Art department: Building the armoury

In today’s guest post, director and art department lead Nigel Clegg writes about the experience of creating an army’s worth of weapons, devices and costumes for the web series.

The original Arms Race short film largely came about because I built the brass gatling gun, ‘Mrs Caruthers’, and then wanted to make a short film to show case it, so the props have driven the story to a large extent right from the start.  It is an odd way to put a story together, but in this case worked. When we decided to put together a web series to follow on from the original Arms Race short film we knew that props would form an important part of both the story and pre-production preparation.  To produce a steampunk project and not spend a lot of time creating props would have been a mistake, as the hardware is an integral part of the genre.

As part of the brief for the web series our scriptwriter Chris Burdett was asked to try to include at least one new steampunk device in each episode and to make sure the props were integral to the story.  As soon as the first draft of the scripts were finished the prop building started.  We had built in quite a lot of lead time into the schedule before we planned to film as there were a considerable number of props to build.  The original plan was to get several people to build different props but due to time constraints and availability I had to build the majority.

All of the prop builds started with gathering together the raw materials.  We knew what props we wanted in terms of the story and that influences their functionality, but the look and the exact details were left open.  This is largely because to maintain a Victorian look to the props we needed old brass objects to act as the focus for their construction.  I spent many weekends  going to car boot sales and flea markets to see what was available.  Car boots sales are usually very cheap but it can take a while to find the right objects.  Flea Markets often have better choice but can cost a lot more.  By being flexible for all of the prop builds it allowed me to create items based on what I could find, rather than requiring specific items to be hunted down and bought (which would have been the more expensive way of doing it).   The web series was entirely self-funded by It’s A Trap so costs were an issue throughout the production process which affected the money available for prop building.

At an early stage it was decided to film the prop building process, the main reason behind this was that it would be useful additional material to help promote the series, but in many ways has become a feature of its own.  We took a simple approach; at each step in the building process stop and film a short description of what was done and describe what the next stage would entail.  These sequences were then edited together to produce 2 – 5 min short making of videos.   Judging from the reaction from the viewers on our YouTube channel these are proving useful both to keep people interested in what we are doing but also to give people ideas for their own projects.

All of the builds and the associated filming were done in a small back garden and shed.  This is not the ideal environment, as the space was extremely limited, but did have the advantage of allowing me to work from home and in any spare moments run out to the shed to add extra layers of paints or glue the next components together.  I can only guess what the neighbours were thinking.  A workshop would have been useful, and with more space several projects could have been worked on at the same time, but with the financial and time constraints that we had that was not possible.

One of the main learning experiences in terms of props that we got from filming the Arms Race short film was that the quality of the props, especially the fine detail, should be determined by how close up that prop would be filmed.  Several rifles were constructed for the very short battle scene that we filmed for the Arms Race short film.  I spent a lot of time adding fine details to the guns and painting them, none of which you can see in the film.   This affected my decisions on how much time to put into the detailing for the new props.  A hero prop that is going to be handled and viewed close up needs more detail than background props.

We also learnt from the original short film that any workings for a complicated prop are likely to become a problem during filming.  When you least want it to stop working is precisely when it will conk out.  During the shooting of Arms Race Mrs Caruthers decided to play up: the drill battery powering the gun ran out of power (even though it had been charged up the night before) and the barrel heated up through over use and started to bend due to the heat.  Unfortunately as the prop builder it meant that I had to repair the prop, which caused problems as I was also directing the short film.  When you have only one day to get all the filming done, this can become a big problem.  To help avoid this problem for the mini-series I decided to both enlist the help of two other prop builders to be available during filming to repair any damaged props and also to make all the props as rugged as possible.

The script called for several battle scenes with extras falling repeatedly, so the props had to be tough enough to be thrown around and still be available for use later in the filming.  Most of the props survived intact, a few were broken but running repairs kept them available for use throughout the whole 9 day shoot.  I was surprised based on how much some of the props got thrown around how well they survived.   To be clear, this wasn’t misuse of the props, as to get a convincing fall or death scene the props were always going to be abused and thanks to the lessons learned from the short film, filming of the web series was not held up due to problems with the props.  As with all of our films this has been a learning process for me and I would have built some of the props differently after seeing them in use, but that is part of the fun of prop building, working out how to do it better next time.

Check out our YouTube channel for lots more behind-the-scenes prop building guides!

How to build a steampunk flamethrower

Here we continue our series of prop building guides, with a close-up look at the new flamethrower from Arms Race Escalation. A goal with the web series was to have a lot of production value up on screen in the form of props, as the hardware is so integral to the steampunk genre, so prop master and director Nigel Clegg used every trick in the book to design and build an enormous variety of weapons and costume pieces for a very low cost.

If you’ve missed any of our previous prop guides make sure you check out the YouTube playlist.

VFX: Constructing a muzzle flash

Post-production on Arms Race Escalation is now well underway with multiple strands going at once:

  1. Director Nigel Clegg is working on the first draft edits of the opening and closing episodes.
  2. Actor and stunt choreographer Christopher Puttock is editing the action-focused episodes 3 and 4.
  3. Artist Nigel Potter (who also cameoed in episode 2) is working on numerous matte paintings and vehicle concept drawings.
  4. 3D artist Mark Wickham is creating various CG zeppelins, landing craft and mechs.
  5. Simon Jones is beginning work on a couple of major cloning wide shots from episode 1, which are the only two shots we can confirm at this point will be included in the edit in some form.

I’m going to focus for a moment on that last piece of the puzzle, mainly because Simon happens to be me.

As part of the web series we need a lot of muzzle flashes and squibs. Technically they’re easy to achieve but you want to make sure they look right, as there’s nothing worse than a poorly composited or animated muzzle flash.

Why CG muzzle flashes?

Purists may wonder why we didn’t use ‘proper’ blank-firing weapons to create practical gunfire, especially given we had an entire weekend of pyro at the end of the shoot. There were several reasons for going the CG route:

  1. Happisburgh beach is a public area and we didn’t have the budget or clout to close it off, therefore we had to contend with passers-by and a ridiculous number of off-leash dogs. Not a safe environment to have any kind of firing weapon, even blank-firing movie guns.
  2. For similar reasons, we couldn’t have noisy explosions or gunfire as it would have disturbed the local residents.
  3. The scale of the opening beach sequences in episode 1 would have meant a ridiculous number of muzzle flashes. For consistency, it’s probably simpler to keep it all CG in this case.
  4. We had a very tight schedule and not having to concern ourselves with prepping practical weapons saved a huge amount of time, even if it adds time in post.

Creating a CG muzzle flash

As we’re using FXhome’s HitFilm for the vast majority of visual effects (other than Mark’s 3D modelling work), generating an infinite supply of muzzle flashes is a cinch using its 3D gunfire effect.

For some of the shots in episode 1 I decided to pre-bake a few muzzle flashes with attached smoke elements. This means that after the brief flash of gunfire, there’s a nice puff of smoke lingering in the air. Particularly for long distance shots this helps to sell the effect, which otherwise can be so fleeting that it is entirely missed – particularly during scenes set on a bright day. I also threw on a bit of zoom blur, which makes the whole thing look a bit more dynamic and binds the multiple layers together.

This is what it ends up looking like:

By swapping out different smoke stock, or even using procedural particle smoke, and by simply altering the random seed of the muzzle flash I have access to essentially limitless varieties of muzzle flashes, while retaining a common design focus. In other words, it can look like the gunfire is always coming from the same weapon model, without every muzzle flash looking identical.

This example is for some of the basic rifles. There’s lots more to be designed yet, including a tesla cannon which will be particularly fun.

More updates soon!

The Arms Race Escalation team

In this photo we have about two thirds of the Arms Race Escalation cast and crew. This photo was taken on the final day of shooting, so is missing a few crucial cast members, extras and crew that helped out on other days. Nevertheless it does serve to highlight that Arms Race is now much bigger than the core It’s A Trap crew and that we couldn’t possibly have made it without the cooperation and hard work of a large number of very talented individuals.

As we move into post-production over the next few weeks, we’re also going to be taking a look back at the shoot and highlighting the work of particular teams, from sound to pyro to make-up to the art department. We want to make sure that everybody’s hard work is shown off, not only as a way of thanking them but also to give an insight into what it takes to produce a low budget web series such as this, in case there’s anybody out there who is thinking of trying something similar.

Meanwhile, the edit continues in the hands of director Nigel Clegg and Simon Jones has begun compositing a few key shots from episode one…

Arms Race Escalation wraps principal photography

On Sunday we wrapped principal photography on Arms Race Escalation, marking the successful completion of our most ambitious shoot to date. The 9 days of filming couldn’t have gone better, mainly thanks to our amazing cast and crew who put in an immense amount of work in often challenging conditions.

Now we switch gears and enter the long phase of post-production, starting with drafting up the first edit. We’re aiming to have at least one update every week leading through to the November release, so make sure you bookmark this blog, follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook if you want to be kept in the loop!