Creating an entire VFX-inspired short film is no mean feat. Not only do you have to think of an idea, you have to consider the logistics of filming, location, lighting and so much more in only three days – all before you even start filming, let alone look at the visual effects and post-production.
That’s why Escape Studios‘ 72-hour Film Project was such a challenge, though one team was ultimately victorious.
‘The last Shuttle’ is a four-minute short, detailing the journey of Simon who must get to the last shuttle with the help of his drone companion. Encompassing green interfaces from the drone’s perspective, as well as flying overhead shots filmed by drone, the final shots sees Simon finally coming across the fabled shuttle, modelled in ZBrush, with textures done in Substance Painter and lighting in Arnold. We speak to the team to find out how they managed to pull it all off in just three days and to learn some more of their visual effects work in the short.
Andreas Ebbesen Hopen
Modelling, UV Layout, Texturing, Costume Design, Photography
Modelling, Matchmove, Lighting & rendering, Camera Operator, Narrative
Editing, Motion Graphics, Matchmove, Acting
Vfx Artist, Compositing, Drone Pilot, Camera Operator, Maya, Reality Capture, Nuke, 2D-3D tracking, After Effects, producer/team leader.
Drone Pilot, Location Scout
How did you come up with your idea for the film so quickly and how did you organise your time?
Premise – ‘A shuttle crash survivor has one last attempt at making it back before the launch to escape the end of civilisation on earth’.
Our concept came from the idea that the human race will one day become an interplanetary race in order to avoid the end of civilisation.
Before the brief was released we had a few brainstorming sessions on Skype. During these calls we came up with a selection of rough ideas that we could adapt to the theme once it was announced. Once the 72 hours had began we decided to group together and set up camp at Joe’s house with each of our workstations. This way we could more easily communicate and share our work. The project would have not been possible without us all working within the same space.
How did you create the effects of the hologram coming out of the main character’s arm?
We were aiming to create a 3D model of the warehouse, which would be projected from the ‘survivors’ device. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to scan the location using photogrammetry, we came up with an alternative solution; using Google Earth we took hundreds of screenshots of the landscapes which were then processed in Reality Capture to get a basic 3D mesh with texture. This was optimised in ZBrush and tracked and comped in 3D using NUKE.
What did you use to create the green and black overlay?
The technological overlays were created in After Effects. Once the edit was picture locked, we were able to begin working on the comp for each sequence. We knew we wanted to see some techy animated interface over the POV of the drone camera, so we just had to decide on the elements to include and the way they would be animated. To help save time we used 2D camera tracking to animate the “scanner” element within the viewpoint.
Can you tell us about how much compositing you had to do and how you achieved the transition of the door in the warehouse for the crossover?
We had planned to create one seamless shot by stitching two plates together. We shot this using a gimbal to make the footage as smooth as possible. The two plates were tracked and lined up together. The tricky part was rotoing the entire shot in time. To save time and cut corners, we did this in After Effects, using the ‘roto brush’ tool.
How did you come up with the idea to shoot with drones?
Luckily, we have access to an array of equipment via our day jobs. Some of which included; two dji drones, an Osmo gimbal and a couple of DSLR cameras. When brainstorming our idea, we wanted to utilise the drones as much as possible. Finally coming up with the concept to use one of the drones as a character to help drive the narrative and another to capture cinematic shots. This proved to be quite challenging, as simultaneously coordinating two drones in the air can be very challenging.
What are the benefits and shortcomings of shooting footage with drones?
A drone gives complete 3D freedom; you can place your camera almost anywhere within 3D space. You are not limited by the size of your tripod, or locked to one space. This can be an advantage, but too much movement in frame and your audience can become distracted from the story.
The drones were used not only as a character and a cinematic camera, but also to aid the VFX. We captured HDRI maps from the air and 3D scans of the shuttle environment, to help with the rebuild and 3D tracking in 3D-Equalizer. Additionally, in one scene we inventively used the larger drone as a wind machine.
Using a drone as a character and as a cinematic tool meant that at many times we had to have two drones in the air simultaneously. This can be a challenge for many reasons, but the main challenges were: battery life and communication. Both pilots needed to be able to communicate their movements and direct the actor, without walkie talkies and so on – this was very challenging. Batteries had to be constantly topped up in the car between locations, we ran out of batteries for the second location shoot.
How did you model the shuttle, were there any challenges in trying to make it photorealistic?
The shuttle asset was a collaborative effort between Adam and Andreas. Adam initially modelled the low-poly shuttle whilst Andreas was travelling down to London. After we all met up, we started working on the shuttle together to speed up the process. Whilst Adam continued on the low-poly shuttle and launch site, Andreas began creating the high-poly details to use for baking down various maps during the texturing stage.
We used ZBrush for the high-poly creation, and Substance Painter to bake down the maps from the high-poly mesh. The shuttle was to be used in both the crash site and the launch site within the film. For the crash site we simply repurposed the low-poly shuttle and broke it up into pieces that could be carefully distributed to create the impression of a crash.
Once the low-poly modelling was complete Adam moved onto matchmove so that we could start to visualise the space shuttle in the final scene. The aerial footage was tracked in 3D Equalizer.
The textures of the CG elements were done in Substance Painter. By using different colour IDs Andreas was able to easily assign the correct materials within the correct colour IDs. Once the main materials were complete, Andreas began adding scratches and general wear and tear to make the surface details of the shuttle look more realistic. This stage helped the model look less like a plastic toy and more believable within the shot.
The textures were exported from Substance Painter using the Arnold presets so that all the maps would work in our scene.
The shuttle was lit and rendered using the Arnold render engine for Maya. We plugged in the HDRI that was captured from the drone and used that to light the scene.
How difficult was it producing visual effects shots in such a tight timeframe?
This competition was our first attempt at a 72 hour short film. None of us had even attempted to completed a full VFX project from concept to final edit in such a short timeframe. Due to the fact that we all have previous industry experience in visual effects we were able to apply our skills and knowledge to speed up our workflow and help complete the piece within the timeframe. This, however, also had an adverse effect as we were unable to start the project until Friday evening as some of us were working elsewhere that day.
One of the hardest aspects of creating our short film was meeting 4 minute length requirement of the short film. Luckily most of us had experience in using camera equipment and which meant we were able to capture interesting shots that could help fill the edit with content relevant to the narrative.
Another key aspect in completing the project in time was time management. We all had to be careful not to get stuck on any one thing for too long. Prioritising some shots over others.
We have learned a lot from this project. And are keen to do another. Next time, I think we will take time off work.
You can watch the video below: