I am obsessed with this love-letter to visual effects

visual effects

What happens when a special effect goes out-of-date?

I have to admit something. When I started writing about visual effects, I once ignorantly thought that I was one of the only people in the world really, truly obsessed with the industry. I was so wrong. I have, of course, been excited to meet – online and in-person – lots of other people who are just as fanatical.

One of those is filmmaker Michael Shanks, a Melbourne-based director operating out of production company LateNight Films. You might have seen his work on the YouTube channel timtimfed, or in the series The Wizards of Aus. Having always been into visual effects (and a VFX artist himself), Shanks has now written and directed one of the most inspired short films I’ve seen in recent years which just so happens to also tap into visual effects obsessive-ness.

Michael Shanks (foreground) during filming of ‘Rebooted’.

It’s called Rebooted, and follows stop-motion animated skeleton Phil as he struggles to find work in his former lucrative Hollywood surrounds. Phil also encounters other ‘out-of-date’ and out-of-work special effects; an animatronic Velociraptor, a rubber suit creature, a 2D piece of animation on cell paper and even a liquid metal CG man.

What’s amazing about Rebooted, which was funded by Screen Australia and YouTube, is that Shanks and his team actually did use several old-school techniques to bring those characters to life, including stop-motion, animatronics, man-in-suit effects and motion control, as well as motion capture, 3D and 2D compositing.

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As a self-confessed VFX aficionado, I was just buzzing when I found out this project existed, and I hope you will be, too. Watch the whole film below, and then read my interview with Shanks about how Rebooted was made, with some extra special insights on what effects-related Easter eggs to look out for.

b&a: Tell me about the origin of Rebooted – how did it go from idea to an actual short, and how did you tap into a love of special and visual effects in the idea for the film?

Michael Shanks: I’ve always been obsessed with the ‘How did they do that?!’ of movie making, and since I started making films I’ve always had a real VFX focus. I spent a lot of time as a kid watching behind-the-scenesy stuff (the bonus features on the LOTR extended editions are the best things ever).

At the beginning of the film, Phil is shown in his heyday.

I was watching some cheesy made for TV show about the special effects of The Empire Strikes Back, and at the end Mark Hamill (who is earnestly hosting the program) turns to R2-D2 and talks about him as though he’s a living co-star of his. That kind of sparked the idea of – what if special effects creatures were actors?

The live-action shoot for that section of the film.

That and the fact that one of the main things I want from films is to see things I’ve never seen before – and the idea of featuring the history of Hollywood special/visual effects side-by-side in the same live action frame struck me as something I needed to see – so I thought I’d try to make it!

b&a: Given that it does hark back to a golden age of effects, what were some of the early discussions you had about how ‘Phil’ and the other characters would be brought to life using old and new techniques?

Michael Shanks: The whole premise behind this project is to celebrate the incredible magic of all sorts of creature creation, and as such I wanted to do it as authentically as possible – but due to financial constraints I was convinced we would have to compromise a lot more than we did. As we largely do all our post in-house (we did all VFX work except the liquid metal man and 2D animation) we can rely on VFX to solve all sorts of ‘we don’t have to pay ourselves’ budget fixes.

We managed to do a lot more practical stuff than I expected, for example I didn’t know where the hell we were going to find an animatronic Velociraptor, but doing a bit of research it turns out there’s a guy who has a whole collection of them two hours out of Melbourne. He had so many dinosaurs, honestly you could open a Jurassic Park in Frankston (a suburb of Melbourne).

b&a: In particular, how was Phil animated? Can you talk about the approach to stop-motion used, and your methods for compositing him into live action scenes?

Michael Shanks: We actually did a couple of tests as to how we might be able to make a CG Phil that was rendered to look like stop-motion animation (inspired by Animal Logic’s incredible work on the Lego movies) but ultimately we were sent the heavenly gift of Samuel Lewis, our puppet-builder and animator, and Gerald Thompson, our stop-motion cinematographer.

The stop-motion Phil puppet under construction.
Stop-motion animator Samuel Lewis.

Essentially, when on set we shot each setup twice – once with me performing as ‘Phil’, then a clean plate. This allowed us to make an edit of the film using my reference performance, which Samuel then reinterpreted on the stop-motion model.

On set, a member of the LateNite team, Kevin Luk, worked diligently recording and photographing the info of every single setup – what lights did we use, what were their temperatures, what where the distances between lights to the actors/camera.

On-set survey measurements.
Further on-set data.
Spreadsheet of on-set data.

Then, using this data as a template, our stop-motion cinematographer recreated every lighting setup in miniature on a green screen set. By the time I took the animations in for composite in After Effects, 90% of my work was done due to the team’s incredible eye for detail.

b&a: How did you deal with generating a ‘rear/front projection’ approach for Phil’s old film scenes?

Michael Shanks: Regarding the rear-projection background in the opening scene, I had foolishly planned to show it as a blue screen background until our stop-motion team firmly made sure we make it a rear-projection setup. One of the extra delights of working with stop-mo pros is their genuine love of the art-form. As a medium it’s so focused and pernickety so they weren’t going to let me get away with inaccuracies!

We tried to light the old-school film scenes as authentically as we could, just blasting the frames with light on set. I did betray some authenticity as I really wanted a dolly-shot in the opening sequence, something that wouldn’t have been possible in the day when combined with stop-motion – but I hope we can just get away with that one as long as nobody points it out in an interview…

b&a: Can you talk about some of the other characters and specifically how they were crafted and the techniques used during shooting and in post?

Michael Shanks: We have a CGI monster in the film as an example of the sorts of effects that have rendered Phil obsolete. There is a scene that was sort of the hero image for me when I conceived of this idea: An old school, stop-mo skeleton sitting in an audition waiting room next to a modern, polished CGI beast – sort of like an aging actor realising he’s auditioning alongside a heartthrob.

Again, I didn’t think we’d be able to afford it, but I was thrilled that we got the opportunity to realise this character via motion capture. It seemed so conceptually perfect that we could animate this character via means that would be inconceivable to the artists in Phil’s heyday.

Shanks in mocap.
Shanks in mocap.
Performing the scene.
Performing the scene.

Also, an opportunity for me to put on a motion-capture suit and be the centre of attention as I stomped about like a monster. It’s only a few seconds of animation, but the team at Deakin Motion Lab Melbourne were incredibly accommodating and it was a bit of a dream come true for me.

Then there’s the rubber-suit-monster, which is basically a recreated Creature from the Black Lagoon suit, as that stuck out to me as one of the most iconic rubber-suited monsters in movie history. Again, I keep coming back to what we got for our budget but Russell Sharp form Sharp FX did us an amazing deal when we asked if he’d make it for us – his one condition: that he got to keep the suit.

Filming with the animatronic dinosaur and man-in-suit.
On-set data capture.
The characters drawn their sorrows.
The characters drawn their sorrows.

That’s a joy of working in this area where we’re celebrating the technicians and classics from this field – is that we’re pitching artists a concept where they can work on what inspired them as kids – and I think that resulted in a lot of good will coming our way.

We also have a 2D animated character who is confined to live on the cell-sheet onto which she was drawn. Again, we’re so lucky to have the skill of the animator Alyssa Smedley who created that character. Ultimately it was composited onto a 3D sheet using Element 3D in After Effects. It just seemed like such a fun idea, due to this character’s 2D nature she can become functionally invisible by turning to her profile.

 2D animated character in Element 3D
The 2D animated character in Element 3D in After Effects.
A final shot from the film.
A final shot from the film.

b&a: Are there any other particular ‘odes’ to old-school effects that you were able to include in the short? I remember seeing a Mitchell camera in there, for instance)

Michael Shanks: That was an old, slide-over Mitchell camera, another benefit of working with a bunch of film nerds! Glen Hunwick, who plays the stop-motion animator in the beginning of the film, is a real animator as we needed to cast somebody who could believably perform some stop-motion animation on camera. He had a collection of old film stuff and helped our overworked art department with a lot of the dressing that day.

Mitchelle camera.
Mitchelle camera.

In terms of odes to older effects, there’s a few bad matte lines that I included in the composites of the old-footage sequence, to try and have a few obvious imperfections in the shots (as opposed to the accidental imperfections in some of my other comps).

I made a perhaps questionable decision when I was applying an old-timey grade to the sequence that takes place in the retro film. As well as trying an odd way to try and emulate 3-strip colour processing in After Effects, I digitally sharpened the footage up quite substantially.

A frame from the 'retro' film.
A frame from the ‘retro’ film.

This is obviously not how old films looked, but when I watch a lot of digital transfers of retro footage, they often feel really over sharpened – maybe it’s the compression, I’m not sure. So even though that’s not authentic to how the film would’ve looked, to me it spoke to a visual vernacular of how we see retro films in a modern context – always on a digital transfer, usually on something like YouTube.

b&a: What were some of the particular challenges you faced in making the film, from funding to production to distribution and release?

Michael Shanks: A big challenge came right up with the script. I have a concept for a longer version of this premise, but I knew the likelihood of financing that was going to be pretty low, so I needed to make sure the script was delivering the most out of this premise that I totally love.

So, I needed it to introduce quite a tricky concept, showcase a bunch of crazy retro characters, and hopefully have some fun-actiony stuff in it whereby the characters are almost given ‘powers’ based on the mediums by which they’re realised (2D character being able to hide by turning so they’re perfectly flat, etc…)

It wasn’t until the 5th complete rewrite of the script that I realised that stripping the dialogue from the script really made it sing – it wasn’t originally conceived as a silent film.

More fun with a dinosaur.
More fun with a dinosaur.

Production wise, usually when I’m directing, I love to move the camera – as much as possible I’m dollying, swooping, or doing something probably too stylised and stupid. Due to the nature of our stop-motion animated character, we had to shoot almost every shot featuring Phil as a static shot (minus a bit of handheld shake).

That was a challenge for me as a director – especially because without dialogue (and a main character with literally only 11 facial expressions) I was hoping to use the camera to convey a lot of the story.

Phil has a lot to think about.
Phil has a lot to think about.

In the end, I think there are only a couple of shots with a moving camera and stop-motion, so I had to make them count: Firstly, there’s a big shot with a large push-in that moves from realtime to timelapse which we shot with a great motion-control rig. Secondly, there’s a Hitchcock/Dolly-Zoom where I ended up cheating the effect on our animated character by rotoscoping him and manually scaling some parallax into his body.

All in all, whilst it’s a short film, it was a mammoth amount of work, and whilst the festival run has been fun I’m so excited for its online release!

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