Low-budget world sees high-end f/x

Cheaper software, Internet helps to keep down costs

Two terms that traditionally have not been paired together are “visual effects” and “independent films.” Sophisticated effects, especially photographically real ones, were usually cost-prohibitive for most indie filmmakers. But with digital video cameras and effects created on PCs, the old prohibitions are disappearing.

“Everybody can do effects now,” says Rick Kerrigan, who supervised f/x for two independent films this year. “Lots of filmmakers are computer-savvy, and digital effects continue to get cheaper.”

Kerrigan’s assignments included “Avatar,” a Singapore-based production for which he supervised the creation of virtual landscapes and sets, and “By the Sea,” which features matte paintings and cloned crowds. The latter project, which depicts a turn-of-the-century baseball field, employed Hollywood-based Look!Effects to replicate costumed extras.

“Crowds cost a lot,” says Look!Effects’ supervisor Max Ivins. “You have to dress and feed all those people! But Dean Barnes, the director, knew what he was doing and he shot selected extras properly. So it was easy to clone them afterwards, rather than building 3-D people. For an independent movie, you want to avoid that.”

Another affordable way for filmmakers to get production value from visual effects is through matte paintings assembled from various photos.

“Creating skylines that aren’t there is a way for indies to reduce set-building costs,” observes Ivins. “Nobody knows they’re effects at all.”

For “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” London’s Moving Picture Co. used that technique to replace Paris’ modern architecture with images of buildings from earlier times.

That strategy was also employed by London-based Men-From-Mars for “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In one Victorian street scene, photographs extended the existing skyline.

“One chimney in the background was actually from the boiler house at our studios,” admits Phil Attfield, who says his company works frequently with independents. “Budgets are often tight, but by working with them during pre-production we can help them decide where their budget is best spent.”

Bret Culp of Toronto-based Core Digital agrees. “Involving an effects house as early as possible allows independent filmmakers to use technology most effectively.” One cost-saving technique is scanning storyboards into a computer to previsualize shots.

Culp is currently preparing effects for “Nothing,” a comedy from Vincenzo Natali, who directed the indie favorite “Cube.” “Comedy is rare in indie effects films, and Vincenzo’s effects are very ambitious. We’re doing 3-D character animation,” he says.

Such ambitions are becoming feasible, Culp adds, “because almost all the software tools are cheaper, and computers are 10 times faster than they were just a few years ago — at a fraction of the cost.”

Previsualization also helped with preparations for “Hypercube,” the sequel to “Cube.” First-time feature director Andrzej Sekula (who photographed “Pulp Fiction”) tackled the effects-filled film with help from Toronto-based Mr. X.

Supervisor Dennis Berardi believes, “If we hadn’t (previsualized) it, we couldn’t have gotten what we needed for 100 effects shots during a tight, 30-day shoot.”

Mr. X has several indie effects assignments under way, including “Ararat” from Canadian director Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter”). For the pic, Berardi explains, “we made Alberta look like Armenia, and created CG people to fill out a battle scene.”

Even more ambitious are the effects for “Blizzard,” the feature directorial debut of actor LeVar Burton.

“It’s a live-action Christmas movie with animation and visual effects,” Berardi explains. “We’re creating 32 minutes of content, including talking, flying CG reindeer.”

Despite the film’s 300 effects shots, Berardi notes, “it’s a U.K.-Canadian independent film that doesn’t have a big budget.”

One way Mr. X is saving money is by utilizing the Internet to communicate with Burton as he edits his film in L.A. By logging on to password-protected Web sites, filmmakers today can view Quicktime movies of works-in-progress and avoid the costs of making and shipping videotapes.

Perhaps the most promising development for indie visual effects is the growth of high-def shooting.

Mark Driscoll of Look!Effects observes, “‘By the Sea’ was shot on HD, and we delivered our effects as digital files. The production avoided the expenses of scanning and recording, which are barriers to doing lots of effects.”

Notes L.A.-based Hammerhead supervisor Thad Beier, “By shooting digitally, you not only save money on work prints, but you can keep trying shots until you get one that works.”

Beier recently completed the effects for “White Oleander,” which was developed independently and will be distributed by Warner Bros.

“They had a short shooting schedule and they weren’t sure what effects they could afford,” he says. Because Hammerhead uses its effects expertise to produce indie films itself, Beier was sympathetic. “They had lots of hand-held camerawork, so we had to do a lot of camera tracking, rotoscoping and painting.”

Fortunately for many indies, notes Beier, “there’s new software coming along that promises to make this work easier.” Because of improved tools, “the visual effects that you see in every mainstream picture today are moving down to independent films as well.”

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