When we think of our nightmares, things can get out of sync and the familiar suddenly becomes strange and unsettling. This is the theme of Echo, a short film by visual effects artist and acclaimed director Victor Perez.
Echo follows the story of a girl who wakes up in the middle of nowhere to see in a mirror her reflection ten seconds ahead of time. When she wakes up again the nightmare has started over. The 10-minute film features pioneering technology that creates the effect of a virtual mirror – dubbed ‘Echo Mirroring FX’ – which uses narrative visual effects to capture a complex vision in a simple cinematic way.
3D Artist recently spoke to Victor Perez to discover just how these incredible effects were achieved.
Where did the idea of Echo come from?
Well Stiller Studios, a company based in Stockholm, specialises in motion control. Basically they have a green screen with a very good setup of motion control cameras, so they have a big rig that is called Cyclops, and it is the biggest motion control rig that exists right now and also they have another, called the Bolt, which is the fastest. They proposed to me, (as they are now changing their business model to become producers of content) and said ‘Hey we have our studio’. I know them because I have shot a few things before with them, and they said ‘Okay you know our setup and you know visual effects, so we’d like to shoot something like a test for demonstrating the storytelling capabilities of the studio.’… So [I thought] why don’t we create a story where we are going to showcase the technologies? So it all started like that. What I was aiming was to create the craziest piece of art that you could make with the combination of motion control rigs! Because what they proposed to me in the beginning was something that has never been done before, which is synchronised two motion control rigs. I mean, shooting with motion control rigs in visual effects is really really difficult, and you often don’t have the budget for getting that. Maybe you might have one, it’s complex and it wastes a lot of time and [production] may not be very willing to get something like one motion control rig. [What the studio] said was ‘Okay what we want is to have a studio that can shoot motion control at the same pace as any other regular production.’ So that is very interesting so I said ‘Okay, so if that’s true I can shoot this short film in one day’, and it [results in] five long takes, two cameras, green screen. I mean, it’s one of the hardest things, I’ve ever done but we did it! We did it in 22 hours in a roll, without sleeping!
Wow! I can’t believe that, that’s incredible! Because when you watch it, it doesn’t look like you did it all in one day. It looks like a longer project!
Well usually when you have motion control, the hardest part is the motion control. I mean for this project the easiest part was the motion control because they had everything prepared and we rehearsed for a couple of days. I don’t want to say it was easy because it’s never easy *laughs*, but it wasn’t as hard as I could even imagine. It was like in one day, shooting everything. I mean this is a non-commercial project so this is very important for me, I don’t have the resources that any production company can have. But the thing is, if you can do the quality I did with Echo in a regular production, I cannot even imagine what I could do if I had the budget for developing ideas properly because everyone working on Echo has been doing it for free! They’re all friends, but I mean they have friends and family.
How did you find it juggling so many different roles? You’ve written, directed, produced and supervised VFX for Echo.
Well you know! When you don’t have so many resources, you’ve got to do all you can! I was quite comfortable doing everything and for me, it was a way of learning new things. Right now I am trying to break into being a director. I started studying in school directing and cinematography. I started to do VFX when I was a kid, helping my brother… So for me, VFX was like a hobby and then I realised that hobby paid my bills! But I always wanted to be a director. I was a professional actor in my late teens and early twenties, I worked with Antonio Banderas – something that many people are still surprised about! But I come from the performing arts, and doing visual effects has been my side thing. Of course I love it and now it’s my main thin, and now I’m a teacher but I thought ‘One day, when I am prepared I want to show that I can tell stories and maybe be a director too.’. With my first film, ‘Another Love’ I was at 60 festivals with that and it won 27 awards. This was a drama so no visual effects in there, but again that surprised many people because everybody thinks that when you start doing a film, of course you use your background. So everyone thought my background was only visual effects. But what I wanted to do was direct actors, create a point of view and tell stories. I want to create drama. So if I need VFX that’s good because I know it and I have a few friends! But if I don’t need it then I’m not going to use it just because I have to use everything I know. So that was my philosophy for my first film, I didn’t feel like I needed VFX but for Echo I needed big visual effects, so I called all my friends – who are hopefully still my friends after this because I asked for so many things!
You’ve had such a diverse career – from studying filmmaking to studying VFX and working at Union VFX to IMAX and Cinesite and Double Negative, has this path influenced your work on Echo?
Everything I’ve experienced in my life took me to this point. So thanks to many companies like Double Negative, to Cinesite to Union VFX, I learned many things in terms of production… Working in London and the industry for ten years or so, that’s put me in a position so that I know how directors work and how directors use visual effects and also I can understand when a director is using visual effects to tell a story or when a director is using visual effects just for a side thing, as a correction. I’ve been very lucky because most of the directors that I’ve been working with, they’ve been great with VFX. From Danny Boyle, a very independent filmmaker, to Christopher Nolan who, in a certain sense, hates visual effects. But I understood when I was working with him for The Dark Knight Rises, he doesn’t hate visual effects. He’s very intelligent because he says ‘If I can do it for real, let’s do it for real. If I can’t afford that because its going to put someone at risk or because it’s impossible to create, okay let’s do it.’ And that’s what I love. I love Inception, it’s probably my favourite film because the visual effects in there are invisible, and that’s not invisible in the sense that you don’t see the VFX. It’s just that it’s not about VFX, it’s about the storytelling and the visual effects are the [centre] of the story and not the other way around… So I’m not interested in showing beautiful pictures, I want to show meaningful pictures. Cinesite and Double Negative gave me the opportunity to work with great directors that I could learn many subtleties of.
So as the director and producer and visual effects supervisor, that was a disaster! Because it’s a conflict of interest everywhere because you don’t want to spend money, but you want something to be beautiful and you want something to be meaningful!…
When you don’t have the budget, you have to have the compromise and say ‘Is this telling the story?’ ‘Yes’ and just go ‘Oh it’s fine.’ Or ‘Is this telling the story?’ ‘No’ ‘Okay what can I do to make this tell the story without dying in the process!’ You have to use the little resources you have. I have been working parallel to working on Echo, I have been supervising a film… I have been working on that, [outside] I have a life, I have a family and I have a five-year-old son. So to reconcile everything just to find the time and have a piece of me for everything, that was a challenge. The project is not perfect but it’s fine.… It’s out there on the screen and it’s much better on the screen than on my mind… I’m very proud of what I [achieved].
You also gain a lot of experience right, from just one day of shooting turning into months of post-production. Did you learn a lot in the process?
From that one day of shooting, we had 18 months of production. So the ratio was completely nuts!… When I was shooting, I was very aware of what I can do and what I cannot do in postproduction. So when I was shooting I gave myself some time. I have 18 months to finish this. I used this year and a half to do a tiny bit every day, and then asking many people for tiny favours instead of asking someone for a big big favour, so that was my challenge. I learned a lot about production and low budget.
I learned even just to ask. When you need something, ask for it. If they can help you and they like it, they will help you. If they don’t, okay, you tried and you move forward.
Could you tell us how the effect of a virtual mirror – dubbed ‘Echo Mirroring FX’ was achieved?
Well that is the actual feature – everything has been built around that. We have a mirror in the film and it’s not an actual mirror. The motion control rigs have an algorithmic that the Stiller Studios created just to create the effect that one camera is going to be in the position of the other camera to match that position. So one is always going to be creating mirror movement, so one camera is going to be in the point of view of the opposite side of the mirror. So that is very cool and never done before. But the guys at Stiller Studios said ‘Can we change time in here? So maybe we can we shoot everything in one take.’ So every single take is in contemporary shooting.
They invented a technology to create a camera movement that offsets in time. The cameras are going to start, both the same time, but the reflection camera is going to be in a certain position so when you put together both videos… the actual position of the reflection is always going to match the position of the hero camera. In other words, you have the actor in a different time but the camera is always in sync to the position of the mirror plane. I remember when they explained that, it took me something like an hour to understand!
Now you can see in film you see that the mirror is actually in a different time. The reflection is ten seconds ahead more or less, but before even shooting, just to realise you could even do that and the actions that the actress needs to develop to react to herself ten seconds ahead – that was really really difficult. It was a month and a half rehearsing and trying to find the story, just to see here reacting to the story. You are going to see in [the film], every action is a trigger and every action is a reaction.
So the technology allows us to shoot everything in one take. So you get the offset in time for the reflection and the actress is just going to behave normally…
What kind of software did you use across the project?
My main software I always used, because I love it, is Nuke. I come from a compositing background and I’ve been using Nuke for the last few years. I started using Nuke before the industry even focused on it! When they were using Shake, I was already using Nuke. When the standard changed a few years ago to Nuke, I was already there so it was easy for me to teach everybody. The matte paintings, everything, has been comped in Nuke. For the renders, it has been a combination of Maya for 3D and Arnold for the engine.
Are you going to make more short films after this?
That is the idea! [Though] I hope I’m not going to make any more ‘short’ films, I cannot afford them anymore! Every time I do short films, I’m always like ‘Oh my god I want to do something between friends!’. What I would like is to start a feature film that I am finishing writing these days. Here I am going to mix all my knowledge as an artist. It’s a drama but it’s an action film also. It’s cyberpunk about classical music, it’s about the future but it’s the mix between the future and the past – the behaviour of people using biomechatronics – so when you get mechanical implants to substitute your biological parts. It’s about artists, it’s about where is the soul of an artist? So can I, by modifying parts of my body, be good at something I want to be eg a musician or painting? So it’s about existentialism… Science fiction is a great frame for portraying human emotions. These days I am very focused on human existentialism – what we are as people, identity and all of that. I’ve had a bit of interest from a few producers thanks to Echo and my first short film and I have a few people, who hopefully, want to get me to direct this!
Echo is playing at film festivals worldwide. Check out the trailer below: