What making a film in your spare time really involves

The Seed of Juna

How vfx artist Álvaro García Martinez worked a day job and made this CG pilot.

Álvaro García Martinez has worked at such VFX studios as MPC, ILM and DNEG in areas such as crowds, layout and real-time. Like many artists, he wanted to apply his skills to making a film himself – the result is the CG animated sci-fi proof of concept, The Seed of Juna.

While holding down a day job in VFX, Álvaro also wrote, directed, edited and VFX supervised the film, with the help of a team of artists across the UK and Spain. This included adopting a number of virtual production and real-time approaches – the plan is to produce, eventually, a television series made with Unreal Engine.

Normally, I’d look to dive into the making of a project like The Seed of Juna, but luckily Álvaro is also releasing some great behind the scenes for the film. Instead, I wanted to find out just what was involved in working on something like this, while also having a full-time job in VFX. Plus, I was curious what hurdles Álvaro faced during the process. But first, watch the full film below:

b&a: How did you go about working on this in your spare time?

Álvaro García Martinez: For the last 4 years, I’ve been effectively working two full-time jobs. I developed the idea for the project when I was at MPC in 2016. My routine was to wake up early, work a couple of hours on The Seed of Juna, head to the office, and then be back to the project in the evenings. It wasn’t always a strict schedule – the important thing for me was to keep making progress, even if sometimes it had to be broken into smaller steps. Our brains thrive on daily victories. Once you get that reward, you’re motivated to give it your effort again the next day.

Álvaro García Martinez
Álvaro García Martinez.

With that said, my project really benefited from times when I could focus on it full-time. Every time I changed companies, I took a few weeks off in between to make a push The Seed of Juna. For example, last year I left ILM to give several dedicated months to the project, which got me to an 80% completion stage, after which I went back to the industry joining DNEG. Since then I’ve been working on real-time solutions leading me to set a direction towards real-time animation in future phases of The Seed of Juna.

As I’ve been through the process already with my short film Sumer, I’m better prepared to anticipate dips in motivation or the ‘safe zone’ during the final stretch. Let’s be honest though, it’s though. There are many moments when you want to give up. You face the struggle more before you’re halfway through. Once you reach 51%, there’s no going back.

b&a: How did you get others to help you and how did you coordinate across time/borders etc?

Álvaro García Martinez: If you want to create something ambitious, you need ambitious people. My advice is – make a trailer. An appealing, polished one that articulates your vision well. There are two reasons why this is a powerful tool. First, you can show ‘how cool’ your project is to your peers and the industry gurus. This really helps discover collaboration opportunities with companies or individuals.

Second, with a quality trailer you demonstrate that you deliver. This is crucial. Time is a limited resource and if you want others to spend their non-paid time on your project, they need to have confidence that their input is going to lead to something.

A mocap session for the film
A mocap session for the film.

I can’t say I’m an expert in project management and coordination, and it’s still something I’m working on but I can say what worked for me in terms of getting people excited and committed. If I came across an interesting portfolio among animators who expressed interest in the project and had ideas about how to improve it, I’d give them a chance. Do you want to have a go at one shot? Two? Three? Are you sure three works? Ok, let’s kill it then!

Since the team was entirely remote, the channels of communication were a bit chaotic. People would send me video recordings of their screen, voice notes in Whatsapp, Telegram messages, e-mails, screenshots, google drive transfers, you name it. This sounds wrong but somehow it worked. The only time we added some more structured communication was before the final trailer release – we used Trello to track tasks and Slack for sound mix coordination.

b&a: What hiccups did you face along the way doing this under your own steam?

Álvaro García Martinez: Many. At the start, there were people who’d say, ‘Oh wow, amazing idea, do it!’, but then there were others who’d go, ‘Uhm, not sure…don’t know if this would work.’ You feel like fragile glass under a weight. Feedback is great but it requires skill to be able to filter what really matters. If you surround yourself with the people you trust and who, in turn, trust you, if you’re kind to those who support you, you’ve got an ultimate weapon.

A final frame from the film
A final frame from the film.

A major setback happened when I was getting to the final stage. One of my hard drives went bust because of a logic corruption issue – the worst possible scenario. I lost around 60% of my shot work and the backup was corrupted too. I spent weeks researching ways and methods to recover the data. I was so desperate and frustrated by high repair costs that I was considering redoing all the shots. Luckily, someone smarter reminded me of the bigger picture, and I realised that after nearly 3 years of work, losing another 6 months is not worth it. So I paid to get my data back.

Running the test screening also turned into a curveball. I was skeptical about it to begin with but decided to give it a try. The first test scored well but people spotted a few things that needed improvement and this meant a lot of new work. I remember one night watching the cut again and again, trying to figure out the story and the pace, and I thought… why not change the order of the sequences? That was a pivotal moment. This change really raised the bar and the story finally fell into its place as was backed up by better second round test scores. So, if you ask me now about test screening, I’d say do it, hands down! Be humble and ask for feedback. As a director, it’s easy to get buried in the aesthetic detail and lose sight of the vision. It’s ok to ask for help. As long as you’re smart about how and with whom you do it.

Finally, you’re constantly fighting against dips in motivation. I love what I do but sometimes it just happens that motivation disappears and you feel stuck. In those moments, I double down on my discipline. As long as you keep making progress, motivation eventually bounces back.

The film's poster
The film’s poster.
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