The Emmy Award-winning VFX artist leverages his animation and visual effects experience to craft a suspenseful film about a young NASA scientist obsessed with proving he was abducted by aliens.
In Eric Demeusy’s feature film directorial debut, PROXIMITY, a young NASA JPL scientist is abducted by extraterrestrials and becomes obsessed with finding proof when no one believes his story. The indie sci-fi thriller, an engaging and suspenseful exploration of the unknown, launches tomorrow, May 15, 2020, on VOD and digital platforms everywhere. It stars Ryan Masson (Good Girls, Feral), Highdee Kuan (You, This Is Us), Shaw Jones (Blue, Diwa), Christian Prentice (Mank), and Don Scribner (The Guide).
Based in L.A., Demeusy has an extensive background in animation and visual effects, which he put to good use helming his first feature film. Well known for creating the Emmy-winning title sequence for Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, he spent many years at creative studios like Prologue, Imaginary Forces, Elastic and A52, where he worked on the Emmy-winning title sequence for HBO’s Game of Thrones, Disney’s Tron Legacy and Guillermo del Toro’s monster epic, Pacific Rim. His short film, Star Wars: The New Republic Anthology was featured on the front page of Yahoo and Entertainment Weekly.
Though he’s spent many years working on high-profile projects as an animator and VFX artist, Demeusy has always kept his sights set on the director’s chair. “Directing has always been my focus but going from film school to a feature film isn't an easy jump,” he explains. “I needed to find a job and I was good at camera, editing, and animation. So, I ended up getting work as an animator and I learned a lot doing that professionally. There are many benefits to understanding how VFX works as a director, especially being able to make in-the-moment decisions and improvise when visual effects are in the mix. For me, the types of stories I want to tell require VFX, so by nature it was something I needed to learn.”
Demeusy’s original story idea centered on a guy documenting himself when a meteor falls from the sky behind him. “That image was intriguing to me…all of these ideas started coming to me about what would happen next,” he says. “I really wanted to tell a grounded story within unusual circumstances. The idea of an extraterrestrial encounter and the effects it would have on someone is really where the story began to take off. The focus became about the character and how he would deal with something like this and that was fascinating to me.”
PROXIMITY began life as a short film that was reborn as a feature when funding was suddenly secured. “Our first day shooting was at the end of 2016,” the director shares. “We shot for six days thinking we could only make a short and right as we were shooting, we got the funding for the full feature! So, we went back into pre-production and from that point, it took over three and a half years to complete the film. The bulk of the VFX shots alone took me over a year, working by myself.”
Indie filmmaking of course means there’s much less time and budget for things like look development and previs. PROXIMITY was no exception. Demeusy only had a few pieces of concept art to work with; when specific designs were needed, he sat down with his storyboard artist and sketched. “We had way less visual development than I would have liked to have had,” he admits. “But I had a huge library of references I had pulled over the years for all aspects of the movie and that became extremely helpful in the design as we went. I only storyboarded two sequences which were a little more action heavy and required stunts. I did a few pieces of previs myself, very basic, just to figure out some logistics on how certain shots might work.”
To cost-effectively produce the film’s 400 VFX shots, Demeusy built an in-house visual effects production team of six artists, with several others working remotely, though he himself subsequently produced a large amount of the final work. “The team was together for a few months to get the bulk of the shots done,” he notes. “I had a really close hand in working with the artists along with doing a large portion of the effects myself. Since we were in the same office it was a really direct way of communicating how I imagined the shots were going to be completed. It was a great collaboration.”
The majority of the VFX consisted of things like environment replacement, set extensions, screen replacements, and other typical FX work. “We touched on pretty much every type of VFX shot you could do,” Demeusy says. “There were dynamics simulations, digital doubles, you name it.”
The director tried to be as sparing as possible and stay subtle with the VFX. “It’s quite a challenge for an indie film to have a full CG character,” he says. “The fully CGI creatures that we did mocap for were definitely the most difficult and complex work we did. I didn’t have enough time in prep to plan those sequences out, so that’s where having a knowledge of VFX came in handy, because we could shoot the scenes however we wanted and be able to integrate the creatures into the scenes after the fact. So, we shot the scenes with nothing there. We used mocap to get the movements right and match the timings of the scenes and then animated the hands, eyes and mouth.”
Demeusy’s extensive experience with VFX shot design and animation production proved invaluable, not just from a budget standpoint, but more importantly, from a storytelling standpoint; when directors are not comfortable or knowledgeable with how VFX sequences should be planned, setup, and shot, that lack of an experienced eye can bog a production down and force costly post-production work later on. And, especially on an indie film, where every dollar counts, and you’re often flying by the seat of your pants on a shoot, having that experienced eye for where and how VFX can be used to support the narrative, as well as how it will integrate with the live-action months down the road, is critical. “Because I had a pre-existing knowledge of VFX and animation, I knew what was possible and what would be difficult and expensive. So, I was able to think about that during the writing and filming process. It helped a lot.”
PROXIMITY hits VOD and Digital for Watch-At-Home on May 15 through the following platforms: AppleTV, Amazon, VUDU, GooglePlay, PlayStation®, XBOX, hoopla, Fandango Now, DirecTV, Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox, Charter, and AT&T U-verse.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.