Shot on MiniDV, edited in Final Cut Pro and with special effects created in Shake, all for just $8,000, the action-thriller short Broken is wowing film fans.
"And, I also learned that while it's great to accomplish something alone, it's amazing when you're surrounded by a team of people who are just as passionate about the project as you are... that's when magic happens."
Magic would certainly be one explanation for writer/producer Rodriguez's collaboration with writer/director Alex Ferrari, which resulted in Broken - a 20-minute short film that is currently garnering a great deal of interest at US film festivals. Amazingly, the short, which contains over 100 visual effects, was made for a budget of just $8,000.
Although originally intent on creating a short that would act as a calling card, Ferrari and Rodriguez were nonetheless keen to prove that independent, non-budget filmmaking could produce a piece that could seamlessly replace 20 minutes in a big money movie.
Once the script was finalized, and between cash and credit cards enough money was in place to finance the film, production started with a casting session.
Gathering a crew and cast who were happy to work for free or next to nothing, and keeping them motivated over a 12-week period was the hardest challenge of the entire project says Ferrari.
"I kept showing everyone every VFX test, storyboard, concept art, character design, colour-correction test... anything to keep their interest in the project going," he recalls.
"I think a big part of us getting the cast and crew was a combination of them liking the story, and the fact that nobody ever makes an indie action film so they wanted to see how the hell we were going to pull it off," adds Rodriguez.
Things didn't go as smoothly as planned however, when a couple of days before the shoot, a hurricane hit the area, destroying part of the building and knocking out the area's power.
Postponing the shoot for a week then saw a slight clash with Rodriguez's personal life as his wife was due to give birth to their third child on the now rearranged first day. "Luckily, she had the baby the night before the shoot and I was the only one affected," he says.
Even so, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency using the hospital to dispense food and aid to the victims of the hurricane, who numbered 200,000 in the first week, getting to the location proved a daily challenge for the crew.
"I suggested we split the grip and electric crew and have them set up the exterior shots while the bulk of the crew continued to shoot the interior stuff," says Rodriguez. "We didn't get everything we wanted but we got enough and finished on schedule".
Ferrari chose to shoot with two Panasonic's DVX 100A MiniDV for one simple reason he says, 24p. "The second I saw 24p I knew that I could finally be able to get that polished look without shooting film. I love film but it is too slow and cumbersome. My directing style is very fast. Digital lets me not only fly on set but also in post," explains Ferrari.
"I'd always been hesitant about doing a short film on DV. It looks like video. It looks cheap and not cinematic. I didn't want to waste time and money on a format that wouldn't garner any respect for the project and wouldn't push me forward as a director. Then I saw a 24p test that Panasonic was doing and I was sold."
Despite being an Avid editor for over eight years, Ferrari is evangelical in his praise for Apple's Final Cut Pro, even vowing to edit the feature version of Broken on the program.
"The power this little program has is amazing, there's nothing on the planet that comes close," he says. "I'm able to get a unique look that you could never get on an Avid... it's like having Photoshop for a moving image. I also love the speed and scalability of the program."
The first cut was completed in two weeks, after which work began on the VFX plates. More than 100 visual effects were completed in just two and a half weeks by Ferrari, Cregan, and VFX supervisor and Shake compositor Sean Falcon.
According to Falcon, the most time-consuming effects to create were the muzzle flashes and weapon explosions. "I tried many different approaches, from hand-drawn to 3D to procedural, he says. "I found that a happy mix between hand painted and procedural yielded the best results.
Instead, he began with a basic flame shape - actually a rotoshape in Shake - and began layering in different warps to give edge distortion.
"Because Shake is node based, it offers lots of control over the image, so I could have the warp affect certain parts of my script while covering the entire frame," says Falcon. "This meant an effect that never produced the same-looking flame twice."
After creating a muzzle flash that everyone was happy with, Falcon made a template script based on the type of gun that was being fired. For instance, Christian's gun produced a multi-flame flash, while Tony's gun was a single-shot burst.
The flame and all the atmospheric effects were controlled by one side of the script, and the colour treatment for interactive lighting was controlled by the other side.
A new expression
"This was all accomplished by moving only one slider instead of 35. Since the warps were constantly changing on a frame-by-frame basis and the flames only lasted one frame, I was confident of having a different effect any time it was visible."
The 'shaking things up' scene, which sees chair-bound Bonnie and all around her shaking madly as if an earthquake was ripping apart the basement room, was great fun to work on says Falcon. He began by rotoscoping Bonnie from the background and layering her onto a new one. He then took the clean background plate and cut it apart.
"This plate worked really well for this type of shot because there were tons of items in the background that I could really shake the hell out of," he says.
To avoid uniformity, Falcon made good use of Shake's expressions. "Since almost everything we do as visual-effects artists has its roots in math one way or another, you can finally put all that trigonometry and algebra to good use.
"Implementing some basic trig functions into the expression allowed for some cool movement that would be tedious to do by keyframe, and even worse, having to make a change to a hundred different nodes," he says.
"I found that Simple Levels helped me crush the black in a way that the entire image wasn't affected," he says. "I also used garbage mattes to cut out sections of the frame and colour correct them individually."
It then took around 35 hours to render all the filters on a G5 Dual 2GB Mac with 4GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. Response to the short has been overwhelmingly positive say Ferrari and colleagues.
Interest at film festivals around the US, including this year's Sundance, has led to the team remastering the film for release on DVD. They are also in discussions for a feature-length version of Broken to be made.