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Big Visual Effects, Small Budget

VFX-Heavy Film

The Woyzeck Project

Defies Budget Constraints Using Canon DSLRs

In today’s filmmaking world, it’s hard to find any production that doesn’t incorporate visual effects on some level. While VFX shots eat up mouthfuls of man hours both during production and post, being able to create professional effects on slim budgets in today’s film environment is often necessary. Such is the case with

The Woyzeck Project

, a 25 minute short film directed by Craig Erpelding which relies heavily on effects-driven shots–on only a $5,000 budget.

“We adapted Georg Buchner’s notoriously unfinished play, ‘Woyzeck,’ but since we didn’t have the funds to fly a whole crew to Europe, or believably set the film in the past–we took things the other way,” director Craig Erpelding says. “However, setting the movie in a future America, where the NYSE fails and China takes over [not to mention showing the visualization of the main character’s heightening madness] meant we needed to rely heavily on effects to fulfill the protagonist and audiences journey.”

With most of the budget slated for costuming, location, and set dressing, Erpelding looked to VFX artist Steve Summers and DP Paul Rowe to create sellable effects. To do so, the camera department chose to work with Canon’s 5D and four 7Ds.

“I love using the DSLRs for short films,” Rowe says. “When the entire camera, grip and electric team consists of three or four people, its great to be using a reliable camera that switches on with a click, is light-weight, and still has a cinematic look in the frame.  Trying to throw a 40-pound RED rig around in the same circumstances, can really slow things to a crawl.”

Rowe also pointed out that using the lightweight Canon DSLRs provided him the opportunity to create very cinematic shots in a fixed location where certain parts of the structure couldn’t be removed–as when shooting on a set.

“If you’re crazy like me, you’re always thinking about what grip equipment you can rig up to stick the camera in the corner, or in the ceiling,” Rowe says. “We even made a jib arm out of grip gear that worked well enough, and would not have been possible with any other video camera.  Finding a way to make a shot happen is what it’s all about for DPs. DSLRs let you realize that with a lot less gear and man power than other cameras.”

While VFX artists would prefer using a ultra-high resolution camera system like the RED or Alexa in order to make keying and compositing easier, Summers found no issues with using the Canon 5D and 7D

“Shooting on the 7D/5D was great because they are small and simpler to work with than other cameras,” Summers says. “Sure, there is a loss of image quality and color, but I’m fan of being able to do a lot with a piece of equipment. Other cameras require much more technical attention. You have to baby them.”

A couple of the major effects shots that Erpelding and Summers devised included the main character, Franz Woyzeck, to run down a sidewalk full of various “Andres” charatcters–Woyzeck’s confidant, nemesis, and ultimately, figment of his imagination. The other big shot included a kill scene where Woyzeck commits a murder–surrounded by hundreds of Andres’.

To accomplish the “kill shot” the team shot from a bridge that overlooked the field location. Using a large blue screen placed underneath the actors (because the main color palate and character clothing consisted of greens) Rowe captured the action on the 5D. Summers then directed a few full res RAW still image shots to use as backplates he could piece together. Finally, they shot four hours of Andres on a soundstage, doing various different actions from 16 different side, front, and back angles–matching the lighting and original camera angle from the bridge location.

“The kill shot was fun simply because it relied, initially, on very basic ideas of putting one frame or image into another, almost like what they did in optical printers,” Summers says. “The trickiest part was getting all the light and angles to line up. But essentially this all very elementary parts of the filmmaking process–a little math and some note taking can go a long way.”

Summers did all the postproduction of his compositions in Adobe After Effects using a render farm of six Intel-based Mac towers. With hundreds of video layers and comps on a kill scene that was composited at around 3000×2000 (all with a digital zoom), Summers notes that he nearly pushed both the software and hardware to their limits.

Unlike the VFX shots, which added movement in post, most of the other shots orchestrated by Rowe included camera movements with the DSLRs. While the 5D and 7D do a great job on still shots, moving shots on these chips can present a challenge.

“While these are wonderful cameras for their cost, speed, and stunning imagery,” Rowe says, “They do fall prey to the ‘rolling shutter’ effect.  I had just come off a shoot where we had to do a lot of whip-pan effects and other quick moves, and some of the shots were just not usable in post.  Coming on to

The Woyzeck Project

, I wanted to make sure we used the cameras to their greatest effect without causing problems–keeping the dolly and jib moves slow actually made for some very graceful shots, high-production-value shots.”

Both Summers and Rowe agree that all of their large effects shots look great and provide the effectiveness they wanted. But, nearly every shot in the movie has some bit of effects work–even in Rowe’s graceful camera moves.

“We must have been three or four days into shooting before I realized that all the blue bits on the walls, on devices, and moving about in people’s hands, were actually all blue screen elements for VFX,” Rowe says. “And so this dread came over me, as I had been fighting for a lot of jibs and dollies, slow developing shots, and all the while I was creating these very complex issues for the VFX team.  Sorry guys!”

But, Erpelding and Summer’s effects team was able to handle the task using both After Effects and Mocha to complete compositing on 3D moves. And in the end, everyone involved was very happy with the results from the Canon DSLRs.

“Nobody remembers a film by what camera it was shot on,” Summers says. “It’s all about the creativity and idea you are trying to get across. I think people today love getting carried away with all of this talk about image quality and camera capabilities. Good equipment is important but that doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that it will be a good film. It’s all about what you do with it.”

“A lot of really talented people came together for this movie, and it shows,” Rowe says. “I think what you see on screen looks easily 10 times more expensive than what we had, and I’m thrilled we were able to take it there.”

The Woyzeck Project

was shot in seven days on less than $5,000 and is slated to run the 2011-2012 festival circuit–aiming for a world debut at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival in October. A teaser for the film can be seen at