Watch this Filmmaking Presentation (VFX and Filmmaking)

This was a presentation I gave for the KC Library and GUILDit KC on storytelling through visual effects. I discuss my career as both a filmmaker and a VFX artist through work like Star Trek, Breaking Bad, and Westworld.

I was honored to be able to recently give my talk to GuildIt and the KC Library. It was a great audience and a nice opportunity to meet a lot of interesting and enthusiastic people before and after.

I was also lucky to be paired with the other speaker of the night, Jason Aaron, writer for Marvel comics from Thor to Star Wars. His presentation was personal and fascinating (see it here). A few months later I found myself onset in New Mexico working on the television pilot for a show called Scalped. When I got the script, I saw it was based on Jason's Darkhorse graphic novel that he mentions in his talk. It took me far too long to put 2 and 2 together. Jason came to set and we shared some beers and same far too hot tacos in Sante Fe. 

 

Creative Arts Emmys 2016

Another great celebration of a lot of terrific work in television. I was honored to be here, nominated for the sixth time. Alas, another year going home without that beautiful trophy. You get to go to the fancy Governor's Ball afterward. It's quite a party and the food is amazing. But you sit with winners drunkenly carrying around the trophy you didn't win. I'm like Marion at the end of Raiders. I just want to stare at it. It's so shiny and gold. But Indy is right. Don't look at it, Marion. 

I'd take this one home if it would fit in my carry-on.  

I'd take this one home if it would fit in my carry-on.  

Some thoughts about the VFX Oscar for Ex Machina.

My two favorite movies of 2015 were Ex Machina and Mad Max, so seeing them nominated for VFX Oscars was sort of a no-brainer. But in an age when best usually means most, I have to admit, I didn't give Ex Machina a chance.

In fact, the Visual Effects Society didn't even nominate it for Best Visual Effects or even Best Supporting Visual Effects! The usual standard bearer for prediction, Todd Vaziri's VFX Predictionator, placed it dead last in the category to win a VFX Oscar, and his formula has only failed to predict the winner twice in 25 years.

So what happened? I figured it would be a toss up between Star Wars and Mad Max. And with Max's sweep of the earlier technical awards, I figured it was a lock. I would not have even been shocked at The Revenant winning. The bear was incredible. Ex Machina didn't have an underdog's shot with these beasts in the category and I doubted most Academy voters had even seen this under-appreciated movie.

There has been a lot of talk about non-CGI visual effects, and how Mad Max and Star Wars have moved away from relying on CGI by re-embracing traditional models and in-camera techniques (but watch the endless CGI names in the credits and you'll see this is not entirely true). Interstellar won last year's VFX Oscar riding this non-digital narrative.

Perhaps all this has caused a backlash in the perception as to what is and is not a visual effect.

So in the case of last night's winner, Ex Machina, one thing is certain: When looking at the main character of Ava, she is without a doubt, a visual effect! She is beautiful and alien. You can see her inner mechanics and robotics. She lives on the far side of the uncanny valley and you cannot take your eyes off of her. She is the heart of the story, and the movie falls apart if you neither feel for her nor believe she is a robot. This, in addition to the aforementioned flawless work, is what gets the vote.

All this goes to the central flaw or strength of awards. The award goes to the sum parts of the whole, not the specific craft being awarded. I benefited from this very thing with a Breaking Bad Emmy nomination for the single long-take of Gus's demise in season 4. There was a lot of great work that year, but that single haunting shot was so well set up within the whole of the show's entire series narrative, that it resonated with the public and with Academy voters.

So, kudos to Double Negative and buck-up to the other deserving nominees. The VFX work this last year has been frightening perfection. But I think, after the surprise has settled, I am rather happy to see a smaller movie like Ex Machina take home this award for such a high quality of work that so directly and specifically serves the story.

The Academy got this one right.

The Birth of the Millennium Falcon

Legend has it the Millenium Falcon was redesigned and re-built at the very last last minute.

Original Millennium Falcon Design (top) Space 1999 Eagle (bottom)

Original Millennium Falcon Design (top) Space 1999 Eagle (bottom)

The original design of our favorite pirate ship was to be a longer more traditional ship. You might recognize the cone shaped cockpit and the radar dish. 

But just before principal photography was set to start, Lucas got a whiff of the Eagle spacecraft from the television show Space 1999 and he felt (rightly so) that a ship as important to the story as the Millennium Falcon needed to stand on its own visual aesthetic.

Early Ralph McQuarrie painting of Falcon on the Death Star

Early Ralph McQuarrie painting of Falcon on the Death Star

Tantive IV

Tantive IV

So this original design underwent a minor facelift by changing the cockpit to a "hammer-head" orientation and a significant boost in scale. Thus, the original Falcon became the Tanitive IV, Rebel Blockade Runner, the first ship we ever saw in the Star Wars universe.

Only sketch of original Tantive IV designs. (Flash Gordon called he wants his lazer sword back)

Only sketch of original Tantive IV designs. (Flash Gordon called he wants his lazer sword back)

For the over-all look of the Millennium Falcon we know and love, the myth says that George Lucas was inspired by a hamburger with an olive next to it. Much like the mythic family dog origin of Chewbacca,  I'm skeptical of that story. I suspect the same George that gave us Crystal Skull said, "Make it look like a flying saucer!"  A sketch of what would have been the Blockade runner makes be think George was somewhat stuck in a 50's sci-fi thinking. 

Thankfully, the boys at ILM used their genius and in a few short weeks, incorporated that saucer into something truly remarkable. As construction of the interior cockpit set based on the original Falcon design had already began,  they retained the cockpit as well as the radar dish, and the over/under gun turrets used by Luke and Han. The result is an iconic ship that's "got it where it counts."

It is fascinating to see how these random decisions, these "oh crap" set backs and totally unexpected outside forces (or FORCE) can align to create things that inspire people, shape lives and make careers. So much of the original Star Wars movies works because Lucas was not able to complete his full vision. The limitations created greatness. His genius was focused through a limited lens of reality. Years later, we found that with the advent of unlimited CGI and without those physical limitations, his original vision probably would have been less inspiring.

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Which Falcon do you prefer?

Snake Oil and CGI

If I was smart, I would take my cgi skills and design some bull-shit tech product that I have no idea how or even if it could be ever realized. Simply create a dazzling video as if it was reality and wait for the venture capital to roll in.  Never underestimate people's gullibility at the alter of technology.

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Movies = Magic

Teller of Penn & Teller once said,

"Magic is just someone spending
more time on something
than anyone else might
reasonably expect
."

This is filmmaking to me. It's an insanely complicated task, sometime taking years to blend ideas, artistry and technology into a work that emotionally transports people out of their own lives.

Two movies have recently felt like magic to me: Fury Road and Ex Machina.

The visual action, pacing and spectacle of Fury Road never once mis-fires. It never once gets tiring. Every shot is perfect and justified. There is a sequence where we see 5 shots of a gear shift. A GEAR SHIFT! And every single one of those shots advances the story and raises the stakes. This movie is so perfectly paced it seems to unfold ahead of the audience like a curvy road that appears in the headlights just where it should be, but never late or early. The logistic accomplishment of this movie boggles my mind. And not losing touch of the human element that actually makes us care about the story in the midst of this is a miracle.

With Ex Machina it was the writing, acting, art direction and VFX that had me waiting for the moment when a film like this inevitably takes a wrong turn. It never does. The characters and the ideas they explore are both nuanced and reality-shattering. The script is perfect as it teases and reveals on its way to the perfect and earned ending. As a VFX person I can tell you the CGI work on the semi-transparent, robotic Ava is so much more complicated that it might even look. Yet it never takes center-stage and says, "Look at me! I'm CGI!" She is a visual effect perfectly placed in an Oscar worthy screenplay. Always reminding us she is not human, but begging us to fall for her.

I loved both of these movies... 

And yet, part of me hates seeing movies like these!

I am nearly driven over the humbled cliffs of despair by such brilliant work. Who am I to bring my ideas into the world while it comes with such ease to truly gifted filmmakers like these? Alex Garland and George Miller are working on such a different level that we should all just give up.

But I remind myself of the Teller quote above. 

They have put their time in. They have slaved. Im sure there are numerous drafts of Ex Machina that are not that good. There are hundreds of early rough cuts of Fury Road that probably don't work. The lesson is: They put the time in. As the quote says, more time than you can possibly or reasonaly imagine.

There were 100s of talented VFX artists and art department personnel on Ex Machina. Post production took more than a year. Fury Road has been in development and production for more than 17 years, and the shoot lasted nine grueling months in the desert. Yet when you watch those two hours of condensed brilliance, it's magic. 

 I am not taking anything away from the genius of these filmmakers or their work. I am here to praise not only the artistry and intellect of these guys, but also the persistence of vision to craft such entertainment one shot at a time. To not loosing their vision along the way. And to us, the audience, it seems effortless.

So, I try to remember after toiling away late at night on an edit. Or with a small, unpaid crew of likewise hungry filmmakers, on a short film. If my work sucks today, I have not put enough into it, yet.

Soon, it too, and all these years of practice may seem to be magic to someone else. 

 

 

Girl meets robot

A few weeks ago I was thrilled to direct the first part of my short, post-apocalyptic, anti-bullying film, Bully Mech. It was a hot, heat-alert-level-2 day in a building with no air-conditioning. We all felt it, and to a person the entire crew rose to the harsh demands of the day.

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But the revelation of the day was our little star, Phoenix Smith. Everyone says working with kids and animals is the worst. But 7-year-old Phoenix was anything but. One of the best actors of any age I've had the pleasure working with. Many industry people to whom I've shown rough cut material have said, "She needs to be in Hollywood."  I agree. But let's finish Bully Mech first!

Chris Blunk and Jeremy Osbern of Through-A-Glass productions served as Producer and Director of Photography respectfully. We are shooting with Jeremy's set of insane Lomo anamorphic lenses. I love the look for this project. Our locations look like post-industrial Russia, so it fits that our lenses should come from there, too. 

Look for more soon #BullyMech.

 

 

Better Than an Oscar?

Over the past few weeks I have had two videos that spread beyond control across the internet. The spider in the ear thing and the drone collision thing both exceeded expectation for viewership. I thought both would be widely seen but didn't expect them to be news stories.

But two other crazy things happened in relation to those 'hoax' videos that I am extremely proud of.  

Firstly, the spider in the ear video story that was picked up all around the world has made it to the TOMO News network. The South Korean agency famous for making mo-cap reenactments of not-news stories like Conan's feud with NBC to serious stories like the riots in Ferguson.  

Anyway. Thank you TOMO for making a reenactment of what didn't happen when I didn't find a spider crawling out of my ear. The actual reenactment of me sitting in front of a computer would have been much less exciting. I do, however, always animate with no shirt and super-tight jeans. So you got that part right!

The Second badge of honor, (or scarlet letter depending on who you talk to), was that the drone video was picked up and officially debunked by Snopes.com!

Snopes is the go-to web site people turn to for the definitive explanation over whether something is true or not. 

I think I will take a rest from the hoax videos for the time being and get some real work done, although you never know. Think twice about the next UFO or hoverboard video you see. Always be skeptical.


A Reasoned, If Not Droning Response

After a week of phone calls, emails and posts by angry and threatening drone people, I have to say I've come around. My opinion has changed about drones and the video I posted.

My initial intent was to make something visually interesting. To tell a story, frightening as it may be. I think it worked. And you guys are really mad about it! 

I know many multi-rotor pilots and almost all of those pilots are responsible and meticulous. They don't take risks and safety is always on their minds. They maintain their investment in hardware, carry liability insurance and constantly practice their flying skills to be better pilots.

But the funny thing is, they all seem to know that one day some idiot is going to fly a drone into an airplane and make big news. They all seem to know that one day someone is going to throw a prop and drop a heavy rig on baby in a park. They dread that day.

But the last thing they want is to embrace some sort of license or regulation that might prevent this actual thing from happening! 

So my video, simulating that very thing, has become a surrogate event for something likely to soon happen. It has uncorked this pent-up expectation and sent a large number of drone hobbyists and professionals my way to vent their anger. Read the YouTube or LiveLink comment sections. "YOU HAVE NO IDEA OF THE DAMAGE YOU'VE CAUSED!!!", reads about 40 emails in my inbox right now. (Most have more exclamation points, but you get the idea.) Maybe they are right. Maybe I don't understand.

You guys are so concerned with the public's perception. But you knew this was going to happen. Now it has... Only it hasn't! It's not real!

Perhaps we have the ability to make sure it never happens without having endangered anyone?

I flew RC planes many years ago. In those days, I had to join a club and pay $75 a year for a club license that insured me in case my 20 pound, fixed-wing toy smashed a car window, or gave a fellow pilot a concussion. I had to read a short pamphlet and take a test about the rules of the air and of common flying sense. I co-flew with a more seasoned pilot on a buddy-box until I could take off and land responsibly by myself. And I could only fly it in unpopulated areas or designated RC fields. Most of you respect your hobby like this still. But some don't. 

So, this outraged response of the drone community (excuse me, UAV community, as I have been corrected more times than I can count) has changed my mind. I now believe that some sort of regulation like this going to be necessary. You have to take a test and qualify to be able to drive a car or fly a plane. Why not some sort of qualification of your ability to fly a heavy piece of carbon fiber with spinning blades around civilians? Why not have visible registration numbers or RFID to keep multi-rotor pilots responsible and traceable to the aircraft they've purchased? The people who treat this as a business will not be the problem. Those pilots are self-regulating and playing by similar rules already for their own safety and those around them.

And it's likely not the hobbyist who buys a micro or a Parrot or Phantom will cause anything more newsworthy than a black eye or chopping off Enrique Iglesias's fingers.  

It's the guy who buys the biggest, most expensive toy he can find - one he has no respect for, nor skill to fly - who accidentally kills someone with it. He will be the guy that changes this argument forever. It's that guy who is going to ruin your business and ground the industry, not my visual effects shot.

So maybe all of the professional UAV people who 'can't believe the damage I have done' should reconsider. You're basically saying, "I wont kill anybody, but if someone else does, that's not my problem.!" But it will be. Get on the right side of this now.

After all. This wasn't real.

No one was hurt.

The real thing has not actually happened....

Yet. 

 

Drone Hits Airliner

I mean that really got out of hand

I mean that really got out of hand

Lately, I've been looking for little videos to make with no budget, an iPhone and some CGI. After shooting this footage of NYC as we were climbing out of Laguardia (thanks FAA for finally letting us keep our phones in airplane mode during take-off), I thought it might be a challenge to make something go by or even strike the wing. This is the same air corridor that Captain "Skully" ditched his Airbus A320 in the Hudson after a double bird strike, saving all on-board. 

But I chose to make a drone zip past instead of a bird and tear off a section of the winglet. 

Below is a short breakdown of the shot.

So as the internet has figured out, despite it being on the same YouTube page as "There's a Spider in my Ear" and the company name on the wing...