September 14, 2014 1:24 am
Marc Leidy’s Sci-fi Short Explores Technology’s Power to Protect and Imprison
The near future: technology has advanced to the point where anyone can carry a pocket-sized device capable of protecting them from any threat. But can this high-tech wonder save us from ourselves? Welcome to the world of Nothing Safer (http://www.vimeo.com/marcleidy/nothingsafer), a recently released, 13-minute sci-fi film by the director/producer team of Marc Leidy and Kristy Kelly, co-founders of Lightdog Films.
Lead actor Brian Kinney gives an emotional performance in the sci-fi short
In addition to writing and directing this visually rich and emotionally complex film, Leidy handled most of the CG, while Kelly managed the logistics of production and post. Though he primarily relied on Cinema 4D and After Effects, Leidy also used Photoshop, Premiere, SynthEyes, RealFlow, V-Ray and TurbulenceFD for the film.
A veteran VFX artist, Leidy’s big break in the industry came when he was asked to supervise the effects on the first season of CSI: Miami. Since then, he has worked on a variety of commercials, big-budget films and television series. With Nothing Safer, Kelly and Leidy’s goal was to develop a creative and technical pipeline that would lay the foundation for future films and television projects they wanted to make.
Leidy used V-Ray to render the film’s test chamber
Though his primary inspiration was the original Twilight Zone TV series, Leidy also cites films like Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Chris Marker's La Jetee and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey as major influences. Realizing what he envisioned in his head called for constant interplay between artistic exploration and VFX research. “Making this film was a process of discovery,” he explains. “Brian Kinney, the lead actor, gave a fantastic performance. We wanted the visual elements to not only support his acting, but expand on it and invite the audience into his world.”
Because it was a self-financed labor of love, Leidy and Kelly had to set aside the ambitious VFX demands of the film for months at a time in order to work on paying projects. In all, they spent about eight weeks writing the script, six weekends rehearsing, five days shooting and the last few years in post-production.
Setting the Tone
Nothing Safer opens with a shot that quickly moves in on a lone bubble poised above calm ocean waters. Inside the bubble, a just-married couple stands atop a wedding cake. For a moment, the camera pauses on the woman’s tranquil face—and then her left eyeball bursts into flames. As the fire spreads, an alien being is revealed beneath her human-looking exterior.
Throughout the film, live-action elements were digitally recreated and enhanced
Filming the live-action portion of the shot required a precise dolly move and an on-set makeup transformation of the lead actress, Kestrin Pantera. Leidy used these live-action elements as a base for further VFX enhancement. “Building up digital elements instead of relying solely on the live-action footage offered me more flexibility to push things beyond the physical constraints of our budget and shooting schedule,” he explains. “It also allowed us to make changes to clarify story points.”
In the final shot, Pantera’s face is a complete CG recreation by Leidy. Originally, she was filmed wearing a 1950’s hairstyle and makeup, but during preview screenings viewers commented that she was nearly unrecognizable compared to the way she looked in the rest of the film. So Leidy modified a stock CG head to match Pantera’s facial features and used Cinema 4D to project textures of her 1950’s face, blended in Photoshop with a makeup-free version of her face, onto the mesh. Using SynthEyes, he then tracked the live-action plate of Pantera standing in place, and added that track to the head mesh, to perfectly re-create her original, subtle standing-in-place movement.
Leidy’s TurbulenceFD flame simulation in progress inside Cinema 4D
To create the flames, smoke and embers coming from the actress’s head, Leidy used TurbulenceFD. “With TurbulenceFD, I was able to generate gaseous fluid dynamics quickly and efficiently, especially since the plug-in takes advantage of GPU acceleration on cards such as NVIDIA’s Tesla series,” he explains, adding that it integrated well with C4D.
Safe From Harm
“Murderers, kidnappers, terrorists: there has never been a reliable way to protect yourself against them—until now,” explains a female robot with a swiveling video screen for a head. Visible in her extended, robotic hand is the “revolutionary personal protective device” at the center of Nothing Safer. Once activated, the robot explains, the device’s magneto plasma cocoon is instantly capable of surrounding and protecting you from anything. “At last, fear no threat,” she says.
Concept art and the final render of the robot
Leidy first envisioned a flesh-and-blood spokesperson for the device, but opted for a robot to set a more futuristic tone. Working from a Turbosquid model styled after the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he worked with lead concept artist, Keith Thompson, to add a new head that featured a swiveling video screen. Because the original model had been rigged for another 3D software package, Leidy enlisted Cactus Dan (http://www.cactus3d.com) to quickly rig and animate the character in C4D.
The film’s Personal Protective Device
As she speaks, the robot is dwarfed by an ominous-looking test chamber, which was intentionally designed to loom large enough to be a character onto itself. “There was an extended period of research where I tried to locate a visual reference that would resonate,” says Leidy. “I finally came across some photographs of the daVinci Surgical System, with its long needles pointed inwards at a central target. It looked pretty scary, even though it’s a life-saving device. So that became the basis for the design.”
David Levy’s speed painting of the Control Room (left) and the final composite
With the core visual reference established, Leidy reached out to concept artist David Levy (http://vyle-art.com) and asked him to create several speed paintings—quick color sketches that set the mood and overall style for the environment.
Developing a World
Overlooking the Test Chamber is the Control Room, the second of three main environments in the film. Using low-resolution proxy geometry based on Levy’s concept art and the match-moved cameras extracted from the live-action photography, Leidy used Cinema 4D to precisely define the boundaries of the Control Room so that the main geometry would work for all the required angles.
Levy’s design called for diagonal posts and other architectural details, so Leidy needed to ensure they would be visible when lined up with the live-action. “In order to help place the actress into the scene, I wanted to have foreground CG elements partially block her,” he explains. Subtle live-action camera moves added to the challenge. “Because my pipeline consisted of Cinema 4D for both pre-viz and final high-resolution elements, I was able to build my early setups knowing that the final high-resolution geometry would line up perfectly.”
Screen graphics were designed and animated using Cinema 4D’s MoGraph
Screen graphics play an integral role in the film’s story and the visual design, particularly since main characters communicate solely through video screens because they’re never in the same room. MoGraph gave Leidy the speed and flexibility to design and animate a variety of graphic elements. “With MoGraph’s effector objects, I was able to quickly make changes to the screen graphics animations and preview them in real-time. It’s a very intuitive system,” he says.
While it currently stands alone as a short film, Nothing Safer is actually the first chapter of a planned full-length feature. “This was an ambitious project, and all that effort is now up on screen, so it’s great to see it come together,” says Kelly. Leidy explains, “We wanted to bring the audience into a world filled with technology and pose the question: Can technology save us, or will it become our prison? Now it’s up to the audience to decide.”
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Article by Scott Strohmaier
Scott Strohmaier is a writer living in Los Angeles living with his wife and son.
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