Stina becomes Metahuman

A quick post about the transfer of Stina into her new world as a Metahuman in UNREAL 5

Stina in Softimage

The Stina model has existed in Softimage with our custom built facial animation system for some time. It has been the cornerstone of our production, so we were super excited to see how it faired in Metahuman, the new ground breaking character system in UNREAL.  A recent development in the software now allows you to load in your own custom meshes and fit the system to it. (Before you had to make new heads out of blending presets.)

First we exported the base head sculpt out of Softimage in its relaxed position:

Then converted it into a Metahuman template that identified the different regions of the face to add the animation and texturing system within unreal.

Then added in the texture, hair and animation system by tweaking a wide range of built in prests. All surprisingly straightforward.

And then played through some built in idle animations:

And a range of motion test:

The results are astonishing, verging on photoreal. It’s very strange to see the sculpt we’ve been using for so many years almost seeming to take on a life of its own! The next stage is to see how it responds to Becky’s performance. Really looking forward to bringing the other characters to life now. The Meta-world awaits!

Location scouting the UNREAL

It’s early days, but we have now jumped into the UNREAL game engine and begun crafting Stina’s world, and it’s a lot of fun!

The world map is being built with GAEA, a fantastic node-based tool for making landscapes from geological principles: Layering stratification, erosion and sedimentary flow.

This map is then used to deform the terrain in UNREAL, where we use the different maps exported from GAEA (height maps, erosion maps, sedimentary flow maps etc.) to help position the smaller, high-frequency textural details UNREAL can help us create, like grass and rock (Utilizing the fantastic BRUSHIFY shader packs as a starting point.)

It’s an amazing new experience, to be able to make a CGI environment and then run around it location scouting. (Below with UNREALs built in avatar. No Stina hasn’t become a cyborg!) A very different paradigm to the purely design-based approach of CGI we were previously used to. We can now run around and discover things about the world we didn’t know where there, reacting to it in real time like a photographer exploring an unfamiliar landscape; experiencing different compositions of light and form. The ability to instantly change the time of day with Ultra Dynamic Skies makes this even more exiting; how will the vista look at midday? Will the setting sun totally transform the mood?

Standing high up a on mountain pass looking down through a cloud as it diffuses the sunlight over the village:

Looking up at our peaks from down in the valleys:

Looking down on Stina’s aunts house from high above the cloud layer:

Stina’s field and the aunt’s house at sunset:

We are also beginning to design our other pipelines, from animation and facial motion capture through to cloth and fluid simulation. A lot of work ahead, but we’re already assembling a great team and have achieved a lot more than we ever expected in just 2 weeks. (Back at the start of the project this level of fidelity would have taken forever. Technology has come a long way in 10 years!)

We’ll be posting some videos soon exploring our new world in more depth, so keep your eyes peeled…

Falling down the Hollywood screenwriting rabbit hole

As a follow on from my previous blog about the exciting future of the Stina project, I thought I’d write a bit about the Hollywood screenwriting rabbit hole I fell down that prompted not only endless rewrites after we’d shot the film, but almost managed to mangle the original idea.

The author with rabbit ears.

I’m not alone in this; it’s a very modern phenomenon. We live in a time where virtually every specialist area you can think of has a head-spinning amount of youtube and other online tuition and master classes to immerse yourself in. In my case it was the craft of screenwriting, which is very much a learned craft. Having a “great idea for a movie!” is one of the smallest aspects of what finally translates into a good screenplay and ultimately a good film. A very simple and derivative idea can make an amazing film if structured well with great dialogue and characters, and a great idea can make a dreadful film if the former falls flat. This is great advice. The problem is there is an almost infinite wealth of “great advice” out there on screenwriting, and not all of it will fit every type of film project. In fact, as I eventually realised, the majority of advice out there relates to a very specific type of film: A Hollywood hit.

In the case of the Stina script, (and in the case of most screenplays worth anything.) the magic happens in the rewrites. I’ve been studying screenwriting and writing screenplays for quiet a few years now, and my drafts for this script were well into double figures. The excellent  writer/director Thomas Paul Anderson captures the process: 

“Screenwriting is like ironing. You move forward a little bit and go back and smooth things out.”

The first draft is a blueprint, hopefully an inspiring one, full of loads of ideas and a solid basic structure, (depending on how detailed your outlining was) but with lots left to discover about the characters and their journeys. Often characters will get themselves to a point in the writing where they need to take a different direction to the one you had mapped out for them; it’s a cliche, but they do often take on a life of their own and move in unexpected ways you have to follow, and this often has knock-on effects in other parts of script that need constant revision if you want stay true to the character’s journey. (I found this a lot in a more recent project: “DEAD HEAD WOOD”, even whilst doing the pre-viz, where I ended up constantly feeding back scene-by-scene into the script.)

“The truth is it’s not the idea. It’s never the idea. It’s always what you do with it.” – Neil Gaiman

It’s from this position on the Stina project that I found myself rewriting dialogue and often whole scenes, even after our first rehearsals, always chasing “perfection”. The trick here is knowing when to stop; this should be when the film is working and carry’s your themes as effectively as it can. That’s not as easy as it sounds, as you can often get too close to a project and perspective can be hard to find. Of course, an end point should definitely come after you finally shoot it; that’s it, that’s the end. It is what it is, now the editing takes over. But that is when I fell down the rabbit hole.

Hollywood films serve a function. They are a specific product, for a specific audience and generally require a specific formula. Many are clearly excellent films, but it’s a mistake to think they encompass all good filmmaking has to offer. (Cannes Film Festival anyone?) This is especially relevant if you’re attempting to explore ideas and forms that don’t necessarily embrace the mainstream and the biggest potential audiences. (Not to mention the direction funding inevitably squeezes a writer in. Being a writer and a producer aren’t always happy bedfellows!) In our case, the first cut I had of the film, made from footage of the Mocap shoot and storyboards had really captured the atmosphere, characters and themes of the original idea, but sacrificed some of the structural tidiness and accessibility of a Hollywood movie. This was reflected in early feedback I had from some professional screenwriters. The problem I then encountered was one inherent to all feedback: What do you do with it? It was really useful feedback, but how do you use it to improve your work constructively? For example, how would some of my favourite authors have reacted to the sensibilities of a modern writing workshop? The author Page Turner:In my case I started voraciously consuming any and all industry advice videos, taking courses and seeking tips everywhere I could about how I could rewrite the “perfect” screenplay; with a plan to reshoot it one day, in a mythical future when I could make it all as a multi-million dollar live action feature. (And i’m really not getting any younger!) The problem with this is that I never looked at the small print: the places I was looking held the keys to the Hollywood “correct” process; how to make an entirely enjoyable and entirely tidy film that will work for the most number people built on foundations of proven storytelling methods. Sounds great doesn’t it? But were all of my favourite films really “enjoyable” in the traditional Hollywood sense? And would they fit neatly, or at all into the structural templates used by Hollywood screenwriters? (Good luck fitting “Mulholland Drive” into the cookie cutter) “Stina & the Wolf” was now being unwittingly reshaped into a movie format that could never express the strangeness, otherness and ambiguities of my original Idea.

In the end it’s a confidence thing. I had a strong idea of theme, story and character and the first cut was pretty close in most areas, it just needed a few extra scenes and a few tweaks, but the feedback had knocked me sideways, and instead of just applying the fixes it needed and moving on, down the rabbit hole I went. I became increasingly obsessed with completing every character’s arc neatly, structuring every beat to hit the Hollywood defined structure and comparing my film to others that were regarded as perfect examples of the craft; all great films, but all bearing absolutely no relationship to my original vision.

What I finally ended up with was a dense story overcrowded with detail and ideas. It tried to complete every character arc, tidy up every loose end, destroy every ambiguity, justify every aspect of every character’s motivation, and left no space for the other-worldly inexplicable melancholy of the original; it wasn’t dreamlike, it had no yearning for meaning beyond what was seen and squeezed out most of what I loved about the early cut.  But by that point my confidence was shot. And in tandem with it becoming increasingly clear that the technology we needed was still no where near affordable enough, I all but abandoned the project.

But it was saved; partly by what I touched on in my last post: Current technology finally getting to the place where it is entirely possible to complete a film like this. But you need more than that to drive you to make a film. It’s often a seemingly impossibly difficult task, so you have to really want to make it. It has to be special.

I decided, a few months ago to watch the last cut I had made before the endless rewrites, just me and my partner. I’d done it so long ago I figured it would be like watching someone else’s film. It was a cut I dimly remembered getting very emotional about at the time. I knew I had already added the few additions it needed to make it work, before disappearing down the rewriting rabbit hole never to return.

On rewatching it, it brought me close to tears, it just felt right, it didn’t need all the other bumf i’d added to flesh everything out to the point of bursting. Even though it was just a bunch of kids in Mocap suits and some pencil storyboards it stayed with me for days. It didn’t hit every beat of a 3 or 5 act structure, didn’t contain every archetype of Joseph Campbell’s “the hero’s journey” and left some characters almost entirely arc free, but it made me want to cry. It was truthful; not just to my original vision, but to the characters, and to life. That’s all it ever needed.

So now we’re all very excited, as not only do we have a story (we always did) and performances that express the original vision, we now have the tech to make it visually stunning, and actually finish it!

And the moral of all this, if there is one: Trust your instincts. Feedback used wisely is invaluable, but the best critic of your work is always you, you just need time, a lot of it sometimes, to see if what you really wanted to do, under all the fluff and nonsense, is actually there. Is it actually present in what you made? Is it truthful?

If it makes you cry, it’s working.

It’s clearly important to learn as many of the rules and formula of your art form as you can, especially with something as craft-dependant as screenwriting, but only to the point you are actually improving, not suffocating or entirely changing what you originally set out to express.

And as a final thought: Here’s one of my heroes: Kurt Vonnegut, on top comedy form exploring Shakespeare and Kafka completely failing to craft the “perfect” story: 

Stina & the Wolf’s journey into the UNREAL

So, we have some very exciting news on the “Stina & the Wolf” film.

In previous posts I had discussed making it as a live action feature; starting again, completely from scratch. This always stung, as there were so many great moments and performances from our original shoot that would be lost and need recapturing. At the time we just couldn’t work out a way to finance it, to get the huge budget you need to pull off an entirely motion captured film to the quality we wanted.

The technology was only affordable to huge studios with hundreds or even thousands of VFX artists working at the top of their game. There were just too many sets, too many performances that needed complex facial character models and animation systems, too much varied and detailed natural scenery; too many complex cloud and outdoor lighting scenarios; all of it teased by our concept art:

Then 12 years passed by (Yep, it really was that long! This all kicked off back in 2010) and technology finally caught up.In the last few years facial animation technology has been massively democratised, as has access to amazing scanned models and real-time realistic lighting and cloud technology. This is best represented in the incredible new game engine UNREAL 5:

This is the way we are going with our film production.UNREAL 5 is a game changer, not just for us but possibly for the whole industry. Now these examples above are still produced by extremely skilled industry level artists. There is no magic button here, there never will be. (Okay, there will – AI will eventually do everything better than us, but that’s for another day.) The difference is that the majority of the assets and systems used here are free (or relatively inexpensive) and are available for everyone to use. The art comes in composing and editing them and mastering the systems. You no longer need 1000 VFX artists to make every blade of grass wobble, every facial muscle twitch, paint every plank of wood, simulate every drop of water in a cloud completely from scratch. UNREAL and their partner company Quixel Megascans have done that work for you.

It’s now entirely feasible for a small team of talented artists to produce amazing work, building on what UNREAL has already produced. It’s now, finally possible for us to make “Stina & the Wolf” as we originally intended!We are currently designing a pipeline for this new phase and planning to reinvigorate our old in-house studio FOAMdigital that ran out of Portsmouth University. It will once again give students a chance to get involved in a really exciting industry project that will take their skills to the next level and help them produce some really stunning work. (As seen in our short film “Uncle Griot” & our assorted trailers and teasers.)It’s early days, but we shall be posting more details, examples and deep-dives as we progress, and with the addition of the University’s amazing new £7 million digital studio and motion capture suite at our disposal, the future is looking very bright indeed for “Stina & the Wolf” 🙂Paul

INDIGOGO Now live!

Another update on our sister project DEAD HEAD WOOD:

Our INDIGOGO is finally live! Check it out and share if you can:

“A young girl fights to save her best friend from the darkness of DEAD HEAD WOOD…”

New Teaser Trailer for DEAD HEAD WOOD

We’ve now completed our first piece of test footage for our new feature DEAD HEAD WOOD. It was great opportunity to road test all the new gear and was a lot of fun. (Except the ticks. I love forests, but blood-sucking-flesh-burrowers not so much.) We had a great local location all ready to go when our AD Ros found a gorgeous bit of ancient forest nearby that was so instantly magical it has now become our main location for the film.

We did an afternoon shoot taking advantage of the sun and based it around a single scene from the feature previz (We have about 1 1/2 hours completed now.) We whizzed through the shot list employing nearly every bit of kit in our arsenal to capture some great footage of our young actors.

And here’s the result: Our new teaser trailer for our up-and-coming INIDGOGO funding pitch! (Coming soon; some great perks for those who want to get involved!)

DEAD HEAD WOOD

This isn’t strictly a “Stina & the Wolf” post, because its about another film project, but in many ways it is, as it’s developing the groundwork and experience for how we will tackle the film once the budget has finally been arranged. (Still a few years to go on that; a few more modestly budgeted films need to be in the can first.)

The film our production company Pipecatcher Films Ltd. is tackling first is called DEAD HEAD WOOD:

Poster design & awards for the “Dead Head Wood” script

It’s a scary, nostalgic, time-twisting thriller set during a sweltering hot summer in 1970s England in a small rural town: a time and place where kids could lose themselves in woods and meadows and countryside adventures.

Ancient woodland at our primary location in Romsey, Hampshire, UK

It’s a place far away from the constraints of adult control, but also from the things that keep children safe, and not lording it over each other like flies.

Still from the “Dead Head Wood” funding pitch deck 

One of the reasons we chose this project from a range of possible scripts was it that it can all be done locally, and well, on a small budget and utilize the glorious countryside around us in Hampshire, UK; a place still full of ancient woods and wild fields where you can really lose yourself.

On location with our Canon c200 cinema camera with 70-200 lens. Grade: CLog c200 to Arri LUT

It’s replete with hidden moss-covered ruins and abandoned WWII bunkers. Much of it has hardly changed in hundreds of years. It’s a place that still tempts you off the beaten track into a world of outdoor freedom and adventure that I still vividly remember from my own 1970s childhood. And it’s all still there… waiting to be rediscovered…

Still from the “Dead Head Wood” funding pitch deck 

We’ve now bought most of the kit we need (gulp) and are slowly assembling a small crew based around a core of seasoned professionals (and some who are still being seasoned).

Putting the new gear through its paces on location.

We are also really taking our time to explore the possibilities of the script using Previz. Having worked on Previz for a number of big Hollywood projects I’m keenly aware of its potential, particularly how valuable it could be for planning smaller budget projects like ours. So far it’s been an amazing experience and has really given us a chance to dream and play with how we want to tell the story; really get to the heart of each scene. So far we’ve completed 1 hour out of what will be approximately a 2 hour run time, so we’re about half way there.

Previz stills from “Dead Head Wood”

One useful addition to the process has been the ability to convert the script pages into read dialogue using a handy phone App called TABLEREAD . I highly recommend it to any independent film makers out there, as it allows you to add a range of voices to get your script (formatted properly!) into a rough audio dialogue format quickly. (It also allows you to really alienate your perspective and experience your script in a way you haven’t before – Brilliant for honing those rewrites; the place where the real magic happens!) We’ve been adding this dialogue into our Previz as we go, and then feeding ideas developed in the Previz back into the script.

Doing the Previz has also given us the confidence to approach our next stage: planning how we are going to tackle the actual logistical requirements of the shoot. It helps give us a clear insight into everything from actor blocking, to set dressing and production design requirements to practical effects and location. (We’re using CELTX for the next planning stage).

So this brings me to how this all relates to the title of this site. Well, as we’ve already done a tremendous amount of work on the “Stina & the Wolf” location scouting and other pre-production, it’s made it clear what our next stage should be for that project: Previz. And this current film is forming the template for how we will approach it, particularly as the Stina project is scoped to shoot across locations in north and south UK, as well as our primary location in Switzerland. It’s really going to help get us a tight cut that we can use to simplify the logistics and keep the budget as low as humanly possible. (A must if your planning to film in Switzerland. Those fondues don’t come cheap!)

Cheese

Also, I’m just super excited about revisiting the script for “Stina & the Wolf” once we wrap on “Dead Head Wood”, as it will allow us to jump back into that dream all over again, and spend more time visualising the characters, the story and the locations in a world I just love exploring 🙂

Manlichen, Switzerland

That’s all for now!

Paul

More details on Pipecatcher films and it’s projects can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/PipecatcherFilms/

Making the live action feature film of – “Stina & the Wolf”

Since making the decision to make “Stina & the Wolf” as a completely live-action feature film, we have had to totally rethink our approach to the project. We have a wealth of concept art, as well as a script we are very confident in, (and that has ticked the required industry boxes) and a 2-hour mocap/storyboard rough-cut of the whole film made with our amazing original Stina actress: Becky Waldron, and a great ensemble cast that will serve as a template for what we want to achieve story and performance-wise.

Stills from the “Stina and the Wolf ” Mocap Drama Cut

Concept art from “Stina and the Wolf “

Concept art from “Stina and the Wolf “

The first big question we had to ask ourselves was: Where on earth is Stina’s world? CGI and matte paintings allow for limitless freedom of imagination, but the real world has limits, (and permit requirements!) and initially I wasn’t convinced there was anywhere that could match up to our original concepts, with its combination of lush grass, absurdly high vistas, huge clouds, and often snowy peaks all in the same shot. So our first task was scourer the world for this mythical place. We spent the first few months location scouting and begin the long process of creating a completely new, live-action budget from scratch. The needs of an animated film and a live-action film are very different, and this has been a massive learning curve, as well as a very complex and detail ridden process (Involving spreadsheets bigger than I ever thought were humanly possible!)

A seasoned producer I’ve been working with on another live-action feature I’m directing (A US production, temporarily stalled, unfortunately, due to COVID19) has been giving me some invaluable guidance into the complex world of live-action feature planning and budgeting. Our plan has been to come up with a number of different budget versions for different marketplaces and see what looks feasible in the current climate (post-lockdown, obviously!) It has also been a useful exercise in assessing whether the film we want to make is even possible with the kind of budgets we could realistically achieve. (There is a distinct chance that this film may have to wait on entering full production until a few other projects have wrapped, so the director can accrue enough industry cachet to get a budget high enough to do it justice! There is no point in making this feature unless it can realise at least some of its potential on the big screen.)

As well as being a planning and logistics exercise, this process has been really useful for drilling down into the detail of the creative decisions you need to make as a live-action filmmaker: on everything from the artistic and practical (and cost!) implications of production design, to the cinematography potential of locations, right down to the nuts and bolts of day-to-day shooting: “are there any toilets nearby?” , “is there an interior shoot we could do that day if it rains on our exterior location?” , “Are you actually allowed to fly drones there anyway? It’s next to an airport!”. It’s all a very different world from the one I’d previously inhabited (where most production questions seem to boil down to: “Can we get a bigger render farm?”.) One exciting thing that has happened during this process is that we have really taken the scenes and locations off the page and placed them into the world; as they go from ideas packed with potential to real, tangible places. And boy did we find some amazing places!

The most expensive part of a live-action film process is the shoot. The more money you have the more locations you can have and the more expensive actors you can have etc. etc. One big factor in keeping the cost down is to have as few locations as possible; so we had to first nail down our biggest issue:

Where are we going to shoot? Does the location we want even exist in our world?

..and if so, how easy is it to get there? And how many days shooting could we really afford? For us, a big challenge was to find places that captured the grandeur and beauty of our CGI visualisations, but wouldn’t require the same expensive CGI heavy augmentations of a James Cameron film. This was one of the main problems with the CGI Stina (and the main reason we switched to live-action): there was no real way of it not costing the same as Avatar! Also, how do you location scout with next-to-no pre-production budget?  This is where technology stepped in. We are now at the point in computer graphics where you can visit, in virtual reality, almost any place on earth. So that’s what we did. I have a Vive VR headset, and using the amazing Google Earth VR we set about travelling around the world looking at hundreds and hundreds of different locations.

Google Earth VR (Image: Google)

Rio in Google VR (Image: Google)

Good VR can really give you a sense of place and scale. The ability of Google Earth to change the time of day even allowed us to make decisions based on our cinematography style; we could check instantly whether the sunset would fall over the right mountain, or even if we could get the natural rim-lighting we are after with mountainous ariel occlusion fading off behind us.

So, after months of searching through Europe, Asia, America (and of course New Zealand!), we found Stina’s world: the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. There is something about the combination of extreme verticality, not present anywhere else in Europe, and the simultaneous existence of lush green grass and epic snowy peaks that just made it perfect. This is Stina’s world. With a few CGI tweaks (a couple of buildings and a cable car removed and a light grade) we are already in Stina’s original field:

Original image from Google Earth (by Stuart Brown©2020)

Original image from Google Earth©2020

Now that we had the country, the next process was to go through every single scene in the film and match it with a specific location that was feasible to work in, film in and travel to, all from a single (and not too expensive!) central location. We decided on an area of about 30 miles in diameter in the middle of the Berneses Alps that had everything we needed and was easily accessible: Lush green meadows, Stina’s aunt’s house (filming permissions pending) snowy mountain tops, epic vistas. The locations have a sense of both immense beauty and peace, and the sublime terror and sense of overwhelming insignificance you get when you put tiny little humans in ridiculously big mountain ranges; it’s a place where you could be at total peace one minute and overwhelmed by terror the next.

I had planned to travel to the location for a few weeks of real scouting in May (as visiting a location is a must for logistical as well as artistic planning) but unfortunately Switzerland was one of the first countries to fall prey to COVID 19, so will be visiting after the lockdown ends.

Here are a few of the stunning Berneses Alps locations courtesy of Goole Earth 360°. We scoured every corner of the earth for Stina’s homeworld, and we found it 🙂

Männlichen:

https://goo.gl/maps/TD8QdMELwdxadyTZ9

https://goo.gl/maps/yfCyno42KthTue2g6

Jungfraujoch:

https://goo.gl/maps/43pM3md1Asrt1TGv9

Grindlewald:

https://goo.gl/maps/HyMHTF4uyGdf14Rs8

https://goo.gl/maps/tbwU6racvYdapFqFA

https://goo.gl/maps/5PPCBJcvFcWc22d56

With all the locations bookmarked in one place, we now have an easy way to measure distances, check accessibility, plot routes and share information with the entire cast and crew from anywhere:

Google Earth Switzerland locations – “Stina & the Wolf”

Switzerland is an undeniably expensive country to shoot in, so one of the first decisions we made was to find a location in the UK to do all the filming in where the script doesn’t actually require us to look at the mountain environment. As well as interior scenes, If someone is walking down a road with a cliff behind them, but no vista, It makes sense to get your eye-candy B Roll to cut-in from the expensive location using as few actors and crew as possible, whilst you do all your close-ups etc. where it’s cheaper (being careful to match the light of course; Milton Keynes Waitrose car park in November will never feel like the Swiss Alps in May!) So we settled on 2 locations. We are hoping to take advantage of some tax breaks to help budget the film as a joint Swiss-UK production.  I won’t be revealing where the UK location is yet, as it’s subject to negotiations with assorted parties about filming permission, so may move, but we’re hoping it will be in north England, close to the Scottish border.

We are now at the stage where we have a good idea of total shooting days (8 in Swizerland/27 in the UK) and detailed breakdowns of every location, set, prop, costume, actor, CGI/practical effect, and travel requirement for every scene. The next stage is to drill down even further into the real detail of costings and logistics (what kind of filling would you like in your sandwich Mr Director? Lobster Thermidor?) and see what figures we end up with. Once that’s completed, we can start chipping away to get our various different budget proposals to match with different market places, and move forward to the finance and fund-raising stages.

Planning a film of this scope is by far the most complex (and sometimes overwhelmingly imposable seeming)  thing I have ever attempted, but with every location found, every corner cut to save a little bit more money, every tiny, seemingly insignificant detail ticked off, it all, very slowly, seems more and more feasible.

(if anyone wants to start looking into this process for their own projects, the book to start with, and that was recommended by my experienced producer friend is “Film and Video budgets by Deke Simon”: a tome that’s simultaneously terrifying, and reassuringly detailed and informative.)

Paul

New Awards for “UNCLE GRIOT”

Very excited to have been selected for “Art of Brooklyn Film Festival”, which is online this year due to COVID 19.

Check out the site here: FESTIVAL SITE

Look’s like it going to be a great festival! Our poster is getting pretty crowded now 🙂


Check out our new trailer for it here: