Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 2 (Feb 2000)

A Director's Only Hope

By Karen Moltenbrey

A dollar may not go as far as it used to, but director Joseph Francis managed to stretch his total budget of just $75,000 for his independent film Only Hope to include a quarter- to a half-million-dollars' worth of high-end digital effects. This accomplishment was a coup for the low-budget, independent film in dus try, whose directors usually cannot afford the hefty price tag typically associated with visual effects. However, thanks to the efforts of several industry artists and effects companies, Francis was able to accentuate his 30-minute film with about 30 donated digital effects shots.

"Only Hope is unique in its unprecedented use of visual effects in the realm of low-budget independent films," says Francis. "Even today, with lower-priced systems, you can conservatively estimate a high-quality digital effects shot at about $10,000. So by adding just a few of these to your film, you can blow your entire budget."

Not surprisingly, volunteer animators who could create the complicated shots were difficult to find, even for an effects veteran like Francis, whose credits include CG supervisor for the film Independence Day. After completing the script, Francis forged a relationship with Jennifer Cham pagne, a founder of Max Ink Caféé, a Venice, Cal ifornia, effects facility, who agreed to pro duce a few of the shots with her partner, Todd Perry. However, it didn't take long before their Only Hope roles expanded, with Cham pagne acting as producer and Perry as effects supervisor, with Max Ink Café serving as the effects "front house," controlling the distribution of all of the effects work for the movie.
To entice artists to donate their time for the independent film Only Hope, the director offered them creative freedom. For instance, this shot originally called for debris to fall on this fleeing couple, but the artists opted for a CG tank and gunfire ins

"Although we had a lot of experience in the production end, we didn't have anything on our [publicity] reel depicting us as a company with film experience," Champagne says. "So we volunteered our services to build up our resumes. Because we had creative control over the work we did, we felt that it was worth the time and effort that was required."

Following a lot of negotiating-or rather, cajoling-Champagne persuaded studios such as Frantic Films, Fulcrum Studios/Magnet Interactive, Rezn8, and E=MC2 to also sign on. "When you ask people to donate their time, you have to be extremely patient. You can't put deadlines on them and say, 'I need this by tomorrow,' because, unfortunately, you're at their mercy," Champagne says. "And the same applied to us; we had to pay our bills, so the paid work came first."

While Only Hope is built on the talents and resources of various artists in the effects industry, Francis points out that the film is not simply a visual effects showcase. Rather, Only Hope is a live-action short focused on a woman who is struggling to reintroduce trust, cooperation, and hope into a post-apocalyptic world, with the effects augmenting, not overshadowing, the characters and story line. "I wanted it to be a film that lived and died on the merits of its story telling virtues, not the degree to which it incorporated special effects," Francis says. Collaborating with Francis on the plot was his mother, Norma Jenckes, an award-winning playwright and a professor at the University of Cincinnati.

After the script was complete and the actors secured, the crew spent about two weeks shooting the film, mostly in Cal i for nia's Mojave Desert, during August 1998. However, it took more than a year after that to complete the effects work. "There's a cliché: 'good, cheap, fast; pick any two.'
One of the film's most creative effects involved the digital transformation of a truck into a CG helicopter. The shots were completed by Todd Perry of Max Ink Café and Fulcrum Magnet's Doug Kim, Rene Garcia, and Jodi Campanaro.

We wanted good and cheap, so we had to follow the pace set by those doing the work," explains Francis. However, a few companies later backed out of their commitment due to financial or other reasons. In those instances, new or existing volunteers stepped forward, and when no substitutions could be found, Max Ink Café took them on rather than forcing Francis to cut the shots from the movie.

"Only Hope was an ambitious screen play; often I was asking for the moon, and I was surprised at how many times I was able to get it," says Francis. To do so, however, required a tremendous amount of preplanning so the group could "get the most out of the effects shots with the least amount of work required," adds Perry. "Often in the effects industry, we are fixing things that were mistakes on the set, and we had to avoid that. We had to make these effects, from their design to inception, integral to the story and as easy as possible for the animators, so they wouldn't have to spend months putting the shots together."

Most of the digital-effects work was concentrated near the beginning of the movie during the depiction of the apocalypse. Perhaps the most spectacular scene called for a digital helicopter (created by Fulcrum using Alias|Wavefront's PowerAnimator) to land as people in biohazard suits jumped out and ran toward the camera. To accomplish this, the director filmed actors jumping out the back of a U-Haul truck, which was later digitally replaced with the CG helicopter.

"The live-action shot went well, considering it was our first effects shot. But then we discovered that the director of photography, who had not yet had experience on a visual effects shoot, forgot to lock down the camera, and it was moved before we could shoot an empty background plate," Champagne explains. "When Francis and Perry were discussing whether to reshoot the scene or fix it in post production, the effects artists-who doubled as the extras in the scene-didn't hesitate. They immediately got back into their plastic suits-even though it was over 100 degrees outside-so we could reshoot, because they knew that was easier than fixing any problems in post."
Effects were used to augment, not overshadow, the story line, such as this opening shot of a nuclear explosion by artists Todd Perry, Scott Kirvan, and Kevin Robb.

To maximize the effects in this sequence, the team tilted the camera upward after the U-Haul was driven out of the scene, and later reversed the footage so it appeared as though the camera were following the helicopter (U-Haul) downward as it landed. Max Ink Café later composited the actors into the scene using Discreet's (Montreal) Effect. "When you are working on a low-budget film and are asking artists to volunteer their time, you must creatively maximize the use of minimal effects work," notes Champagne.

Another interesting effects scene re quired a bridge to collapse as a caravan of military vehicles crossed over it. Again, Ful crum created the CG model of the bridge and its animation, while Perry added the dust and explosive elements using Discreet's 3D Studio Max running on an Intergraph (Huntsville, AL) TDZ 2000 workstation.

For the initial shot involving a nuclear bomb explosion and the ensuing mushroom cloud, effects programmer Scott Kirvan used Firestorm, a Max plug-in co-created by himself and Steve Blackmon at Blur Studio in Venice, California.

To facilitate communication with the volunteer artists, scattered from Canada to California, Max Ink Café set up an extensive Web site that contained digital storyboards of each shot, along with creative guidelines. Francis points out that it was important not to dictate a long list of directives, especially when the artists were not receiving monetary compensation for their work.

"They say that 90% of directing is casting, but the same can be said of the visual effects work; 90% of it is finding people who do quality work, and giving them the creative freedom to come up with what they think is best," Francis says. "When you're work ing on effects, there are times when you want to try something different but [the director] doesn't want to. We were giving the artists the freedom that often eludes them."
Sometimes, the creation of an effects shot was a group effort, such as this bridge explosion. Animators at Fulcrum created the digital bridge, while Max Ink Cafe artists completed the sequence by adding explosive elements.

For instance, one scene called for debris to rain down from the sky, killing people as they scatter for shelter. Instead, Max Ink Café artists Derron Ross, Kevin Robb, and Mikkel Caiafa created a slightly new scenario where a couple running up a hill are felled by machine gun fire from a CG tank that rolls, kicking up dust as it fires onto the crowd. Because the artistic change did not affect the crux of the story line, Francis says he saw no reason to turn down the new scenario.

Francis is currently shopping the film at various film venues, including the Sun dance Film Festival, the Aspen Shortsfest, and the San Francisco International Film Festival.

3D Studio Max, Discreet (