Alex Ferrari is a Southern Florida based independent filmmaker. I received a copy of his short film “Broken” which is a short film with a lot of special effects. Alex is a good marketer. He knows how to get his name out there. Recently at the Toronto film festival he was able to catch the ear of world famous movie critic Roger Ebert, even though his film wasn't a selection of the festival. As the story goes, Mr. Ebert specifically told Alex that he doesn’t review short films but he would watch his DVD. That night, and a quick photograph later, Alex landed a spot on Roger Ebert’s internet blog page with a nice write up about “Broken.”
“He gives me a DVD of their short: “We’ve already sold 1,000 copies online. It contains six commentary tracks and like three hours of information on how to shoot low-budget digital films and how to do the special effects. It’s like a training course.” They refer me to their web site, www.whatisbroken.com, and back at the hotel I view the film and visit the site.
The film is effective and professional and the ominous sound track works with the images to create the desired effect. Whether the plot quite rises above the level of “it was only a dream” I am not prepared to say. Whether the short will someday grow into a good film we will know only if the development deal goes through.” – Roger Ebert
I posed some questions to the folks behind “Broken” for this post Toronto Film Festival interview.
Alex Ferrari - Director/Writer/Producer/Editor/Colorist/VFX Artist/Production Designer
Jorge F. Rodriguez - Writer/Producer/Production Designer
Sean Falcon - VFX Superviser/SHAKE Compositor
Dan Cregan - VFX Artist/Compositor/Storyboard & Concept Artist
What do you think your short film is about?
Broken is about a young woman named Bonnie, who is kidnapped after having a violent nightmare. She wakes to find herself at the mercy of an eccentric scarred man and his menacing entourage. Alex brought the original story to me, and after collaborating we developed the concept for a feature. Since we did not have the money to make a feature we decided to take an excerpt from Act1 and Act2 and shoot a short film.
It is about making something that will get you attention for the industry. We all want to be making movies for a living, you need to get some attention of from industry somehow. That is what BROKEN is designed to do.
What did you shoot on end edit with and what was the size of your cast and crew.
We chose Panasonic's DVX100a MiniDV camera because of 24p. The second I saw 24p I knew that I could finally be able to get that polished look without shooting film. My directing style is very fast, I barely ever sit down on a set. I am always moving, keeping the energy high. Film is slow and cumbersome. Digital lets me not only fly on set but also in post. I had always been hesitant about doing a short film on DV. It looked like video. It looked cheap and not very cinematic. I did not want to waste my time and money on a format that would not garner any respect for the project and would not push me forward as a director. Then I saw a 24p test that Panasonic was doing and I was sold. It looked amazing and I knew what I could do in post with the image, so we got a hold of one and ran some tests. We were EXTREMELY pleased.
There is usually little work in South Florida during the summer, so we were able to get some very experienced crew and some great deals on equipment on our meager budget. As far as talent was concerned once they read the script they were eager to be a part of it. Still I think a big part of us getting the cast and the crew was combination of them liking the story, the fact that nobody ever makes an indie action film, and that they wanted to see how the hell we were going to pull it off.
When it came to shooting format, we considered HD, but once we did some tests with the AGDVX100A we were surprised and content with the results. We already owned one, but because we were doing action and had only 5 days in which to shoot the movie we opted for a second camera as well.
The location was a public facility and very accommodating to both us, and the budget. Securing it was only a matter of providing insurance and signing a simple contract. Once the location was secure, we began the tedious process of production design using a combination of things we found at the hospital and things we made ourselves.
Finally we coordinated catering and craft service for the production as well as behind the scenes and still photography.
The cast and crew probably numbered 25 or so. Great people to work with! it was like a family.
Since I couldn't make it to the set a lot of the times, I told Alex to call me before he shot something that we new was supposed to be an VFX shot to discuss the logistics of setup. This was especially helpful on the 'shaking things up" shot which required a clean plate to ease my rotoscoping pain.
Why is it a short, and not a feature? (I know, that's a loaded question but I am curious about your response)
Because we (Jorge F. Rodriguez - Producer & I) knew that we could pull off a short at a high level with the resources we had. A feature would have not been able to be made with the money and time we had. Better to do what we knew we could rather than attempt the impossible. Many indies go that route and suffer for it. Do what you can do well.
Who created the special effects. Looks expensive?
Thank you! I let Sean and Dan speak about the visual effects. As far as the look and style, that was achieved by designing the frame from scratch. We art directed, lite, and moved the camera while always keeping in mind the final image. When I got it into post, I timed the color in Apple's Final Cut Pro and created the unique look that I was going for.
I used Shake for all of the compositing work. It really gave me the speed that I needed to do these shots. Its workflow is very organic so you can create and make changes very quickly. I did this project after working a full time day at work, so things needed to move quick. We didn't have any stock footage until the end, so things like the muzzle flashes had to be created by hand. Shake also helped me develop a workflow for creating this effect since there were many instances where it was needed. I created "flash templates" and used some hand painted basic flames, and then added additional fx that were run by expressions that gave the process somewhat of an "automated" feel to it, so I wasn't painting hundreds of flames all night. Alex had the look of the film done early so I could send him the fx shots and run them through the color stage to see if we needed to tweak color in my comps.
Making the effects fit in the scene without drawing too much attention to themselves is always the hardest part. We were always going back and forth over what would look "cool" and what would be believable. Thankfully, Apple's Shake makes anything possible with enough time.
We always wanted it dark and brooding. The initial tests Alex showed me made comfortable as to how we would arrive at the final product.
I always loved seeing how VFX shots are done (I still do), so this was a chance to show other people what we have done. It shows some cool things that can be done in a relatively short amount of time.
We wanted to show off Sean & Dan's amazing work and give people an inside look at how we did it. To show you do not need a lot of money to tell your story. BTW, Sean had only two weeks to complete over 90 effect shots. We were rushing to have a finished copy to take to Sundance so we could being promoting the project. The rest of the effect work was done by Dan Cregan and myself.
Talk to me about the special effects?
Please share with us some more about the special effects. Most of the shorts I see don't utilize special effects because it's such a specialized skill. What was the program used, easy to use, benefits, technology of it etc…
We hired an amazing young DP named Angel Barretta. We discussed the look I wanted and told him to shoot it straight. No filers, no gels, no in-camera tricks.
I wanted a clean image that I could manipulate in post. The lighting was keep, especially in Mini DV. The camera's spectrum of light is limited so I told him to pump a ton of light in and I'll pull it back in post. The final total was 14 hours on two cameras, but I love to let the camera roll so I could capture some magic from the actors when they were not looking. You get some really cool stuff that way.
I edited the first cut in 2 weeks. then started sending out VFX plates to the guys so they could start working. After the FINAL CUT was agreed by Jorge and myself I began color timing the short to get the look I was going for. As for the color correction, the filter packages I used were Magic Bullet, G Film, Stib's Simple Levels and a FCP's color corrector. I found that Simple Levels helped me crush the black in a way that the entire image wasn't affected. I also used garbage matte to cut out sections of the frame and color correct them individually.
The key is good lighting and having a design in mind before going into post. I did a lot of experimenting and layering techinques in FCP to get the look. I wanted to get three very distinct looks (Bonnie's Apartment, The Basement, Hospital) for the short. I used all my departments (waredrobe, production design, lighting and post) to achieve the final looks. I made her apartment more blueish for the lighting storm vibe. The basement I wanted dark, crushed blacks, high contrast and overall a very unsettling feeling. The hospital I want a puke green. Very unhealthy vibe.
Sometimes I look back and forget how I got there. I just play around ALOT with the tools. Many independent films do not take the time for design their stories, I did not want to fall into that trap. It also took about 35 hours of rendering all the filters to get the final look for BROKEN (on a Apple G5 Dual 2 GIG, w/4 gigs of RAM and 1 terabyte of storage).
b). Adding in effects for muzzle effects and explosions
We knew this was going to be an issue before we even started shooting. It had to be done right or it would all be for nothing. So I spent some time playing with different looks for the muzzle flashes. I tried many different approaches, from hand drawn to 3d to procedural. I found that a happy mix between hand painted and procedural yeilded the best results.
I started with a very basic flame shape (which was actually a rotoshape in Shake), and began layering in different warps. These warps were significant because they really had to sell the look of the flame. I found that using a few different types layered together really gave some nice edge distortion. These were kind of 'global warp nodes'. The reason why the word 'global' was so important to me was that I needed to have a way to make this as 'automated' as possible. One real time saver was that warp setup.
Because Shake is node based, it gies you a great amount of control over th image, so I easily have the warp only effect certain parts of my script while covering the entire frame. This permitted me to create an effect that never produced the same looking flame twice. In the beginning I figured that I would just create a library of flame images that i could randomly switch through. This became incredibly time consuming, and there was no guarantee that you would not see the same flame more than once in a shot (there was a lot of shooting!!).
Plus if Alex wanted the flame to come on 3 frames earlier, I would have to go back and change a good amount of settings on a lot of nodes. That’s why I took the approach that I did. The other way that I saved time was by using expressions. Shake has a scripting language (like Maya's mel scripting), which allows for total flexibility when needed from the app.
After arriving at a muzzle flash that everyone was happy with, I decided to make a template script based on the type of gun that was being fired. For instance, we had Christian's gun that produced a multi-flame flash, and Tony's gun was a single shot burst. I set it up so that the flame and all atmophereic fx were controlled by one side of the script, and the color treatment for interactive lighting was controlled by the other side. This made for quick and easy swap-outs of the footage serving as the main plate. The use of expressions came into play heavily on these shots. I basically had a flame "fader" which controlled when the flame was visible. Linked off of this fader, were expressions that controlled how much interactive lighting was reflected off of the face of the person and surrounding environment, as well as controlling the glows, smoke, dust and camera shake.
This was all accomplished by moving only 1 slider instead of 35. Since the warps were constantly changing on a frame by frame basis and the flames only lasted 1 frame, I was assured to have a different effect any time it was visible. I had ton of these shots to complete in a very short amount of time, so these types of setups are instrumental in completing complicated or tedious tasks in a much shorter amount of time.
The explosion was kind of a surprise for me. I knew we were going to have that kind of effect, but I didnt get to see the plate until post. We went and got a stock footage CD that had all sorts of fire and explosions, the CD also had some muzzle flashes, but they were very basic and restrictive as to their integration into many different scenes.
So I did this shot over the weekend starting early Saturday morning, and finishing Sunday night. I wanted the effect to have 'Impact' to it, so I knew the blast would have to be fast and fierce. So I started laying in the explosions, while having to do ALOT of retiming. That took a little while because these elements were high res an over 35 seconds long for some of them. I needed these things to fit in a 35-frame window. We didnt have any good smoke elements so I had to color correct one of the explosions to look like smoke.
The main thing to keep in mind when doing VFX composites is that its all in the details. Little things like faint lens flares, subtle camera shake and atmosphere help to sell any shot. thankfully the explosion was not supposed to break the light housing apart, so that saved me a lot of paint work.
c). The awesome 'Shaking Things Up' scene -- complete with 3D composite!
The 'shaking things up' shot was a fun one. Alex talked about it early on, but we saved that one for one of the last shots I would work on. I had a clean plate to help with my roto work. I told Alex not to worry too much about shooting it a certain way, just make sure I have my clean bg. After receiving the plate, I rotoscoped out Bonnie from, and layered her into the new one. Then I took the clean plate and completely cut it apart. This plate worked really well for this type of shot because there were tons of
items in the back that I could really shake the hell out of. I spent some time trying to figure out a fancy way to do this shot, but I soon found out that cut-and-shake method provided the nicest interactivity. the shot had a HUGE amount of layers after i was done with the surgery part.
I didnt want to just shake eveything uniformly, so this is where I made good use of expressions. Since almost everything we do as visual fx artists has its roots in math one way or another, you can finally put all that trigonometry and algebra to good use. implementing some basic trig functions into the expression allowed for some cool movement that would be very tedious to do by keyframe, and even worse, having to make a change to a hundred different nodes!! So i just categorized the movement into 3 or 4 different shakes (i use that word alot), and then made a few master nodes that controlled the 100+ transform nodes inside the script. This in turn allowed for better isolation of different movements and the ability to quickly make changes to many layers while only having to worry about a few nodes.
There was also a sky replacement shot in there too. This involved clouds that I shot on a stormy South Florida day (a.k.a June-November), color correction, interactive lighting, a digital foreground tree via Maya Paint Effects, and some roto work to enable to pass in front of the sky. There was a unseen speedbump in that shot. The blacks were pretty dark as was the night sky, so when the hero character dressed in black walked in front of the sky, he completely disappeared. Thankfully he wasn't moving wildly so the roto from the previous frames seemed to match quite well. Some digital lightning and a slight camera move finished off the shot.
d). The knife-throwing scene.
Doing the digital weapons replacement and the scope view came pretty easy but the hardest part in post was doing so many spark hits and the destruction caused by weapons. What seemed like something that would be be easy turned out to be very time consuming and hard to realistically pull off. First we tried to build our own sparks with Photoshop but after a couple of attempts we decided to use an existing stock special effects package that we had at The Enigma Factory for post work. Alex wanted to show off the film at The Sundance Film Festival so we really only had about two and a half weeks to pull off all of the effects, but we got it done.
e). And the treatment for Bonnie's blue eyes.
Bonnie's eyes originally were keyed. I ended up using a Shake's color wheel, warped and color-corrected to get the eye in the final comp. Then they were tracked into the plate. I wish we could have had more of those shots, but it took too much story for it to make sense. Hopefully we'll see that in the feature....
What film festivals are you going to with it?
We have submitted to over 90 festivals. We have been rejected from a bunch but accepted to about 20. BROKEN is not a festival film. It's an action/thriller short film...a bit hard to program for a festival director. The big ones: Sundance, Slamdance, Toronto, Cannes, Austin, SWSX, Telluride, etc. I believe that festivals are one of many ways you can get the word out. MARKET, MARKET, MARKET!!
We are attempting to get the word out using a ground roots approach to market BROKEN. First we needed to have a kick ass internet presence so http://www.whatisbroken.com was born. People from anywhere in the world can log on an find out anything they want about our project. In the old days, this type of approach could not have happen. We contacted websites and journalist about BROKEN and people seemed to be responding. It all started with a good project!
We put together a DVD with over 3 Hours of extras covering the making of Broken from the perspective of the entire production team that made it happen. We wanted to make this because when we were getting ready to make Broken we looked everywhere for answers and were hard pressed to find them. If this helps just one person out there get off their ass and make a movie then it was worth it.
We just want every one to know that budget should never be a reason not to make a movie. As long as you have an idea you will find a way to adapt it so that you can get it on the screen. The only limitations you have are those you impose on yourself.
Push the envelope and do something new and creative. Tell your story, no matter what!! VIVA INDY FILM... I MEAN VIVA INDY STORYTELLING IN WHATEVER MEDIUM YOU CHOOSE, DIGITAL OR FILM.