When Stars Align and Worlds Intersect
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2014)

When Stars Align and Worlds Intersect

Red Giant Software is known for developing tools that make the filmmaking and motion-design processes faster and more efficient. Starting in 2011, the company began creating short films to production-test and highlight its tools, even developing new products in the process that would later be offered to the public. It turned out to be a creative and practical way of putting Red Giant products through their paces.

"Some think of Red Giant as a software company, but we are a bunch of people who worked in TV and film. We like making films, we like working on films, and we like visual effects. There are a lot of ways you can spend money on marketing, but why not do what we love to do and, in the process, learn more about filmmaking and making our products better," says Aharon Rabinowitz, Red Giant's director of content and communities and executive producer for Red Giant Films.

Red Giant has enlisted various directors to helm its short-film projects for the past two-plus years, always hoping to snag in-house talent Stu Maschwitz, who joined the software developer in 2008 as creative director, designing many of the company's products, including Magic Bullet, Looks, Colorista II, and more. And why not? Maschwitz, writer/director/producer/visual effects artist/cinematographer/editor/technologist, comes with a long list of movie credits to his name, as well as those by The Orphanage, a visual effects studio he had co-founded but is now closed. However, the planets (or, more accurately, the schedules) never aligned that allowed for the film collaboration. That is, until recently.

And, not only did the stars align, they collided, resulting in a bang-up project that would be used for two purposes: a short that tackles production challenges while using various Red Giant software and serves as a Hollywood production pitch for the feature film Maschwitz will direct.

"Aharon and I have wanted to do a movie for Red Giant Films for a long time, and we had been going back and forth with some ideas. We wanted to do something emotional, fun, and engaging, but obviously something that also showed off the tools and my background as a visual effects artist," says Maschwitz. "Then, around the same time, my agent handed me this feature-film screenplay called 'Run Like Hell,' written by Max Adams. I loved it. It's an action/comedy that's a bit raunchy, with an alien invasion in it. I had been having conversations with the producer, Adrian Askarieh, to figure out how we were going to pitch this movie to the world. And we both agreed we needed some type of short video to sell people on the tone of the film. That is always the hardest thing with any movie, to know what it will feel like to launch it. So, I decided I would try to smash these two worlds together and see if Adrian would be interested in having his pitch video something we could share with the whole world, and if Aharon at Red Giant would be interested in helping me pitch this video to Hollywood. Luckily, both said, 'Yes.'"

The short film, like the feature, is inspired by the cult-classic video game from Digital Mayhem and Interplay Software. Shot POV style, the short would provide a taste of the feature's story and visual effects, and it would be made on a tight budget, as most short films are, leaving the group to face similar challenges plaguing those doing similar projects. "By becoming part of the process, we can better serve our customers who are part of the process," says Rabinowitz.

STU MASCHWITZ created a short film for Red Giant using off-the-shelf production tools, some of which he devised.

That is one reason the crew chose a GoPro Hero3 camera, which carries a $299 price tag and captures high-quality imagery. "Also, the GoPro camera was critical in telling the story," says Rabinowitz, throwing the audience right into the middle of the action by capturing a first-person viewpoint. "And Stu wanted the audience to see what the main character misses clues about the story at the very edge of his personal field of view. The picture quality, along with the GoPro's signature wide-angle look, made that possible." However, the GoPro's wide angle required the footage to be "unwarped" in Adobe After Effects with the optics compensation tool; next, they would create a 3D camera and warp the 3D elements to match the original footage.

Additionally, Maschwitz wanted to capture the action in one long, continuous take. "Everyone knows what a movie looks like, so there is no point in trying to do a short that was a low-budget, no-movie-stars attempt at putting together a scene from the film," Maschwitz says. "That never really looks good; it usually reads like what it is: a kind of underfunded attempt to make something that feels like it has the production value of a feature film. Instead, I wanted to approach it in the most fun and interesting way I could, and get some of the quirky, romantically clumsy tone of the main character into a very compact package."

To this end, Maschwitz used some dialog from the feature's screenplay and resculpted it into a moment that is not in the film but could be: the main character Nick on his way to the home of his would-be girlfriend (if all goes well) to finally ask her out after gathering up enough courage after 10 years. He is rehearsing his speech as he walks, and in the process, is oblivious to what is happening around him. But the wide-angle view of the GoPro enables the audience to see what the main character has not.

"I wanted [the short] to be in Nick's point of view but didn't necessarily know if it would work, and had to shoot tests to prove that it would, that you could be in someone's POV and see things through the person's eyes that they are not seeing," explains Maschwitz. So, he tested the concept by walking up and down his street while reading a piece of paper, with the GoPro attached to his head. The test shots proved that the idea was sound and that believable visual effects could be inserted into the wide-angle footage of the camera, which is otherwise mainly used for extreme-action video capture.

"We did an early version of the scene with the car getting beamed up to the spaceship, and it was funny and seemed to be working. That gave us the confidence to proceed," Maschwitz says.

AN ACTRESS PERFORMS a stunt that was later inserted into the visual effects shot.

In the Neighborhood
Producer Raub Shapiro found an ideal setting for the shoot: a quiet neighborhood in Alameda, California. As luck would have it, the location has been used as a set a number of times, and there was even a person from the neighborhood who facilitates shoots there. In addition, she provided access to her driveway, across the street, for the film crew to use as a staging area.

Unlike previous Red Giant films, which featured one of the company's tools, "Run Like Hell" instead would be made using a range of offerings from the developer and others - tools that Maschwitz would have selected had he tackled the project independent of Red Giant. Using off-the-shelf software was critical to keeping costs down, and being able to set up at the base camp across the street was especially convenient and enabled Maschwitz to employ Red Giant's BulletProof, a footage prep and delivery tool, running on a MacBook Air, to review and back up the footage on-site.

For example, at one point Maschwitz was on his last take for a shot, but after review in BulletProof, it was apparent that he did not get what he needed. "I was able to go back immediately and reshoot without losing my light," he adds.

With BulletProof, "I could make notes and add markers. I even had a color lookup table," says Maschwitz. "I knew my editor would see the notes I made, because when you export from BulletProof, the notes come through as metadata and load into [Adobe] Premiere. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen on set - our shots don't always find their way to the editor, despite our best intention. This time we knew they would."

Approximately a dozen people were involved in the project, with six at the shoot and the others involved in the post side later. Front and center at the shoot was Maschwitz, acting as director and actor while wearing the camera, as others maneuvered behind him to stay out of the camera's view. "VFX Artist Zachary Nussbaum's main focus was painting out my producer's leg from a scene early in the film. The field was so wide-angle that when I looked down, I could see his leg," Maschwitz says.

The majority of the short was achieved with a single shot as planned, but the end required several shots, with a transition to an all-CG shot of the house exploding. Maschwitz filmed the house and neighboring homes with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, and pieced the photographs together to create a virtual environment. He also shot some of the elements separately so they could be composited into the footage later.

Editing was performed by Gregory Nussbaum and Pictures In A Row.

Post Processes
Atomic Fiction pitched in for the CGI, with Ryan Tudhope supervising the 3D spaceship render, done via the cloud as opposed to a local server farm, which likely wouldn't have been able to handle the load. "It was a huge endeavor, Maschwitz points out. "We figured out that to reverse the lens distortion of the GoPro, they would have to render at 3k, because the render gets scaled down to fit a squared-off CG-type of POV in the GoPro footage. So we rendered a dozen passes at 3k - 600 frames each beautifully lit and textured of a spaceship in a matter of days thanks to their cloud setup."

Rendering was done using Autodesk's Maya with the V-Ray renderer.

In that scene, the CG spaceship was a TurboSquid model, while the jet models came from Video Copilot. "The magic was in the rendering and Atomic Fiction's ability to turn it into something that looked very real," says Maschwitz. The car lifting off the ground was a 2D image taken from the original footage and animated with some After Effects 2.5D animation.

During post, the group used After Effects and Premiere CC extensively. In fact, the project pipeline evolved around After Effects, which was used for the camera tracking, animation, and camera moves. The process, however, actually started in Maxon's Cinema 4D, with Maschwitz using the new Cineware feature within After Effects to bridge to Cinema 4D, where he began to animate the spaceship before the Atomic Fiction team translated it into a Maya scene for final rendering in V-Ray. G. Nussbaum used Premiere for editing, then transferred the assets to After Effects, where Maschwitz did the final compositing, coloring, and finishing.

"The comp of the final spaceship is deep and elaborate, involving 3D, 2.5D, and a lot of lens distortion," says Maschwitz. "And, I did it all on my iMac at home. It look about two minutes a frame to render."

Quite a few Red Giant products also were used in the making of the short, including Colorista II from the Red Giant Color Suite for color correction. "That was a very elaborate process," says Maschwitz. "This let me start off with all this beautiful footage you see that's colorful and pops. Then, when the spaceship is revealed, it transitions into more of a stylized, Michael Bay action-movie look."

Red Giant's Trapcode and Effects Suite were used for the visual effects, particularly the atmospheric smoke and fire, as well as stock footage from Digital Juice, Video Copilot, and Detonation Films. "The smoke elements from Detonation Films are awesome but flat, and usually that works fine - you put them on a flat card in front of the CG camera. But that didn't work well with the GoPro's wide-angle field of view. In some of my early takes when I would tilt up, you could see the edges of the smoke elements because you are covering more than 180 degrees of the field of view. It revealed all our usual tricks of using smoke elements, and those processes were failing me," says Maschwitz. "We couldn't use motion blur, either. I had a panic moment when I realized that doing visual effects with the GoPro footage would be really hard. Then I realized that Trapcode had this plug-in called Horizon, which is designed for creating skies but can texture-map a piece of footage onto a dome that is wrapped around the camera. So, I took the smoke elements and other sources and texture-mapped them onto the inside of a sphere using Horizon, and when we tilted it up and down, the smoke seemed to be wrapped around the sphere 360 degrees."

Maschwitz continues: "I honestly do not know what I would have done without that as an option. There was a terrifying moment when I realized that all my dirty tricks were going to be a lot harder to pull off in the GoPro world."

And then there were times when some of the "little things" made all the difference. For days, Maschwitz stared at the shots of the house blown to bits, wondering how to make them look more realistic. "The matte painting looked good and I was happy with it, but I thought if the house just blew up, some part of it would still be moving," he says. So, he pulled out a little strip of insulation from a pile of debris left by contractors renovating his house, and clamped that onto a C-stand and shot it with the EOS camera and composited the element into the 3D scene.

"I picked up that kind of little detail from people like Dennis Muren, who talked about how the rancor monster in Return of the Jedi never looked quite right until they gave it that little piece of drool hanging off its chin, giving it scale. That little flappy piece of insulation hanging off the house in the short is my rancor monster drool, that one detail that makes the shot."

Perfect Pitch
Previously, Red Giant's films were used to draw focus to one of the company's products. This began in 2011, when the company developed the short film "Plot Device," which tested the video filters in the company's software, specifically Magic Bullet Looks 2. In 2012, Red Giant produced "Tempo" and used tools from its Trapcode Suite to generate the visual effects; "Order Up," which incorporated Knoll Light Factory effects; and "Form 17," for syncing the audio using PluralEyes. Earlier this year, Red Giant created "Spy vs Guy," using BulletProof to prepare the footage. This time around, however, the endeavor was not about a product, but rather the process and the overall experience.

"Sometimes we do this and come up with a solution to a problem that doesn't exist or we try to advertise a product or two. But in this case, I just wanted to make a film with Stu," says Rabinowitz.

MASCHWITZ GETS creative with the GoPro camera.

For Maschwitz, this is the first time he has publicly pitched a film. He has made video pitch reels, but none with this production value. "The sad thing is, no one gets to see them. You just make them for the audience of the producers in the room, who own the materials, so you cannot show them anywhere else. I was excited that Adrian Askarieh and the film producer were game to releasing this publicly. It stands on its own as a fun thing, and it is nice for me to have something out there that expresses my voice as a filmmaker."

So far, there has been some feedback since the short was released in November, though nothing solid has come of it…yet. Nevertheless, Maschwitz was happy that he finally had the opportunity to make a film for Red Giant. "I design tools for Red Giant based on my needs as a filmmaker. I will be off making films, and that is the inspiration for the next generation of products. So, I was happy to intermingle those two worlds more closely than ever by working on 'Run Like Hell.'"

Will new tools result from the making of "Run Like Hell?" "Our products are born out of the challenges we come up against during the processes. So, who knows. New tools might come out of this film too," says Rabinowitz.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.