelancers -- and we are beta testers for Autodesk for [3ds Max]. Of course, everything came after the success of the short and it's been great for the company. Regionally and locally it's been great (we always did a lot of stuff for Pepsi locally), and we hope to get more work from the States. I know they're bidding on some [commercial] projects. Hopefully, some of the CGI for the feature we're going to do at the company. We're going to try to open an office in the States later this year -- probably in L.A.
BD: And have you begun working with a production designer?
FA: No, it's too early. But I've begun working with my local concept artists, and I'm coming back to L.A. and I hope we get greenlit by the end of May [after the next draft]. You never know with these things -- sometimes you never get greenlit. I'm learning how this works day by day. I heard all these stories, how much time Neill Blomkamp worked on the Halo movie that never happened. I hope that's not going to be the case.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.