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Post-production on the fourth episode of my sci-fi film series “Fallen Star” took considerably longer than previous episodes, mostly due to the sheer volume of shots that needed VFX work. As you’ll see in the video below, I certainly had my work cut out for me. In this article, I’ll explain some of what I had to do here and why:

 

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We start with a bit of background work on our ‘bridge’ set. This is a standard sort of shot in this series where I use chromakey to remove the green from the computer ‘screens’ and replace it with animated content that I’ve made. In this shot, I also have the rear door opening and closing. Since our door doesn’t really move, it’s done with VFX. I used rotoscoping to mask out the arm and chair of the captain, and dropped in some door layers over a rendered image of the corridor. The captain’s shadow near the bottom of the door was then drawn back on.

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Our ship’s ‘briefing room’, meanwhile, was not a real room at all. The physical set was taken down long before we got to filming this scene, so we relied on the green screen system to put in a virtual background in post-production. The green screen wasn’t physically large enough to fully cover all the actors, so it had to be moved around during the shoot, and for the wide shots, extra rotoscoping was needed to mask in the actors on the edges of the shot. The room itself was a basic 3D model, but the table, chairs and cast were all real and on set together.

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The next shot, in a corridor, didn’t feature all of the cast together (schedule problems) so they were composited in post production. The corridor, too, is virtual and this was one of many ship’s interiors that was created digitally. This breakdown shows how the layers were arranged and the filtering and colour adjustment that was needed to integrate everything.

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Next we have a seemingly innocuous shot of the captain in his chair. But this was a particularly challenging shot to get right because I had to fix a continuity error. The captain is looking off to the right of the camera in the original footage, breaking his eyeline with the helm officer in the preceding and following shots. Maintaining directional continuity is important and something we should have got right on set. To fix it in post, I couldn’t just flip the whole picture because then the uniform would be reversed. I had to isolate just the top half (the head and shoulders) and flip them, keep them aligned with the bottom half for the duration of the shot, erase the collar pip and then draw on a new collar pip on the other side. Four shots were corrected like this and hopefully no-one was any the wiser.

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Next up, the engine room. This was the most difficult of the ‘virtual rooms’ to build, and was made with rather a lot of little details. I was particularly fond the pipes/cables trailing over the side of the engine ‘sphere’, as I hadn’t really attempted to model bendy shapes before. To get the size of the metal steps correct, I imported the footage of the captain and the placeholder ladder into the modelling software, and spaced the steps so they matched those of the ladder. When the final shot was eventually composited together, everything lined up beautifully.

I wanted to see as much of this engine room as possible in the final episode, so I included some wide shots. In these, the actors’ feet had to be masked out, because they go beyond the boundary of the green screen. The shot of the captain falling was a touch harder as more of his legs were outside the boundaries and I had to remove traces of the stool as well.

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For all of these shots, to help avoid motion blur so I could extract a solid colour key, the shutter speed of the camera was set higher than normal. Without sufficient lighting to accommodate this, it led to some noise/fuzziness that had to be crushed out, and required motion blur to be added back in at the end. That’s in addition to the separate lighting pass, done using a pre-comped ‘silhouette’ layer and glow effects. Each shot had so much more post-processing and took longer to render than I was used to. I think it looks pretty good, though.

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Next, we’re in a shuttle! The 3D shuttle model was created for episode 2, including the interiors; even though the interiors weren’t going to be shown at the time, I knew they would be needed eventually. To get the shot of me sitting in the cockpit, I actually attempted to transpose some 3D positional data from the model into After Effects. This didn’t quite work, however, and I ended up correcting it frame-by-frame for the final composition. The interior cockpit and exteriors were rendered separately and then layered into one another, and I made sure to raise the opacity of the window to 100% just in time to for the camera angle to change, otherwise it would be obvious that the pilot was a 2D element!

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The crew sitting in the back of the shuttle were really sitting on little stools. We didn’t bother to work out the exact dimensions of the shuttle at the time of filming, but fortunately, none of the elements in this shot overlap, so I could adjust the width by moving them further apart or closer together without issues. This was another instance where several layers were needed for background elements, doors, shadows, reflections and lights. The bloom effect coming through the window is quite nice, I think.

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The medical ward was created for episode 3 but, for its appearance in this episode, I had to flip the protruding base of the beds so that the bit that struts out is on the opposite side. This is because in episode 3 the characters are standing on the left hand side and in this episode they’re on the right hand side. Hopefully nobody noticed the discrepancy (until now)!

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The episode starts getting rather ambitious around the time where the two astronauts start floating around and walking on the outer hull of the shuttle. The cost of building the space suit was such that we only made one – any shots where two are seen together are the result of compositing tricks. I would have liked to rig something up so that our actors could more convincingly ‘float’ – as it stands, their feet were firmly on the ground and the effect is lessened.

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I knew early on I wanted to have a shot where Logan walks around the corner of the shuttle. After all, how else is one supposed to reach the adjacent walls? That said, I was surprised how simple this effect was to achieve. By setting the layer’s pivot point to the tip of the boot, I could just rotate the layer ninety degrees at the appropriate time. The hard part was putting shadows, lights and reflections in convincingly. The performance took care of the rest.

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For shots where the spaceman was on the hull but small details weren’t necessarily visible, I decided I needed to model a 3D human. I cheated a little, admittedly, using a pre-made human shape for most of its figure. However, the suit’s components, chest piece, helmet, gloves, backpack, pipes and buttons were all my doing. This was the first time I’d attempted to map a ‘skin’ to a skeletal frame for animating, and it went rather well. Another skill to tick off the list, and something to work on in future. The little man wasn’t good enough to look at up close, but it’s convincing enough from a distance!

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One of my favourite shots is seeing Logan kick a thruster to steer the shuttle away from the path of an asteroid. Everything about this shot makes me smile – the fact that it’s upside down, the fact that the asteroid can be seen approaching ominously, the fact that the entire background veers to the side as the shuttle turns, and all the nice lighting effects that accompany it. I genuinely can’t even remember how I went about putting this shot together, but it worked.

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Sometimes, the simplest methods are the most effective. Our asteroids were very basic geosphere shapes with a couple of modifiers applied to them – “noise” and “meshsmooth”, as I recall. This added the random bumps to the surface, while the smoothing ensured it wasn’t angular and jagged. The texture was a simple rocky photo, while most of the heavy lifting was done by the strong light source. I often feel like I’m cheating when I hit that ‘render’ button and some amazing work of computerised art comes out the other end. Nevertheless, that’s how the asteroids were made.

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When the security team arrives at the weapons locker, we had a ‘stage hand’ holding up the locker’s contents, the three laser guns that were to be picked up by one of the characters. As it happened, the scene was cut in such a way that the act of picking up the guns is never seen on screen, so the laborious process of erasing the stage hand would have been unnecessary after all.

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The gigantic alien outpost was another instance where I felt I was cheating. This is the most basic shape imaginable, a cube with a few of its surfaces extruded. Literally all of its details are achieved through a randomised ‘greebling’ process. Greebles are the name given to the little bits and pieces added to models to make them look bigger, and 3DS Max can add them to any surface. Of course, when you get in close, you stop seeing as much detail, so the landing platform was a separate element, made much bigger and then shrunk down into the larger overall structure. I rather like how it turned out.

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All of the scenes on the landing platform were done on green screen. Shots like this, where Logan slides off the wing, were faked. A small stool was used and most of the movement was added afterwards. We only had so much space to work with, but hopefully we gave the impression of much more.

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Sometimes, you simply run out of space altogether. I wanted several shots where Logan and Jenkins run through corridors and other large rooms inside the outpost. The only way we could achieve this was outdoors, and so for these shots I had to rotoscope the entire duration. That’s a process of drawing around the parts of the picture you want to retain, in this case, the two runners. To get the best shot at the right speed, I used two separate takes and combined them. They were the most time-consuming shots to achieve in this whole episode and I must try not to make a habit of it!

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The outpost interior corridors were another feature that felt like cheating. As per the exterior, most of the detail is added by the automatic ‘greeble’ effects. For the lights seemingly stuck onto the walls, they were actually another skin of the corridor, a bright blue one, just behind the black layer, and the slightly different greeble patterns made bits of it stick through. The whole thing appears strangely random and alien, which was the desired effect. The rendering time was rather severe for my meagre hardware, so this shot was the only one where the background geometry was rendered as an animation.

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Next we have a morph effect, as the hologram transforms from an image of Humphreys to Logan. I’d never done a morph effect before but it was rather cool. The premise is to take take two images and distort each one using a ‘mesh warp’ so that all the important features line up with their counterparts on the other image. You end up with two rather grotesque creations as each image has been mangled to look like the other, but when you then cross-fade between them, it creates a smooth morphing effect. The hologram filters were then applied on top of all of that.

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The star charts that make up much of the holographic display were not, I must confess, designed by me. These are some graphics I acquired from a tutorial on how to make ‘Star Wars style’ holograms. I put them to good use. After Effects can rotate layers in three-dimensions, and allow a virtual camera to pass through a scene. By positioning these graphics at distinct angles, I could make it look like one big 3D display.

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The shoot-out in the corridor was another green screen job, and most of it was shot at different times, owing to actor availability. As you can see here, Darling and Davenport weren’t even in the scene together (their shoots were three years apart!), and the security team running around the corner was one of the very last things we shot for this episode.

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Finally, the spy Volgin gets his comeuppance when he accidentally ejects himself from an escape hatch. No special rigs or ropes were required for this – the victim in question was simply photographed lying on the floor from above, and the photo manipulated to make the limbs wiggle a bit as the whole layer was transformed into a smooth sweeping motion, moving away from the ship. By duplicating and flipping this layer, I was able to add a shadow and reflection onto the hull. Finally, motion blur was added.

That about wraps up the VFX reel. This is just a highlight of the more interesting shots created for this episode – there were many more, some mundane, others spectacular. I would have to say that I’ve learned a lot from this project and I hope to continue to learn and improve as I move onto the next one. Thanks for reading.

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About a year ago, we held a screening of the third episode in my Fallen Star series. As it’s become a tradition now, I had to stick a teaser for the next one at the end. A while later, it went onto YouTube:

The point of the ‘teaser’ is, naturally, to tease. It’s not a fully-fledged trailer, it just gives a taste of what’s to come. Or rather, it functions as a placeholder. It just says “yeah, we’re working on this. Watch this space.”

So, when you’re still knees-deep in unfinished footage, up to your eyeballs in unusable concept art, and missing anything resembling final dialogue, how on earth do you put together something that looks and sounds like the thing that you haven’t done yet? Let me break down the teaser for Episode 4 and take you through it…

1. Logos and BRRARRRRRPs. Thanks, Inception!

2. Previous footage. Best way to set the scene and use what you’ve already got. Re-coloured and zooming out to give it a foreboding tone.

3. Nebula reveal. Well, that’s actually a shot of the Britannic from Episode 1, played backwards (you can tell because it’s missing the shield domes on the dorsal hull). The nebula was a placeholder; the final one looks different, but it wasn’t ready last year.

4. It’s Humphreys and Knight on the bridge. This is new footage, an actual shot from Episode 4! It needed some digital bits added (those computer monitors were green) and all of our dialogue will be dubbed in later, so you can’t hear what they’re saying. Instead, you hear Knight narrating a line that isn’t actually in the episode. We recorded it specifically for the teaser.

5. Zooming in on an open hatch while Knight explains that Humphreys is missing. See, that’s suspense, that’s drama, right there! The implication is that he’s taken an escape pod and disappeared. Again, though, that exact shot isn’t in the episode, but something similar is.

6. Logan declares they’re going to find him and closes his space helmet. Again, this shot isn’t in the episode, it was recorded specifically for the teaser. Logan will indeed be donning some kind of space suit, but we (still) haven’t even finished building it yet, never mind filmed anything in it!

7. The shuttle departs. That’s a shot from Episode 2, albeit flipped.

8. Volgin puts up his fists for a fight. Who’s he fighting? Where is he? More on that in a moment (see further down), but this was taken from a recently shot scene so it will feature in the episode when it’s been finished properly.

9. Knight looks around, confused. This is another shot taken from the episode. As it didn’t need anything doing to it, aside from adjusting the colour, it went straight in. What’s he confused about? What’s happening? You’ll have to wait to find out!

10. The Britannic flies through space. This is a stock shot, for filler. Again, it’s been flipped and may not appear in the episode.

11. The ship is shaken about! Well, this is just a shot from Episode 2 again. Yes, similar things will be happening but not like this. It’s just there weren’t any other shots ready at the time!

12. Darling in the medical ward, with a patient. This is one of the few finished VFX shots that’s actually in the episode, and that’s only because I’d already made the necessary background.

13. An unknown ship zooms off into the starry sky. Yyyyyyyeah, this technically has nothing to do with episode 4 except it might be used for a part of it. That’s a bit cryptic, sorry. It’s a ‘finished’ VFX shot so it went in.

14. The shuttlecraft flies through a cloudy region of space. Well, this exact shot isn’t from Episode 4; but I put it together using a new cloudy background that I’d started working on for this episode. The shuttle is a re-use of a shot from Episode 2, because dammit, time is money!

15. Logan announces that he sees something ahead, and we see the shuttle radar/scanner/thingy picking it up. This is a tone-setting shot; it’s what’s going to happen but not how it happens. The cockpit wasn’t finished and that line was recorded only for the teaser, but it’s all I could use at the time.

16. Something ahead approaches. A dark and gloomy structure hidden amongst the clouds. In the final episode, there will indeed be something like this, but this isn’t it. At the time, I hadn’t even conceptualised what it would look like, never mind started making it. Needless to say, this shot will not be used in the episode. Not least of which because it turns out to be an enormous number 4, and that would just be silly.

So, three finished shots and two half-finished shots, and the rest of it is re-used clips, ‘concept’ footage and voiceovers. That’s how you make a teaser more than a year before you’ve finished shooting!

Since this teaser was put together, we’ve shot more scenes and I’ve done a lot of post-production. We’re not finished yet but I thought I’d share one thing that I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks – an engine room.

In the teaser, you see our spy character Volgin preparing for fisticuffs. With whom and for why, I shan’t say; but his location is our ship’s engine room. The only trouble was, last year I hadn’t made an engine room and didn’t even know what it would look like. So I had to improvise – I found a photograph somebody had taken of a dry-dock and flipped it upside-down.

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Some sort of dry-dock for ships, the right way up.

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Volgin in the engine room, before we had an engine room.

Several months on, and I find myself with the daunting task of designing and building a 3D model of our engine room. I’m not beholden to a photograph I used in a teaser that nobody would notice, but I used it as a reference point anyway.

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To start with, I plot out the space.

Our ship is powered by a McGuffin, as are most sci-fi ships. The ‘engine core’ is a common theme, but this one is most inspired by the Mass Effect videogame series. There will be a raised platform across the middle of the room.

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Staging, placeholdering. That’s a thing.

It was important to get the scale right. We’d already shot the scene (on greenscreen), and used a stepladder as a placeholder for the steps. By overlaying the footage in the modelling software, I could make sure the real steps lined up with the virtual ones. More bits were then added to the room.

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Close-up of the railings and grates that I started to add.

Once the layout was decided, I began to model the finished elements. Grating, pipes, railings, bits of equipment, computers, doors, ceiling supports…

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The ceiling, based loosely on that upside-down photo.

It became rather detailed rather quickly and, once the lighting was added, I was chuffed with the look of it.

Here it is, the first exclusive look at the HMS Britannic’s engine room, the location for at least one scene in Episode 4…

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The engine room, a finished render. As (will be) seen on TV.

Ain’t it lovely?

Thanks for reading, I hope to have more soon. The work continues.

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It’s been a little over three years since I finished work on the first “episode” of my Fallen Star film series, which was, at the time, only to be a one-off (although initially planned as a series). Those three years have been spent working on another five episodes simultaneously, but the last year has seen the final push to get Episode 2 out the door, and now it’s finally available to watch online. Check it out below:

We learned a lot on episode 1, felt what our limitations were, and decided to push against them here. With a better camera and improved image clarity, I was able to make more extensive use of our greenscreen background to put our characters into a wider variety of locations, most of which did not physically exist. I’d also improved upon my animation and rendering, and with a faster PC, was able to create longer and more dynamic space sequences.

We paid closer attention to our camera work and editing for this one, and more time was spent on the scripts and trying to flesh the characters out a little more. The practicalities of working on scenes from five episodes at once were difficult but we got everything we absolutely needed in time for this one, and more episodes are still being worked on now.

I personally think what we all, as amateurs, have achieved here, on practically no budget, is something to be proud of. However, I want to keep this blog focused on my technical skills, which I will get to in a later article, accompanied by a visual effects breakdown video. Thanks for watching!

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Over 18 months in the making, Fallen Star is finally finished. This was a big project, far bigger than our previous ‘film’, and involved a lot more work and new skills to bring it all together. Here’s the link to watch the whole thing on YouTube. It is 53:25 long, and in ten parts:
Fallen Star – Episode 1 (all 10 parts)

Here’s part 1. You’ll need to open YouTube to see the rest of the parts.

Work on Fallen Star started as early as February 2009, when Rob and I were considering making another film, after the success of Premium Bond. We wanted to do something a bit more adventurous, and liked the idea of a Star Trek spoof. We spent some time coming up with a vague story outline, characters and sketches of our ship. Then we scouted around for a place to build the set. The first few months were a planning stage; eventually we had a script and had cast friends in the roles of our characters.

Several months passed, during which time we gathered supplies and equipment for building the set. This was principally hardboard, wood, cardboard and paint. We were lucky enough to borrow some sturdy stage flats to serve as the backbone of the set, and taped the seams with masking tape, which was then painted over. Control panels and lights were added, as well as a fake door and little buttons and switches.

It was in the Summer of 2009 that we started filming. We had a six week slot to put the set together, get the filming done, and take the set down again. It was very tight; we finished on literally the last day. Towards the end of the filming, the set was partially deconstructed and rearranged to make the other rooms of the ship. Additional rooms would be handled with CGI. I was not adept at computer modelling, but I thought it was worth a try. A green screen was setup to film our actors on any artificial backgrounds (corridors and rooms that didn’t exist).

By the time the indoor filming was completed, it was getting into Winter, the nights were drawing in and it was getting cold outside. Although we had outdoor scenes to film, we unfortunately had to wait for the weather to pick up. It wasn’t until late Spring that we eventually got outside to finish the last of the filming.

During the break, I had time to complete most of the special effects sequences. I had been teaching myself 3D modelling and animating the entire time, right from the start of the project when we had nothing but some sketches. It took a while to render many of the scenes used in the film, so the extra time was appreciated in the end. We also decided about this time that the audio would have be completely redone, including all the dialogue. We arranged several dubbing sessions, and then I spent several weeks synchronising all the dialogue to match the original. I also used this time to add sound effects to everything.

Outdoor filming could have gone better. Scheduling problems meant that many scenes had to be filmed in poor light, while others were in broad daylight. It was a challenge to correct the footage to make it look consistent. Poor lighting leads to grainy footage, so I had to try to make it match. We got the shots we needed in the end and made do with the quality.

After this, it was simply a case of finishing the editing, adding the last few special effects, sound effects and dubbing, and finding some suitable music to use as the soundtrack. Perfectionist that I am, I chose this moment to add an additional scene to the film – an extended prologue, a chase sequence set in the forest. Originally, the film was going to open aboard the ship, but I felt this extra scene was needed. We used a steady cam rig to film it, which was quite tricky, but I’m pleased with the result.

I will be posting VFX showreels soon, which show how I put the visual effects together, with some before and after comparisons. I hope you find them interesting.

Thanks for watching (and reading).

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