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Short Films with Big VFX

Janet Hetherington chats up three short films that make noteworthy use of VFX, including animated papers, a dancing column and a water man.

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There are some 25 shots for the short Hole in the Paper Sky, including this closing image, which is used on the one sheet. All Hole images © Iron Ocean Films.

Spectacular effects are often associated with blockbuster movies, but vfx are also being effectively used in artful, personal short films. In fact, shorts often provide film-makers with the opportunity to explore unusual themes and unique visual presentations. In addition, many of these shorts are finding an audience beyond festival screening rooms -- on the Internet.

Three shorts that feature well-crafted vfx -- sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle -- are Hole in the Paper Sky, Terminus and Little Minx Exquisite Corpse: Come Wander With Me.

In April, Hole in the Paper Sky, from actor/producer Jessica Biel and director Bill Purple won the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film and Best Screenplay at the 8th Annual International Beverly Hills Film Festival (BHFF). Such awards indicate how shorts can have big impact.

"Short films serve two purposes," says Purple. "First, they offer a canvas to stretch the medium, experiment and break the rules, without investing a ton of money. Second, they allow a story that is not feature length to be told… ones that are better suited to a shorter length."

Paper Chase

In Hole in the Paper Sky, Jason Clarke stars as Howard, a misanthropic math whiz and chess buff who is full of contempt for the world. Howard does not suffer fools gladly, and that includes pretty much everyone -- especially the old coot (Garry Marshall) who offers him no real competition in a chess tournament.

When Howard needs work-study money, the only place his advisor (Stephen Collins) can find any is in a research lab. The shy and sensitive lab technician (Biel) tries to keep him from snooping around their research.

"Hole in the Paper Sky is about a life-long student who eventually forms a bond with a dog. He walks a path with the dog, and all of the [research] papers seem to take the same path," explains Erik Gamache, the film's vfx director.

Gamache, who has faced vfx and animation challenges at Digital Domain on such big-budget movies as Speed Racer, Stealth and I, Robot, had just five weeks to complete the vfx for the film, and he used Maya -- learning procedural animation on the fly. "I hadn't done a lot of procedural animation," he adds, "and I used different effects in Maya. I had toyed with them but never explored to this extent."

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Gamache notes that this was very much director Purple's project "with zero budget." "He was asking favors to get this film done in time for Sundance," he offers.

Gamache believes that creating a great-looking movie on a short film budget is worth the time and talent invested. "This was a collaborative effort," Gamache continues. "It's rewarding to work with people that you really enjoy, whenever you can."

Hole in the Paper Sky runs 34 minutes, and while it required some vfx 25 shots, Gamache says, "It's not a vfx film; it's very story driven." Still, convincing vfx were needed to animate the papers, create sky replacement and help the dog close his eyes in an important scene.

"When I was reading the script, I came across a scene where there were a bunch of papers flying around," Purple adds. "It wasn't practical or time-effective to do locations shots, so we did plates. I have a production background, having worked on films like Spider-Man and xXx, so I knew how to shoot plates. But I really didn't know how we were going to accomplish the shots."

For that he turned to animator Gamache. "Sky plays a big part in the film… clouds and sunset," Gamache explains. "You can't always capture that on the day of filming. And while the dog was very well trained, we couldn't get him to close his eyes on cue."

In the end, Hole in the Paper Sky was not accepted for Sundance, and Gamache took advantage of that extra time to go back and work some more on the film. "Once you saw the shots on the big screen, you notice things like the motion blur, grain, focus… I put a couple of tweaks to it," he insists.

The film benefited from the additional work, and has been shown at numerous film festivals, including the Newport Beach Film Festival, the Florida Film Festival (Jet Blue Audience Award Winner) and its award-winning turn at BHFF. "The best part about festivals is getting honest opinions and feedback from the public," Purple says.

While Hole in the Paper Sky is not yet playing on the Internet, Purple advises that he has been approached by iTunes as well as the Sundance and IFC web channels, so his short will be reaching a new audience after it has completed its festival run.

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In Terminus, Luxology's modo 301 was used to create CG characters, like this concrete column character. All Terminus images © Trevor Cawood/Spy Fims/The Embassy VFX.

modo Operandi

While Hole in the Paper Sky opted for unobtrusive vfx, other short films are quite out-front with their effects.

Terminus, a short film from The Embassy by director Trevor Cawood (Spy Films), used Luxology's modo 301 for a number of vfx, including painting, texturing and UV unwrap tools to create CG characters that represent various urban installments and materials.

Terminus (Latin for "boundary stone") addresses the alienation experienced in a modern urban environment, telling the story of a 1970s businessman who inadvertently offends a strange and ambiguous entity that accosts him on his way to work, and the man's rapid descent into madness following the encounter.

In addition to human actors, Terminus features a dancing concrete column character, a wall-crawling airport baggage turnstile character and an information kiosk character.

modo was one of several 2D and 3D tools employed on Terminus. "modo is playbox for artists and breaks down most of the barriers that artificially separate artistic functions like modeling, sculpting, painting etc.," explains Bob Bennett, VP of marketing, Luxology. "You can them when you want, at your whim."

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Bennett says that modo is configured with a set of layouts that allows artists to use its functions completely independently. "Some people just modo as a 3D painter and do not do any modeling with it," Bennett adds. "Many, many people use modo as a renderer."

"It is straightforward to use these functions because they all share common technologies," Bennett continues. "The painting is really sculpting. Sculpting is really a first cousin of modeling. Many of these features are just a different way of leveraging more fundamental capabilities of modo like moving vertices. You can move vertices manually by selecting them and triggering the move command, or you can use the 'push' to tool in modo to organically move vertices in one sculpting operation. Once you become accomplished at using modo, you may wish to explore the 'toolpipe' in modo. That is where you can build your own variations of the commands."

VFX Supervisor Tristam Gieni says that modo has been an integral part of The Embassy's modeling pipeline for several years. "We were eager to use it on Terminus. modo 301's new painting, UV unwrap and sculpting tools saved us significant time and allowed us to achieve excellent results without having to traverse several other software packages. Being able to sculpt right within the modo environment really simplified our workflow as well. We're also impressed with modo's OpenGL performance -- being able to paint texture maps and view our work in realtime was a tremendous asset."

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To create Water Man in Little Minx Exquisite Corpse: Come Wander With Me, an animation team scanned the live actor into a 3D model and applied lighting and water effects. All Little Minx images © Little Minx.

Commenting on modo's OpenGL feature, Bennett notes that for years, artists had to work with crude abstractions of their scenes when they were using 3D software. "Wireframe representations are fine when you are modeling, but that should be a small part of your creative process," he says. "You might even be importing a model in and not modeling anything new. So you need an interface that is more WYSIWYG -- and this is where OpenGL comes in. You can work with a fully textured and lit scene in modo; it's almost like being in a game."

"We built modo in full knowledge of what a modern workstation with multi cores and GPUs can do -- and that means the artistic experience is visually richer and more responsive," Bennett continues. "That means animators and film-makers are that much closer to the story. They can test alternatives more frequently. They can see what their production will look like before engaging in final rendering."

The Embassy, a Vancouver company that has worked on a variety of visual effects projects with production companies in the U.S., Europe and Asia, handled all vfx and post-production on the film. Special effects prosthetics were created by Sarah Bergeest and motion capture was done by Rainmaker Animation.

Terminus is taking advantage the Internet to attract an audience, offering the short on its own website, on YouTube and elsewhere.

Water Man

Little Minx Exquisite Corpse: Come Wander With Me by director Phillip Van is another short film found online on the Little Minx website, YouTube and other venues. This short is one part of a five-part Exquisite Corpse project launched by Little Minx partnered with RSA Films.

"The response has been tremendous," says the film's producer Rhea Scott. "We've had some two million hits, and it's been a branding exercise for Little Minx." Scott credits the efforts of Idealogue with creating a viral campaign for the film.

Drawing its inspiration from the parlor game of the same name, Exquisite Corpse comprises shorts by Van as well as directors Chris Nelson, Malik Hassan Sayeed, Josh Miller and Laurent Briet. Through the progression of films, each director responds to the last line of text of the previous director's script and gives their concept of what it means to be a minx.

Van's creation, Little Minx Exquisite Corpse: Come Wander With Me, has a mystical, dreamlike quality. The short follows a young girl's encounter with a mysterious water man and how this meeting changes her life. The song in the film, Come Wander With Me, is from an episode of The Twilight Zone, and sets an eerie tone. Also key to capturing the mood was the director's idea to create a man made out of water -- someone not entirely "there" -- realized through vfx.

"I was looking for something that worked on multiple levels… something that that could impact in a short period of time," Van says. As it turns out, those levels were reflected in the layers that were needed to create the vfx.

Van says that his Little Minx film used a lot of bluescreen with partially designed sets created with his Production Designer, Reegan Jackson, and shot with DP Dariusz Wolsky. Van collaborated with artists Andy Boyd and Seb Caudron at Method Studios, using a mix of 2D and 3D graphics work on a Flame and in Maya.

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Sabrina Elizondo, vfx producer at Method, admits that it was a challenging project. "It was also completely irresistible because the creative leeway we were offered was a unique experience," Elizondo says. "Just about every live-action scene was shot on bluescreen, so defining the look was technically up to our team. The opportunity also lent itself to a close working-relationship with the director, Phil, and that collaborative effort really made a big difference."

According to vfx leads Boyd and Caudron, the first significant challenge came with creating a ghostly figure of the Water Man who seems to simply pluck the girl from her idyllic environment. Admitting to being influenced by Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), Caudron and the 3D team were eager to create the Water Man, paying close attention to texture and the look and feel of the water.

"Phillip had this idea of a man made out of water, someone who is not quite there," Caudron says. "It was essential that he be a palpable presence, but also that he seem otherworldly. It was quite a challenge to appropriately balance the real and surreal worlds."

To produce a realistic image of the Water Man, the animation team scanned the live actor into a 3D model, which gave them the man's complete geometry with which to work. Caudron says that the 3D model was a huge help. "We were able to apply all our lighting and water effects in a series of layers. The character ended up being very layer-heavy, but it sped things up considerably."

"The Water Man was so tricky," Scott says. "Seb worked his butt off for free for months. But he added so much poetry with his water textures." Van says he was pleased with the Water Man effects, saying, "Too often water effects look like liquid metal. We were really trying to make something innovative."

Van also believes the film's forest met his vision, and says, "It feels real to me."

It was up to Boyd to create the gnarled and twisted forest that represents the hardships of life. Prior to the shoot, Van spent a several months researching dozens of nature photographs -- a mix of plant life from both the sub-tropics and the Pacific Northwest. Van, who grew up in Hawaii and Portland, wanted the garden and forest to feel exotic yet familiar, whimsical yet grounded.

"Forest scenes are notoriously difficult to render, due to all the detail," notes Boyd. "We started looking for new ways to work and new things to learn. Almost everything was shot against bluescreen, with just a few plants and shrubs around the set, so it was up to us to create the forest. To render the entire thing, I used a system called 'delayed reads.' With the geometry of one 3D tree, we were able to have the system procedurally create unique trees at render time. While 3D trees are typically so dense in information that you can't have more than one open at a time, we were able to render out 100 or so each time. It was tremendously helpful."

Remarkably, the work was performed quickly, on a very modest budget, with Producer Scott and Line Producer Kris Eber overseeing the project. "The biggest challenge was the speed with which this film was made," Van says. "It was a labor of love, and completed on a very tight budget." The film took two days of shooting -- including set builds -- and several month of post-production.

It helped that Van came to the set prepared, using storyboards and an animatic to assist in matching visuals to the song and to determine where the cuts would be. "The more prepared you are, the more receptive you are to inspiration," comments Van.

As for Little Minx Exquisite Corpse: Come Wander With Me, it will be offered, along with the other Little Minx films, for viewing at festivals as well as on the Internet -- and that makes both Van and Scott happy. Scott says, "We wanted to create short films that promote creative freedom… and that people will see."

Janet Hetherington is a writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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