By IAN FAILES
By IAN FAILES
Before director Neill Blomkamp’s hugely successful breakout hit District 9 (2009), the filmmaker had already received plenty of attention via a series of shorts – most notably, Alive in Joburg (2005). These shorts contained a gritty realism and took advantage of photoreal computer graphics – with a hand-held feel – to help tell their often future dystopian stories.
Blomkamp would go on to make Elysium (2013) and Chappie (2015), but then midway through 2017 he surprised many by revealing he had returned to the realm of independent shorts with the launch of his Vancouver-based film production company, Oats Studios.
Oats soon released online three experimental short films – all with significant visual effects – as well as other content. Blomkamp’s idea was to see what might strike a chord with viewers, or which short could be widened into a possible feature. Importantly, the director was doing this outside the studio system, so Oats Studios owned the IP (the studio has even released CG models, scripts and other assets for people to use how they wish).
Among several hand-picked Blomkamp collaborators at Oats Studios is Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Harvey, who had worked with the director on Chappie. He tells VFX Voice about working at Oats on those effects-heavy shorts, and on a unique real-time rendering collaboration with Unity, and the lessons he’s taken away from having an independent studio experience.
Deliberately small and nimble, Oats Studios was designed to house just about every part of the filmmaking process under one roof. “That means there’s a lot of synergies we have that may have gotten lost in the general machine of filmmaking,” suggests Harvey. “Things have got so hyper-specialized, and people just focus on this one tiny aspect, and someone else focuses on that other tiny aspect, and maybe sometimes they talk.
“But one thing we’ve learned in having everything under one roof,” adds Harvey, “is there’s just this really cool synergy that we’re getting back, whether it be art department and visual effects, or with the practical guys and even visual effects guys getting to help out on set, shooting things or doing behind the scenes.”
Harvey says this was a big part of getting the three main shorts achieved – Rakka, Firebase and Zygote. Each could be art directed at the studio and then filmed on location elsewhere with everyone chipping in, and then with post back at Oats.
“Maybe that’s why you see so many people now doing their own little short films,” offers Harvey. “Where they assemble a tiny team, and it’s four people working together for four years to do their short, and they have to do every aspect of the film, from sound to set design, to costumes, to everything. There’s that love of it because they get to do everything, and it’s like we’ve recovered that on a bigger scale, which has been really, really exciting.”
“Maybe that’s why you see so many people now doing their own little short films, where they assemble a tiny team, and it’s four people working together for four years to do their short, and they have to do every aspect of the film, from sound to set design, to costumes, to everything. There’s that love of it because they get to do everything, and it’s like we’ve recovered that on a bigger scale, which has been really, really exciting.”
—Chris Harvey, Visual Effects Supervisor, Oats Studios
Any film project – short or long – is of course subject to review by critics and a general audience. But Oats’ aim has been to candidly ask viewers what they thought each work, what could be improved, and where else it could be taken.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve figured out yet how you gauge user response and how you even gauge success,” notes Harvey. “Rakka’s at about 4 million views on YouTube. Is that successful? There’s no metric to gauge it against.”
Oats’ key members have reviewed comments on YouTube, Reddit and other online forums. But, as Harvey describes, “it’s a really interesting mess of spaghetti to unwind about what people really think about it.”
“One thing that’s been really interesting to see is our forum,” says Harvey. “It’s a select smaller group of people. Some people definitely seemed to catch what we were trying to do in terms of community involvement. I would say we’re still learning about how to better engage the audience at a base level.”
In an effort to get the shorts out there, one philosophy at Oats Studios has been to take the visual effects to about 90% or 95%, and not worry about that last percentage that would normally go into final polishing. It’s a philosophy that, argues Harvey, hasn’t altered the way people view the work.
“Even if you try to take it to that 100% mark, the truth is, no shot’s ever really done. So in some ways, it almost seems more honest, and maybe it’s caused people to pick on it less. They’re going, ‘Well, they’re saying there’s stuff to pick on. They’re acknowledging it. They’re not pretending or hiding behind the fact that it’s like it’s perfect, because it isn’t, and they know that.’
“It has also definitely allowed us to produce more content and tell more stories,” continues Harvey. “I think if you were to ask the average person, ‘Would you rather have seen one of those with slightly better VFX, or are you happy to have seen two?’, I think almost everyone would say, ‘I’d rather have two.’ I think that’s been very successful, and I think we’ve definitely learned where we can trim it down or even become more efficient with that.”
“One thing we’ve learned in having everything under one roof is there’s just this really cool synergy that we’re getting back, whether it be art department and visual effects, or with the practical guys and even visual effects guys getting to help out on set, shooting things or doing behind the scenes.”
—Chris Harvey, Visual Effects Supervisor, Oats Studios
In terms of visual effects technologies, Oats Studios does revolve around a typical pipeline, but it also has had the benefit of trying out new tools to see what works and what doesn’t.
“There’s tons of stuff we’ve adopted into the pipeline,” says Harvey, “from small things to bigger things, and we’ve even written a bunch of our own proprietary pipeline tools. For example, there’s something called Instant Meshes that was released. It’s open source, and it’s just a way to retopologize a mesh, and we adopted that into our photogrammetry pipeline.
“We even found this tool that helps us with object tracking in NUKE,” adds Harvey. “Our friends at other facilities will say, ‘Oh yeah, I talked to IT about it, and they had to talk to legal, and there’s all this red tape, so we can’t try it.’ This one small thing has saved us days and days and hours of labor, and it’s free.” More recently, Oats jumped head-first into a real-time rendering project with Unity based on its ADAM franchise. ADAM: The Mirror and ADAM: The Prophet both utilized Unity’s real-time rendering and production pipeline, and offered Blomkamp a new opportunity to explore filmmaking in this medium.
“Really, the idea fits so well into our own mandate,” comments Harvey. “We can shoot on a mo-cap stage in real-time, and output final frames, and edit and release films a week later.”
Hopefully, that might mean audiences get to see more films from Blomkamp in his trademark style.
One of the most terrifying creatures appearing in Oats Studios’ shorts –so far – is the eponymous Zygote. Made up of multiple human bodies, the entity wreaks havoc on a mining facility in the Arctic Circle. And it was as complicated to produce as it is unpleasant to look it.
Oats Studios Modeler and Senior Character Artist on Zygote, Ian Spriggs, took some original concept art for the creature and began designing the Zygote directly in 3D. “Neill said, ‘I want it to be very human, like human body parts stuck together,’” says Spriggs.
A photogrammetry rig made up of 32 cameras was used to scan different hands. From five hands, Spriggs made many more variations. Senior Rigging TD Eric D. Legare rigged each hand individually, meaning they could then be posed. From there, digi-doubles were added to the Zygote model.
“There were about seven full bodies in there,” notes Spriggs. “I posed them and started adding limbs and then slowly added more and more detail, making sure each hand was holding something and that each hand had a purpose. I had to ‘grotesque’ them up as well.”
Another edict from Blomkamp was that the Zygote appear as if someone had sewn all the body parts together. For reference, the director had seen a YouTube video of a worm that squirts a white glue that appears as an unusually colored vein. “It’s very sci-fi,” says Spriggs. “It was as if someone had built this creature, stitched it together, melted his brain onto this thing, and that white goo is the external nervous system!”
The Zygote’s human-like eyes that are attached to its torso were equally horrific, and came from a suggestion from Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Harvey. “Chris said, ‘Imagine if you slit open the skin with a knife, and you pushed an eyeball into that slit,’” posits Spriggs. “And that’s basically what happened to the Zygote eyes.”
For Spriggs, modeling and texturing the Zygote was an eight-month process, done in tandem with rigger Legare. Spriggs is particularly complimentary of the resulting rig, and the ‘gurgling’ type animation done for the Zygote. Even the sound design, he says, added to the uniqueness of the character.
“They recorded a whole bunch of different people, and they said to each of them, ‘you make some choking sounds, you make some gargling sounds, and you make some screams,’ and they just mixed them all together. It just made it feel so horrific.”