Henri-animating-the-rod-puppet-clark2-224x125Do you love underdog stories? How about underdog stories about independent filmmaking? If the answer is yes, there's a lot to love about HENRi, a low-budget science fiction short film, written and directed by Eli Sasich, starring Margot Kidder and Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. HENRi tells of the poetic journey of its titular character, a self-evolving robot who wishes for nothing more than to become human. The film is a unique blend of traditional miniature and puppetry effects alongside more modern motion-reference animation, and the results are simply stunning. Check out the trailer below.

HENRi's harrowing journey towards completion began nearly three years ago when Sasich raised funds for the project via Kickstarter and put together an experienced team of professional filmmakers, including veteran visual effects supervisor, Clark Schaffer, and producer Jefferson Richard. Sasich and his team chose to photograph the film practically with miniature sets and rod puppetry, as opposed to using 3D animation, to create the uniquely visual world from the script. They also chose to build their sets and characters at quarter scale due to the fact that full-scale sets would have been far too expensive for the micro-budget production. However, as Sasich notes, building at quarter scale allowed the film to pay homage to the great science fiction flicks of the past that used similar techniques.

Here are three behind the scenes interview teasers with the two stars of the film and Clark Schaffer:

Despite having a miraculous cast and crew for such a low-budget film, the production ran into problems early. The rod puppetry used to bring Henri to life proved far more complicated and time-consuming than originally thought. Each of the 60+ shots involving the character of Henri took upwards of 20 takes to get right, and as a result, these shots averaged anywhere between 3 and 6 hours each, therefore pushing the limits of the schedule and the budget. However, the real issues didn't come into play until principal photography had been completed. Unfortunately after months of grueling work, they realized that hardly any of the rod puppetry footage was usable. At this point Sasich was faced with an impossible decision: whether or not to abandon the project entirely or to extend the budget even further and trust a team of computer animators to create a believable digital version of the character in the previously-built model world. Here's Sasich on his decision to continue with the project:

I was left with no choice but to finish the film as planned, knowing we would need to go back and create a fully digital character in post-production – an idea that terrified me. Going over budget was all but a certainty now, and even more worrisome was the prospect of creating a photo-real robot. If Henri wasn’t a believable character, the film would be dead on arrival. It was a disaster, and I thought we were sunk.

And here's the trailer for the behind the scenes documentary:

Luckily, the team over at Blufire Studios liked the project so much that they agreed to take on the daunting task of recreating Henri at a reduced rate. However, the animators at Blufire needed motion reference footage to be able to animate Henri properly. This gave Sasich the chance to direct an actor and control the subtlety of the movements of the animated character, therefore making Henri more human than he ever could have been otherwise. Here again is Sasich:

In the end, it took two years from the day we shot to the day we finished post-production. It was not a smooth process, and there were times when giving up looked like the sane option. I went through periods where I openly hated everything about the project. For several months after finishing the film, just looking at the Henri puppet would make me physically ill – now he’s the wallpaper on my phone. Go figure. I’m proud of the work we did, and I’m excited to finally release the short to the general public. With a little luck and despite disaster, HENRi lives.

It seems to me that there's quite a bit we can learn from Sasich's experience in making HENRi, and I think that there's even more that we can learn from the film's success, both in festivals and with online distribution. First and foremost, Sasich's insistence on finishing the project despite the fact that so much of their production footage was unusable teaches a valuable lesson in persistence. There are times when working in film absolutely sucks, to be quite honest. The days are often grueling and longer than they should be. You end up working with unpleasant folks. And it's just a damn difficult way to make a consistent living. But it's the final product that keeps us moving on; the thought of it being projected on the big screen to an audience who will connect with it and love it. That's what it's all about. Sasich's persistence in the face of disaster and the film's success just reaffirms this belief in me and makes me more driven than ever to create great content no matter what obstacles stand in the way.

Secondly, I think it's safe to say that HENRi is highly representative of the direction in which independent film is headed in regards to both funding and distribution. Most of the post-production budget for this film was raised through Kickstarter, and as we know, the post process for this film was absolutely vital to the final product. Also, HENRi is being distributed online through Distrify, one of the premiere independent film distribution sites on the web today. You can stream both the short and the behind the scenes documentary for $2 each, or $3 for the both of them. You also have the option to buy a downloadable version of the films for $3 each, or $5 for both. Of course, I can't recommend highly enough that you guys check out the film and the documentary. They're both excellent pieces of work, and it's great to support the people who worked so hard to bring us this awesome content. Here's the link to the film on Distrify:

What do you guys think about the arduous process behind getting this film made? Would you have done the same in Sasich's shoes? Does HENRi represent a new sort of paradigm in independent film with its crowdsourced funding and online distribution? Let us know in the comments.

Link: HENRi -- Official Website

[via Filmmaker Magazine]