July 24, 2019
Part One

How to Direct a Practical VFX-Heavy Short Film for $12K

Want to make a short film chock full of practical VFX that look awesome? Here's how.

Making short films is a great way to hone your skills, express your creativity, and tell stories that you're passionate about without as much risk as, say, a feature-length film. They cost less, take less time to make, and allow more room to experiment and play with the art form.

In PART ONE of this series, I'm going to talk about how I decided to make a VFX-heavy short film, Alpha Squadron, including the process and how our team came up with designs for miniatures, as well as a single cockpit that served as 5.

Before we get into the deep dive, check out the film below:

Conception

When most people think of short films they look at them as a stepping stone to bigger projects. I was lucky enough to have a previous short of mine land me representation and get me in the door to bigger opportunities. However, one of the realities of the industry is that bigger opportunities also bring with them bigger delays. While I waited for some of my larger projects to get off the ground I decided that I wanted to keep making things to keep my skills sharp and challenge myself as a director. 

So I thought about what kind of story I wanted to tell and what kind of skills I wanted to learn in the process. I’m in my late-20s and I’ve thought a lot about how when you first get out of school and into the real world, you’re scrambling just to stay afloat, but once you find that stability you start to ask yourself if what’s paying your bills actually has any long term viability...whether what you’re doing has room for growth and fulfills you. 

Griffin Newman in ‘Alpha Squadron’

I wanted to make a movie about this but I wanted to do it in a way people hadn’t seen before. There are so many filmmakers out there making shorts that if you want to stand out you need to figure out what you can do that no one else can.

Thus Alpha Squadron was born, a movie about a group of friends growing apart...in space! I wanted to take a simple relatable experience and transpose it onto a larger-than-life world. It would allow me to do what I loved most: working with actors and practical effects.

I recently released Alpha Squadron on Short of The Week. It stars Griffin Newman (The Tick, Blank Check), Sunita Mani (Glow), Sebastian Connelli (Sebastian Wakes Up), Jordan Carlos (Adulting) and Will Dagger. 

Quick Specs

  • Budget: $12K
  • Number of Shooting Days: 1 on stage, 1 pickup day of miniatures and fluid effects
  • Camera: RED Dragon
  • Lenses: Cooke S4s
  • Crew on Set: 9 

Process and Planning

The process for bringing the script to life really started with the simultaneous design of the interior and exterior cockpit of our spaceship.

Our production designer Lauren Fitzsimmons drafted up designs for the interior and coordinated with our miniature designer Jasper Anderson so they would match. Jasper is extremely talented and we figured out a workflow in advance so that it would save him time and allow him to accommodate our budget.

 I told Jasper I wanted something that had a lived-in kit-bashed 70s look to it. Then Jasper came back to me with rough thumbnails and a shape...the strategy was to design by shape or silhouette and build out from there.

The initial construction build of the ship cockpit took 3 days in a woodshop, then was taken to a garage where all the finishing was done little by little over the course of a couple of months, mostly with repurposed materials from Home Depot and cheap LED bike lights. The space was generously provided by Yacht Club Films, who eventually came on board as a producer and helped shepherd the project to fruition.

Because we knew we were going to cheat one cockpit to look like 5 different ships, we knew we wanted small ways to customize the different ships and make them feel unique. We had two LED ropes that we could control remotely that had different sequences on for different ships and we also customized the chair and seatbelts in small ways to help differentiate them.

In order to simulate the movement of being inside a cockpit, we built a small platform and nailed some yoga balls to the bottom of it and did a very lo-fi version of a hydraulics system. 

We shot all 12 pages of the script in one day at a great studio in Bushwick called Chemistry Creative. It was a really tight schedule but having all of the actors read with each other while they were mic’d allowed us to still do a lot of improv.


Read about the miniatures and compositing process of Alpha Squadron in PART TWO of this post. And make sure to check out a behind-scenes-video with additional stills and video of the production at my website.     

Michael Lukk Litwak is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker that was born and raised in Los Angeles. He likes to tell character-driven stories that embrace the absurd, often through a lens of classic genre-filmmaking.

His NYU thesis film THE LIFE AND DEATH OF TOMMY CHAOS AND STACEY DANGER took home NYU's top prizes, played at more than 40 film festivals around the world, and was voted Deadline Hollywood's #1 Short Film of 2014. Since then he's sold a TV pilot to ASTRONAUTS WANTED (SONY), 2 feature scripts ('THE INVASION OF GARY' and 'CHAOS AND DANGER') to independent producers and directed SNATCHERS SEASON 3 for Warner Brothers. He's directed ads and branded content for Subway, Burger King, Squarespace, Elite Daily, Vox Media, Spotify, Snapchat, and in 2016 he teamed up with Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow), Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club), Condé Nast, Jaunt, and Samsung to direct and produce the first-ever scripted VR series titled INVISIBLE.

Your Comment

6 Comments

Very Nice, Thanks !!

July 25, 2019 at 8:22AM

1
Reply

First of all, I love the story!

The concept of seeing friends drifting apart is so strong. (But also seeing it literally happen was cool) It really does highlight the fact that this film could scale up and down and still do well, because it started with a rock solid core.

If for some reason you would like to have more fun with practice effects and spice up the model shots for compositing. A DJI Ronin or any other type of electronic gimbal with operator controls for pan and tilts on a tripod is basically a mini electronic gib and it is easier to simulate space that way without needing to put animations in later.

Would love to see how you got the cast together! I know it probably helps being close to NYC, but still the actors still very high tier.

Also, I love the alien facial work that was done. Really high quality stuff.

July 25, 2019 at 11:01AM, Edited July 25, 11:01AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
1144

Thanks man!!!! Yes definitely am going to look into an electronic gimbal on the next one!!! We did everything by hand on a slider mostly just to save money!

July 25, 2019 at 11:44AM

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Michael Lukk Litwak
Writer/Director
81

Isn't that the girl from Mr. Robot?

July 25, 2019 at 1:17PM

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Gerard M.
1331

You did a wonderful job on the cockpit set! That's really great. I make sci-fi sets for my movies but they are not nearly as detailed and full of blinky lights. The tubes in the back of the set are awesome! It's a challenge to use normal items and assemble them in a way that doesn't look familiar.

Using actual models instead of computer models is an interesting idea. Practical sets and effects can be nice but sometimes up the amount of construction time and money for sci-fi projects. I'll sometimes resort to a mixture of real sets combined with small CG enhancements (or cover ups).

I'm familiar with Sunita from the comedy group Cocoon Central Dance Team. One of the other members of that group is from my home town of Ketchikan and one of my friends got me hooked on their quirky humor.

July 25, 2019 at 5:17PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
631

Thank you! Yeah it definitely takes a little more time to go the practical route but I think it makes a difference! And that's awesome - Cocoon Central Dance Team rules!

July 29, 2019 at 9:23AM

1
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Michael Lukk Litwak
Writer/Director
81