Turning Your Home into a Set to Hunt Mythological Creatures: Interview with Miguel Ortega
Last year, senior visual effects artists Miguel Ortega and Tran Ma demonstrated what they could achieve in off hours, having given over their living room to a green screen and some decking, in Halloween short The Green Ruby Pumpkin. Expanding that successful home studio production methodology to a set which has taken over every inch of their living space, the pair have now embarked on the first leg of The Ningyo, a 1909 set action adventure series focused on the hunt for mythological creatures. NFS caught up with Miguel in his role as Director/Creator for a chat about the project. Read on after the jump:
NFS: Can you tell us a little bit about The Ningyo?
Miguel: The Ningyo is a pilot we're trying to create, a set up to a much larger series. It's the retelling of the story of Faust told in the early 1900s in the world of early explorers, hunters and scientists. Our plan is to have the old school adventure feel of Indiana Jones with a much more grounded tone of films like There Will Be Blood and The Devil's Backbone. Some people have labelled this steam punk, but that isn't our aim; we are trying to go for a much more historically accurate alternate reality.
In our film there is no golden idol; our protagonist is a professor at a fictitious university in California, who begins to take the pseudoscience of Cryptozoology seriously. For those that don't know what Cryptozoology is, it is the search and study of unproven or mythological creatures.
This obsession affects his professional standing in the eyes of his peers making him a bit of a joke. He receives an offer to help him prove his cause, but in doing so, he will have to make moral sacrifices and lose his sense of self entirely.
Our character's obsession is a creature called the Ningyo, a Japanese "cryptid" that brings remarkable longevity to those who consume its flesh. It's not a mermaid, but western influences over the years have depicted it as one. Its origins portray it as something very different.
NFS: The way you've approached production (transforming your home into a studio) is very similar to production on The Green Ruby Pumpkin. Was that a test run for this?
Miguel: Yes, The Green Ruby Pumpkin was us two figuring stuff out. It was a way for us to learn the process and get out of VFX and into directing. Sure we knew VFX, but even the VFX world is not two people. They have giant crews of hundreds of people. We needed to relearn how to approach VFX as well and do them with the resources we had, not with the resources of the places we worked at. Rendering times and brute manpower have to be addressed.
NFS: How has that earlier short affected your approach to the production of The Ningyo?
Miguel: We want as much in camera as possible so we can move faster and get more realistic results. The Green Ruby is very stylized, meaning every shot was a VFX shot. This project is not like that AT ALL. We need the tone to be a complete 180, so stylistically it should feel more real and tangible.
NFS: How are you finding a balance between the CG work needed and physical on set props and set design?
Miguel: My approach to CG on this is if a character touches it or casts shadows on it, it should be 100% real. The digital FX on this film should really play a back seat to the sets, but also work to enhance them and make them look bad ass.
The CG helps us create the props/sets we could never afford. There are a few sets we are going to have to go mostly digital on, but not because we wanted to. We really have looked for real locations but the prices in this city [Los Angeles] are outrageous. I joke that we're using what we got -- if we were bakers this film would be made out of bread.
NFS: Did you shop The Ningyo around for traditional funding before going the crowdfunding route?
Miguel: 30-40 production studios have seen this, at all the major studios. The Green Ruby Pumpkin opened up a lot of doors for me, which I still find unbelievable and feel very grateful for it. We were offered financing, but they wanted changes that made this more into R.I.P.D. or Men in Black -- Don't get me wrong, I love the first Men in Black, but this is not that film.
Simple changes, like making it in modern-day, I disagreed with -- I felt Kickstarter was a way to get this to the people as it should be. If I'd found funding from people who see eye to eye with what we wanna do, then I wouldn't have gone to Kickstarter. This is the most stressful month of my life.
NFS: How do you see The Ningyo story playing out over a full series?
Miguel: Well, if you're familiar with the story of Faust, it's the classic story of losing your soul in exchange for fame and success. Our story is a metaphor for that. There is no literal "devil pact", but the first episode is about the fall of Professor Marlowe.
It's about doing the thing you've always known was wrong, but doing it anyway, because you're in a bad place in life. Everyone has probably done something like that at least once, even if it's on a small scale.
I see the rest of the episodes as our character making right on his wrong and trying to redeem himself for his actions. If this sounds melodramatic, rest assured that redemption process includes some amazing adventures and creatures.
In many industries, simply attaining a paying position is considered a win, but filmmakers tend to demand much more of themselves; to prove their skills on ever-ambitious projects. It's heartening to see Miguel and Tran doing that on The Ningyo, giving over not only their time, but literally their space to a project they believe in and are determined to deliver on their own terms.
The Ningyo is currently in the final leg of its Kickstarter campaign just edging over the 50% funded mark. If you'd like to see where the adventure will take them, head over and lend your support.