‘Shelter’ vfx go big on a small budget

Nichols pic came together for an estimated $5 mil

For Jeff Nichols, “Take Shelter” was a leap of faith. His first pic, 2007’s “Shotgun Stories,” was made “dirt cheap,” said the writer-director. “I limited what I could allow myself to write. But for ‘Shelter’ I took the gloves off and wrote big dream sequences.”

That was before Nichols secured any coin for the film, his second, in which tornado-spawning storm clouds reflect the internal demons bedeviling Michael Shannon’s character, a family man struggling to make ends meet as he spirals into mental illness. In limited release since Sept. 30, “Shelter” has cumed about $130,000 from 11 theaters.

When the financing — a scant $5 million, reportedly — came together, Nichols had to find a way to create big-movie effects on a shoestring. The key was to partner with Greg and Colin Strause — a.k.a. the Brothers Strause — helmers and owners of vfx shop Hydraulx, which replaced the skies of Ohio, where the pic was shot in mostly placid weather, with apocalyptic electrical storms and menacing flocks of birds.

“I got those guys on board before the financing because I knew how to make a cheap indie movie, but I didn’t know how to make a cheap visual-effects indie movie,” said Nichols.

He finished shooting “Shelter” in July 2010, and worked frantically the rest of the year to get the film ready for Sundance, where it was nommed for the grand jury prize. “From August to January it seems like every two weeks there was some monumental deadline: the effects scenes, the submission cut, the final cut,” he said.

Sony Pictures Classics picked up “Shelter” before the fest opened.

Nichols lives in Austin where local boutique Stuck On On did post-production, with the facility’s Parke Gregg handling editing, DI and color correction. The process involved finely tuned coordination between Stuck and Santa Monica-based Hydraulx for the sky effects. “We would send them basic edits of the scenes and they world start their magic,” said Gregg. “We’d then get comps to edit back into our sequences, and then send them the scenes with notes as we revised them so they could make more changes at their end. A file could go back and forth 20 times.”

Additional collaboration took place between Stuck and Skywalker Sound in northern California, with Stuck’s Lyman Hardy fashioning the sound design. Post supervisor Allison Turrell kept track of all the elements, with Nichols present throughout the process.

The helmer, now in his native Arkansas filming “Mud,” is reunited once again with Shannon, who stars alongside Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey. This is Nichols’ third collaboration with the actor, whose attachment to “Shelter,” along with the Hydraulx partnership, was part of the package that helped pull the financing into place.

And in another bit of good timing for “Shelter,” Nichols got Jessica Chastain to play opposite Shannon just as her career was taking off. “This wasn’t lost on anybody,” he said. “We knew it was coming.”

Bookings & Signings

WME signed edtors John Refoua (“Avatar”) and Elisabet Ronaldsdottir (“Contraband”); d.p.’s Karl Walter Lindenlaub (“Dolphin Tale”) and Michael Weaver (“Parenthood”); line producers Michael Hissrich (“Shameless”) and Bill Bannerman (“Breaking Dawn”). Agency booked production designers Clark Hunter on Scott Walker’s “Frozen Ground,” Jeff Mann on Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Elizabeth Mickle on Stuart Blumberg’s “Thanks for Sharing” and Kirk Petruccelli on Roland Emmerich’s “Singularity”; d.p.’s Martin Ahlgren on USA pilot “Over/Under,” Chunghoon Chung on Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker” and Julian Clarke on Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium”; editors Dana Congdon on Sarah Siegel-Magness’ “Long Time Gone,” Jonathan Corn on Justin Zackham’s “The Wedding,” Joe Hobeck on Showtime’s “Homeland,” Robert Komatsu on FX’s “American Horror Story,” Lisa Lassek on Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” Steve Mirkovich on Mario Van Peebles’ “Red Sky” and Jeffrey Wolf on Leslye Headland’s “Bachelorette.” Vfx producer/supervisor Kurt Williams on “Walter Mitty”; and 2nd unit director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”

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