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!

From a small short film to a big web series

Arms Race clapperboard

Principal photography on Arms Race: Escalation continues apace, having now moved to interiors after the weekend’s epic outdoor shoots.

The web series has been designed to be much bigger in scope than the original short film. Check out some of these vital statistics:

  • 6 episodes, each approximately 4 minutes in length.
  • Two custom-built interior sets, complete with moveable walls and hidden panels.
  • A couple of greenscreen virtual areas with partial sets and tracking markers to free up the camera.
  • A dressed Victorian-era boardroom.
  • Several locations along the Norfolk coast – a particularly harsh environment to shoot in, with sand having a habit of getting everywhere.
  • Numerous forest locations on private land, giving us some particularly stunning rural landscapes.
  • A cast and crew of about 45, compared to the short film’s 20.
  • A ton of new, custom-built steamtech props. Make sure you check out our prop-building videos on our YouTube channel for a sneak peek!
  • Less than halfway through the shoot, we already have over 140GB of data. Erk.
  • More VFX shots in just the first episode than in the entire Arms Race short film.
  • A bigger VFX department, with the addition of 3D modeller and animator Mark Wickham.
  • Bigger camera department, with Tom Martin coming on board as DoP and main cameraman.
  • The short was shot on a single Panasonic HVX-200 camera with a single lens. The web series is being shot on multiple Canon 60D DSLRs with multiple lenses and other bits of fancy camera gear.
  • We have a helicam.

Arms Race Escalation begins shooting!

The 6 episode web series follow-up to the 2010 Arms Race short film begins shooting this weekend on the Norfolk coast. We’ll have lots more information filtering through over the next few months leading up to our November online premiere of episode one.

In the mean time, the video above gives you a sneak peek at some more of the props and costumes created for the web series. For more videos, make sure you check out the It’s A Trap YouTube channel.

Arms Race in Abney Park music video!

The latest music video from awesome steampunk band Abney Park features a couple of clips from the Arms Race short film!

For Steampunk Revolution’s music video Abney Park put out a call for steampunk images and videos from the community. The music video is a collection of amazing steampunk clips (including our favourite, a giant steam elephant thing). We’re very pleased to have Arms Race featured among such inspiring creativity.

We’re big fans of Abney Park and hopefully this won’t be the last time we get to collaborate with them on a project…

Weapons Test: Arms Race props in action

This short scene was created to test some of the new props created for the upcoming Arms Race web series. We’ve also got a whole range of guides to building your own props, arranged into a useful YouTube playlist.

If you’re new to Arms Race, here’s a quick bluffer’s link guide:

We’ll be saying more about the web series soon!