Poster by: Anabel Martinez
By: Nicki Legge
“Red Sand” is a visually stunning fan film based on the Mass Effect franchise by EA Games. This 14 minute short tells the story of what happened 35 years before the time of Commander Shepard. It was released to Youtube less than a month ago, and already has 131,500 views! Most people, who claim to be gamers or even just fans of video games, are familiar with the Mass Effect franchise. It is well known for its stunning graphics, intricate storylines, and captivating characters, making it a perfect candidate for a fan film. This, however, is not a task that can be easily taken on by just any team. The University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, AZ is well known for its programs in digital media, such as Game Design and Digital Video, making UAT DV the perfect team to take on the challenge of creating such an amazing film. We had the pleasure of interviewing Paul DeNigris, a professor at UAT and one of the producers of “Red Sand.”
In the behind the scenes, you mentioned that you decided to create “Red Sand” because you wanted to do a fan film. Were there ideas on the table other than Mass Effect? What made the team choose Mass Effect over other popular franchises?
My students and I were inspired by “Portal: No Escape” to make a fan film, and we kicked around a lot of different ideas before landing on Mass Effect. Red Dead Redemption was mentioned but we discounted that because it would basically just be a Western and we wanted to do something sci-fi. BioShock was considered for a while but I kind of steered them away from that because I felt the water effects and the environments would be too difficult. It was really student Caleb Evans who stepped up to write a prequel to Mass Effect because he loved the source material and also felt we could leverage our desert locale to do a prequel set mostly on Mars.
Aside from playing the game, what kind of research did UAT DV do prior to writing the script? What tools did you use?
Caleb spent a lot of time on the various Mass Effect wiki’s just to double-check dates and such, and I frankly knew nothing about the Mass Effect franchise at all so I had to learn everything. So a big part of the research phase was just me asking the crew a ton of questions and them having to find answers that were both dramatically satisfying and consistent with established Mass Effect canon. And we played a lot of Mass Effect in class!
When did UAT DV officially start preproduction on “Red Sand?”
Preproduction on “Red Sand” began in September 2011. Caleb and most of the project leaders were in my Production Studio II class and were developing this project while also producing some other, smaller-scale films, including a neat little time travel flick called “Reset” that we did for an IFP/Phoenix challenge and which won “Best VFX.”
I noticed that Nola Yergen mentioned shopping at the dollar store for components of the costumes. What was the budget for this project?
Nola is great at stretching whatever budget she’s given, so the dollar store is one of her favorite places to find odd stuff that no one else would consider. That’s her greatest skill – the ability to see a bunch of random components and tie them all together into an awesome costume. The budget for this one is hard to pin down exactly, because UAT sponsored us with catering, craft services, equipment, and facilities that I can’t put a price tag on. The items I had an actual budget for totaled up to under $10,000.
Is Colonel Grissom attached to the Jon Grissom Academy?
Colonel Jon Grissom is in fact the Alliance hero after whom the Grissom Academy is named. He is also the father of Kahlee Sanders, an important character in Mass Effect 3.
Who did the casting for the project? Did they have Mark Meer in mind for Colonel Grissom’s character, or did they place him in the role once they knew he was interested in participating in the project?
We did the casting for this one in-house, though we owe a debt to Faith Hibbs-Clark of Good Faith Casting for finding Ayman Samman (“Dr. Averroes”) for a previous project, my thesis film “Parallax.” Caleb wrote the role in “Red Sand” with him in mind. As for Mark Meer, we came up with the idea of asking him to be in the film after the script was written, but once we had that idea in our heads it was hard to picture him as anyone but Grissom, and hard to picture Grissom played by anyone but Mark. The fact that he said yes to the role brought so much momentum and legitimacy to the project that I can’t even fathom what the project would have been like without him.
Was this a project that students received a grade for in class, or was it considered more of an extracurricular activity? How did you decide who to assign to each role on the crew?
Production on the film was a mandatory class activity in my Production Studio classes. I run it like an actual studio, where I’m the producer and everyone works for me, like it’s their first professional job. I find it provides an invaluable educational experience, produces great work, and turns the students into a seasoned, pro-level crew in just a few semesters. As for crew assignments, in a lot of ways the team self-decides that. Most people come into the Production Studio class already thinking of themselves as cinematographers, editors, compositors, what have you. And since many of them have already worked together on smaller projects before, they come into the class with some pre-established team configurations in mind. They know who they want to work with and what role they want to fill. So I generally just have to focus on the few kids who come to the class without a crew position or a career path in mind, and I help them find it. A great example of this is Samantha Hammond, who produced “Red Sand” with me. A semester before, she had no idea where she fit in the hierarchy of her peers, or what she wanted to specialize in. But I watched her organize and produce several smaller projects almost by default because no one else stepped up to the producer tasks. At that point I said to her, “I want you to produce ‘Red Sand‘ with me” and she took to the job as if she had been doing it for years.
In this photo: Dr. Zachary Robinson, Paul DeNigris, Mark Meer, Jamil M. Abubakar, Ariel Navarrete Spahn, Paul Rosario, Sarah Levinson, Jared Oppie and Caleb Evans.
It is mentioned in the behind the scenes that the shoot took five days, and Jamil Abubakar said that he was constantly trying to beat the sun. Was this shot solely during class hours? If not, what was the schedule like for the project?
We shot for 5 days, around 12 hours a day, during the first week of our January 2012 semester. My students were excused from the first week of their other classes by my fellow professors, who are super supportive of what I’m doing with my crew. We were “constantly trying to beat the sun” because we were shooting almost the entire film “day for night” and using the sun as our backlight. So as each day went on, we continually rotated the greenscreens to keep the sun at the actors’ backs.
When did UAT DV start filming this project? Did it happen to fall close to the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises?” We noticed in the behind the scenes that quite a few crew members were wearing Batman T-shirts on set.
No, we well into postproduction by the time “The Dark Knight Rises” hit theatres. That day where half the crew was decked out in Batman shirts, a bunch of them had coordinated that the previous day. One of the great things about UAT students is that they do stuff like that. One day I will show up on set and one’s wearing the Batman logo, another Superman, another Green Lantern, and I realize “Oh, you guys are the Justice League today.” Another day it’ll be Avengers shirts, X-Men shirts, Star Wars shirts, Mass Effect shirts, whatever. That day they decided to be the Batfamily!
Since most of the film takes place on Mars, Red Sand has several interesting locations. Where was the film shot?
UAT conveniently owns a pretty big empty lot immediately east of our campus. On my thesis film “Parallax,” we used “the dirt lot” as we call it to double for Iraq (with the help of visual effects, of course). So it was a no-brainer to employ the same techniques to create our Martian environments. Shooting so close to home base made everything easier – catering, costuming, battery recharging – all could be housed in the academic building. To have shot this film on location somewhere else would have taken longer and cost way more than we had in our budget.
In one of the behind the scenes videos, Mark Meer appears to be is suiting up in the motion capture room at UAT. Was there any motion capture used in the film, or was the room used for its massive green screen?
At UAT our indoor greenscreen stage just happens to also be housed in the same room as our optical motion capture system. We filmed our interior scenes – such as the interior of the Prothean ruins and onboard the SSV Phoenix spacecraft – in there. So in the behind the scenes video, you’re seeing us applauding for Mark after he wrapped – and the last thing he filmed was our original teaser trailer which shows him on the observation deck of the Phoenix looking down on Mars.
This film uses quite a few visual effects. Were there any special effects used during production?
Well, whenever it makes sense for us to do so, we try to shoot effects material in-camera. So for example when the Red Sand marauders erupt from the ground, all of the dirt and dust they kick up was filmed at 60fps using an air cannon I bought when we were doing “Parallax,” dubbed the “ThunderPipe.” Basically, it allows you to fill the hopper with dirt and then pump up the chamber with compressed air at several hundred PSI. Makes for some really cool dirt explosions that look infinitely better than what we could do with a particle simulation. Another practical element we filmed was the Martian dust storm. My pal David Stipes, who did VFX work on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” among many other shows, suggested we use “spinning cotton” to create the dust cloud elements. So I picked up some polyester fiber stuffing from a fabric store and we made dust cloud shapes and skewered them on long wooden dowels. We then put one dowel at a time onto a power drill and filmed 60fps elements of the polyester clouds spinning, which when color-corrected, overlayed on top of each other, and combined with other elements like dust and lightning, look remarkably like a dust storm!
SSV Phoenix in orbit of Mars.
3D Model: Elissa Clare
Lighting and Rendering: Dr. Zachary Robinson
Texturing and Comp: Paul DeNigris
How long was postproduction?
Postproduction began as soon as filming wrapped in January, and lasted until we debuted the film on YouTube in October.
Did the team know what it wanted all of the backgrounds and locations to look like before shooting, or was a lot of that figured out during postproduction?
I’d say a little of both. We had concept art for the Prothean ruins and we had lots of reference images of Mars. And of course we knew what the interior of an Alliance ship should look like because we had three games’ worth of imagery to look at. But the look of the ruins definitely evolved throughout post, and our Mars image library grew and grew once Curiosity landed. Plus we took a class trip up to Salt Lake City during postproduction and stopped off to shoot a ton of pics on the Arizona / Utah border that looked rather otherworldly. A lot of that material got incorporated into our Mars matte paintings by our 2D art team.
Did the team face any challenges with visual effects?
Visual effects work is always a challenge! Especially on a film where EVERY shot is a VFX shot. Every single shot in the film had something in it that proved to be a challenge. But the biggest issues we faced were related to the greenscreens, the helmets, and the biotics. Our greenscreens were pretty large, but at times not large enough to encompass all our action. So whenever actors would leave the greenscreen it would require rotoscoping, a frame-by-frame tracing process where the actor is separated from the background. There are some great software tools for that, but it’s still drudgery. The helmets posed an issue because of the way they were constructed. The entire bottom of the helmet was open, so on occasion you’d see the background right through it. That required some additional roto to build out digital bottoms for the helmets and close those holes. And as far as the biotics go, we worked really hard to make them consistent with the games but at the same time put our own spin on them.
While in post did any last minute changes have to be made to either the story or the visuals?
During editing you always find stuff that you wish you’d shot differently, or just stuff you missed and really need to make the story complete. On a film like this where so much of the image is being manufactured anyway, it’s often easy to bring the actors back to reshoot elements. Obviously we weren’t going to bring Mark Meer back down from Edmonton but luckily our director of photography Jared Oppie has the same build as Mark so we were able to use him as a stand-in for Mark in a couple of shots. There’s even one shot where Jared is standing in for Mark and we are shooting over his shoulder to look at the oncoming Red Sand marauders – and Jared is also doubling for the Red Sand leader because that element was shot at a separate time. So he is effectively staring himself down in that shot!
Dr. Averroes (Ayman Samman) announces his
historic discovery on the surface of Mars.
On a film like this, the edit is left pretty loose until the VFX start getting put into the cut. Shots run a little long here and there and they get trimmed and tightened as the VFX get added. So yes, our editor Paul Rosario then went in and tightened the whole cut over and over and over again as the VFX team gave him more and more material. On the one hand that makes things very flexible for the editorial team to continue refining the story and the pacing, but on the other hand the audio team hates it because the overall picture keeps changing and they aren’t really able to lock down their effects and dialogue tracks until VFX are completely done. So we literally were still tweaking the sound mix until about an hour before I had to upload the film to YouTube for our advertised premiere.
What editing software and VFX software did the team use?
For editing we use Avid Media Composer. For audio, we’re using Avid Pro Tools as our primary mixing tool, with Adobe Audition used here and there for editing of individual sound effects elements. For the visual effects, Adobe After Effects is our primary compositing tool – the software we use to put the shots together. Backgrounds and other still images were edited using Adobe Photoshop. We used Mocha for what’s called “planar tracking” – a process we used for a variety of things such as the HUDs inside the helmets. Our CGI environments were modeled in a number of different tools – a little Maya, a little 3DS Max, and a little ZBrush – but everything was lit and rendered in Maya. For serious motion tracking – pretty much any time the camera is moving and the background is CGI – we used PFTrack to develop 3D camera tracking solutions.
Does UAT DV plan to bring this film to Phoenix Comicon, the Phoenix Sci-Fi/Horror Film Festival, or any other festivals?
While the intent with “Red Sand” was always to release it via the Internet, we have already been invited to four cons next year. And I have submitted to both Phoenix and San Diego Comicons. Not sure if I will submit to any traditional film festivals though, because they tend to frown upon films being available on the Web during their festival run. Cons are a little more relaxed about that, and frankly that’s where our audience is!
After the success of “Red Sand” does UAT DV plan to write a sequel, or have any other fan films in the works?
We are definitely discussing a sequel or potentially a web series. More on that as things develop!
Are there any other projects that UAT DV is currently working on?
Every semester we’re cranking out new films. We just took first place at the IFP/Phoenix 48 Hour Film Challenge over the summer, placed in the top 20 of the A3f (Almost Famous Film Festival) 24 Hour Film Challenge this fall, and just days ago swept the Inter-College 48 Hour Film Challenge, taking home 3 awards. Many of those films will be hitting our YouTube channel over the coming weeks. We also just posted a short sci-fi comedy called “Flight of the Melvin” which has been on the festival circuit since January and scored a bunch of awards in the process. If your readers want to keep up with us, they can subscribe to our YouTube Channel, ”Like” our page on Facebook, Or they can follow us on Twitter.