July 25, 2019
Part Two

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

If you want to make a VFX-heavy short film for $12K, you'll have to do a lot of the effects and work in post yourself. I'll show you how I did it.

Making a sci-fi film with loads of VFX can be expensive...even if it's a short film. However, there are a lot of ways to keep costs low, including doing the work yourself (even if you're not a pro). In PART TWO of this series, I'll show you my team's process of crafting miniatures, practical effects, and compositing in post for my short film Alpha Squadron.

This is PART 2 of the series. You can read PART ONE here.

Before we jump in, check out the film below if you haven't already:

Miniatures and Effects

After a couple of weeks of editing with our awesome editor Joanna Naugle, I took photos of our models and made a rough animatic in Adobe Premiere Pro in order to figure out exactly what angles we would need. This was insanely helpful to figure out timing and we would not have been able to picture lock without it.

We couldn’t afford two fully custom miniatures, so I 3D printed our less-important alien spaceship using a website called Shapeways with a royalty-free model I found on Turbosquid. It cost around $60 for the 3D model, $25 to print, and $50 for model paints/brushes. There is a very supportive community of people that love 3D printing specifically for tabletop wargaming and when I went into a local gaming store, the guy behind the counter gave me a ton of very helpful and specific advice.

We spent one day shooting the models in the Yacht Club office with a tiny green screen, often having to cheat lights and camera to get more complicated shots. To make our asteroids, I bought some art sponges and painted them grey and then twirled them on a stick!

We shot all of our nebula backgrounds with practical fluid effects, using a combination of condensed milk, hydrogen peroxide, and food coloring.

DP/Milkmaid Matt Morgan

We shot both time-lapses and video and found that video gave us much smoother motion although a lot of grain removal had to be done in order to get it to composite nicely. 

I watched Joey Shanks’ online videos to get a general idea of how to accomplish the effect and then just did a lot of experimenting with different colors and strategies. If I can stress anything it’s that you should just mess around and have fun. Sometimes things that I didn’t think had worked ended up looking better once they were processed in After Effects.

Post-Production

There were 161 VFX shots in the whole movie...I composited every one of them!

First, I did an assembly using rough keys in After Effects’ KeyLight, placed all the backgrounds and ships, then made precomps while our VFX supervisor Tim Hendrix pulled all the cockpit luma mattes in smoke. 

While I have some basic knowledge of After Effects, I am not a professional VFX artist, so a large part of the process was asking people that are smarter/more experienced than me the best way to do something. Don’t just watch one tutorial; there are multiple ways of doing anything and sometimes the more complicated “professional” way isn’t actually the best way if you don’t have the technical prowess to pull it off.

All the space nebula backgrounds were altered using After Effect’s Vector blurs and NeatVideo’s Noise Reduction Plug-in, and the engines were built with Video Copilot’s Optical Flares and Heat Distortion Plug-in, all of which were pre-rendered in order to save processing power. We did our titles with the Video Copilot’s Saber Plug-in, and blurred our final composites using Frischlufts Lens Blur Plug-In

Sebastian Conelli in ‘Alpha Squadron’

I composited everything using Log footage and used a LUT to match contrast and color temperature between the different elements. All of our spaceship interface graphics were made with pre-made GUI packs; there are so many great ones for relatively cheap online that can save you a ton of time and energy.

How long did all of this take? About 2-3 months on and off. Again, it probably would have gone faster if I had more experience up front but gaining these skills was part of the point of doing the project. 

Lastly, we went to Irving Harvey for Color and used our luma mattes to separate the foreground from background. I wanted to get a fantastical vibe from the color grade so when I sat down with our colorist Matt Greenberg, we decided to glow our highlights and shift our blacks to different colors, depending on the scene, to take it sort of a step away from reality.

Before/After Color Correction - Sunita Mani in ‘Alpha Squadron’

Development

Instead of spending a ton of time and money on short film festivals I decided to use the project as a proof-of-concept for a series. We got it into the hands of Paul Feig’s new digital company Powderkeg and are currently in development! All roads lead back to the waiting game but couldn’t be more grateful for everything I’ve learned and the people that helped me learn it.


Read about the conception and design of Alpha Squadron in PART ONE of this series. 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.

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