Demo reels are so 1990. Henry Turner chronicles how Uncharted Territory created its own visual effects feature, Coronado, as a way to promote the fledgling company.
Breathtaking action scenes such as this, where people are stranded on a bridge and attacked by a jet plane, are featured in Coronado, made on a surprisingly small budget. Here bluescreen plate is composited with a gorge background. All photos: Bruno Arnold; © Coronado Motion Picture LLC and ARM GmbH.
Coronado is an adventure film depicting a womans search for her fiancée in a South American country torn between a brutal dictatorship and a secret revolutionary faction. It features incredible vfx scenes, such as jet planes attacking characters stranded on a rickety bridge spanning a gorge, a secret cavern behind a waterfall where revolutionaries have a hoard of military equipment and breakneck chases, in which jeeps are demolished by rampaging trains. In a grand finale, helicopters attack a freighter. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that it was made on a shoestring budget, as the first production of Uncharted Territory, a new visual effects-driven company. And though Coronado offers great entertainment and thrills for its own sake, it is in many ways a demo film, proving the radical ideas that brought Los Angeles-based Uncharted Territory (www.uncharted-territory.com) into being.
Mapping Uncharted Territory
The story of Uncharted Territory begins in late 1999 when Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor Volker Engel and his partner Marc Weigert conceived the bold idea to break away from merely working on other producers films, and become producers themselves. Friends from film school in Germany, they had already worked together on a number of smaller projects, before Engel got called in 1995 to be visual effects supervisor on Independence Day, for which he invited Weigert to do project management.
After Independence Day, Engel supervised the effects on Godzilla. Weigert, a multi-talented entrepreneur, had created a management/scheduling database system for Independence Day. Another supervisor saw it and said, oh, I want that for my next production. Later I sold it to Disney, Twentieth Century Fox a lot of different movies used it.
Throughout their time together and apart, both men amassed enormous knowledge not only about visual effects, but all aspects of production. Weigert says, After Godzilla, we decided to stop just being the visual effects guys, and actually do our own films. I had a lot of knowledge on the low budget side, while Volker had gained experience working with Roland Emmerich. We knew we could avoid all the production pitfalls where money was being wasted. Their concept was to produce or co-produce their own features, carefully planning the effects sequences as early as script development, to ensure manageable, low costs. Wed be in there with the writers making sure the story goes in the right direction, Engel adds. A lot of times there are things about visual effects that writers cant know, that even producers cant know. Filmmaking legend is rife with stories about daydreaming writers creating scenes that are impossible or excessively costly to shoot. So we said, lets do the opposite lets find effects that are easy to do, but have an enormous impact on the screen.
The brain trust behind Coronado are (l to r) director Claudio Faeh with Uncharted Territory partners and the films producers, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert. They looked to Tin Tin for inspiration.
The idea was to make an adventure movie, Engel explains. Claudio Faeh, the director, came to us with an idea that had a very dark, Kafkaesque, Eastern blockish feel. We wanted to work with him, but we also wanted to make films that people will actually see. At a Santa Monica coffee shop, the trio brainstormed, often using the European Tin Tin comics for inspiration. It is so rare that a true adventure movie comes out, made in exotic countries, like Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone, and we were really longing for that. So we decided to do one of those.
Coronado was our first project, Engel stresses, and we wanted to use it as a proof of our production concept. What we did was not necessarily a total breakthrough technology-wise, because these effects have been done beforebut never on a scope like this. Indeed, the film features a staggering 650 visual effects shots, As much as Lord of the Rings, Engel suggests. Most of the work was done shooting actors and set pieces against blue- screens, which were later composited with digital mattes sourced from location stills. We took literally thousands of still photos and put them all together. We built the city of San Coronado out of several different cities in Mexico, for instance, where we shot background plates, digital still photos and 3D elements.
Also key to the production were miniatures, many of them on display at the Uncharted Territory facility wonderfully detailed ancient temples, the bridge, trucks, and the vast underground cavern that houses the revolutionaries. Using matte effects, actors and CG vehicles are seamlessly integrated into these miniature locales, or the miniatures are set into digital environments. Engel elaborates, Some of the digital environments are just 2D, but we also created real 3D environments for shots when we fly through the valley around the bridge. Then theres a third technique, where we used miniatures for the temple caves. Our actors walk around in those caves, positioned in front of full scale set pieces thats kind of going back to the Ray Harryhausen style of effects.
Like independent, guerilla filmmakers, Engel and Weigert have their hands in all aspects of the filmmaking process. They advised the director, suggesting camera placement and other technical advice that would deliver the greatest impact for the most economical cost. Because of their savvy, Engel tells how they created the 650 shots in Coronado, with 12 artists, instead of the usual 400. We shot the entire movie on the new 24p HD format. We established a digital pipeline, with the hundreds of tapes we shot loaded into an offline system that immediately went to the artists that were working on it. We could make changes fast turnaround was within hours. Engel describes how making such changes on a studio film working with an effects house would take at least a week, because of studio red tape.
Weigert admits that there is no Inferno on the premises. We are completely PC-based. Ten years ago everything would have been 15 times as expensive. We have no high-end stations here, and no high-end software. We work with After Effects, which is a $900 program. Last week we decided we needed another computer to do some 2D work, so we said, okay, somebody has to go to Frys! It is testament to the Uncharted Territorys Academy Award winning talent that they can create so much with so little.
Though in many ways a revolutionary production paradigm, Uncharteds methods look back into film history for inspiration. The great adventure epics of the 30s, everything from King Kong to the Tarzan films, never strayed beyond Burbank, using rear-projection and sets to convey a jungle setting. Weigert says, We use that same concept, but do it with new effects and technology which enable us to create the illusion that a film was shot in several different countries. And the nice thing is, it works!
But getting the best results for low costs has always been a goal of Engels, even on his big-budget films with Emmerich. We did the effects in Independence Day for a third of the price of other companies. We always try to learn from history and decide what are the good points we can take and mix up with modern technology.
The grand finale (left) features helicopters attacking a freighter. In this all-CG shot (right), a jet fighter is composited with a set of mountains.
Both men are adamant about thorough planning. All this stuff would not work if we didnt have enough pre-production time and a director who is willing to draw up to 1,500 storyboards, Engel says. And we did 45 minutes of computer-animated previsualization. If you check how many $100 million movies have that much previs, youll find that zip, none of them do. Also key to the production were many conceptual story illustrations. Detailed paintings of the bridge sequence, various chases and the freighter finale were key to the production design, and were also used to raise finances in the earliest stages of pre-production. In terms of exciting investors, Engel offers, The key shot of the movie became these Osprey helicopters coming out of a cave behind a giant waterfall.
Engel still takes the time to help out old friends. Roland Emmerich had some deadlines, so he and his visual effects supervisor came and asked if I could take on some shots. His film is called The Day After Tomorrow, and its a gigantic, climate catastrophe movie I call it Independence Day with snow.
But Engels emphasis is on his own productions. The Ring, based on the ancient German folktales about Zeigfried the dragon slayer in the Song of the Nibelungs, (also the basis for the famous opera cycle by Richard Wagner and a main inspiration for Tolkiens Lord of the Rings), takes place in central Europe and in Iceland. Slated to be filmed in a South Africa studio, location still photo shoots around the world have already taken place to get the necessary digital imagery. Weigert says, I just came back from South America, France, Germany, England and Norway. We scanned entire castles churches, buildings and landscapes, and these will used for the virtual backdrops.
Engel looks forward to productions of increasingly larger theme and scope. The Ring is already a big step up, and we have other projects for next year that will be even bigger, but still cost-effective. Basically, a movie that any studio would pay $80-100 million to make, we can do for $20 million.
Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.