How This Short Film Uses Low-Budget VFX and Sound Design to Dive into the Technocracy

'Invasion'Credit: Sean Yopchick
Sticking with the process and making it work—for a dark vision of the future.

This post was written by Sean Yopchick.

I was traveling cross country from Los Angeles to Boston when I landed in a small town somewhere deep in Texas.  When I got out of the car and walked around I immediately thought of an alien invasion. I imagined hearing the radio from a broken dark window announcing the imminent attack and only myself hearing it.

I wrote the short story as quickly as I could, which then evolved into a short script. I’ve learned over the years not to get too excited about an idea. It’s only until the idea itself keeps knocking on my door and reminding me of itself that I know it’s a full-blown relationship worth the fight and energy.

Coupled with my growing interest in technocratic governance, the idea blossomed into INVASION, which you can watch here:

Research

In order to fully realize the ideas I figured it wouldn’t do me much good to watch Minority Report or 2001. Instead, I watched as many sci-fi short films as I could to decipher what was successful, what wasn’t and what hadn’t been done before.

HYPER-REALITY, HASHTAG, and SIGHT are three of the short films I studied. I also dove into books about artificial intelligence, algorithms, and technocracy. A Brave New World Revisited, Flash Boys, and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism are all works that informed the film from inception to completion.

Pre-production

In pre-production, I try to work with the actor immediately to start drumming up ideas. I use whatever camera is available to me at the time, whether it be a DSLR or just the camera on my phone. I can then take the footage home, edit the clips and see if there are any holes in motivation, performance, and story. It also gives me a chance to develop the character in an intimate setting with the actor.

Eric Olin Anderson is a first-time actor but a long time friend and storyteller. I knew the collaboration would work.

I then met with Andrew J. Whittaker, the director of photography. We wanted to work out how exactly we could shoot a self-driving car with little to no budget. It was very important to me to perform this kind of magic trick in the middle of the story. We also wanted to make sure we had a clear plan for developing the language of the film while keeping in mind we would be shooting a VFX character. Andrew and I both appreciate a static “sticks”-type style in order to achieve crisp editing cuts and make it more special when we introduce movement.

I also like to shoot a second camera whenever I can so I have more moments to capture in the edit. Jon Pivko, a long-time collaborator, ran the B camera and was able to find shots and explore performance without boundaries.

'Invasion' behind the scenesCredit: Sean Yopchick

Production

I have worked on various films as a production assistant and assistant director.  So I was able to factor in the time it takes to actually make a good scene. For instance, whenever you move the camera, or wait on an airplane or discuss lens choices and character ideas, it always adds more time than you think. I wanted to make sure we allowed for discussions and could wait on unforeseen technical and environmental difficulties rather than rush and have the quality suffer.

I decided to drop a scene on the day to give us more time to explore camera shots and performance ideas. The scene I dropped eventually became the dialogue for the AI scene inside the self-driving car.

We had to travel three hours from the motel to our next location. I scheduled filming the interior of the car while we were driving to our Airbnb to utilize the time efficiently. We stayed the night near the town location and woke up before sunrise so we could utilize as much sunlight as possible. We shot in February, so we only had about eight to nine hours of usable light.

'Invasion' behind the scenesCredit: Sean Yopchick

Post-production

I reached out to a VFX company to see if they would be willing to work with me. They quoted me a price I couldn’t accept, so I immediately jumped on YouTube and started watching tutorials. If I ran into something I just couldn’t do, I contracted an independent VFX artist to work on individual shots. This worked out very well.

After I had uploaded over a hundred and fifty versions of INVASION on YouTube, I started to show people. I’d watch the audience watch the film to gauge when they lost interest and also what jokes they did and did not laugh at.

In the past, I may have been too nervous to show the work before I felt it was completely done. But this experiment was actually the best thing I could’ve done for the final product.

'Invasion' behind the scenesCredit: Sean Yopchick

Sound mix

To me, this is the worst part of the entire post process. It’s fun when you’re building the world and the sound itself is helping realize the vision you had in your head.

But then comes the bad part. When you over-analyze every sound in the film, and it starts to drive you crazy. It’s good to know when to shut this obsessive part of the process down. I also think there is something psychological to it because it’s when the film is almost done and you have to give it away and share it. It’s possible that at this stage you just don’t want to let it go so you obsess over little things. That’s my experience, anyway.

Ryan Baker worked tirelessly with me over the course of two or three months to enhance what I had already implemented and also generated completely new ideas that affected the final cut enormously. The mood I wanted was abstraction and mystery. I always feel that’s the best way to keep an audience engaged. Coupled with a fantastic original score by Matthew Carpenter, I was very pleased with the final outcome.

'Invasion'Credit: Sean Yopchick

The final cut

The most important thing I kept telling myself during post-production was to not think about what would happen to the film after it was done. I had to keep thoughts of film festivals out of my head in order to just focus on what had to be achieved in the present moment. In this way, I could attempt to make each moment as good as it could be without any daydream distractions.

I also wanted to make sure to keep the ego as far away from the process as possible. In my opinion, when you’re wearing the director's hat, the ego is useful to push yourself forward and convince yourself that what you’re doing is worth it. But as soon as you put on the editing cap, it’s time to scrap the overindulgent nonsense and cut it down to what is serving the story. Anything flashy, anything like, “Oh, this is an homage to an obscure movie,” that is gone.

Final thoughts

If you keep making films over a long period and eventually ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?”

Then it just might be your duty, and there is no answer to the question of why.     

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1 Comment

Two or three months on sound for this short film?

Yeah, you need to learn what's important and what's not.
This is a few days work at most, soundwise.

August 5, 2022 at 7:22AM

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