ENVOY, a proof of concept film for a larger feature pitch is gaining momentum online. It was co-produced by SVAD Animation Alum Adam Coggin, who also supervised the visual effects. He carved time out to give us an idea of what went into bringing this amazing project to life.
What was the inspiration for the design and story?
I think the story has been inspired by a lot of films, mainly to name a few: Iron Giant, Stand by Me, Predator, ET, and Terminator. We have a larger story that is pretty unique, but you’ll just have to wait and see that once the feature film is made.
What are the long term goals for envoy. It’s a proof of concept piece, correct? Do you hope to make a feature?
Yeah, the whole point of ENVOY is to demonstrate David’s skill as a director, and my skill as a Visual Effects Supervisor, in hopes that we can sign a deal for a feature film idea. Within 10 hours of releasing it online, we have had major studio interest. I can’t get into specifics, but things are looking good for Envoy and Black Sun Entertainment.
You’ve been collaborating with your co producer, David Weinstien, for a few years now. How did you get involved as one of the key players in Black Sun?
After I graduated from Southern, I had a lot of trouble finding paid work in the industry. David found me on CG Society and offered me an internship to work remotely for Black Sun Entertainment for his short film Azureus Rising. I started out doing modeling and texture work for environments. When it came time to start lighting and rendering the scenes the lead artist on the project quit, and I saw an opportunity to fill that roll. My wife supported me while I worked from home. I did the most with the one opportunity I had, and worked as hard as I could. I sold my mustang to buy a computer fast enough to handle the high-end work, and eventually I was entrusted with the roll of CG Supervisor and saw the show through to completion. From the work I had done on Azureus, David was able to get me in as a lighter at Sony Computer Entertainment. I still work with David because I believe in his vision, and the work I’ve done with him keeps yielding blessings beyond what I could have imagined.
What was your previs plan? How detailed were your boards, animatic, shot plan?
We spent time planning for this one. We knew we had to pay people for the on-set section in order to get it done right. So David pre-visualized every single shot in the film before we went into production. We knew we only had 3 days to shoot everything, and because we were shooting with steadicams, dolly tracks, and cranes, we knew we could not waste one second on set. I worked with the Director of Photography to plan a stratagy for the time of day shifts, and scheduled each shot depending on where the sun would be at that time. Because of the sun movement, none of our shots were consecutive or made any sense to the crew, but because of our planning it fit together perfectly. We shot it exactly the way we previsualized it, shot for shot.
Your wife Lara was the UPM and you were First AD. Did either of you have previous live action experience?
David and I did a short film before Envoy that was live action. I was visual effects supervisor for that one as well. Long-story short, it didn’t come out right. There were a lot of difficulties on set because our crew, though experienced, was not the right group of people for the job. We learned from this and shouldered as much work ourselves as we could. Because of the unique nature of our shooting style bound to the previs, I played a triple role on set as 1st AD, script supervisor, and VFX supervisor. It was an extremely hard roll to play, especially when I’m looking at a list of shots to get for the day and I can feel the money ticking away.
How did you capture lighting and reflections? Env sphere captures? Reflectance? Virtual sets for reflections?
I did a pre-shoot and did seven-stop HDR panospheres for the morning, noon, and evening. I used each HDR for IBL (image based lighting) for each shot depending on the time of day, and used the chrome / flat shaded ball that we shot on set for reference. We rendered it in Arnold for Maya, and the radiosity lighting is so amazing I found that I had to do very little light tweaking to get the shots working.
What was the hardest shot to pull off?
The hardest shot by far was the one where the alien bursts out of the corn. The original shot had a stunt guy with a 10 foot pole walking out of the corn. This allowed our steadicam operator to pan up to the top of the pole as he was walking backwards. In addition to painting out the stand-in actor, we modeled and animated the corn which was extremely slow and heavy to work with in CG. Because I knew the render times would be massive, I had mattes for every single stalk of corn, and material passes for everything, so that once we had it rendered there was no going back to CG. For that one shot we had 190 layers of CG renders, totaling in just over 15,000 frames of passes.
How much work did you do with practical effects?
Despite our efforts, none of what we tried to do practically worked!
We had almost no practical effects in this short. An example of this is the crows for the shot where Dodger runs into the corn and yelps. We tried to film some of the practical crows flying around and then comp them into the shot, but at the end of the day it was faster to find a free crow model online and modify it, shade it for anorld, rig it, and have David animate it. Rendering and composting the birds from that distance was really simple and we got just what we wanted. Another practical effect we tried to do was having dust kick up as we cut to the sniper. We wanted a lingering shock wave dust cloud. We did one take where we blasted air on him, but the dirt and sand got in our actors eyes and mouth. In the end, we did everything digitally.
Did you do anything special for tracking the camera movement?
I was careful to ensure we had enough tracking points in each shot. I fashioned some make-shift bright pink trackers that I put in the grass for big movement shots. I painted them out later in compositing. One of the tracking markers we missed, and can be seen on the ground during the shot where Aeon dives and rolls to charge up his gauntlet. We were so close to finishing the film at the time, we didn’t bother going back to paint it out.
What were you tools?
Animation and rendering was done out of Maya. The compositing was done exclusively in Nuke. Matte painting and projection work was done in Photoshop, while the textures were done in Mari. We used After Effects for the title, credits, and a few post processing plugins that we used as elements in the compositions.
Did you use any new techniques for rendering or texturing? The texture maps on the robot looked great.
This was my first project using UDIM textures. We had an amazing texture artist who did all the textures in Mari. Because we had so many close-up detailed shots, we decided to go extremely high resolution so we could have what we needed from any angle. We ended up with just over 400 8K maps for the alien alone.
How did you end up involving Andrew and Yannick? (SVAD Animation Alumni)
We had a narrow window of time with our texture artist, and we were in a pinch to get a large chunk of the alien re-modeled. Yannick and Andrew offered their services and helped us meet the deadline. Andrew Lopez did most of our modeling, and a large chunk of UV cleanup work. I’m extremely grateful for their contribution.
What was the schedule for pre production, shoot, and post?
Pre-production was about 2 months. Total days shooting was 4, but the corn field section was just 3 days. Our post production took about 6 months. In total, the project only took us 9 months from start to finish. It would have gone even faster in post, but my daughter was born mid-post-production and it put things on hold for a bit.
Any important lessons learned not related to CG? Like about managing projects, people, or life during production…
I did learn a few valuable lessons. You have to surround yourself with people you can trust. On projects like these, just one person not paying attention can sacrifice quality especially when you’re on set. Over the years I’ve found that you have to be diplomatic when you are in positions of power. People under you can’t be yelled at, but at the same time when your own money is ticking away by the second and tension is high, you still have to get people going. Its hard… and sometimes you become the bad guy in order to get what you need.
A big lesson I’m learning right now is how to balance my family life with work. I’m a highly ambitious person, but I still have to make time to relax and spend time with my wife and kid. When the Bible talks about not working on the Sabbath, I get it now. When I was younger, that seemed like an extremely easy thing to follow. Now I know that the 4th commandment is for people like me, people who sometimes get lost in the shuffle and forget what matters. The 7th day is something I look forward to now, because it means I get to shelve my work and take a day for myself, for my family, and for God.