'Nectar': Veteran VFX Artist's Journey from Previs to Indie Filmmaker
January 2, 2019

'Nectar': Veteran VFX Artist's Journey from Previs to Indie Filmmaker

It started with a vision for Anthony Zwartouw, a veteran visual effects artist. 

The initial inspiration for “Nectar,” Zwartouw’s first personal foray into filmmaking, was an imagined visualization of a lone man walking through a jungle while being surveilled by bot creatures. As abstract concepts morphed into concrete storyboards, the bots would develop into hybrid crab-camera creatures, and themes of social isolation and inner turmoil would evolve into a metaphor for dealing with addiction – an issue prevalent in the Vancouver neighborhood where Zwartouw worked and frequented. His ambitious film project was beginning to take shape. 

A lifelong cinephile with a passion for creativity and the arts, fortuitous circumstances fast-tracked Zwartouw to a career in VFX in his late teenage years. A family friend working on the Harry Potter films in London enlisted Zwartouw’s help for a gig in the props department, knowing he had an obsession with special effects from a young age. While on set, he networked with the VFX team and was propelled into an entry-level position many interns dream of. Zwartouw was hired to assist the previs editor, using on-the-job experience and self-training to learn Autodesk Maya and other creative tools of the trade. Sixteen years later and boasting a resume filled with high-profile VFX work across different facilities and departments, Zwartouw now serves as a CG supervisor at ILM. 

When approaching the writing and directing of “Nectar,” his own passion project, Zwartouw’s primary goal was to tell a compelling and intriguing story, and to use VFX in service of that story. What his knowledge and network in VFX enabled him to do was achieve a cinematic vision that would not normally be possible with a $15K budget, the main VFX work being the creation of a fantastical creature and the transformation of a local beach into a grim island with tropical vegetation. For the VFX, Zwartouw worked with a 15-person crew comprising friends, artists and VFX students eager for training and mentorship, with generous sponsorships provided by Autodesk, The Foundry, Chaos Group, Think Tank Training Centre and CVD VFX.

Stepping away from his desk at ILM and bracing the elements, Zwartouw was exhilarated by the thrill and challenges presented by shooting “Nectar”on-location. The island sequences were captured on beaches in winter with extreme tides twice a day. Shooting schedules were adjusted to accommodate the tides, ensuring that every hour of light was used during the shorter winter days. Zwartouw meticulously storyboarded each sequence and worked closely with the DP, Michael Krizaj, to block each shot.

Zwartouw's biggest tip for VFX work, whether photoreal or fantastical, is to draw from the real world and use reference materials whenever possible. In the case of “Nectar,” the crew were out in the elements and captured as much real footage as possible, which was important to grounding the VFX work. 

To create more than 175 VFX shots for the film, artists relied heavily on Maya 2018 for layout, rigging, animation, modeling and lookdev. Driven by visual exploration, the aforementioned crab-camera bots were developed to represent the lead character’s withdrawals – the physical crawling sensations and the imagined paranoia from being spied on. Building a full-fledged 3D model was a challenge of perfecting the bot’s proportions, ensuring that the creature appear menacing and not humorous. Utilizing reference photography from a real king crab, artists created organic textures to bring realism to the bot models. 

Zwartouw hopes that “Nectar”will be his first of many films, with plans on entering the project into festivals around the world. Currently, it has made the official selection for the Dam Short Film Festival this February in Boulder City, Nevada.

The film’s trailer is available at: https://vimeo.com/308795174.