In July last year I began work on a number of vfx shots for a short film called “At the edge of night”. I had expected the work to take about two weeks, and I certainly didn’t think that it would be almost a year before the final shot was actually delivered. But that’s what happened, and that’s something that can happen with short films. In this project diary, I look at a shot which was eventually finished and delivered about ten months after I began work on the first one. While the shot itself isn’t remarkable – it’s just a van driving past the camera as it pans from left to right – it marked the first time I’d used Adobe’s new content aware fill effect. I was surprised that so many people seemed interested in this – a short twitter video attracted over 5,000 views in 24 hours, which lead to an article on the completely brilliant befores & afters site.
The shot represents a pretty typical visual effect. Firstly, a background plate was camera tracked. Additional elements were modeled in a 3D app and rendered out using the tracked camera data. The background plate was cleaned up and then the new 3D renders were composited into it. The technical process behind the shot is all explained here, in detail:
But the software is only showing us one side of the story. Why did it take ten months to complete?
I guess that’s a bit dramatic. It’s not as though the single shot took 10 months to complete. It’s more to do with the nature of short films, and the culture they represent. Short films can rely on volunteers, a motley crew of people who may have never met before but share a passion for filmmaking and are happy to donate their time and energy to help create something. I’ve written previous articles about my early attempts to launch a sitcom, and I’ve also shared anecdotes of helping out on other people’s short films:
A friend of mine from university has often reminded me of one particular example. Somehow he’d heard about someone making a short film and had volunteered to help, and he talked me into coming along as well. It was being shot at night – I didn’t know the guy making the film, or anyone else involved – but that wasn’t unusual. So I found myself driving for about 2 hours to get to the location at midnight, which was a dirty public toilet next to a shipping container yard. It was incredibly cold and noisy. I said to my friend “It’s 2am and I’m freezing half to death lugging c-stands and cables around a dirty public toilet for a bunch of people I’ve never met before. For free. But I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing!” He thought that was funny, and still reminds me of it now and again.
When I first met with the film’s creator, Phillipe Sung, I wasn’t surprised to hear that the film had been in production for over a year. It takes a huge amount of effort to write and produce a script to the stage where it’s ready to be filmed. It takes a huge amount of energy to gather a crew together and organise the shoot. And after the thrill of principal photography, there’s still the whole post-production process to go through. When we met, the edit had been locked off and all of the vfx shots had been identified. They varied in complexity – some were very simple and others were more involved. The short version is that they were completed without any major issues.
But there was the issue of “The Van Shot”.
The Van Shot was a very simple pan of a van driving past, but for whatever reason the real van wasn’t available for filming. There was nothing remarkable about the shot, just a simple left-right pan of a van driving past. It was a short insert in a fast paced sequence, but it helped to tell the story. I don’t know why the “real” van wasn’t available for the shoot, but at the time they’d filmed the plate with a reference vehicle, always intending to replace it with a digital van. A visual fx artist had taken loads of photos of the real van and intended to do the shot via photogrammetry. But, as happens so often with short films, the original vfx guy dropped out and disappeared. He left behind a few hundred digital photos and a huge Z-brush file.
The Van Shot had been deemed too difficult, and so it wasn’t in the edit. It wasn’t one of the original vfx shots I’d taken on.
But with all the other vfx shots finished and only color grading to go, the director began to regret scrapping it. So much work and effort had gone into making the film that it seemed a shame to leave out one shot. I could tell he’d rather have it back in. I completely understood how he felt. I knew that, at the point I delivered the first batch of vfx shots and the film was nearly complete, years of work had gone into creating this film and if The Van Shot wasn’t included then it would be a lasting regret. So we just sort of agreed that we’d do it. It seemed like a fun challenge and there was no pressing deadline. The point for both of us was to complete the film with no regrets. The director wouldn’t regret cutting the shot out, and I wouldn’t regret not completing a shot because someone else had decided it was too difficult.
The mistake I made, and the reason that it took so long to finish it, was to assume I had to pick up where the previous artist left off. I’m not a 3D artist and I definitely don’t own Z-brush. I decided to see how easy photogrammetry was, so I downloaded the free “Agisoft” demo and imported the 350+ photos I had. After about an hour of processing time, I was presented with something that looked like a gigantic chrome turd. I decided I should leave the 3D to the experts. It was another couple of months before I was working with someone who used Z-brush, and she kindly offered to examine the file in her spare time. I don’t know the specifics, but it wasn’t in a format that could be used by 3D apps such as Maya, and converting the file was so slow it had to process overnight. So now I had a 3D model but no 3D artist. It was a few more months before I was working with another friend – Roy Christian – who seemed keen to take up the challenge. But the Maya model proved useless. Luckily – as I describe in the video above – Roy just looked on the internet and found a suitable 3D model almost instantly. After that, everything happened pretty quickly.
The video above takes you through all of the stages to complete a relatively short visual fx shot. But behind all of the software and technology is another story, where groups of people from different parts of the world come together to help create something together, all because of a shared passion for film.
“At the edge of night” is currently being colour graded, and I’m looking forward to the premiere.
Links mentioned in the video:
Working with EXRs in After Effects, including ProEXRs, Cryptomattes & World Position Passes