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Visual Effects on a Low, Low Budget

Rick DeMott investigates the world of low budget genre films and discovers that visual effects are making it easier and cheaper to do independent productions.

Visual effects are being used on films with the lowest of budgets. All Primeval images © The Flickerscope Co. All Rescue Rocket X-5 are works in progress and un-textured images © Sheer Force of Will Pictures.

Visual effects are being used on films with the lowest of budgets. All Primeval images © The Flickerscope Co. All Rescue Rocket X-5 are works in progress and un-textured images © Sheer Force of Will Pictures.

In the 1950s and '60s, low budget genre films were everywhere. Capturing the minds of many future filmmakers were the films of Ray Harryhausen and sci-fi flicks like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and George Pal's War of the Worlds. This was the age when a film could open up in the Mid-West and spread slowly across the country over several months.

Now sci-fi, fantasy and horror films are the darlings of the big studios and more money is being infused into these films than any serious drama. So what use to be referred to as B-movies are now A-list tentpole extravaganzas.

Low budget genre films have always had an audience. However, with the theaters co-oped by the studios and DVD sales and rentals so high that shelf space is limited, where have the classic genre films gone?

They are being made by the same people who did independent films in the '50s and '60s people who are doing it on their own. Fans of genre films who are putting up their own money to make a calling card to the industry. And with modern visual effects, these films are getting easier and cheaper to make and are able to attain visuals that couldn't have been done before.

Fred Tepper is one of these filmmakers. His visual effects credits include CG supervisor on Dogma, 3D digital artist on Phantoms and digital ship model lead on Titanic. One day while he was in a theater waiting for Amélie to begin, he came up with the idea of his film Primeval, which was renamed Sasquatch Hunters when released on DVD by Columbia Tri-Star Home Video. He has always wanted to do a film on his own and this particular idea seemed doable as well as marketable no matter how good or bad it turned out.

The idea was that the film would hopefully go direct-to-video or play on the SCI FI Channel. Tepper said with a low budget film like his an airing on cable would allow more people see the film than would have seen it in an entire theatrical run.

So Tepper took roughly $340,000 of his own savings and an inheritance and set out to make his film about a group of forest rangers and scientists that discover a lost Big Foot-like species in the woods and get picked off one by one. He knew that whatever he and his writer put on the page was something he was going to have to do himself, because he was handling the visual effects work.

The modeling for the creature was done in LightWave with the animation handled in Messiah Studio. Rendering was split between the two programs with LightWave and Worley Labs' Sasquatch plug-in as the chief tool for rendering hair. Outside of the creature, other effects included seamless fix its, adding a moon in the sky, etc.

"There were some other things that we really wanted to put in, but on this kind of budget the biggest problem was time," said Tepper. "We only had a certain number of days to shoot. We had 18 days, including pick-ups and re-shoots. And there were some other action sequences with the creature that we just didn't have time to do and some of those would have had some really neat effects."

With Tepper handling writing, directing, producing, editing and most of the visual effects, he did enlist friends Taron to model the creature and Ron Griswald created the animation rig. Taron even enrolled his wife into building the creature suit.

Director Fred Tepper used the man-in-a-suit approach to the on-set monster filming.

Director Fred Tepper used the man-in-a-suit approach to the on-set monster filming.

"The idea originally was going to be a guy in a suit," said Tepper. "The [story] lends itself to that and it should be that, because its Big Foot and the real one is that a guy in a suit so to speak. I thought that we'd only have to use CG for shots at the end when it runs, jumps in the air and gets shot. Things we knew that we could get an actor in a suit to do, but we wouldn't have the money for a stunt man or the time to rehearse and work out all the safety issues. It was supposed to be about three CG shots in the film."

Well that was the plan. Tepper said the suit was not a problem, but they sent the head out to be created by an outside vender. Due to a delay in the delivery, the head didn't arrive until three days before the shoot and was unusable. It looked good, but the fiberglass and rubber head would have cut the actor's face. So in a rush, Tepper went out and bought a Harry and the Hendersons' mask and had the costume maker paint the face dark gray and match the hair to the suit. This is where the decision was made to use a CG head on the creature for the entire film. Only one shot at night with the mask was actually used in the film.

Because of the last minute changes, Tepper had to work the added visual effects by "the seat of the pants." He didn't have the time to research tracking. He knew that he alone was handling the effects, so he'd have to deal with the problem himself in post and wasn't pushing it off on anyone else. For non-action shots, the mask was used on-set and only the face had to be replaced in post. For shots of the creature running, the actor didn't wear the mask so it was easier for him to run and the entire head was created in CG.

A close-up of Tepper's primeval creature.

A close-up of Tepper's primeval creature.

Because none of the effects shots were very long, Tepper roughly tracked the hand-held or steadi-cam shots in Messiah then rendered it out and brought it in After Effects for frame-by-frame fine-tuning. Over several months in his off time from another job, Tepper completed the effects, which he said would have been three weeks worth of work.

The biggest challenge in terms of effects was dealing with hair. Tepper said that Sasquatch worked great, but he wasn't an expert with it. The render times were high and it was difficult to match the CG hair color with the color of the suit.

Tepper said, "There wasn't anything going into a shot where I thought, 'Oh, great, how the hell I'm I going to do this.' It's really not that kind of film. It was designed in all aspects to be doable on the time and budget that we had I don't think that I made any kind of great film. But it was fun."

With that being said, his film did receive distribution, which many independent productions never get. Once the film was finished, Tepper sent out copies to many video/DVD distribution companies and received several offers. Next, he obtained a producer's rep to work out the contractual details for the North American DVD rights with Silver Nitrate Pictures, who through its relationship with Sony got the film released on the Columbia TriStar label.

Tepper received an advance and percentage, which he says will be greater due to its release by Columbia TriStar than if Silver Nitrate would have released it directly. Columbia TriStar had been looking for another Big Foot film to release as a follow-up to their direct-to-video title, Sasquatch, starring Lance Henriksen. Tepper said he's made nearly an 8th of his money back and recently signed a deal for foreign distribution and is working on a cable deal.

What Tepper hopes to do is take what he learned on this production and apply it to other projects that he feels more passionate about. Currently, he is shopping a CG Christmas special.

An exterior shot of the Rescue Rocket X-5.

An exterior shot of the Rescue Rocket X-5.

Like Tepper, Kevin Kutchaver and Linda Drake had been working in the industry and wanted to make their own films. So they formed Sheer Force of Will Pictures to realize their dream and have more control over their destinies. Their first project, Rescue Rocket X-5, is a sci-fi comedy, which Kutchaver said came from the desire to create a film in his backyard.

"Half of the effects business whines and complains about how nobody knows what they're doing," said Kutchaver. "But when I thought about it, I realized I hadn't really made a film since I was like 15 and decided that I should keep my mouth shut until I can see what I'm able to do myself."

"It was time to take everything that I had learned and to see if we could find an alternative way. We had been helping other projects out for all these years fixing problems, adding production value and I decided it was time we did this for ourselves."

Kutchaver never wanted to focus on the selling aspects of the film; he just wanted to make something. So instead of looking for outside funding, Kutchaver and Drake are funding the film themselves, so they do not have to answer to anyone else.

Director/writer Kevin Kutchaver (left) and producer/editor Linda Drake.

Director/writer Kevin Kutchaver (left) and producer/editor Linda Drake.

With Kutchaver handling the writing and directing and Drake producing and editing, the duo set out to film the story of the crew of Rocket Ship X-5, whose captain hasn't been cryogenically unfrozen since 1954. The crew's new mission is to rescue the President's son from an alien plant where his spaceship has crashed. The filming was scheduled for 12 days and only went over one. The spaceship shots were filmed on a small bluescreen stage and the alien planet scenes took place in Kutchaver's backyard, which is 3/4s of an acre of wooded land.

"The film is half Sky Captain and half live action," comments Drake. "Every single shot in the movie is actually a visual effect. Even the shots in the backyard, Kevin will give it some kind of effect or look, because it is on another planet. This is an advantage that [other independent productions] just can't afford."

Through his HimAnI Prods., Kutchaver is doing all the visual effects work. His most recent film credits include visual effects supervisor on Hellboy and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed as well as 3D supervisor on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and X2: X-Men United. For TV, he has worked on SCI FI Channel's Dune and Children of Dune, Xena: Warrior Princess, Babylon 5 and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Like Tepper, for his own project, he is animating in LightWave and Messiah Studio with compositing being done in After Effects.

"I will have other guys working on it later on," said Kutchaver. "But I'm very proud to announce that we've developed a new technology called Post-Vis. We shot the movie first and then we see what we have to do to patch the movie together with effects. It's what every production does, but doesn't admit."

Having shot the film on HDV, Kutchaver transferred the footage to Quicktime for him to use in visual effects work and Drake to use in editing. Their approach is to edit the scenes together then to work in rough visual effects before they go into a more rendered version. The effects are being blocked out in a kind of previs format. This will allow Kutchaver to get a handle on the amount and scope of the 3D sets and digital robots and creatures in the film.

A concept still that illustrates the flavor of the ship interiors and retro design sense.

A concept still that illustrates the flavor of the ship interiors and retro design sense.

"Because of the script, there are some throw-back ideas where we go back to the fun of the 1950s science-fiction films where they shot on these big sound stages and every room in the spaceship was cavernous with steel beams and concrete," said Kutchaver. "And we wanted to recreate that big open, 'who the hell shot all this empty space into orbit' look. And anyway to get any find of production value was to shot people against bluescreen and take advantage of the part that we do best, which is the 3D and the design aspect."

"The main thing for mentally prepping for this was [to say we're starting to film on Jan. 17] and use whatever technology is in place on Jan. 9. Because the tendency in my end of the business is to wait until everything is perfect. If you wait for the new camera or you wait for this or you wait for that, you never get anything done. Like Robert Rodriguez said, 'If you want to make a film you just have to go out and do it.' And that means making some compromises and everyone loves to not do that on every front."

The biggest challenge with the visual effects is again time. At this point in the production, Kutchaver is not sure how many visual effects shots there will be and still needs to deal with color compression problem when keying the bluescreens. Another challenge will be moving ahead with the current technology available, because there will be no time to go back and redo a finished sequence if some new software hits the market.

Like Tepper, Kutchaver agrees that CG now allows lower budget films to do more impressive stunts. "You have a decent figure in Poser and you move him far enough away from camera, you can have him fall and actually have him bounce off the edge of the building a couple of times too. It's a way of competing with the big guys by putting some action in there that you usually couldn't afford. "

So Kutchaver and Drake are really taking a Kevin Smith approach to the film where they will discover what to do with the film when it's done making of the film is the main goal. Drake hopes that the connections she and Kutchaver have developed at the studios will allow them to get at least a direct-to-video deal. Kutchaver said if nothing comes of the film he would at least be able to hand it out at Christmas so people could see it.

Drake said, "Everyone wants to make their own movie. So when people heard what we were doing, they all said, 'I want to see it when your done and I'll make some calls on your behalf.'"

In making a comedy, Kutchaver added, "We felt if people were going to laugh at it, it should be on purpose."

What Tepper, Kutchaver and Drake are doing is taking a personal financial risk to make cinema. For every Clerks or El Mariachi, there are hundreds of films that don't make it out of their maker's hands. The filmmakers in this article have been able to take their visual effects skills and the tried and true traditions of low budget genre movies to create their own films without any outside interference. In the process, they raise the bar on what can be expected and achieved in the long lost market of "B-movies."

Rick DeMott is the managing editor of Animation World Network. Previously, he worked in various production and management positions in the entertainment industry. He is a contributor to the humor, absurdist and surrealist short story website Unloosen.

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