A Labor of Confusion and New Learnings
I just released my first “big” short film, Redshift 2301 – at least, big in its ambition and storytelling. When I set out to begin this project, I had a clear vision in my mind and a couple ideas of how I would accomplish it based on what was available to me on a budget of absolute zero.
Most namely, this was the first film project of mine that’s utilized fully rendered CG environments and elements. Before this, I’d been constricted to what I could pull off practically in environments I had around me. Lots of stuff ended up being set in a house or forest.
I thought up a scenario where world powers had evaporated each other by means of nuclear warfare, partially as a message I wanted to send, and partially because it allowed for some more interesting desolate visuals. Nothing like you see in the film exists on earth, aside from maybe a hardened lava flow in Hawaii, though guaranteed there isn’t a house sitting in the middle of one of those.
The biggest challenge was the construction of the props. Pyr, the main character, had to wear a helmet and a white cloak. Those had to be made, and thankfully, I’d learned how to do both from past projects. I have experience making helmets out of cardboard from the Plight of Steel trailer shoot, where some silhouettes needed them, and I learned how to sew for that old video I did called Shadows, and its unfinished sequel, Aqueous.
The helmet went through several revisions. Originally, it was just supposed to be a pyramid (hence the character’s name), but that didn’t work out, and so it morphed into a more typical Sci-fi helmet design. It made sure my brother could see, as well… barely. His eye pieces were painted red, so he couldn’t see where he was going half the time. No matter. Artistic integrity is all that matters, right?
The gun he uses was a cut up dollar store cap gun I hot glued together and painted. In the scene where he shoots the robot, after jerking his arm up quickly to fire at the imaginary enemy, the gun more or less disintegrated in his hand and flew to pieces from the velocity. I taped it with clear packing tape, and thankfully, you can’t tell it’s wrapped in four layers of crap.
Creating Supporting Characters out of Nothing
The film features two secondary characters that Pyr interacts with. One being Meer, a head suspended in a large jar of unknown liquid. I had to think hard about how to go about accomplishing this, and settled on Photoshop and some digital zooming to smooth everything over.
The two pieces above are what you see on screen. Meer is the image of a prop store Halloween decoration with the bloody pool he sits in cut out. Some Photoshop filters are placed on, and that’s it. His jar is a png. image with the middle erased.
It’s that simple.
When you see him on screen, his head is warped with a simple After Effects technique to make it look as though he’s being distorted by liquid. Add some coloring and noise over the image, and you get this…
The next character is the Colonyman – an agent who works for Colony checking in on the Processors to ensure they’re doing their jobs properly.
This was a bit of a challenge, too, though not as successful in its execution in my humble opinion. Where Meer looks almost believable and certainly disturbing, the Colonyman looks a little fake. I let it go, however, as it adds to the unnatural feeling of the film in the same way David Lynch’s strange effects add to Twin Peaks (hopefully you know the exact scene I’m referencing).
This is the Colonyman in both his forms. I took pictures of the mask you see on the floor after Pyr shoots him, and stuck them onto a bust (forgive me for not knowing the name). The “angry” version is tinted and given a mouth full of teeth. The eyes were basically round objects that I keyframed to make them move.
I got this idea from something I saw in a video game. Not Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto – a small indie game someone made that I can’t remember the name of. One of the characters in that one was a statue by Michelangelo, made to look creepy and unnerving.
Computer Generated Irritation
A couple shots in the film are done entirely in Blender. This was my very first time using it, so I had to learn it from the absolute beginning in order to produce what you see. Blender Guru on YouTube is a great help, and someone I used to figure things out.
If you’re not aware, Blender is a program that’s entirely free to use (how that is, I don’t have a clue) that allows you to create computer generated everything. It’s a beginner software, but does its job brilliantly, and allowed me to fulfill the vision I had for the world this story takes place in.
My computer, though good for what it is, didn’t have the processing power to efficiently export the finished scenes I was making in any reasonable time frame. As many who work in CGI will know, it takes days for certain shots to render, and so I couldn’t work on the film while I was waiting for my next shot to finish being created.
Some shots also look a little plastic-ey, due to my inexperience with the program. As I continue, I’ll get better of course, but for right now, you can read what’s happening and that’s all that really counts anyway.
The car Pyr drives was a simple model, but I think it looks dark and sleek, just how I wanted.
There’s also a composited CG character in this film. The robot that enters soon after Pyr and scans the room while he works was made in Blender as well. I didn’t model this one – it was an asset off of the model marketplace website Turbosquid. I positioned a light right where the real one is in each shot, which ensures the robot interacts with the same environmental lighting as Pyr does in the real world.
To my eye, at least, it looks pretty good for a first time CG character. Pity it was such a pain to create.
I had quite the time trying to figure out how to export with a transparent background, which would allow me to put the robot in the scene. Once I did, I encountered another issue. Certain frames of the video would “die”, turning to blackness and obstructing both the real video and the robot. I had to cut these out like a surgeon and perform some tricks to make it useable. Even now, I don’t understand what the problem was.
I’m Not Who I Think I Am
There I was, thinking that I understood anything at all about making films. I was so completely wrong.
The effort that went into this project was immense, and spanned over the course of a couple months from start to finish. One lesson I learned was that a five minute video, worked on by only me and no one else, will take a million times longer to create. Couple that with the fact I was using techniques I’d never even tried before, and you get something that beat me down into a frustrated little pulp and almost convinced me to give up once I saw it wasn’t entirely coming out how I planned.
Despite the irritation, I pressed on. I surprised myself with how resilient and stubborn I was being in the pursuit of finishing this. Every time something went drastically wrong (and it did, a lot) I set down whatever I was doing and tried a completely different way, never stopping until it worked.
Out of all the little films I’ve done, this one is the closest to the actual picture I had in my head when I wrote the screenplay, so much so that I’m shocked. Most of what you see is what was going through my brain as I put words on the paper, and so much more of it is the result of natural growth within the creative process. I set out to create a Blade Runner- type feeling, and got something that is certainly inspired by that, but is also wholly unique.
Movies, games, and shows I’d seen long ago were peeking out of my synapses and becoming inspiration – all of which I’d never even expected to stick with me back when I’d encountered them.
Creating this film has made me a better filmmaker: I realized storyboards made the shooting process so incredibly easy to plan and keep track of; that you have to actually light your set with more than just a window if you want to be able to see what the Hell is going on; and that Sony couldn’t make a good video camera if someone put a gun to their heads (how do you turn off the auto-focus? Please, God, tell me).
As you gaze into this sunset, which is actually no more than a glowing red ball placed strategically into frame, know one thing: If you are a young filmmaker like me, please don’t think of doing a massive Sci-fi short with a bunch of complicated visual shots and prop design, CG rendered characters, and only your basement to shoot in.
That’s my job.
In all seriousness, though, this film tested me. I have an aptitude to come up with the most complicated and ambitious storyline possible, whatever the case may be. Sometimes it works, and other times, it definitely doesn’t.
Is that a good thing? Maybe. Maybe not. Redshift 2301 is not without its errors. Most shots are very dark, grainy, and blurry, partially due to my camera being useless, and partially due to me not lighting everything brighter than I needed, then darkening in post processing to compensate for my camera being useless.
The reason I continued with this film is because I believe it shows a certain competency with telling a story through the medium of film. The characters are odd and interesting, the production design is inventive, if not a little scrappy, and I like how I cut it in most areas. Above everything else, I learned what works and what doesn’t, and what to do on the next film to ensure the same mistakes are not made.
So have a watch for yourself. It’s around five minutes long, so nothing you need to block out a chunk of time for, and it supports me and my filmmaking. See if you agree with how I view this film, or if you have a different opinion.
And remember… Sony batteries die after five minutes. In that time, you can watch Redshift 2301.