This month Samuel Jørgensen & Jeremy Pronk of The Bicycle Monarchy, were kind enough to speak to us about there indie short film “SINGULARITY”.
Samuel Jørgensen is a director and visual effects artist with experience in feature films and TV commercials. Throughout the past 15 years he has practiced his creative and storytelling talents in Australia, the UK and the USA. Samuel has worked on several high profile Hollywood movies such as Dark City, King Arthur & Men in Black 3.
Jeremy Pronk is a visual effects veteran with more than 10 years of experience working on Hollywood’s biggest feature films. Examples of his work can be seen in The Last Samurai, 300, Australia, Knowing, Sucker Punch and Ted.
CGB – Can you tell us briefly about yourselves and how you got your start in the VFX industry?
SJ: I started out in the art department building previs in softimage 3D for “Dark City” back in 1996. After that I got into comping using shake and worked freelance for a number of places while attending grad school for writing/directing.
JP: While I was at high school I was very into the demo scene subculture which I assumed would lead me to the computer game industry (94/95). But once I started Uni I began reading about digital visual effects (Jurassic Park was all the rage) and met up with Sam via the “alt.movies.visual-effects” newsgroup. A few short films later I found myself moving to Adelaide to work at RSP in 2001. My way in was as a Software Engineer but I moved to shot work as soon as I could.
CGB – How important do you feel formal education is in becoming artists in the industry?
JP: I’m basically self taught in VFX and filmmaking but think good formal education always has a place. The trick is the “good” part, learning where all the buttons are in Maya is not as important as knowing the fundamentals of say animation (timing, anticipation, weighting etc) if you want to be an animator.
SJ: I think a broad formal education is vital to becoming the best artist. I think you have to bring something else to the work other than just software knowledge. But this isn’t just through schools. Practicing photography, drawing, writing (creative or software development) is all going to help you as a VFX artist. I think it’s vital as a filmmaker though, since your knowledge of all the different departments will make it easier to answer any questions your crew may have and you’ll get to your desired result quicker.
CGB – You both are very successful artists working for top VFX studios, what motivated you both to want to make this film?
JP: I started making shorts with Sam before I undertook VFX as a career. Our goal was always to make more with the view to developing features. But along the way I moved to Adelaide to start at RSP and Sam went off to UT in Austin, Texas – we basically did our own thing for a while. Then years later we came back together in 2009 and realized we still wanted to pursue those earlier goals. We wanted to make features together. This short is the first step in a more directed approach to achieving that goal.
SJ: I think that fire to make movies has always been there, we just had a slight detour in the middle. But I think it also gave us a different perspective both as storytellers and movie makers. I know that the movies we are making and developing now are a lot more satisfying than the ones when we started out.
CGB – What was the inspiration for “Singularity”, and how did you come up with the name?
SJ: Back in 2010 I was in LA and wanting to make another project. I had always loved the Terminator movies (1&2), the first one especially. I met with Ian Fried through a mutual friend and we came up with a story. The goal was to make an exciting action movie that wasn’t just an interrogation scene. We had seen a lot of short movies and a surprising number were just these dialogue scenes. I wanted to do something that would show off our abilities to tell an entertaining story.
CGB – Can you tell us the process you went through location scouting and where you filmed all of the major shots?
JP: Everything was shot on location at the old Woman’s and Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. The interior is amazing, 9 floors of recently abandoned hospital. Couldn’t have asked for more! We really need to thank Rosa Saca for setting us up there.
SJ: Yeah the hospital was both a blessing and a curse! Rosa Saca was instrumental in us getting that great location. But it was also difficult, power, restrooms, lighting and safety are all things you need to think about when shooting in an unoccupied building.
CGB – Can you describe a typical day on-set and then during the post?
SJ: A typical day on set usually involved a meeting between myself and the DP, AD, camera op and producer, we’d go through all the shots we were trying to get that day. I’d meet with all cast for that day and walk them through what we were going to do and then they would go to make up and wardrobe. The DP: Ellie Fenton would walk through the set with her gaffer and outline what lighting adjustments would be made. I would also go through the set with Art dept and make sure everything looked appropriate. We mostly shot 12 hour days. There was one 14hr I think, but that was because it was our last day inside the location.
Post was a very different matter since it had to fit around when we were working our normal VFX day jobs. I would say that on average I would put in about 2-3 extra hours every day into the movie after my day job. I also took off larger blocks of time, especially to finish the android asset.
CGB – What was the size of your team?
JP: There is 105 cast and crew listed in the credits so it was quite large. VFX team was about 35.
CGB – How long did it take from the initial concept to the completion of the final film?
JP: Too long! 2010-2015. Principal shoot was in July 2011, pickups Jan 2013 then post ran through to September 2015.
CGB – How were the actors cast, and can you explain that process and how long it took?
JP: We put a casting call out and auditioned in a room provided by AFI over two days. A whole range of actors turned up, even an Aussie! For the soldiers Sam ran them through a scenario out of the script with a prop rifle. Beyond general acting ability we really focused on how they held the rifle and how realistically they moved as a soldier. Former soldiers feature prominently in our final choice taking four of the six Delta roles. Mark Hyde who played our main character is a former Navy Seal!
For the President we specifically wanted him to be Latino. Alex Castillo was a natural and easy to cast.
Later in post when we realized mocap would help us Sam called on his friend Andrew Varenhorst to play the role of the androids. Andrew is over 2 meters tall and was perfect to play the big antagonist.
CGB – How was the film financed and why did you choose that method?
JP: Out of our own pockets, Kickstarter and a ton of favors. Preferably we wouldn’t spend our personal savings on making a film but at that point it was the only way to get it made.
CGB – Can you give us a rough estimate on how much the whole film cost to finance?
SJ: All together it was around $50K
JP: But you can’t discount the amount of time and gear donated to a project like this. It would not be possible at that number in a purely commercial setting.
To give some context, a large part of that amount went to film (and associated costs, processing, telecine, scanning etc), rental gear and location costs.
CGB – How did you come up with the look of the Androids?
JP: Sam worked with concept artist Miguel Lopez on the initial sketches. This was then taken by our modeller Jun Eun Kim would did an awesome job of translating the design into 3D. Sam and myself then finished off the final modelling, texturing and surfacing. While Alan Do helped to create the look of the “cracked” faceplate on our hero android Red.
SJ: It was important for us to design something that didn’t look like a Terminator since that has been done so many times before. But I also wanted something that was grounded and seemed like it could actually work. There were also considerations to be made for the VFX, for instance we didn’t want to do any facial animation so I designed the androids such that only their basic motor functions needed to be animated. This saved time and complexity.
CGB – Did you use motion capture for the androids, and if so, can you explain the process and system that was used?
JP: Yes, a few key shots were keyframed but everything else was animated with the help of motion capture. The system we used was the IPI Soft image-based mocap system with PS3 Eye cameras. We had eight cameras setup in a circular configuration to give us the largest possible capture space. Some actions (e.g. running) needed to start outside the capture space and then be picked up as soon as the actor was seen in at least five cameras. Initially we had trouble finding a suitable space that was large enough but Just Cause Productions came to the rescue and provided one of their mocap spaces for us.
Mocap came out of IPI and went straight into Maya. I used TRAX (yes!) to blend motions together which worked really well for the crowd sequences.
CGB – What different software was used in the creation of the film and were there any that were indispensable?
JP: Fine cut edit was done in Avid and then we conformed in Premiere (with the help of some Python scripting).
VFX was done mainly in Maya, 3dsmax and Nuke. Rendering was mostly VRay in both Maya and Max.
None of the tools were specifically indispensable. It’s all about choosing the tool that gets you to the result quicker. I don’t like hardlining a particular app eg Maya over Max. Working at Iloura taught me to be a bit more flexible that way as opposed to more set in stone pipelines I’ve worked with in the past.
SJ: Certain tasks were made easier by using Nuke. For instance the final shot looking out the back of the helicopter, all the matte painting elements were done in Nuke which is fantastic with projections and it’s very easy to build basic geo to project on. Honestly if I had to do that in 3dsmax it would have been a huge pain.
We also used Photoshop, mudbox and a variety of little proprietary tools that Jeremy wrote in python to simplify things.
CGB – What hardware was used for shooting the film and why?
JP: We shot on film which is expensive, cumbersome and inaccurate (for VFX purposes). But it looks so good! It was totally an aesthetic choice. The camera was a Moviecam SL with “Elite” anamorphic lenses. All shots were either handheld or steadicam.
Post-wise we used Windows boxes almost exclusively. Other people who helped out were using macs.
CGB – What tools were used to do camera matching, and the monument destruction?
JP: Distortion was removed in Nuke using lens grids (we only had 3 lenses, 50, 75 and 100). Camera tracking was mostly Syntheyes by Adrian Moyes. I did some shots in Nuke as well. The monument was diced up as bricks using Rayfire and run through MassFX for dynamics. FumeFX was used for the explosion fire/smoke. So that was all done in 3dsmax.
CGB – What percentage of effects were created “in camera”?
JP: Very little due to time and monetary constraints. There was a lot of smoke, haze and fan blown dust and debris on set. Everything else was CGI, so muzzle flashes, squibs, debris, explosions etc were all CGI. Preferably we would use blank firing rifles, explosive squibs, air mortars etc but the capacity was not there. We actually hired a bunch of air mortars but never had the time to use them!
For the helo interiors, we built them in Sam’s garage then mounted them in a rental truck and drove it in circles. Worked a treat.
CGB – What tools were used for grading to get that “Private Ryan” look?
JP: Our look was created by using a 45 degree shutter angle for tight motion and the film was pushed two stops during developing to boost the contrast and the grain. The rest was down to Tyler Roth who did an amazing job on the grade. Not quite Saving Private Ryan but similar in nature. I believe they used “bleach bypass” to attain their look.
CGB – What were the biggest challenges in creating “SINGULARITY” and how did you overcome them?
JP: The single biggest challenge was time, especially during post. Both our time and the time of other crew. When working a full day on someone else’s film it is hard to come home at night and do the same thing all over again. The bonus (and it’s a big one) is that it is your own work and that is what kept me going.
SJ: Like Jeremy said time was the biggest challenge. Time is always against you. You only have a certain number of days to get what you need and as filmmakers we have all these grand ideas of what we want to do. The reality is making compromises to get most of what you want but creatively simplifying other things so you can actually make a movie. Back in early 2014 I was working crazy hours on Divergent at Method studios and when I was finished, I would steal a few hours to work on Singularity, especially the final helicopter shot. Sometimes those were 18hr days. To be honest at that point I was on a high that I was able to work on our project, which as Jeremy pointed out was a lot more satisfying.
On set we had numerous issues. Our shooting permit was deemed unsatisfactory since we were missing one signature (shooting in LA sucks!). One of the steadicam operators tripped over and the whole rig smashed! We had exposure issues with some of the film. It wasn’t an easy shoot at all. But in the end you have to persevere.
CGB – What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film, and what are you most proud of?
Seeing people react so positively to the movie is the most enjoyable part. I have screened it in one of the big theaters at Method/Co3 and the response was fantastic. Also on YouTube and Vimeo audiences really enjoy the movie. That’s super gratifying.
During the actual creation of the movie I would say that the sound mix process is always the most enjoyable since it’s where I defer to someone else! But also because you are seeing all the elements come together for the first time and it starts playing like a real movie. I can’t say this enough: having great sound on a movie is at LEAST half the work. Sound is key to selling VFX shots and action in general.
CGB – What are your feelings about independent films vs. traditional Hollywood film creation?
JP: As an outsider looking in, I really wish that more in the middle films would be financed so we would have a greater range of releases. It seems like we have small independent films and smaller studio films or really huge studio films. So they only take risks on the really small films. It’s a contrived example but I’d rather see 5 varied $20M films than one $100M blockbuster. Then it’s possible to try some monetarily risky films, some will fail some will take off, at least it’s not so homogenized.
SJ: I love both indie and Hollywood movies. From Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” to last years “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. Both very different movies but good in their own ways. I am not really into all the big Superhero movies as I never feel invested in any of the characters, none of them die or are really in danger. I usually get my good story fix from watching TV these days anyway. Or if they are replaying Alien, Aliens or The Terminator in the cinemas 😉
CGB – Are you planning on creating another short film and if so what genre will it be?
JP: Hopefully a feature next! But seriously we have a few things in the pipe that may turn up as shorts. Horror/thriller/drama are all up for grabs!!
SJ: Yeah we have several short and feature projects in the pipe. I know that both of us are busting to make a feature film in the world of Singularity. We don’t just limit ourselves to Scifi either. We have some action/dramas we want to do as well. As long there are characters we can root for and ones we can despise, count us in!
CGB – Do you any advice you could give to artists who would like to start creating their own short films?
JP: Aim big but don’t get caught up on smaller shot based issues. VFX artists are used to concentrating on single shots and it is easy to make an issue out of something that is gone in a 1/2 second. You need to be pragmatic and look at the film as a whole and focus your energy where it matters most.
SJ: Make sure you focus on getting a good story nailed first, then a good cast, and then you can worry about the visuals. Stick to your guns on your vision and make sure you are prepared. Try to learn as much as you can about every different department to make yourself more versatile.
CGB – If you had to name your favorite Sci-Fi film of all time what would it be and why?
JP: Oh I don’t like to do favorites, I just have films I like. So on my best list the oldest Sci-Fi is Alien and the newest is Gravity. Alien is really a horror film set in a great isolating location, space. Gravity is pure event cinema, raw human will to survive from beginning to end, and it’s so well shot for the environment it’s portraying.
SJ: Definitely Alien, the original Terminator and Aliens. Both have great characters and visuals. I love the slow burn of Alien and how all the characters seem distinct. Its still one of the most visually beautiful movies ever shot. Terminator is a great love story. Both this and Aliens are great examples of how to make big looking movies on a budget. I actually recommend buying the old “Aliens” cinefex magazine and reading it cover to cover to learn how James Cameron made such an impressive movie on the cheap.
JP: Oh yeah and check out the Aliens doco Superior Firepower as well. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0387616
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You can see the entire short film and VFX Breakdown below: