How this VFX supe made his own effects-heavy short about a hero robot

Get tips and tricks for crafting your own short film in this visual journey.

Many visual effects artists work on large studio projects, but also long to create their own work, IP or story that may utilize VFX. But, how do you do that? What it does it take to sprout an idea, go out and film something, and craft the visual effects with a small team, or even just on your own?

Chris Browne is someone who has made that happen, with his short film Pleroma, about a corporation led by machines who turn on the human workers. That is, until a discarded prototype bot steps up.

Browne is a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Animation, and has previously worked as a CG supervisor at DreamWorks Animation and Bardel Entertainment, as well as running his own studio, Digital Alchemy Entertainment.

Pleroma director Chris Browne.

Pleroma represents several months of intense effort in developing the short, and a possible feature, with co-writer Tim Hedrick, an executive producer at DreamWorks Animation. Ultimately Browne shot and edited and created all the visual effects in the short himself.

To get a sense of how all that work was accomplished, while Browne also maintained a day job as a CG supervisor and visual effects supervisor, befores & afters is presenting a visual breakdown of Pleroma, ranging from the shoot to photogrammetry and animation and effects for the robots. First, check out the trailer below, and then jump into this visual journey, which also includes a full VFX breakdown video.

The shoot

Realism was of the utmost importance. An onset physical dummy was used for 1:1 reference for the rubbery mannequin-like robot villain “ZED”.

Meet the disc robot

The disc robot had to unfold from a wheel, into crab form, and into a flying drone, all with a limited number of parts. Hinges, Pistons, joints were studied for weeks to have the robot function with complete realism with no cheats and NO ball joints. All elements designed to work as if in real life.
See the disc robot in action.

Ground interaction

Staging on sandy dirty terrain meant the robots had to interact dynamically with the earth. A tool was created to procedurally spray dirt and leave trails for the robot’s ground interactions.
Disc sims.
The final shot.

The making of STAN

An incredible amount of detail was placed into every aspect of the hero robot STAN. His exposed innards, wires, bolts, dirt, wear and tear was meticulously designed for photorealism in both close up and far away shots. All hinges, pistons, gears, and overall structure functioned accurately and were based heavily on real robots today at Darpa to Boston Dynamics. The over 300 wires and cables have complete working dynamics.

Explosion sims

Due to the many explosive sims, Chris made Houdini digital asset tools (HDA’s) allowing him to quickly place and time explosions procedurally that fractured the earth and blew it up all around while interacting with obstacles such as the character and environments.
Sim breakdown.

Transform!

An epic moment when the discbot transitions into a helicopter-like drone. Its ferocious speed needed to feel intense with a swirl of dirt particles, volumetric dust, and an idistort that affected the ground.
The disc launches.

Practical sets and photogrammetry

Entire practical environments were recreated digitally using photogrammetry. This allowed unlimited access to shoot entirely in CGI sequences.

Lab reference

Chris had exclusive access to Canada’s Nuclear Physics laboratory, however only temporarily. All additional filming needed to be generated via CGI virtual sets (see below).

Unreal environments

Virtual environments were created in the Unreal Game Engine. This allowed for dynamic cinematic shots, and to be able to revisit sets in a virtual manner that were no longer accessible (due to the pandemic).

Controlling the drones

Chris created advanced tools in Houdini for controlling thousands of swarming drones.

The one man band

Chris Browne performed as a one man film crew and one man visual effects team. For filming, Chris Utilized only the equipment depicted. He was able to shoot and VFX supervise the entirety of the on-set production, and then create the over 200 visual effects shots himself on his three home computers.

Watch the VFX breakdown



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