Shawn Walsh of Zero Engine was thrown a major curve on Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty when production hit a stumbling block in the third act. “Navy Seals go in with helicopters, but they are these top secret stealth helicopters,” he explained in the SXSW session on leveraging VFX for indie films. There was no way of knowing exactly what the cutting edge government choppers looked like, nor any way to get these secret choppers on set.

“We had to come up with the design of fictional yet real helicopters," Walsh explained, "Are we going to build a custom copter? No, we don’t know avionics. Will we have to CG these stealth hawks from scratch? It would have exploded the budget. We’re going to have to CG helicopters to make the story work. The third act falls apart without it! So what we did, is we filmed real helicopters, Black Hawks, and we motion-tracked them and CG-replaced them with the fictional copter. The dust was real, the flying was real; the VFX team got something to work with, and they made it work.”

The moral of the story? While you may not have a budget even close to that of Bigelow's, a blend of reality and VFX can save the day. That was the consensus of the SXSW panelists, who also included VFX experts Kevin Baillie (Atomic Fiction), Bernie Kimbacher (Image Engine Design Inc), and Betsy Paterson (VFX Supervisor, Marco Polo.) On the ground at last week’s SXSW, No Film School compiled a list of the best advice.

But first, take a look at the Zero Engine video to see how the VFX team pulled off the effect:

1. Bring in the VFX Supervisor as early as you can

 “Good directors know that the earlier they call the VFX supervisor, the better,” said Baillie. “I’ve had the chance to work with Zemeckis. VFX was the first call he made, not because he likes me the best, but because he knows how important it is to have a VFX frame of mind from the beginning.”

According to Baillie, when you bring in a VFX supervisor early, they will go through the show with all the rest of the department heads in the room. They can identify what needs to be VFX and what doesn’t. “Should we build this set? Or should we create a virtual set? What would be cheapest and what would be most successful? We’ll find the best solution as a whole across the show.”

2. Always reference real images

 “Figure out what you’re looking for before you start shooting,” said Paterson. “Hire a concept artist or scribble yourself. Hearing, ‘I don’t know, I just want something interesting over here’ is the kiss of death."

 “Always base it in reality,” said Kimbacher. “Even if there’s a completely new alien, find underwater creatures for reference.”

3. Work with real actors and objects

“The trick is to always have something real an actor can play with,” said Baillie.

“It’s a lot easier to replace something real than it is to put in something that wasn’t there. There’s a misconception that if you throw in greens screen, it will be CG. The difference between good and bad CG is how the actors and focal point of shot works in the new surrounding.”

4. Hire a virtual studio from all over the world

 “In the Indie filmmaking world, virtual studio way is the way to get bang for your buck,” said Baillie. “You have the ability to start up quickly. Ten freelancers around the world can work from their living room. The right team can be pulled together from anywhere. Don’t restrict your VFX talent search to LA or London. There is insane talent in places like Budapest, South Africa, all over the world, pulled there from these incentives. There’s a worldwide pool of artists.”

5. Don’t underestimate the power of the Cloud

“Cloud-based studios can be quite a game changer,” said Kimbacher. “Smaller budget movies that can do VFX pay-by-the-minute. Say I need Nuke on 100 computers for 10 minutes for $5. An indie filmmaker will benefit the most because a studio system's security is so strict and you can't go to the Cloud. Indie filmmakers won't have those restrictions.”

6. Find a VFX team who just did something similar to what you want

 “If we don’t have to write a single line of code, if we have something exactly already like what you need, get a more aggressive budget,” said Paterson. “Something we’ve done in the past that relates to the work could be a turnkey solution.”

7. Don’t underestimate online libraries

“Online libraries are getting bigger,” said Paterson. “To build a whole forest is complex; people have already done it and you can buy it for $200. If it’s not 100% the look, but tells the story while saving you 90% of the budget, it could be a good choice.”

8. Line up your project in a VFX house that has downtime

“If you’re an indie film with a small budget, medium-size studios want to help out,” said Baillie. “Especially if, say project 17 and 18 didn’t line up, and the VFX studio has a three-week period with people doing nothing, you can get for free (or tenth-the-price) for a fun passion project. A lot of people in VFX love what they do and are in it for fun as well.”

9. Use the power of sound

One thing to consider: "can you let this happen off-screen to sell it?” propositioned Baillie. “[In VFX], we are working in absence of sound design because we haven’t got it yet. I’m always blown away by a shot I was struggling with and then how it changes and suddenly works with a sound mix.”

10. Buy a VFX artist a beer

If you don’t know what your VFX budget should be, or if you're unsure of whether your idea is even doable, think about reaching out to someone local who works in VFX. “Buy someone a cup of coffee or a beer,” said Baillie. “Really, don’t underestimate beer in the VFX world. It’s like, can I buy you a beer, read a few pages, and tell me where I am at? It’s the personal time, putting skin in the game, instead of just being one more person who will email us and never hear from them again after we write back. You need a one-on-one to even know what you want from the script.”

See all of our coverage of SXSW 2018.

Featured image is conceptual design of the stealth hawk helicopters in Zero Dark Thirty by Ryan Church.