(November 16, 2015) Transporting viewers from the safety of Earth to an alien-infested, 23rd-century mining colony on the distant edge of the solar system is no mean feat – just ask the filmmakers behind indie sci-fi pressure cooker Infini.
Following an elite rescue team dispatched to find the lone survivor of a catastrophic biological outbreak, Infini’s inspirations are rooted in the sci-fi genre films of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties. But rather than just emulate the tone of seminal achievements Aliens or The Thing, director Shane Abbess and Storm Vision Entertainment – the studio behind the picture – also sought to replicate the practical, in-camera visual effects techniques that made the aforementioned films such timeless classics.
With its cavalcade of breathtaking stunt work, elaborate sets, otherworldly puppetry and a robust 350-odd visual effects shots across the entire production, Infini is packed with everything you want from an adrenaline-fuelled, space-based blockbuster – and it was all created on a modest budget by a relatively small team. As such, ensuring Infini’s success meant keeping the entire team in sync – and that was where ftrack came in.
Whether it was a huge set-piece or just a simple backdrop to an integral dramatic beat, the crew on Infini kept things as grounded, simple and well-prepared as possible.
“We tried to avoid using lots of crazy camera moves,” explains producer Matthew Graham, who previously worked with director Shane Abbess on genre action movie Gabriel. “Infini is a very drama-driven story. The effects we’ve put in there help frame the setting, but don’t draw you out of it. There’s no big spectacle just for spectacle’s sake. That said, there are still some pretty big moments: it’s a sci-fi film after all – you have to have something in there!”
Achieving these more VFX-heavy shots – which included augmenting alien lifeforms to building intricate set extensions – was the sole responsibility of Graham’s company, Orb VFX.
One such set extension included the creation of the Blade Runner-esque cityscape behind protagonist Whit Carmichael’s apartment balcony. In order to create these environmental extensions, Graham and his team compiled photographic versions of all the sets used in the film, allowing them to create digital backdrops that matched the correct lighting and textures of the physical environments.
ftrack was used to plan each of the shots that contained these assets, ensuring that the whole process was carried out as smoothly as possible: “Using ftrack, artists could be designated tasks – for example, generating assets such as the photogrammetry library – and once created, the new asset could then be assigned to shots and sequences to allow artists to quickly find what they needed,” says Graham. “We would take the environmental assets into Maya and reconstruct them as projected model assets, which could then go across into NUKE. We could then change the perspective or spin the model around to add a corridor – or in one case, an entire room through a doorway.”
In this example, Orb VFX needed to use the environment assets to solve a scheduling problem – they had a half-built set that wasn’t finished in time for the shoot. “The solution for this was to to drop a green screen behind the set’s open door,” explains Graham. “The next day we managed to finish the set, so we could take photographic images of it and use these as a digital asset to replace that green screen from the previous day. It was a quick-and-easy solution – enabled via VFX – to a time and scheduling issue.”
This kind of approach to filmmaking played into the Infini team’s motto of ‘post-in-pre’ – meaning finding in-camera solutions that would help with post-production in the long run. “Another example of this was when we did the in-camera projection of Whit’s apartment block,” reveals Graham. “This was shot on day one, and the actors were supposed to feel oppressed in this horrible futuristic version of Earth. With the in-camera projection, we could show a massive image of the run-down buildings on set, and that really helped the actors get into the right mind space to act out the scene. Also, even better for us, it gave us an in-camera comp to work with!“
Among a myriad of visual effects – including matte paintings, environment composites and practical creatures – one of the more challenging elements of the film’s production involved a death-defying jump. In the scene, Infini’s protagonist Whit Carmichael has to leap across an impossible chasm. Extensive previs was needed to ensure the scene went off without a hitch.
“We called it ‘Whit’s Jump’,” says Graham. “Our hero is running away from something and he has to jump over an impossible chasm. He nearly makes it but, at the last minute, loses his grip. All of that had to be planned meticulously. Various sets had to be built per shot, and the stunt guys needed to know what to do in the moment. For that reason we heavily planned the whole sequence through previs.”
Orb VFX was responsible for carefully mapping out the scene in advance, ensuring it could be created within the tight schedule and budget.
“Previs is incredibly important for sequence like this,” says Graham. “It helps us communicate to all the other departments and plan logistics and costs. It also helps us make tough but crucial decisions early on. For example, we had one sequence that, after we prevised it, we decided to drop. It was going to be too ambitious. In the end it saved us a lot of money, so in that respect it was a very valuable exercise!”
It's all in the ooze
During Infini’s suspenseful climax, certain members of the ill-fated crew are revealed to have been assimilated by the film’s insidious alien life-force, transforming our hero into one of the appropriately named ‘jelly people’. Graham recalls having to find a means of creating the gooey effect without going down the traditional CG simulation route.
“One approach would certainly have been to have achieved the shot in full CG,” he muses, “but that gets costly, and we like to do things in-camera as much as possible, like back in the early-Eighties. In the end, we created the jelly-membrane creature using wax puppets of little jelly worms and fishing wire that had lubricant sliding down it, creating a translucent, gooey look. These were then vibrated in a frequency sympathetic with the shutter of the camera, and that created an uncanny effect of the goo running backwards. It was a really original look, and created almost completely practically – the only thing we had to do was some rig removal to remove the fishing wire.”
The result is an incredible shot filled with unease, the dripping tentacles slowly writhing through the air and forming into a human shape. It’s the stuff classic sci-fi is made of.
“We didn’t want to get bogged down in creature design,” says Graham. “So what worked well for the story was to have the creatures just resemble our hero Whit. To achieve that we had a body performer filmed in several positions as a plate, and covered in methocel and lubricant to get the right kind of texture and the glitter effect. That was shot in one element. Then we had Daniel McPherson – the actor playing Whit – stand in the exact same positions with his face covered in the same textures.
“In comp we tracked the two together and replicated five of the creatures in each of the shots that they appear. Finally, we did a blend mode to give them a semi-translucent quality. The pigment in the methocel helps give the actors shape and define features, so it looked like a CG character moving like a human does, showing small little details of muscle movement. ftrack was used to ensure that the scheduling of post went smoothly and the shots were delivered on spec and on time. It was invaluable...”
ftrack to the future
Dealing with the extraterrestrial isn’t an everyday business – especially not when working with practical effects of such down-to-earth variety. With such a ruthlessly tight schedule and budget, Graham and his team had to constantly think on their feet, finding solutions whenever problems occurred. Much like the alien entities that roam the derelict mining colony, the crew had to adapt and evolve, which placed emphasis on a meticulous approach to production tracking.
Thankfully Orb VFX didn’t have to head into the 23rd century to find the right tools for the job: the team could navigate Infini’s toughest hurdles using ftrack.
“My favourite thing about ftrack is its ease of use – anyone can walk in and pick it up quickly,” says Graham. “Our team could easily receive real-time updates on the project and what they needed to do, which is absolutely imperative when you have some artists working remotely.
“The review tools are really simple too,” he continues. “We could also seek approval quickly and easily from the client by submitting WIPs for review directly through the interface. If needed, we could also send the client a video from the director or VFX supervisor to further illustrate notes, making sure that everyone was completely in sync.
“I know there are other programs out there that are similar, but they’re less intuitive,” says Graham. “There are so many options there in front of you: unless you know how to turn them off, they get cluttered and chaotic, and that’s not what you want in a production like Infini. ftrack is simple, yet also powerful enough to let us to do things like customise the metadata: it allows things to flow really smoothly.”
Not only were the tools up to scratch, but Graham also found that he and his team received instant feedback and assistance from the ftrack team throughout Infini’s production. “If we had a problem with something they’d find the solution for us immediately,” he says. “The team was really helpful in showing us how to manage data and find the quickest way to bulk import information – such as using batch import tools for both images and initial thumbnails, and using metadata for camera information to populate new cells.
“That kind of support is invaluable when working on a project of this size. ftrack really listened, making notes of our feedback and suggested improvements – it’s a company that truly cares how its solutions are used in production.”
Simplifying the complex
Orb VFX plans to keep using ftrack for further productions – one of which is not far off.
“While we were in the middle of post on Infini, we also had a second film running through VFX, which required 100 shots over four months,” explains Graham, who has already started tracking the information flow that will continue all the way through to post for this second project. “We’re starting to implement ftrack for the next show, and we expect the NUKE and Maya integration to be invaluable when we start using it to launch projects. We also have some CG-heavy scenes in there, so we know planning the previs will be incredibly important.”
For Graham, ftrack was perfect for managing two shows in simultaneous production, albeit at different stages. “Our artists and production team could seamlessly bounce from one show to another and back again,” he exclaims. “Each show was run independently, but would have a crossover of artists working on both in parallel. ftrack allowed us to switch between projects without logging in or out, and also while keeping the same workspace when switching between shows. Its scalability and ease of use was just great for throwing another show on top of Infini, and working with another production pipeline entirely in tandem – all without any confusion or chaos.
“We now know ftrack is just the right tool for achieving this kind of preparation without any error.”