Named after one of the greatest arcade games of all time (well, as far as I’m concerned!) Victor Velasco’s Shinobi for Danish electro band Code Elektro, pays homage to the spirit of 80s anime and video games with a high adrenaline, futuristic music video about a Japanese psychic warrior on the hard road of revenge and destruction. I spoke to Victor about the creative possibilities 3D technology opened up for this video and his wider approach to filmmaking.
How did you come on board to direct this futuristic music video for Code Elektro? Was there a particular jumping off point which influenced Shinobi’s look and structure?
Everything started with an Instagram post from Code Elektro looking for a director for his new track. It had a lot of energy and was heavily influenced by 80s video games and cyberpunk (the song title itself is a reference to the 80s game Shinobi made by Sega). I’m very familiar with the genre and I still love it so I expanded it with elements of Akira, Escape from New York and Goku: Midnight Eye.
While I was doing it I felt like a child enjoying an action film with anime elements, so it was really liberating in that way. 80s anime is so well directed that if you literally take their storyboards and make them in live action, they would perfectly work, and that’s what we did.
One of the most interesting things is how the references helped us to shape the story. At first, Miko’s eyepatch was just an aesthetic choice and a reference to Escape from New York. But then I questioned, “Why an eyepatch?” The answer shaped the theme of the video with some obvious “an eye for an eye” and “in the land of the blind the one-eyed is king”. But it also shaped the plot and the motives of the characters.
It was difficult to manage the balance between the original idea and improvisation.
Given the extensive use of green screen on set how did you work with your actors to ensure their performances would match up to the world you’d create after the fact?
Every shot was already planned before on the storyboard so the crew and I knew what we were aiming for. For the actors I prefered they didn’t know exactly where the camera was so they could focus more on their performances. I showed them the concept art so they could imagine the world and then I became a sort of narrator of the story on the day of the shoot. Almost all the shots were like this except for the two fight scenes. For them, we had a fight coordinator that helped us to make the movements of Miko more believable. I did Karate for around 13 years and Kara had practiced martial arts before so that helped us get some great Miko fighting poses.
Aside from the green screen of course, what gear did you use on set to capture and help ease the integration of the live action footage into the CGI environment? To what extent were you locked into a predetermined plan on set?
We used trackers in a couple of shots but nothing else. What was tricky was the lighting and blocking. If for example, we wanted a reverse shot of the previous one, the camera position and the background were the same but we had to move the lighting and the actors.
About the predetermined plan on set, it was difficult to manage the balance between the original idea and improvisation. I was concerned that the actors might look too tight on screen, like robots following cues. To combat this, we captured a series of long takes and I narrated the beats like a storyteller. Also at the end of every set of shots, the actor was able to do their own approach to the scene and most of the time that’s what we used.
I was seeing how the technology was helping me to create shots I never imagined.
Clearly post was a particularly important stage in the creation of Shinobi, could you walk us through the processes you used to create this sci-fi future and integrate your actors within it?
All the post production was handled by me and my partner in crime Ginaris Sarra (she was the production designer, editor and did VFX on Shinobi). As far as the software we used: Cinema 4D, Octane render, After Effects and Daz Studio.
We first created the main locations and the car in Cinema 4D and Octane Render to figure out the look of the locations. Then, when we shot the music video, the 1st Assistant Camera took specific notes of the shots: lens, focal distance, frames per second, etc… in order to replicate that in 3D. Finally, we created the 3D shots and composed them with the footage we shot using After Effects. For the Shinobi, we took a model from Daz3D, dressed it and placed it in Cinema4D. For his straw hat I actually downloaded the 3D model of Raiden from Mortal Kombat. Finally, we animated him on Mixamo (a free website with motion capture animations) and rendered it on Octane with post effects like flares in After Effects.
Right now 3D technology is really accessible. I previously worked on simple VFX but I was a traditional filmmaker and had no expectations in doing something like this. That changed 2 years ago. One afternoon I shot something with Ginaris and played with it for a while. The result was great. It’s this short called Gina. After that, I just keep learning while I was seeing how the technology was helping me to create shots I never imagined. My goal with this story is to encourage filmmakers to try out new things. Right now if you dedicated just a bit of time to it, you can do amazing things. I’m not planning to do something as ambitious in VFX as Shinobi in the future, but definitely, the learning of these tools opens a wide range of possibilities.
I’m focusing on a couple of music videos while writing a feature and we’ll see where that leads. Also, I was creative director on a PS4 narrative driven game a couple of years ago called Klaus and I’ll finally have time to do the PC port in the next few months.