Indies Blow Up Filmmaking with CGI
Friday, June 22, 2012
As long as there have been independent movies, they’ve been defined by the constraints of their budgets. Whether funny or sad, fantastical or realistic, indie movies tend to be intimate, talky, and set in the present. But an off-the-shelf videogame console today unspools computer graphics that George Lucas would have killed for a generation ago. As technology drops in price, computer-generated imagery (CGI) is trickling down, and low-budget films now have an opportunity to compete with Hollywood on its own turf.
An example is a strange film from Finland called Iron Sky. How strange? It's a sci-fi comedy about Nazis from outer space on the warpath. Judging by the trailer (the film is not yet released) it has terrific production values, but Iron Sky was made with just 5% of the budget of Battleship, this summer’s other space invaders flick. It's as though Mel Brooks had made Spaceballs look as good as Star Wars.
Timo Vuorensola, Iron Sky’s director, hails the democratization of CGI. “High-quality special effects are not just the reach of Hollywood anymore,” he says. “It is possible for independent filmmakers in Finland, or wherever the hell people make films.” In a new initiative, Pixar, which created the RenderMan CGI package, has made it possible to outsource the necessary computing power. Instead of buying a fleet of processors to run RenderMan, a filmmaker can upload a job and pay to have it processed in the cloud. Pixar’s Chris Ford says, “Sometimes people are looking for the big revolutionary thing. I actually think it's the routine usage of visual effects that is now the big story.”
Cloud computing isn't the only way the internet is changing how films will get made. Vuorensola crowdsourced some of the creative work to his fans. He didn’t have enough production crew to design all the spacecrafts Earth sends against the space Nazis. “India's spaceships, for example. We didn't have enough time or resources to do this,” he explains. “So we turned it over to the community, and we said, ‘Alright guys. Design our Indian spaceships.’”
Reed Martin, author of the book The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn't Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film, worries a bit about the new availability of CGI to independent projects. “Filmmakers today spend so much time making sure that the pixels are just so,” he says, that they may “neglect the underlying story.” But he acknowledges that the upside is huge. “If these newly accessible digital effects can allow filmmakers to tell a story like, say, Das Boot, without having to spend $18 million to build a full-scale submarine mockup, that's going to allow more stories to be told. And the movie-going audience will benefit from more interesting stories and more variety in the multiplex today.”
Video: Iron Sky trailer