Project London and modern SciFi – rethinking movies from the ground up

What to do when you have an idea for a SciFi blockbuster with plenty of special effects, talented actors and a script in hand but you just can’t get the funding together?  If you’re the folks at Spiral Productions you politely give the finger to thoughts of funding and script shopping then you go out and make your live action effects laden SciFi blockbuster.  If that’s not impressive enough, the film looks good and this is coming from a SciFi movie aficionado.  Project London is an epic film with huge budget worthy special effects, and plenty of them, created by volunteers on the web and resulting in an actual, watchable, movie.

That’s an important point so lets examine it a bit further.  This is an epic SciFi film that was crowd sourced.  It’s a new idea that certainly works (case in point Project London) and is something that independent film makers the world over should pay very, very close attention too.  Take Kevin Smith for example, who has looked to crowdsourced funding for his film Red State as one way to get the movie made.   Rather than go the route of raising funds, Project London skipped the money aspect and went straight for the talent.  You may be aware that I’m attempting to crowdsource fund my own project.

Project London features over 650 VFX shots, which is about equal to most SciFi summer releases with $100 million dollar plus budgets.  The folks behind the movie, the McCoy brothers, Ian Hubert, the cast featuring Jen Page and crew are all making this production on a voluntary basis, using open source software and the use of peoples free time.   Other than spending  a small amount on feeding people their budget is just about zero.

They have made good use of open source 3D rendering software Blender, which I should add you can download right now from that link and make your own SciFi epic.  With volunteer animators and a “render garden” consisting mainly of a Xeon MacPro they’ve created HD quality 3D effects.  I was able to ask the Project London folks a few questions and here’s more on the creation of the movies VFX.

How many VFX artists volunteered their time and talent to create the effects shots with Blender3D? Was rendering done through distributed nodes on volunteer computers or did you set up something of a render farm? Do you have any statistics on the size (GB or TB) and time it took to render all of the shots and how many CPU’s went in to the efforts?

IAN: I think we’ve had about 20 folks helping with the visual effects over the past three years, though generally it was a core of four or so working at any given time.

The amount of total render time is both completely unknown and probably entirely un-remarkable. We had an entire render farm set up at one point, but we eventually downgraded. It generally takes so long to animate and set up a shot that by the time we’re done with one, the previous one had long since finished rendering, so we didn’t actually need all that much render power.

Another factor is that we were usually just rendering out 3D elements, as opposed to whole 3D scenes (which proved to be much more render intensive). Most of the CG in this film is supplemental to the live-action footage we shot around Seattle, and Blender has some powerful and quick tools for getting that look with fairly minimal render time. For example, the ending battle takes place in a giant empty lot, so we just had to set up a small digital plane under the characters to pick up shadows, and hit render; that type of stuff goes really fast.

NATE: Our render farm was more of a render garden. We did a lot of the rendering on a Dual QuadCore Xeon MacPro with 16GB of memory. Depending on complexity, typical frame rendering times were between 30 seconds and two minutes – with scenes of great complexity going up to many minutes per frame.

One off the shelf (albeit pretty damned pumped) Mac, 2 to 20 volunteers and they’ve completed what takes the studios millions of dollars to do.  I’ve seen some of the effects shots (as can you on their website) and they are by no means substandard.   If you’ve got a good idea and the wherewithal to follow through with it, the chances of finding people out there on the web willing to pitch in and work with you are very good.

This is big news for film makers.  That means that at any time there is a talented pool of animators, editors, actors, writers and anyone else you can think of just waiting for a chance to put their name on a successful project.

Once the film is made, there is also the problem of distribution.  Will it play in the theaters?  Be sold on DVD, make the film festival circuit?  Today, if you want to get a film out to a broad audience the possibilities are vast.  Project London will be available through their website as physical media (DVD) but also most likely through other digital means of distribution, Netflix and iTunes being the biggest.

Why choose to distribute through iTunes and Netflix with direct sales through you as opposed to going around to film festival circuit first? Is it about making the film available to everyone soonest rather than waiting the year+ for various film festivals?

PHIL: Well, the truth is this is our stock answer because we haven’t figured out our complete distribution plan. We currently believe that the festival circuit would only be marginally helpful in connecting Project London to its audience. It’s more likely that you will see us making the sci-fi and comics convention circuit because these are the people who will LOVE Project London.

NATE: We mention iTunes and Netflix because they will put the movie in front of fans more quickly than you can say, “Danger, Will Robinson!” and we like that. However, we are getting very excited about the movie premiere, we are cooking up some very forward thinking ideas to introduce the world to Project London and I look forward to sharing the entire experience with you very soon.

That is a very powerful thing, being able to distribute your film how you see fit.  To bypass a theater release directly and get a movie into the hands of your fans.  I’ve been to the movies recently and while the experience can be fun, more often than not it does not provide very good value for my money.  I’d much rather stay home and watch a great flick on a big TV without the hassle of driving to the theater, fighting crowds, sticking to the floor, watching 20 minutes of commercials and then listening to some dude text his girlfriend directly behind me.   A lot of people I know are feeling this way.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a great time to be a SciFi film fan.  I believe that there are a lot of great, wonderful ideas out there that will never be made in to movies because studios are (possibly rightfully so) hesitant to drop millions of dollars into a project.  Think of how many smart, innovative scripts never see production because the script writers aren’t well know. Think of how many more do make it into Hollywood only to be dumbed down, commented on by management (who may not be fans at all) and then spat out to an audience who scratches their heads and move on.

The powerful tools that were only available to large budgets are now well within reach of just about everyone.  3D rendering software like Blender.  HD DSLRs that make amazingly high quality video that can be had for under $3,000.   Award winning video editing software going free and open source.  For very little investment you or I can have a movie studio that would have blown away producers and directors from just 15 years in our past.

Of course, when I have a chance to talk about a movie featuring TC’s favorite actress, Jen Page, I can’t resist.

Did Jen dye her hair blue for the film or did you find her that way?

Jen had red hair at the time of the audition—a bright red warning of death and destruction. Fortunately, she was in a very good mood.

JEN: I remember one of my fellow auditioners commented, “You’d be perfect! Look at that red hair!” But I was hoping to have the opportunity to try another color if I got the role. A dramatic change in appearance really helps me discover who a character is. I was hoping for blue hair since I had never tried that before. So I drew up a character sketch and Ian really liked the concept. On a side note, I wouldn’t recommend for someone to change their hair from red to blue. It is a very difficult color shift that I can imagine easily ending in tears.

IAN: It’s a pretty colorful film, which I think is great. There are lots of big broad colors in the costumes and vehicle designs (Red Robot, Green Robot, Yellow Airship, Brown Airship) that I think give it a distinctive simplistic vibe. When Jen offered to dye her hair, I thought that was awesome! I think it really fits with the film. Also, it was occasionally a glorious nightmare to key!

What does Hollywood think of this whole thing?

Have you heard anything positive or negative from any Hollywood industry types about the crowd sourcing of effects shots using open source software?

PHIL: Not a peep. But I can tell you that the work being done by the guys making Iron Sky inspire us a lot. Wreck A Movie looks like a crazy cool resource and a way to really get quality work done. ¡Viva la Crowd-Sourcing!

I don’t see this as a threat to huge budget Hollywood features just yet but I can see it as a great way for independent film makers to get their movies made and distributed.  All it will take is a few such movies to work out well – make a big splash on the internet, perhaps make a little money and then Hollywood will have no choice but to sit up and take notice.  When that happens and it will happen, then Hollywood may have some serious competition.

[tags]scifi, science fiction, project london, jen page, movies[/tags]

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