Take £50,000, a good idea, network a renderfarm, call in your mates and work non-stop for three months. The result? Hollywood on a shoestring.

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James Mather has his future mapped out. “Go to Hollywood – limos, rock chicks, drugs, rehab, sex scandal, trial, autobiography. In that order.” Mather has every reason to believe his dream might come true. 
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With co-writer and director Stephen St Leger, he’s spent the last two years turning a toyed-with idea – a dream, if you will – for a commercial into the world’s first low-budget, high-impact, Hollywood-style short film. 
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Only 15 minutes long, Prey Alone is a story about a man obsessed, and his search for an unknown, unseen criminal and the high-speed chases that ensue. Mather, a Dublin-based cameraman, shot the live-action in a few days, and then set up an 11-strong renderfarm in the study in his house. These babies were connected by a “slow” network hub which Mather says, “often led to fights”.
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The result is a great short film. The film’s main character is NSA Agent Darris Cain. On the hunt for an elusive fugitive his only leads are a reluctant witness held in a military prison (wearing a Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuit) and the words “Prey Alone” written in a notebook. 
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His hunt takes us from the interrogation room to the streets of LA/New York and into the subway network where a spectacular chase sequence ensues. When the Harrier jump jet flies into the motorway tunnel and nearly collides with a train it’s edge-of-the-seat stuff. 
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Especially when you know the whole 15-minute film only had a budget of about £50,000. Suddenly, you can see the importance of this movie – it is showing what’s possible for the low-budget filmmaker with current technology.
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<h2>High-octane</h2>
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“The response has been amazing,” says Mather. It’s been doing the rounds at the festivals, and online, but hasn’t won any awards. “I wouldn

It hasn’t got a TV slot yet, although Mather believes it will be broadcast on TV at some stage. “I couldn’t tell you when – but I understand that some ‘individuals’ who shall remain nameless have put the film on the Web. A quick Google would throw it up.”

One of the movie’s USPs is it’s the first low budget short film to attempt Hollywood standards, although Mather is reserved about claiming as much. “Whether or not we hit ‘Hollywood standards’ is debatable. But theoretically the film uses reasonably new techniques to create sets and environments that would have been difficult or expensive to create physically.

“I work as a cameraman, Stephen works as a commercials director and we’re both very aware of what is going to take time or cost money. Night exteriors, helicopters, pyro and stunts are prohibitively expensive to shoot.”

He continues: “We opted to stage the whole film so the look would be consistent. No flip-flopping between physical and digital shots. We decided to shoot everything greenscreen because we felt the biggest enemy of believability is direct contrast. For example, when Ger Carey gets into his car in a wide shot and then you cut to a driving close-up which is shot in-studio using back projection – the cut is jarring.
“If, on the other hand, the whole film is back projection, then you just assume it is the look of the piece. It seems like an aesthetic choice, rather than a necessary evil.”

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The plot developed from an idea Mather had two years ago and was conceived as a demo commercial for PlayStation. “We wanted to do a high-octane thriller – a big popcorn kind of a thing with a central mystery, car chases, shootouts and a twist at the end. Like a movie you’d be happy to plunk down a few quid to see in a multiplex.” Plus, Mather says: “I have long been a fan of the kind of circular paranoid narrative that the film itself is.”
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The live action took only a few days to film against greenscreen. “Then the post-horror started,” says Mather, “and that took a solid three plus months: every day, 18 hours a day … I must say it was far more work than I ever thought it would be. The shooting crew was about <BR>
twenty people and the post crew was effectively four.”
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The film was made in Ireland, which has a small but strong CG and digital content industry. Before Mather got to calling in friends and favours, he had been working on the concept for a couple of years. 
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“I had been tinkering around building 3D sets and had generated a proof of concept for the chase sequence. The subway pursuit when the Harrier flies over the car was pretty much as per the original test. In any spare moment I would be building another 3D set – many of which didn

The shoot proved uneventful he says, “Save for the actors, Ger Carey and Andy Moore, who took an enormous leap of faith and were fantastic, given they were sitting in a sea of green with one or two props.” Given that most of the film was being made in post, wasn’t there a temptation to design the film around the technology, to make it easier?

In short, no: “We didn’t moderate shots to suit the medium in photography. Some of our worst problems were because me, the cameraman, opted to shoot one sequence handheld, thereby shafting me, the compositor and matchmover.”

Posting it

Early on, the post was fraught with teething problems Mather says: “Renderfarm and networking issues on the one side; deadline versus creativity on the other. All that plus the demands of having people in your house for a few months – I’m surprised my long-suffering girlfriend didn’t cut and run.”

The eleven deep renderfarm and slow network hub was also frustrating. “They were in the study in my house and managed to heat the place,” says Mather, “which was nice save for the fact that it was the hottest summer on record – again, this often led to fights.”

The film was shot on film, not the cheapest medium when making a low budget movie. Why not shoot in HD and post the ‘film look’? “I don’t believe that you can do that,” says Mather. “Our producer initially mentioned HD which we didn’t feel it was going to work. It’s still a video look contrast-wise and there are strobing problems – it just looks cheap.”

“The post production systems and plug-ins that apparently give tape the film-look seem to make video very smudgy and degraded whereas if you’re sitting in a telecine bay looking at 35mm film on a high grade monitor, there’s nothing smudgy and degraded about it.

“HD, despite having progressive scan and a big resolution chip, may ostensibly look like film, but only to those who are not too discriminating. HD systems are in their infancy and still possess a kind of tape-look unless certain very narrow photographic margins are adhered to. Having gone to all this trouble and then spend your time working around the photographic medium would be messy – so why not just shoot film?”

So there you have it: Get a great story, ask your mates to chip in, get some money from a local film board (in this case the Irish Film Board), work round the clock, fight, test your girlfriend’s patience, and maybe Hollywood will come calling. “We are lucky enough to have been approached by some people to see if we are interested in pursuing further projects,” Mather says. Better book that limo…

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Prey Alone is about a man obsessed in his search for an unknown, unseen fugitive
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The 15-minute short was shot entirely against greenscreen with live action filmed over three days. Post production took three months.
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