Steampunk gatling guns, binoculars & backpacks

The Arms Race project began when director Nigel Clegg built a steampunk gatling gun – as you do – and found himself needing a project in which he could show it off. Two further props were designed and built after the script was written: a pair of binoculars with mobile lenses by Pete Ayre and a backpack for fueling the gatling gun with power and bullets.

Due to the nature of the film it wasn’t possible to linger on these beautiful props for as long as we’d like, so here’s a chance for a proper close-up examination. Click any of the images to embiggify.

If you like the look of these props but haven’t seen them in action yet, here’s the film for which they were created:

Director Nigel Clegg interviewed

Arms Race director Nigel Clegg has been interviewed by the Spiffing Review podcast. He talks about the genesis of the Arms Race project, techniques for building steamtech props and miniatures, how to work on a tiny budget and what’s he’s going to be working on in 2011.

You can download the podcast episode by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can subscribe on iTunes.

For more information check out the Spiffing Review website.

The post-production of Arms Race

Arms Race was shot in late summer 2009 and was released in November 2010. For a 5 minute short film, that’s a rather long gestation period.

This is due in part to it being a volunteer project, with the work taking place in evenings and at weekends in small chunks. Such is the way of micro-budget indie filmmaking. Compounding this were the visual effects needs, requiring additional shoots of stunt performers and the miniature robot, the construction of additional props for the cockpit interior and the creation of several matte paintings. All these pieces then needed to be combined into the visited film, plus there was a 5.1 sound mix, a colour grade to be completed and music to be sourced or composed. Even for a short film there are a remarkable number of moving parts.

The miniature shoot

The robot required its own special shoot on a small greenscreen stage. It was as very simple setup, with a ‘lazy susan’ turntable used to make rotating the animatronic creature a little easier. The robot was built on a ‘Robosapien’ chassis, with a completely custom skin giving it a unique appearance for Arms Race. Its actual motor functions remained the same, however, somewhat limiting its performance capabilities. The VFX shots involving the robot were designed to fit around its abilities.

The robot’s faceplate was painted blue as we were still unsure exactly how it would be portrayed – would the pilot be visible through the faceplate, or would it be opaque? What colour would it be? What would it look like from the inside? The blue would make it easy for us to replace it with whatever we wanted once we got to the compositing stage.

Filming two armies

The shot of the armies fighting in the distance, as glimpsed by Clinton through the binoculars, was one of the trickiest shots to conceptualise and execute. It involved several pieces, starting with the miniature greenscreen shoot above as well as a lengthy ‘stunt’ shoot involving different actors flinging themselves around. Multiple shots of the various actors would later be mixed together to give the impression of large squads of British and Russian infantry.

All these different pieces were combined with stock footage of explosions, computer generated muzzle flashes and tracer trails and a matte painting of the battleground (created by Nigel Potter) and several layers of grime representing the binocular lenses to create the final shot.

The edit begins

Tarantino has said that the final draft of a screenplay happens in the movie’s edit. With micro-budget films this can be even more true, with production limitations and resource juggling prompting unexpected tweaks and ¬†changes.

The editing process is complicated yet further when visual effects are involved, as crucial shots will often not even exist yet, necessitating the use of placeholder which are never really suitable substitutes. First comes the rough cut, a very loose assemblage of the live action footage. Generally unwatchable, this tends to be a meandering sequence of shots lacking any sort of pacing, sound mix or atmosphere of any sort. It would be a long haul before the film began to resemble its finished state and before that the visual effects would need to be completed.

VFX

The VFX fell into a few categories: the gatling gun, cockpit interiors, cockpit viewport and the robot itself.

Here’s a frame from one of the gatling gun shots, without any VFX:

First up we have the CG muzzle flash itself, positioned and rotated in 3D to match the barrel’s orientation. We used FXhome’s VisionLab Studio for this, which has probably the easiest and most effective muzzle flash generator you can find.

The appearance and behaviour of the muzzle flash was based on the minigun in Terminator 2, which has a two-part flash consisting of the large spread and forward ejection seen in the image above as well as a thinner, longer ejection without the rear halo.

Although the prop had an authentic rotating barrel it wasn’t able to eject empty shells in a convincing manner. Given the nature of the weapon as presented in the film it looked very unrealistic for it to be firing without any kind of shells being ejected, so some CG shells were composited in:

The bullet chain coming out the side of the gun looked great in the shots showing the weapon being attached to Private Higson. Once the gun started to fire, however, it became rather obvious that the bullet chain wasn’t moving. With the barrel rotating, muzzle flashes roaring away and empty shells ejecting out the opposite side, the stationary bullet chain was breaking the illusion of the weapon being operational.

The solution we arrived at was to apply a variety of distortion and blur filters to give the chain the appearance of undulating, rapid movement. The end result is subtle but certainly helps to disguise the chain’s immobility, especially when seen in motion:

 

Shooting Arms Race

Arms Race was shot in a single day in late summer 2009, which gives you an idea of how long it’s been trundling through post-production. Such is the way of micro-budget, volunteer productions. For such a small production it nevertheless had a well-staffed crew, with dedicated teams taking care of production design, audio and visuals.

The day started early for director Nigel Clegg and the art department, all of them arriving at the location: a field in north Norfolk, well away from prying eyes and shot-breaking passers-by with yappy dogs. Their job was transform an innocent slope into a war-torn trench from the Crimean War. The combined efforts of Lucy, Ben, Pete and Gill worked wonders and by the time the rest of the cast and crew arrived a few hours later everything was ready to roll.

While make-up and costume were applied to Jon Creek, the original actor to play Private Higson, the first shots were captured with Neil Dabson as Captain Clinton. Perhaps unwisely, these first few shots involved running repeatedly up and down the same stretch of ground, which left both cast and crew slightly breathless. As a tip for fellow filmmakers: don’t start the day with the most physically exerting shots.

Moving on to the trench scenes, the production encountered its first calamity: while traversing the uneven terrain, Jon twisted his ankle and found himself unable to continue in the role, despite valiant efforts and determination on his part. While Jon’s ankle was taken care of the production team worked on a solution to the problem: rescheduling wasn’t an option, so a replacement actor was required. All eyes turned to Chris Burdett, writer of the film and somebody who, deep down, everybody suspected would look just right in a period war costume.

With costume and make-up hastily transferred the shoot continued, now considerably behind schedule and racing against the sun, which was now at its peak and bearing down on the site. Every passing hour brought us closer to dusk and too little light.

Luckily the team pulled together and rattled through the shots at an efficient pace, aided by the slick, essential assistant directing of Christopher Puttock (who had only officially joined the shooting team the night before) and the professional sound recording provided by Bennet Maples and his furry friends (boom mics).

The shoot wrapped early evening with all planned and storyboarded shots completed, despite the morning’s setbacks. There was even time for a small, rather exhausted and low-key wrap party once everybody had returned to Norwich and wiped the dirt and dust from their skin.

Despite the mammoth efforts from the art department and the sterling work by the cast and crew, for a film of this genre the shoot is only the start of a long, winding road which would see another year pass before the short film reached completion. That, however, is a story for another blog post.

Who made Arms Race?

Given that not all of you will be entirely familiar with It’s A Trap! or those involved with the Arms Race short film, we thought it best to do a quick round of introductions to a few of the main players.

Please do note that this isn’t an exhaustive list of everybody involved (for that you can pop over to the Cast & Crew list).

It’s A Trap!

The It’s A Trap team formed many years ago, initially to organise and run LARP events around the UK (if you don’t know what LARPing is, prepare for an entertaining Google session). Around 2006 the focus shifted towards making short films and, later, audio dramas. In the latter medium It’s A Trap found online success with the Squadron Leader Jack Steel And The Starblade pulp adventure series which spanned the limits of time and space and ran for two series. After producing the monster b-movie¬†NfN (Normal For Norfolk), It’s A Trap member Nigel Clegg decided to step up to director duties for the team’s next project.

The director – Nigel Clegg

Arms Race is Nigel’s first film as director. A lifelong interest in constructing unlikely contraptions led him to creating numerous props and devices for local short films, with Arms Race being the culmination of his efforts to date. Initially conceived as a test shoot for a couple of new props, the short soon ballooned out into a proper short film, complete with a volunteer team drawn from theatre and commercial filmmaking. Working both as creative lead and lead prop and miniature designer as well as director, Nigel used the film as an opportunity to explore an underused genre and period, working directly with regular It’s A Trap writer Chris Burdett.

The writer – Chris Burdett

Brought aboard the project to turn a simple prop test into a genuine story, Chris brought his own experience from penning both series of Jack Steel as well as being lead writer on the forthcoming Ravenskil Chronicles audio drama. Arms Race proved a different challenge altogether, working within the restrictions of the subject matter imposed by the props, although the production design went hand-in-hand with the script, soon requiring additional items, costumes and a convincing war trench to be brought to life. As the story came together the production team began to assemble.

The cameraman and post guy – Simon Jones

Simon was originally brought on as the visual effects supervisor, having cut his teeth and on various super-low budget projects, as the trickier aspects of the script became increasingly apparent. At some point during pre-production and largely without him realising, Simon was upgraded to director of photography (he insists that ‘main cameraman’ is a more accurate term in this case), such that on the day of the shoot he was the man in charge of lensing all the action. Once Arms Race entered post-production Simon took on multiple roles, first editing the film, then creating the visual effects, editing the sound and, finally, grading the finished product. A source close to the production states that Simon was last seen throwing a computer out of a second storey window while shouting “keyframe this!”

We’ll be taking a look at some more of Arms Race’s crew next time. Being a volunteer production the film could not have been made without the support and hard work of all involved. In future blog posts we’ll also be shining a light on the shoot itself as well as the lengthy post-production period.