What do you do if you want to tell an epic sci-fi story set 300 years in the future but know from the outset that vast CG vistas and epic space battles are well out of your budgetary reach? Well if you’re New Zealand director Ferand Peek, you combine your knowledge of the genre with a spot of lateral thinking to literally reframe the problem into a compelling, claustrophobic tale of a rookie mercenary’s first disastrous combat mission. Peek joins us to share how he shepherded Mis-drop from concept to screen, teaching himself compositing along the way.
The concept for Mis-drop kind of came into my head once I had put the limits around what I was going to attempt to do. It’s really a response to the problem: how to you make a believable ‘high-concept’ sci-fi movie on a low budget? My answer was to limit the view, and I felt the best way to do that successfully was by having the film as a single shot (from an ‘in-world’ camera) where a lot of interesting stuff was happening just off-screen. Then I could use film-making techniques to hint at that scope, like sound design and reflections of visual effects, that were going to be easier to achieve than shooting it like a regular narrative.
When I came up with the idea of a pod dropping through the atmosphere I felt that on its own was a compelling concept and once someone had bought into it, so long as we could keep delivering on the promise, an audience member would just go with it. It was a little bit freaky because I realized I was essentially asking the audience to watch a single medium close up shot on a guy for like 11 minutes. But I kind of saw it all in my head and felt that (if I could achieve a really high production value) as an audience member I would watch it. I think at a certain point you just have to trust your taste and if you can deliver an experience you would enjoy there are going to be people like you that will dig it!
At a certain point you just have to trust your taste.
So when I started planning the project I hadn’t really done any visual effects before. I had worked on-set for years and felt that I could capture anything but I needed to do a little research to make sure that by the end of the shoot we had all the correct ingredients for the composite. Initially I wanted to do the visual effects before we shot the film and actually project them onto a real piece of glass in the helmet and then hang the pod off the ceiling so that we could have some really realistic movement acting upon the main character when the parachute opens. We did some testing and it was only abandoned in favour of a more simple approach a week or so before we were going to shoot.
There was quite a bit of this kind of discovery as we went along – trying to find ways of making things easier on ourselves. For example, I knew I didn’t want to be directing 10-12 actors at once on—set when 9 of them were voice only and had fairly limited interaction with the lead. So the very first thing I did was record the audio of the squad mates in the soldier’s (Elliot Travers) ear piece. We did it in, I think, 4 different sessions over a couple of weeks and I cut them together into 3 different ‘takes’ so that Elliot would have a variety of performances to act to once we went to shoot.
We shot about 5 months after the audio recording. We shot at Island Bay Studios in Wellington over two full days and two half days. It was a great shoot, and came together in a fantastic way with some really amazing people and equipment falling into place at the last moment. New Zealand is such a great place to shoot for that kind of support. People really get in behind a project they think is cool and are very generous with their time, talents and knowledge.
It was a technically complex shoot and a lot of fun. We shot on the RED camera in 4k (which was still a pretty new thing at the time) We bolted the camera to the back-half of the pod, which we could then shake and roll about as it had been built with a curved back. Elliot lay in the pod and we put a tri-colour LED panel where the LCD screen should be to light his face and then later when we shot Sugahara (Maria Walker) – which we shot simultaneously – we fed her picture to an LCD screen at the correct eye-line so that Elliot would have someone to act off.
I felt right from the beginning that I was going to have to give Elliot as much as possible of the world we were supposed to be in so that we could get a really good performance. I’m often bothered in heavily CGI movies when you can see an actor really struggling and you kind of know that it’s because they were running through a space that was just a green-screen with nothing to really play off.
The soldier wears a mic and an earpiece as part of the story which meant I could have the guide-track of all the other squad-mates playing through my computer and the sound-desk and into his ear-piece. I could control it on my computer and start and stop it when it came for him to play his lines to them. Then Elliot and Maria could also hear each other acting live, he could see her through the LCD screen and they could both hear me direct through another mic that I wore and had piped into their ear-pieces.
Then later when we were shooting the bit where the door has blown off and the soldier is dropping through the atmosphere I played a pre-vis sequence of this through a projector onto the back wall of the studio so that he would have a large environment to play to. I’m really happy with Elliot’s performance as the soldier. I think he did really well especially as it must’ve been a pretty intimidating thing to try and do for an actor.
We shot the movie in chunks. It’s all one shot but because it was supposed to be a damaged file I was going to glitch it throughout and those points were going to be our buried cuts. So we broke it up into two 4 minute chunks trying to run the takes as long as possible for the actors to stay in the emotions and have a good level of continuity in their performance.
We headed outside on the final day of shooting. We went out to a farm that looked up at some wind turbines (which later got completely replaced). The bottom of the hill was really boggy and poor Elliot, had to get through that and then up the hill ‘running for his life’. He continued to wear his radio mic for the shot and you hear his breathing as he goes up the hill. That’s real! He was so stuffed by the time you see him running by the explosions we placed in the hillside. He just barely made it to the top with me yelling at him to continue.
After completing the shoot I cut the film together but I knew that in order to get the support I was hoping to find for the post I was actually going to have to put together a rough composite and rough sound mix. I didn’t want to have to sit on someone’s shoulder explaining what they should be seeing or hearing at this bit or that bit for them to understand what I was trying to achieve. So I locked myself in my room for 6 months and taught myself how to composite putting together the rough comp for the film.
Of course I made some painful mistakes along the way. Once I had seen the shape of the movie I felt that to get the audience to buy-in to the story and go all the way to the pay off at the end where the film scales up a bit, I needed to give them something of that at the beginning to grab their attention and whet their appetite or they might just click away. So I came up with the Hangar Bay sequence at the beginning, but as I hadn’t shot Larry (the ‘Old Timer’) against a green-screen (initially it was all just going to be in the sound track) it meant I had to rotoscope the whole 4000 frames of his performance to put the CGI background behind him! I really didn’t want to do this twice so think I did it in 4k and therefore had the compositing project also in 4k. When it came time to render my computer could do 2 frames before it crashed. So I had to wait a few months before I could afford to buy a new one with more RAM so that I could render.
Once I had the rough comp I approached Park Road Post Production, which is New Zealand’s premiere post production facility in Wellington. I showed it to some amazingly supportive people there and they jumped on board and helped me find another company (Workshop FX) to do the CGI Hangar Bay and Drop-ship.
It’s been an epic journey and I’m happy it’s done but there were such great people helping me along the way.
It was a real journey of highs and lows as people did exciting work on the project and then it would just stop for months as they would all get busy on other paying work (I couldn’t afford anything further at this point). Eventually I realized to move it forward and build up some momentum I was going to have to move back down to Wellington and make myself as available as possible so that I wasn’t in any way slowing down the process. Soon I found myself at Park Road Post more and more working on pushing the composite forward and eventually I think they gave in and ended up employing me as a VFX artist as the Hobbit movie ramped up. This helped me eat – and then I could just stay there and work on my film when I wasn’t working for them.
In this way I managed to midwife the project through to the last big push which happened about four years after first writing it. I bought some people on to finish the VFX and do an amazing sound design (which I always knew was going to be a vital component). My friend Eugene dÉon did the music and Park Road Post were incredibly generous with a world class 5.1 sound mix in their theatre. We finally had the cast and crew screening there in mid-2013.
I have to say that seeing it now it certainly exceeds what I could have hoped for in production value. It’s been an epic journey and I’m happy it’s done but there were such great people helping me along the way. It’s so great to see how proud and excited they are now that it’s come out and people are digging it. Those fans are really the people I’m making it for (especially as I’m one of them). When someone picks up some obscure reference to Aliens I love it!