If you hear strange noises this Christmas Eve it might be a jolly old St. Nick loaded down with presents or perhaps the unruly trio of intergalactic visitors from sci-fi short Invaders out for a night of destructive fun. A playful combination of live action and computer animation, DN asked veteran VFX Artist turned Director Daniel Prince to walk us through the creation of this charming 80s inspired cosmic Christmas story.
The concept essentially came from wanting to make a film that would pay homage to the movies I grew up with, early Amblin films and other genre classics from the 80s. I’d been working in the VFX industry for the last 10 years so it also made sense for me to involve 3d animated characters in a live action environment.
I had a basic outline of the story, but the first thing I did before I started writing the screenplay was to design and build 3d models of the characters. I also built a basic 3d but accurate model of the set, my flat, which I chose to use as it wouldn’t cost anything and would always be accessible. At first, I used the 3d pretty much like a storyboard to quickly test ideas and visualise shots, which I found to be really helpful while writing. After I felt the script was pretty close to final, I set out making a pre-visualisation, which would be a pretty solid blueprint for the final film. I used this Previs along with concept art, a visual test (shot on my 5D), character designs. etc., to help get people onboard the project.
I modelled each of the UFOs with a specific extraterrestrial skill in mind (crop circles, abduction, battle droid). It also felt important whilst in the design process to consider their personalities and the roles each character would play in the story. This helped to determine their look, for example, the protagonist needed to be cute, friendly and more vulnerable than the others but under the hood, he was a bit of a badass. This, in turn, helped influence many of the scenarios in the script and gave me plenty of ideas as well as restrictions when writing.
It was really important to collect as much data on set that would be needed to recreate the environment and the camera move in post.
We had 6 days to shoot which was a bit of a luxury but we had just over 220 shots to get through, it was also quite technical as the camera moves had to be fairly accurate in matching the movement and timing of the previs. We used simple stand-in physical models of the 3d characters to help with setting up VFX shots, using them to work out tricky shots and set up focus. It was really important to collect as much data on set that would be needed to recreate the environment and the camera move in post (camera information, Spherical HDRIs, etc., grey and chrome reference spheres, Lidar scans, etc). The project was so VFX heavy we knew it would save us so much time down the line just taking that little bit of extra time on the shoot.
Apart from first day nerves and few nights of no sleep, everything went to plan and ran smoothly with no big surprises. I was lucky to work with a great group of people who all knew exactly what they were doing and understood what I wanted to achieve.
It took just over 3 months to complete the animation. The characters purposely had very little in terms of moving parts to express themselves, we used opening and closing flaps, eye movement, antenna wobbling, etc. to bring the little UFOs to life. Sound design and especially the music really helped to enhance the animation and emotion through the story.
Even with limited budget and workforce, it was really important for us that the characters blended as seamlessly into the film as possible. One of the things that helped with this was to create fairly realistic reflections of the surroundings on the surface of the UFOs. We projected the spherical HDR images onto the 3d model of the set to create a digital environment, this meant that when one of the characters moved close to an object in the room it would get the correct reflections.
I’ve definitely caught the directing bug and am currently in the early stages of developing short and long-form projects, as well as taking a leap into directing commercials.