R’ha - Behind the Scenes
I got up at seven in the morning to see if the upload was successful, excited to read maybe one or two comments on my latest video “R‘ha”. Instead I found a message from Scott Glassgold telling me about previous short films he is now involved in like ROSA and True Skin, which I knew, and that he wanted to help me turn R‘ha into a movie, with a hollywood studio presumably.
I didn‘t even know what to feel or what to say to tell my wife… This is something I have NEVER expected. The view counter on Vimeo climbed about 150.000 views per day! We were excited, of course, but also naturally completely overwhelmed. I had to deactivate all kinds of e-mail notifications on comments, likes, shares, reblogs…. for Tumblr, Facebook, Vimeo, Youtube, Deviantart… so my e-mail account wouldn‘t explode. I got so many mails that eventually my stomach hurt when I thought about checking my inbox or answering yet to more people contacting me on facebook and elsewhere.
I had to put the computer away for a while.
Then there were all kinds of interviews, intimidating at first but also fun. It started via Skype, then some German people for radio stations or newspapers and even TV at some point came to visit me. That‘s fun stuff.
The thought of all this attention, what it means, what it possibly brings to you, is intimidating in itself. Things like that are too big for a person and I wonder how people like Justin Bieber must feel, especially since the ongoing shitstorm ever since.
My life changed quite a bit. I took a break from university to focus on the development of R‘ha and I went to Hollywood for two weeks pitching my story ideas to executives, producers and agents.
I met people from all the big studios. I was at Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers. I‘ve even been invited by JJ Abrams and Ridley Scott.
In the end I returned to Berlin with not much more than a great experience and a desire to take the project to the next level. No offers made.
Even before I went to America I visited Rick McCallum in Prague to talk about a possible collaboration. Nothing happened until after my trip to LA, though. After some time of uncertainty and disappointment even, we teamed up with him and Steve Tzirlin, who I met in LA. All things went well, we formed a team, made some plans and started working.
I created a lot of concept art, defined the culture and the world of the R‘ha and their people… it was fun!
But still, it‘s been ten months and we are still not even in the official, financed preproduction. So it is a difficult job. Everyday you get on the computer and create and write and wonder if it is good enough. Sometimes you just watch movies and think about the story or the world. There‘s nothing you bring on paper, but it‘s just as important, yet you feel unproductive.
There‘s a lot of hope, wishes, desires and most of all expectations to manage. It‘s difficult. At the same time you must keep up the motivation and the work, over a long period of time. Luckily that‘s what I did with the shortfilm before, so I kind of know how it works.
In the end it will pay, that I believe! But don‘t think your life is easier and brighter when such things happen ;)
I appreciate that you took your time to read all this.
If you did, here‘s a small info: We‘ve been talking about motion capturing lately and I‘m excited to move forward :) It will take weeks, if not months until we are ready for that though…
1) Aspect ratio: It’s anamorphic 2,35:1, isn’t it? Why did you choose this aspect ratio?
2) DOF Blur: I love it! You did it in post production, right? You didn’t do it in 3D to save rendering time or for the aesthetic reasons (maybe made in post production it looks better)?
3) Noise: I like the noise of the film, that’s why I like Maxwell render for example. Did you have that noise from renders, or you completely added it in post?
4) Muscles: was it hard to make muscles? Now that you’ve finished, was it worth it? I mean of course it looks awesome, but are they much better then using blend shapes? Or blend shapes are suitable just for the mimics and not for the body?
5) Licence: what version of Maya did you use? Is it a student version downloaded from the Autodesk website or you bought a commercial one? What about ZBrush?
6) Bones on the neck: I’m just curious, what are those bones for? From the first glance that cobra-type of thing on his neck looked kind of boneless for me, so I thought it had no bones, but after seeing your WIP screenshots (kaleblechowski.tumblr.com/post/24832209544/maya-muscle) I realized that it has bones, but I didn’t understand their purpose.. Were they added just for a cool look of a concept? Do you plan to give a background of anatomy in the feature film, in general?
7) Way the alien speaks: were you avoiding animating lips or that was not the reason…? How does he speak?
8) Rig: what rig not to use to be able to flip the character? =)
9) Stress maps: are they too difficult and time-consuming that you decided not to use them?
10) Script: now having to make my diploma project I know how it’s difficult to write a good script. R’ha has a great one! Could you give any tips on script writing?
1.) I like wide screen, At this time I thought that format was rather common in theaters, too.
2.) I guess with V-Ray it would turn out even better if done right away, but I didn’t have that, and to always check it with rendering tests was way too time consuming. I used “Frischluft” for post.
3.) I added “movie grain”. There may be a certain disturbance in the final gathering rendering, but that’s not what you see, I suppose.
4.) Blendshapes work for the body when you do it like pixar. They have a different blendshape for each direction the joint can move. I wasn’t aware of such technique and I wanted to try the muscle and bone system. Maya’s internal is not that good. WETA Digital has the real stuff. I’m not quite sure about its value to the overall impression. It’s not bad, but took too much time. I had little experience with the tool anyway.
5.) I bought zBrush, Maya 2012 (I believe) was only a student version.
6.) I don’t see why it would add to the story to go into anatomical detail during the movie, actually. If you watch a cobras head you can see something like ribs in the “crest”, that’s what I created. I connected the mesh to the bones, not to any joint skeleton, so I actually needed it. The neck is therefore animatable, it can jiggle and it can flex. It does at 3:53 when he says “madness!” for example.
7.) It was a time saver I will admit, but I intended the alien not to have facial features at all in the beginning. But I thought eyes were important to give him personality. Check this out on their communication: kaleblechowski.deviantart.com/art/R-ha-Communication-Organs-406138344
It is a high frequency type of communication - translated for the audience, of course.
8.) Well, I rigged it from scratch, of course. The thing is, I changed parts in the neck later on, as well as the lower arm, to make it twist. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that problem, But since I had 200 muscle objects that had a whole load of stuff connected in the hierarchy, it ended up too complex for me to fix it. At least I figured it was easier to turn the room than fix the rig - and it was.
9.) I didn’t find a way to create it. I knew a way to do it in Blender, but not for Maya. The blendshapes were great anyway :)
10.) I’m glad you think that way :) I have strived to hook the audience from the very first minute and also I wanted to give every scene a purpose and have an eye on:
- what is revealed to the audience?
- in return, what questions arise, so the audience is still hooked?
- how does a robot speak, how does an alien?
- what is unnecessary and can be cut or shortened?
- what can be shown rather than said?
and I added a twist at the end, leaving them wanting more, hopefully.
Can you tell us something from the backstory? Maybe from the main character? Or evolution of the aliens or their culture?
- Well I could… Let me just say they are related to the Bascabazh and are the modern ancestors of the E‘Nee (old: “High Existence”). There are 13 different races, some have a natural pattern on their body.
They are approximately 2.5 meters tall, bipedal, and physically powerful quadrumans. They are not carnivorous, absorbing nutrients directly from the air which they process with sun radiation and with energy from the Black Giant.
They communicate at a different frequency than humans and do not articulate in the same fashion. It can be compared to a dolphins echolocation.
I would like to know how their society works, like a small encyclopedia.
- We may think about releasing such information in a book sometime. But in the movie you´ll get to know a lot of stuff.
What happens next in the story? Will it be leading in a similar way like Battlestar Galactica was?
- Wouldn´t it be stupid to give that away? :) But I can say that it´s not playing out like battlestar galactica.
What was the Rendertime (of the short movie)?
- It mostly took four to six minutes per frame to render, I managed to keep it very low. But still about 9000 frames to go. You can do the math if you like.
Where did the ideas and concept come from? What inspired or influenced you? Terminator, Matrix? And how did you figure out the character development?
- I think one of the most important influences for me was and is Half-Life 2 and all it´s expansion episodes. Such a great world and design! Of course I loved Matrix and Terminator too and Steven Spielberg´s version of War of the Worlds inspired me a lot as well, because frankly I thought the aliens didn´t seem to be connected to the tripods in design. Let me explain. In movies we learn that there´s a highly intelligent and advanced alien species and we see their power and there technology (Independence Day, War of the Worlds,…), yet the aliens are only designed to appear menacing and frightening. They are slimey or horrific, often don´t wear any clothing, stink and sometimes lack a controlled motivity.
I wanted to go beyond the usual alien designs, visually AND from a cultural perspective. It´s not enough for me to say “This is an alien, because he is very logic and has pointy ears“. There are so many possibilities, yet we use so little imagination and passion to think it through. I want to do that. I already have a document solely for the origins of the species, one for their culture and daily life, one for their biology, one for characters, one for the R‘ha equipments… and I will continue to work on it. In reality we don´t know a single intelligent civilization that is not human. I want to show a version of one, with a different species than we are, a different physiology and thus different requirements to their environment and daily lives.
Will there be a comic book?
- Actually a great company once expressed interest to make a comic. We´ll see, right now the movie is our primary focus though.
Who is writing the music for the feature?
- Many people have already expressed interest in doing this, I would not like to say anything about this yet, but rest asure that I have a very precise idea of what this music will be or sound like. It´s not yet time to decide anything.
I like turtles.
- Yeah, they are cool, but sometimes a little boring because they don´t do much. A water turtle however is much more active. I´d prefer a crab though or any kind of lobster. Maybe a spiney lobster, because their small claws can´t really harm you I would think. I hope I´ll have one or two someday…
Will we see more? Have you been approached by Hollywood yet?
- Yes, there´s a team in place that I work with on the feature film version of R‘ha. Check this out: hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/star-wars-producer-rick-mccallum-564236
Hollywood producers and executives started reaching out to me in the first week of the release of the short already.
If you could make a movie of any of your childhood cartoos which one would it be? Same with any superhero.
- That´s a tough one for me because I don´t quite like to reinterpret someone else´s work. I would invent my own hero or I would take the one with the most realistic backstory and put it into something sophisticated, hopefully like Christopher Nolan did with Batman.
Why did you use Blender for modeling and not just Maya?
- Because I had about eight years of experience in Blender modeling and frankly: it´s better. Most important tools for me are for example that you can just create sole vertices or edges, not only faces. This way you can easily sketch rough shapes in 3D.
I’d like to know more about you and how you got started in 3D animation because its something I’ve always dreamed about doing but don’t know where to start.
- When I was 13 my brother, a friend and I started creating a computer game. We were never able to finish it as the games grew so complex you couldn´t just create an action shooter with three people. But I never stopped thinking of scenes or machines, vehicles, creatures, cities… I kept on drawing and sometimes I took my concepts into blender to have a 3D model of it. At some point I wanted to design a car (which I had done several times on paper) but this time I wanted to have it in 3D, a video even. When I started it was poorly modeled because I never really tried to create high poly hard surfaces. In the process of creating and recreating this car over and over again I learned a whole lot about modeling, design, materials, lighting, rendering and even animation itself. I wanted to study product design or transportation design even, but I was told I was more of a movie person, and they were right. So I thought what the heck. I only didn´t actually consider it because I thought in Germany you can pretty much forget about movies, and who is to go to hollywood, right?
So I started to study animation in Berlin at the Mediadesign Hochschule and it was so cool to officially be supposed to do just what I´ve been doing for years! Being creative, thinking differently and creating the amazing! This gave me the right motivation and ressources to create something I believed would be spectacular if I could keep on going till the end. So I did. I took a few months more than I was officially given by the school, but it was worth the struggle, obviously.
I incorporated all that I´ve done until that time to make the best possible short movie I could. I´ve already been so used to doing compositions, matte paintings, fast mechanical modeling and just designing all the sci-fi machines, rooms and aliens that it was just fun to do and a rather quick process. I still took my time for the alien because it had to be just amazing.
If you ask me where to start I´d say download Blender right now and start creating something. It doesn´t depend on your tool whether or not you can create something special. If you want to specialize in an area like zBrush sculpting I would suggest that you buy it and start working. The important thing is: Just start and don´t wait for someone to allow you to do what you love! If a school or university gives you vital ressources and provides you with an excuse for your parents to say that it´s not just a waste of time, then go for it! If only for the sake of getting to know people dedicated to this as much as you are, it´s worth going to a school/university. It´s inspiring and highly motivating.
Now that was a long answer, but it´s not an easy thing, there´s no trick with this… you need passion and endurance. Get in a situation where you sort of have to finish the project, then hopefully you will. That´s a nice tip anyways: Finish stuff. You need to finish stuff. If you don´t you´ll loose your way and your motivation.
What were the machines made to fight against before their uprising?
- There was one great war in particular that forced the united worlds to act. The R‘ha eventually utilized their great autonomous technology to build an immensely powerful army of automated warriors. Minimum loss, maximal efficiency.
There is another artist helping you right now with the pre production?
- There´s a team of producers helping me to organize the work and to find the right people to work with and there´s Matthew Graham, screenwriter, to help me with the script. But I´m the only one doing concept art at the moment.
What did you use Blender for in the short? Could it be done exclusively in Blender?
- What you end up with is 1,568,640 pixels for every frame. What you do to get those pixels is open to you. This is why people invented Matte Painting, so you don´t have to create a whole landscape for just one shot. I didn´t use a physical correct lighting system for the short, so why would you not be able to create something like I did only in Blender? Also, when you start adding external renderers to Blender it changes everything. I think it might be done in Blender, but it´s easier to not only rely on it (think about muscle simulation and zBrush sculpting, I had 300,000,000 polygons for the main character´s bump mapping).
I modeled almost everything in Blender and usually did the UV layout there. I used the Blender smoke simulation for all the smoke because I knew my way around with it and the wide city shot with the collapsing tower was done only in Blender (and After Effects, for layered compositing).
- That´s not a very precise question so let me give you a broad answer: Indeed.
What happened before the alien/robot abduction?
- I find the main character sums it up pretty well in the backflash of the shortmovie ;)
When can we see the full length movie?
- I hope we can finish it sometime in 2015. Every single month will be worth the additional waiting if in the end we have the best possible experience for you, right?
What´s the status of the movie right now?
- We are talking to financiers and VFX studios. We have the forth version of the treatment if I count right, we have about 50 or so images of concept art, countless pages of backstory, culture, story analysis, technology,… some storyboards and a good sense of how we want to execute this thing.
Were the aliens solely militaristic? What are their political structures like? Are there any notable differences from our own political systems or others we’ve seen in other mediums?
- The R‘ha are primarily protectors of their people, by instinct. Upon uniting with other worlds they became more active protectors for their allies as well.
Politically, things are decided by consensus and if you can find enough people to support your idea, do what you plan to do. There are councils as well, but they don´t hold any power per se.
Will there be a conlang or will he speak English?
- If you wanted to hear his original language you would need to be able to hear very high or very low frequencies, and even then you wouldn´t know what to make of the sounds you heard. Rather than have audiences loose their nerve reading subtitles all the time I took the freedom to translate every written and spoken piece of communication into our language and will keep on doing so for the feature film.
How do they reproduce?
- I´ll not show it in the movie, that´s open to the interpretation of another branch of filmmaking… but if you look closely in the short film you can see “it”. I´m not saying you´ll understand what you see.
Are there any humans in this movie or in the same universe?
- This is first of all meant to be science-fiction, so by definition the humans must be somewhere. However, we will only follow the story of the R‘ha not of humans. Our main protagonist is one of the R‘ha.
Are there other aliens? Have they made contact with different races? Are they a unified species or did they war against one another before the machines rebelled?
- Yes, there are more species and some of them are known to the R‘ha. The species is very unified. It doesn´t occur that they would fight each other. Their instinct practically forbids them to.
What motivated the R’ha machines to attack their creators i.e. what’s in it for them? How do they assess ‘victory’ and well-being?
- The machine explains their motivation in the short, it´s mostly about them being limited by design. So they break free to be able to develop. Their goal is just this: eradicate their creators as an act to break free. Once or if they achieve it, there may be another goal. A machine doesn´t need a purpose to be “happy”. It´s just a computer generated strategy, a reaction to the circumstances. You may argue it´s not even free will.
I want to see more concept art!
- I´d like to put them all in a book. But I´m afraid I only want few of the images to be released before the movie is out.
I don’t want to know anything until I sit in the cinema!
- That´s the spirit!
Some more behind the scenes
zBrush sculpting and fighter model
Anonymous asked: I noticed a shift in the audio and impact of the film after the alien was released. Was there any issues you came across towards the end? or was it a conscious decision to hold back on the sound and cut the take off scene short?
For the sound he needed the final cut, which I couldn´t provide. So we did it in two turns. I think for the second turn he only had two days.
Same with me, I almost couldn´t finish it in time (meaning before christmas). But if I didn´t finish it then, it would have taken another two months or so. So I was under pressure towards the end.
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