The Leviathan story is a good one.
A director named Ruairi Robinson, with previous credits including Blinkyand the Oscar-nominated short
Fifty Percent Gray, decides to make “Moby Dick in Space.” But he didn’t want to pitch it. He hated pitching. Instead, he wanted to plant a flag that loudly proclaimed, “This is what the movie should look like; this is the story I want to tell.”
So he began working with friendly artists, including contacts at Weta, to help create the monster, ships, and sound design. He then partnered with Jim Uhls (the screenwriter of Fight Club) on the script. His proof of concept was under way; it only took him six years to complete.
When the three-and-a-half-minute video launched in March of 2015, all those hours paid off. Over 1.2 million views were logged on the Vimeo page alone, while coverage on major outlets like Variety,
Popular Mechanics, and
Nerdist helped Robinson land a Fox-backed movie deal with Simon Kinberg (
X-Men writer/producer) and Neill Blomkamp (director of
District 9 and
Chappie) on board as producers.
The reason for the response was simple: A great idea met a team with years of big-budget production experience and the ability to realize it. Ryan Stafford – who helped link Robinson up with Blur Studios and a mocap supervisor – was the VFX producer on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for instance. That film became somewhat famous for its use of on-the-set motion capture, which would be essential for a piece like this that didn’t have the budget for a big optical studio.
Working with Demian Gordon (a Dreamworks Animation artist by day), Stafford decided the best path to Hollywood motion capture for him would be the Xsens MVN system, which is known for its recent use on Ted 2 and
Avengers: Age of Ultron.
“Using the suit is really straightforward, which allowed us to shoot the entire thing at the producer’s house, over the course of one long day,” said Gordon. “We just put the actor in the suit, ran the software, captured the data, and processed it in post before delivering it to the animators.”
Each shot captured would be used on the teaser’s egg hunters. In the world of The Leviathan, mankind can continue colonizing worlds, as long as they keep harvesting “exotic matter” from the eggs of the creatures that give the film its name. The egg hunters are often seen in the belly of small ships, piloting the crafts as others hang on and fire rockets at attacking creatures.
With practically no budget, everyone had to make do with any space made available. All an Xsens MVN suit needs to function is a wi-fi connection. In most productions, this opens up on-set interactions between mocap and non-mocap actors. On this one, it meant getting clean, high-quality data from any place the artists could meet up – which was important, since most were working for free, whenever they had time.
“Having that freedom helped,” added Gordon. “We were able to build a cockpit out of things we found around the house: an office chair to sit in for the ships cockpit, with a c-stand for a control yoke for the ship, and an apple box to put the actor’s feet on. The actor would act out all the 'piloting the ship' motions seated in that chair. We then took the suit outside the house and got all the standing, walking, and jumping off the ship motions in the backyard.”
All that data was streamed into MVN Studio, Xsens’ processing software. “We didn’t do much more than run through the steps to refine the data, before we exported. The footplants were good enough to work without modification,” said Gordon.
After processing, the data was delivered directly to Robinson, who then filtered it off to other artists around the world. “Everyone involved in the project really believes in Ruairi Robinson as a director,” mused Gordon. “Personally, I love his past work and just wanted to be involved.”
Now that The Leviathan has reached its film development phase, it gives hope to small projects that dream of being big ones. “Money was a big hurdle,” said Robinson. “I worked for a year on spec and put all the money we had on screen. I’m just glad we had the right tools and right people on board. You get both of those things in the same place, and you never can tell what will happen. It worked out here – big time.”