By modern standards, 650 visual effect shots isn’t an unusual number for a Hollywood movie. Misfiring Vince Vaughan comedy Fred Claus has 650 VFX shots, for example. So does Wolfgang Petersen’s lavish remake of The Poseidon Adventure.
But what makes Project London unusual is that it isn’t a $160 million Hollywood movie – to the tune of almost $160 million. Despite featuring the same volume of digital effects work as its mainstream counterparts, the upcoming sci-fi thriller was post-produced by a small team of volunteers working remotely via the internet.
Even more surprisingly, the effects were created not in industry-standard tools such as Autodesk Maya or Softimage, but Blender: an open-source 3D animation package.
Yet while the decision to use free software has obvious benefits to an independent production, it also poses its own risks. Although development body the Blender Foundation (blender.org) has completed several cinema-quality animated shorts using the software (see elephantsdream.org and bigbuckbunny.org), it remains largely unproven in live-action work, particularly on full-length movies.
We chatted to Project London’s writer/director and VFX supervisor Ian Hubert about the challenges he faced on the movie – and the benefits that tapping into Blender’s large online community of volunteer artists could have for indie VFX projects.
Jawbone.tv: Let’s start with the title. How come the movie is called Project London when you’re based in the States?
Ian Hubert: Indeed! We’re based in Seattle, Washington – and why the film is called ‘Project London’ is a mystery lost to time. I came up with the name years ago, and presumably made it so abstract that we’d be forced to change it to a more appropriate title: something we’ve thus far avoided successfully.
Jawbone.tv: How did the movie come about?
Ian Hubert: In the summer of 2006, I had just graduated from high school and was thinking about next steps. My dad and I had been talking to production companies in the area and we set up a meeting with Phil McCoy, media producer at a Fortune 500 company [industrial equipment manufacturer Genie Industries, part of the Terex Corporation] to brainstorm a bit. We talked about careers in film, and agreed that making films was akin to going to film school – so why not make a film? That’s when Phil said, “If you can write a script that I can believe in, I’ll produce it.”
We met a few times over the months, then I took a quarter of business accounting –the worst idea I ever had – as I chewed out a script. Once I’d done ten or so re-writes, I presented it to Phil. He suggested a number of vital changes, I did a couple more rewrites, and we finally had something that seemed like it just might work!
After a madcap couple of months of pre-production – we didn’t have a full crew until less than a week before the shoot – we were ready to film. We shot Saturday through Wednesday every week during August , so that folks with day jobs could still make the occasional appearance at work.
Jawbone.tv: That sounds like a pretty intense schedule…
Ian Hubert: It was one of the most intense months of my life. I was writer and director, and had never worked with an experienced crew and professional actors on this scale. There were 20 to 30 people on set every day, and if this film turns out to be a success, it’s only because of the combined effort of more than 250 awesome people, all working towards this same dream.
Jawbone.tv: So how are you financing the movie?
Ian Hubert: Project London is, by most practical definitions, a no-budget production produced by the McCoy brothers: Phil’s brother, Nathan, joined up with us as producer. There are no investors, and the little we’ve spent went on feeding the crew, locations, costumes, props and stuff like that.
Jawbone.tv: That doesn’t leave any budget for post-production. Just how complex is the work?
Ian Hubert: The final film is going to feature somewhere around 650 visual effects shots: a far cry from the few dozen I’d assumed we’d need back when we shot it. The VFX are everything from logo removal/replacement to large-scale, full-CG monster-robot battles.
Jawbone.tv: Which makes it all the more surprising that you’re not using Hollywood software. Why did you choose Blender as your primary 3D animation package?
Ian Hubert: I was introduced to Blender several years ago by a friend who had been using it to create a videogame, so at the time it was the program I was most familiar with. I think the fact that Blender is free means it attracts a lot of folks who are interested in learning CG for its own sake: not just breaking into the industry.
There’s a large community of very talented folks with a taste for experimentation, and it was this community that helped us really get the post work off the ground. We got frequent help from people just looking to hone their skills in a certain area while also working on something fun.
Jawbone.tv: How many people did you have working with you?
Ian Hubert: Over the years the size of the VFX crew has ranged anywhere from twelve members down to two. We’re all currently volunteers, so participation depends on the availability of the moment.
Jawbone.tv: Which means you had to keep everyone motivated enough to give up their free time – without being able to pay them a salary. How difficult was that?
Ian Hubert: It’s been a challenge! There are actually only two members of the FX crew still active who were there at the beginning. Over the course of the project we’ve probably had two dozen folks fade in and out. On average, it’s a team of four crankin’ out work.
For the most part, everyone has full-time jobs, and many have families that need supporting, so I’ve worked hard to adapt to their schedules. Most of our work is task-based, where tasks are assigned to different folks based on their availability and skill sets, and for the most part this works out well.
Jawbone.tv: To our knowledge, this is the largest visual effects project ever undertaken in Blender. How has it been holding up?
Ian Hubert: Blender’s been doing great. The whole film is high definition, and lately the average render time per frame is about five minutes. [A Hollywood studio would regard a figure of anywhere up to a day acceptable, depending on the complexity of the work – Ed.]
I’ve only recently really begun to realize the power it provides via its render options. I’m currently working on the big ending battle, in which a high-poly robot has to face off with an even higher-poly creature, and the sheer number of polygons has made it prohibitive to render out the entire thing in one go. But by adjusting the render settings, we’re able to include only the necessary objects in each pass. [Each individual render pass shows part of the 3D scene, and is then composited back into the live-action footage – Ed.] Without the render options, we probably would have had to do some significant down-resing [reducing the polygon count] of the models.
Jawbone.tv: On a big project like this, not everything works straight out of the box, so Hollywood studios employ programmers to customise the software for them. How difficult was it to persuade Blender developers to do the same thing?
Ian Hubert: Blender’s open-source nature gave us a lot of flexibility when it came to modifying the code: something we didn’t need to do much, but a life-saver when we did. I recall one instance where I asked [Blender certification review board member] Dolf Veenvliet if Blender had the ability to select all the untextured objects [in a scene], and after a 20-minute wait he sent me a file and said, “There we go.”
This community aspect is one of the things that makes developing with Blender a lot easier, and we’re really grateful to it. When the film is released, we will be giving away a lot of the models and rigs we developed for it in an effort to give something back to the community.
Jawbone.tv: We’ll look forward to seeing it. Any idea what the movie’s final title will be?
Ian Hubert: [Laughs] It probably really will be Project London. Perhaps the tagline will be: ‘Project London: has nothing to do with London’.
Project London is due for release in mid 2010, in a variety of media. For more details, or to find out how you can become involved in affiliate marketing, visit the movie’s website at ProjectLondon.net. The site also includes regular blogs from both Ian Hubert and Phil McCoy.