Articles @ 18 August 2010

Written by Stephen Withers

These days, it is hard to keep track of what writer/director/actor Samuli Torssonen is up to. My last memory is seeing a behind the scenes sneek peak of his upcoming film, in which a large crew was assembled on a soundstage – a “real” soundstage – in front of a massive blue screen, with lights, cameras and dollies. This is clearly a guy who has made it.

In recent years, filmmaking has become accessible to virtually anyone as professional productions and amateur productions are increasingly distinguished only by the skill of their creators, and not the equipment or financing necessary. Propelling this, along with desktop software and inexpensive equipment, is the accessibility of visual effects – it is possible for anyone to download learning editions of professional software and simply learn it themselves, the quality of output only limited by the amount of time the person is willing to spend learning and creating. Conceivably, an artistically inclined person can create a feature film with stunning visuals for virtually nothing, if they had enough time to spend.

When I was in middle school around the year 2000, I got my first computer and began taking my handdrawn spaceship illustrations and battle scenes the digital realm, specifically the programs MS Paint and Kidpix (I had a lot of fun with that eraser bomb). This was a copious time for computer generated art. Not a lot of people really understood it, beyond a basic recognition of the dudes who made Jurassic Park and the Star Wars special editions.

SGI Mainframes

In truth, CG effects were created using large, expensive workstations made by mostly-defunct companies such as SGI – these were the only machines that possessed the required processing power. But an important change was taking place in the visual effects industry – desktop softwares such as Lightwave 3D were starting to seep into the television market, creating effects shows like Babylon Five and Star Trek. No longer did a production need huge, expensive mortgage-eclipsing workstations to create and render 3D graphics – now they were available on your standard Windows 98 desktop. This hardware and software traditionally marketed towards the average joe consumer was now becoming powerful enough to compete with the big, expensive workstations and intricate software. This would be one of the first salvos fired in the destruction of the Hollywood paradigm, and it didn’t take long for this 14-year-old kid to realize that there wasn’t really anything holding him back from creating the same effects he saw on TV.

Star Wreck I (1992)

About eight years earlier, a teenager in Finland was doing something along the same lines as my space ship battles. Samuli Torssonen took his love for Star Trek and the game Star Control 2 and made a crude 2D animation of space ships duking it out. Torssonen created the short animation “Star Wreck I” frame by frame in a program called Deluxe Paint. Not an inconsiderable feat, for 1992. The two decades following Torssonen’s first animation have seen a considerable evolution of the art and business of filmmaking. Alongside the introduction of affordable software and desktop computers came the introduction of affordable cameras and editing equipment. Inexpensive digital video cameras became a viable alternative for established filmmakers as their quality increased. They also became a way for aspiring filmmakers to get their visions to the screen, and for youngsters like myself to experiment and impress our friends in high school.

Star Wreck V was shot against a blue bedsheet and used digital sets

Samuli Torssonen followed in the subsequent years of the 1990’s with sequel Star Wreck shorts, each one gaining in complexity and aesthetics. In 1997, he and his team released Star Wreck V, the first of their short films to use actual actors and bluescreen, stating “Real sets would have cost too much, so we decided to try bluescreen, just for fun… the movie was shot against a cheap blue bed-sheet and the blue background was replaced with spaceship bridges.” By the year 2000, Torssonen and his team were deep into planning the next film in the series and had released a teaser on the internet.

That teaser took several days to download on a 24k modem in Central Pennsylvania, but it was worth the wait. To me, Torssonen’s films were nothing short of a roadmap sent from God. The crude 2d graphics in his first short films made years earlier resembled exactly what i was doing in a program called HyperStudio, an early predecessor to PowerPoint, in which I animated spaceships blowing each other up. I set out to learn exactly how he was going about his filmmaking and sought to replicate it. I didn’t realize it would take years of hard work and the discovery of a passion; I just wanted to make cool science fiction movies with my friends.

With the release in 2005 of Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, Torssonen and his team have one of the most popular Finnish movies ever made under their belt. They have proven that, indeed, it is possible to create a full length feature movie lavished with visual effects and a professional quality of production, to have it be successful, all the while having constructed the project using off-the-shelf equipment that is inexpensive and readily available to anyone.

Modern DSLR Camera alongside 16mm Film Camera

Even since 2005, the world has changed a lot for aspiring filmmakers. The bar of entry has lowered even more – It’s now possible to film and even edit movies on the most innocuous of common electronics; a phone, a point-and-shoot camera. The splicing of film and linear video editing used until recently might as well be taught as “history” classes – actually, come to think of it, they are. It is exciting to see the possibilities open up for so many people, but it also means the professional industry is suffering from insecurity. Short films that appear visually professional are now a dime a dozen. Some propel their creators to stardom in an industry that seems increasingly desperate for new talent and fresh blood; such is the case with District 9’s creator, Neill Blomkamp, who produced a short film on his own which caught the attention of executives.

Samuli Torrsonen's Kitchen Render Farm

Even with the wash of professional-looking content streaming from amateurs, a project of a scale such as Star Wreck is still impressive. A film with hundreds of visual effects shots traditionally needs a huge budget and multiple effects companies to see the project through. Samuli Torssonen created most of the visuals for Star Wreck by himself, processing them on an array of computers in his kitchen. It did, however, take him and his team over five years to complete their project – mostly due to rewrites, changing goal posts and, yes, the visual effects.

The typical summer Hollywood blockbuster may have up to a dozen visual effects companies contributing shots. That’s hundreds of artists all working in a strict pipeline to complete the amount of effects required – there are artists who only create models, who only paint textures, etc. They work together as a well oiled machine, but consequently, that machine is incredibly expensive to feed and maintain, and impractical for independent filmmakers, who’s entire film budgets are often a fraction of the visual effects budget for a summer blockbuster.

Since the software and equipment is already available, the challenge now facing visual effects artists who support independent productions is more or less one of time and scale. Decktechs aims to push that envelope even further. I’ll explain how we’re going to accomplish the visual effects for Decktechs on time in PART 2 of this article. Check back!

Written by Stephen Withers. Photo credits: Big Ol Nasty SGI Plage, Star Wreck, Carrie Kendall (The Magic of Film).