Tim Daly speaks with Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier about how the digital filmmakers produced a gorgeous sci-fi movie on a Kickstarter budget:
The project has three main shooting environments. First, there was the live-action interior of the ship. Second, the exterior of the ship in flight. Third, a live-action retro-science documentary.
The interior of the ship was a set built largely from particleboard and pegboards with clever lighting and projectors to create the environment. The space sequences were filmed as stop-motion sequences with a model. By taking advantage of the camera’s ability to shoot in low light, the team was able to create a spectacular setting using cheap, readily available lights like LEDs and Christmas tree bulbs that would have been too dim at the height of Hollywood’s use of in-camera special effects.
By contrast, the “science documentary” sequences were filmed on location with 16mm cameras. Because they were filmed in broad daylight, the lighting situation was much simpler.
Otto Stockmeier: All of our miniature photography was done using the 2 meter DitoGear motion-control Omnislider, which is often used for time-lapse photography and stop animation. The repeatable motion allowed us to get multiple passes for each shot, meaning we could expose for different elements separately and turn the different passes on and off in the edit to create various effects. Also the continuous motion setting let us shoot high resolution stills for each frame while maintaining the correct motion blur. By shooting stills instead of live video we were able to use low light and keep deep focus by lengthening exposure times (meaning a 10 second shot could take half an hour to film, and when you add multiple passes to that it was slow going).
We found a lot of use for projectors both on set and during miniature photography. On set they served for background screens and combined with pegboard to create textured moving walls. Our designer Thomas Kronbichler would create a still version of the graphic for us and then Derek would animate it in Final Cut Pro. At one point for the bridge scenes we had 4-5 projectors going all playing looped videos. For the planet shots we ended up projecting a video of Jupiter behind the ship that moved in sync with the camera to make it look like only the ship is moving. This created an interesting additional effect, since the texture of the screen still moved with the ship it gave a sort of haze to the planet which we liked.
Otherwise, everything is lights, flares, split screen and other tricks. We got a lot of mileage out of some simple home-depot LED lights in creating all of the different explosion and firing flares.
We picked up some cheap party police lights (which we dubbed “spinners”), that we used for alarm lights. We taped them onto c-stands for flexibility and used them to break up the space and keep everything moving. Our sets were OK, but you need a lot of distractions going on or viewers might start noticing the cardboard and staples.
Likewise, aside from our small kitchen fluorescents (“c-lights”) that we used everywhere, we got some longer ceiling lights (“gate lights”) that we combined with wax paper and gels and put behind the cut outs next to the gates.
My personal favorite had to have been this little round LED under-counter kitchen light we found (“flare light”). For some reason the reflective housing surrounding the LED source on that fixture made the coolest flares and we used it for all of the gun effects as well as all of the spaceship firing effects. In fact for the ship effects we used a lot of long exposures and wiggling lights around to get beams of lights, or flickering blasts (I would tilt the flare light in a different direction between each frame).
A big part of what sells this film is keeping things tight and fast, and we found that showing a lot of user interface screens to be a very effective way to quickly explain things without us having to build more sets or models. From the beginning we planned to take advantage of this, and as it progressed we found ourselves generating more and more graphics because it was so helpful.
As I briefly explained with the projectors, all of the graphics were designed by Thomas Kronbichler. He would send us illustrator files with everything laid out and a rough plan of how to animate it. Derek would then take all the elements into Final Cut and animate them frame-by-frame. We would then either project them into the sets, or film them off of an iPad. When filming the iPad we used filters, multiple passes, and soft focus to really extenuate the feeling that you are looking at a screen in a room and not a completely digitally generated image.
Here is the journey of the model. Originally we raided a Toys ‘R Us for cool parts and bashed together a small 2ft model. When we started the Kickstarter, however, we knew we wanted something better and more iconic to help sell the project, so we called in my father, Wolfgang Stockmeier. He is an architect and is the one responsible for all of the set designs and the re-imagining of the ship. Using pictures of the original model he took the basic shape we had and “re-built” it in SketchUp. We used this much more exciting incarnation to generate a lot of cool concept art for the Kickstarter campaign.
When Charles Adams came on board to actually build the ship, he used my father’s 3D model to re-build it once again in Rhino, adding a lot more amazing details, but more importantly this allowed him to produce accurate shapes for laser printing. Basically, with the Rhino 3D model Charles was able to generate a base kit of laser cut parts, much like a model kit you might get in a store. He then kit bashed all the amazing intricate details onto this base.