Thursday, April 02, 2009
Evan Sussman's film short, Escape, is a fantastic voyage into a freedom from the stresses of modern life. It is a contender for a $30,000 prize from The Doorpost Film Project. If you like the film, please vote for it!
Evan, can you give a quick synopsis of your new film short, Escape?
Sure, Escape is the story of a couple that has reached their limit to the violence and hatred in our world. We follow them through several seasons and one big idea that just might get them back their freedom. I worked on that synopsis for awhile with my wife. It's ingrained in my head now.
You're the writer, producer, director on the project. How did the idea come to you?
Like all ideas, I'm not sure where it came from exactly, but I do know it was inspired by my wife. At the time she was my girlfriend (we just got married in September of last year). I think I came home from work late one night and I walked in to find her very upset, and crying about what was on the news. It wasn't one story in particular, but the whole picture: floods here, wars there, killings here... If you sit down and take in a whole news broadcast, it can be extremely depressing.
Oh, I completely agree. Totally depressing. I don't watch the news much anymore either. After 9-11, the newscasts changed. So, do you avoid TV now?
It's funny, I do avoid it, even though it's through television that I make most of my living. Actually, I've talked with a lot of people in the "industry" (sorry, I hate that word) who feel the same way. If I'm watching anything, it's most likely going to be a movie. I've especially fallen in love with documentaries lately. HBO On-Demand is a great place for that, but Netflix is the best invention ever, especially if you have an XBOX.
I love Netflix, too!
The reason I avoid watching television, specifically American news programs, is because they are so sensationalized nowadays. I remember watching Tom Brokaw with my mom while getting ready for dinner when I was growing up. She is still in love with him, by the way, but the reporting wasn't as bad as it is now. Fox, MSNBC, all of them... it's more News-tainment, if that's a word, than anything. Switch over to the BBCA and you'll see the difference between American reporting and reporting in other countries.
The worst part, and most saddening, is that there are terrible things happening all around the world. I think what has the potential to make someone so upset is that, from the outside, it all can seem so silly. In Iraq, in Palestine, in everywhere, the majority of people just want to live their lives. They want to work, try to be successful, have a family and take care of them. The bigger violent issues, they can't help but be wrapped up in, are always controlled by few, but end up effecting so many. It's crazy to me that so much of your life is determined by the lottery of where you are born. We are very fortunate here in America that a lot of the terrible things aren't happening in our backyard. That doesn't mean it takes away from our empathy for the people stuck in it though.
I think that's the main idea of the film. I believe that the majority of people stuck in the middle of bad situations would go somewhere else if they knew they could be happy, keep their family safe, and leave all this fighting and waring to someone else.
Can you talk a bit about the workflow on the film? You mentioned that the backgrounds were created in Flash and composited and animated in AE.
Sure, my first studio job was as a part-time assistant editor at Soup2Nuts animation studio. They're a Flash-animation based studio in Watertown, MA. When I started work there, my background was entirely in live-action and I knew a little bit of After Effects. They didn't use After Effects at all when I started! So I told myself, "I'm going to make myself a position here by introducing AE." I did, with a lot of reluctance from some of the producers at the time, but now After Effects is a part of every production's budget and has become a terrific creative tool for the directors and animators. It was through my 4-5 years of working at Soup, eventually becoming the head of post-production, that I gained the experience of utilizing Flash and After Effects together. Now that Adobe owns them both, there are some amazing things you can accomplish.
When I first started to build the scenes for ESCAPE, I was determined to export all the BGs and elements from Flash as .SWF files, retaining the vector information. Where that does work much of the time, once you start creating complicated 3D scenes with vector art, After Effects gets confused and crashes a lot. It was a very frustrating learning experience. What finally worked was to just export the Flash images as large PNGs with alpha information and then build everything out of those. The vector stability is something that Adobe still needs to work out.
We're all of your elements hand drawn? That must have taken forever!
First of all, I want to say that the amazing backgrounds and props were created by Steven Young. He's an incredible talent not only at design but his own writing and ideas. We met and discussed how I pictured everything, then he went and created these ridiculous backgrounds. When I saw the rocket all put together for the first time I just started laughing, I thought it was so cool looking. His art direction really helped to make ESCAPE look so special.
There are a few reasons I choose to do the backgrounds in Flash. One of them being because of where the film takes you. It would have been impossible for me to pull that off on my shoe-string budget otherwise. And I was able to accomplish camera moves I never would have been able to without a crane or something. Plus, I knew it would look cool and give them film a unique tone. My favorite films are the ones where directors have made strong visual decisions. The look of a film is so important in creating the mood and tone. And that's why we watch movies isn't it? To experience an emotion or be taken somewhere new? I get so frustrated when I see a movie that is shot in a boring way. You have all the choices in the world on how to shoot a scene, make it something interesting.
Another reason why I used drawn backgrounds was to make the locations and age of things unspecific. It's the same reason I choose to go without dialogue and make the clips on TV vague. I was considering using shots of President Bush, Katrina, Al Queda kidnappers with masks on etc... But the moment I looked at footage like that, I decided against it. I didn't want to make a propaganda film. And I think the idea I was trying to convey could be applied to any era.
You make some serious use of 3D layers. I especially love the big pullout at the end. Will you share your technique?
A lot of experimentation. That shot took me about a week or so of playing around. Getting the camera speed right was very time consuming. Also, when the camera goes from the landscape to seeing the moon etc, that's when it switches from 3D to 2D. There are a few times in the film I had to do that - especially in the apartment. Sometimes when Joe would walk in, his feet would go through the floor, so those scenes have the keyed footage of him and his girlfriend in the film in 2D. Just about every other time we see them though, they are in 3D and therefore casting shadows and effected by lights. It helps so much in terms of making them feel a part of the scene.
The use of light, shadows and reflections also gives it an organic feel. Really nice.
Thank you! That has always been a goal of mine in After Effects, especially in terms of using After Effects with animation. A show I worked on a long time ago at Soup2Nuts was the first season of an Adult Swim series called Assy McGee. It was about a hard-boiled cop who was just a butt with legs - very high brow stuff. The style was very much like a comic book - detailed and realistic, but stylized. It was with that show that I felt the freedom to play with lighting, coloring, etc because it matched the theme. I wouldn't have felt the same freedom with a Saturday morning, educational cartoon. You have to match the feel of the show.
I ended up creating one technique, if you want to call it that, which I thought brought a cool feeling to the show. I made sure every location had a different overall color tone. So at night, the outside was blue, during the day a washed out yellow. If they were inside a place with florescent lights, I would tint things slightly greenish, and if inside a more natural setting, I would go with brown. Take an adjustment layer and apply the hue/saturation effect. Set it to "colorize" and go crazy with the color and saturation. Go over the top with what you think would work. Then if you bring the opacity of that layer down to somewhere between 15% to 30%, you get a nice overall color to the scene. It's an easy, quick way to change the mood of a shot. I used a lot of tricks like that which I'd learned in my years as an animation effect-artist. I feel almost embarrassed saying it. It's not like it's some big trick or something, just an easy thing...
A lot of people probably don't know about those type of little tricks though, so it's nice of you to share it. I also love the organic movements of your elements, such as the junk in the trailer and the movement of the gears. How did you get your elements to move so naturally? Expressions?
The junk was expressions, yes. Actually, a lot of little things were expressions, like the tree leaves. The wiggle expression is so huge. I wish I was the kind of person who could program and understand how to write expressions more, but I mostly stick with wiggle, creating simple expressions sliders and loopOutDuration. I think, more than anything, I use that expression. It's so great for setting up a few keyframes and setting it to an endless loop. It's especially great for looping videos, like those from ArtBeats or something. The other expression I used was something I found online. It was for making the car's tires roll with the movement of the car. These people who post their amazing expressions online for the rest of us - they are so incredible. The kind of people you find on your site or Creative Cow. I think so many of us owe so much to them for making our work better, at least I do. So, for any of them reading this, THANK YOU!
Let's talk a bit about plug-ins.
Your keys look incredible. Did you use Keylight or another plug-in?
Just Keylight. How amazing is that plug-in? The fact that it comes bundled with AE Pro is so great. We shot everything on a Panasonic HVX. The weird aspect ratio adds another element of difficulty.
What sort of particle generator did you use for the smoke and snow?
I don't think too many people will be surprised to know that I used Particular from Trapcode. I think that bundle of effects is really essential for a serious After Effects graphics artist. The way it interacts with the 3D camera is amazing. You can make some truly beautiful stuff with it. Actually, speaking of which, there was a shot I cut from the film where the camera pushes in from the exterior through the window, all the while passing this beautiful falling snow. It was SO hard to let that go, but I had to for the pacing of the film. Making a movie from scratch is a lot of killing your own babies. It can be really tough to let go.
How about the film effect?
That effect I made from scratch, no pun intended. I would be happy to share the project file. There are a bunch of wiggle expressions going on there. One of the inspirations for ESCAPE was the movie "Voyage to the Moon" by George Melies, which was made in 1902. That was the reason for the film effect, as a little homage.
I totally feel the homage to Voyage to the Moon. I was thinking that in the back of my mind.
It also acts as another one of those era-less things. People keep asking me which plug-in I used for that. I guess I did a good job! My advice to anyone starting in this field: always try to make your own "plug-ins" first. You'll save money and learn a lot in the process - not to mention have it to use any time you need it.
Did you learn any good tricks during the production? How long did the whole film take to create?
Oh man, of course. You should always learn something, otherwise you're not pushing yourself. When I was the head of post and receiving resumes from young applicants, I would always get the one that said "after-effects guru" or something. You know what? No, you're not. I promise. I've been working with After Effects for I don't know, 10 years now. I wouldn't claim to be a guru or master. I love it, I can do amazing things with it, but there are so many people out there who know this program inside and out. I'm not sure if one person can really know everything After Effects can do. It's so powerful. Like Photoshop - you know it to the extent that you need to use it. Someone could show you a new use for it that you would have never guessed. It's that kind of a program.
I shot the original greenscreen footage in September of '07 - so over a year? That was with a lot of breaks for paying work. It's hard to find time to do your own thing. But if you love it, you'll make time. It also helps to have someone pushing you, in my case my wife Avril.
The soundtrack is fantastic. Was it custom created for your film?
I'm so glad you asked this question. It was original, it's amazing, and it is all the work of Daniel Koren, an Israeli composer living in New York. We met on an earlier project of mine where he composed a completely different kind of song. I knew that without a doubt he was the guy for this project. But 6.5 minutes is a lot of composing to ask of someone on the cheap, so we decided to barter. I came down to NY and shot a short video for his band at Julliard, in exchange for him creating the beautiful score. His group is called "The Koren Ansamble" and will be hitting the world by storm very soon!
The other music in the piece, "Let's Pretend There's A Moon", is performed by Fats Waller and licensed from Warner Brothers, EMI, and a man named Arthur Hamilton. I knew this song had to be in the film no matter what, but I didn't know where until it was all edited together. Playing over the credit's ended up being a really nice way to end the film. The scratchy recording, the piano - it just fit. And through it I've started a friendship with Arthur, who actually turns out to be the son of two of the song's writers, so it was extra special to me that the idea of the film was inspired by my wife and it was Arthur's parents who wrote the song. It just makes me feel good every time I think about it.
Can you talk a bit about the Doorpost Film Project?
I think the Doorpost Film Project is amazing. Any group that is willing to invest in young directors is okay in my book. This is my first time entering their contest, but so far I'm very impressed with the quality of the site, the integrity of their voting process, and the quality of the work they attract. To get the chance to show what you could do with a real budget would be so incredible. There are some very cool movies in this competition. It's daunting, but I'm just happy to be a part of it.
You look very young in your picture on the Doorpost Film Project page, but you have a really extensive portfolio. What is your secret for staying so young? ;-) Seriously, though, can you give us a quick rundown of some of the work you've done in the past?
Well, thank you! My secret is my goofy boxer, Rufus. He's like living with a little funny old man who makes me laugh everyday. I wish I was able to work him into the movie somehow, but I don't think he would have had fun on set for 10-12 hours.
I have always been told I look young. I'm 28. That picture was taken kind of far away, my wife points out that I'm getting grey hairs everyday.
My first job out of school, aside from driving people around in a wheelchair van, was creating web content for Boston Children's Hospital. I then moved on to Soup2Nuts where I was able to work on some amazing programming. Soup was a great learning experience for me and small enough that I was able to try out a bunch of different things outside of post production. I wrote and created some shorts for PBS's Between the Lions, directed some commercials for Legal Sea Foods (a regional family seafood chain) and created logos and visual styles for shows on PBS and Cartoon Network. It was terrific. Since leaving last summer, I've been out on my own freelancing. I've made commercials for the Discovery Channel at Element Productions, created the look for a new show coming up on Animal Planet and many effects for Discovery channel programming at Powderhouse Productions. I've also been working on a bunch of outside projects, including a promo video for a charitable company out in California called Give Something Back. Freelancing is a tough gig with long hours and a lot of self-promotion looking for that next gig. But right now, I'm loving the freedom of it.
Anything new in the pipeline?
Right now I've got a few things going on, but I'm mostly trying to get a show idea off the ground. It's a nutritional show for children that my friend and business-partner Dave Schlafman co-created. We're very close to an investment, but I doubt I should say anything about it until we know for sure. I'll keep you posted!
Thanks so much and best of luck with the contest. Hopefully we can give you the "Toolfarm Bump".
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