High-End Effects on an Indie Budget

Eric Demeusy on using C4D for all of the 3D CG and VFX in his first feature film, Proximity.
By Meleah Maynard

Emmy-winning filmmaker/director/animator Eric Demeusy is probably best known for his work on the main titles for Stranger Things, Game of Thrones and Tron: Legacy. But he’s also been making films most of his life, including two 20-minute Star Wars fan films he finished while still in high school, as well as 3113 in 2012 and Star Wars: The New Republic Anthology in 2015.

Now Demeusy’s making his feature directorial debut with Proximity, a sci-fi drama about a young scientist (played by Ryan Masson) who is working for NASA and gets abducted by extraterrestrials. When he is returned to Earth and nobody believes his story, he sets out to find proof. Released by Shout! Studio as video on demand, Proximity includes nearly 400 3D VFX shots that were all created on a tight budget using Cinema 4D.

Demeusy explains his process here, and says he hopes other indie filmmakers who see the film will be inspired to try using C4D in unexpected ways to push the limits of their own imaginations and budgets. (Watch the film here)

You’ve always liked sci-fi. How did you come up with Proximity’s storyline?
The original idea came to me on a Friday night at like 11 o’clock. There’s a guy and he’s out documenting himself doing something and, in the background, he sees a meteor fall from the sky and he goes to investigate and encounters an alien. It was an intriguing image, so an actor friend and my DP, Jason Mitcheltree, shot it as a short film over two days, running around LA stealing locations because it would have cost all this money and we would have needed a bunch of people. We just shot it like found footage. It brought me back to my high school days.

Demeusy’s team used Houdini and C4Dto create the meteor crash scene.

Once we decided to make an entire feature, we thought we’d just shoot the whole thing that way, going out on the weekends for shoots until, eventually, we’d have enough for a whole movie. But we realized we didn’t have a whole story at that point, so Jason and I came up with a lot of ideas and I wrote a whole script. We used it to get a Kickstarter going for the film, and that snowballed into getting funding for the whole movie, which we didn’t expect.

Were you confident from the start that you could use C4D for all of your 3D VFX?
I was ambitious with what we’d be able to pull off. With my background in animation, visual effects and post-production, so I wasn’t afraid to shoot stuff however I wanted. I knew I could be free because, if we couldn’t get access to a vehicle or something we needed, I could create what I call invisible VFX because you can’t actually tell they are CG. Like, I was going down the path to rent some military vehicles, but I used CG instead to stretch the budget.

Back on Earth, the young scientist gets interrogated at a secret facility.

There’s also a scene were some android characters are riding motorcycles. We had physical suits for them, but you couldn’t see out of the helmets, so we just replace their heads with CG helmets. We took the physical helmets we had made and used an iPhone app to scan one in 3D. It took an array of photos under flat lighting conditions and rendered 3D geometry from that. We cleaned up the geometry and re-painted the textures in Substance Painter.

Androids wore CG helmets in this scene from Proximity.

Another scene where you wouldn’t necessarily know included invisible VFX was a scene in Costa Rica where a character is supposed to be getting a ride on a sea plane. We didn’t have a sea plane or extras or access to vehicles in Costa Rica. I tried renting a sea plane, but it didn’t work out, so I figured out a way to have just a few shots where you see a plane parked on the dock in between boats.

You’d have no idea that the plane was CG, but it helped tell the story that there was a plane in the scene. As an indie filmmaker, you have to figure out how to do stuff like that and it really broadens your toolset for how to accomplish certain things by being clever and resourceful. Nobody has to know you didn’t do everything properly, like renting all the vehicles.

Demeusy’s ability to create CG elements, like the seaplane above, helped stretch the film’s indie budget.

There’s another scene in Coast Rica where they escape a secret government facility. We scouted the place the day before and found an area the actors could come out of, but it wasn’t an actual exit. So I found a wooden frame that was there for cattle or something, I’m not sure. I had them run through that, and I used Cinema 4D to add in a cement bunker with a door on it. It ended up looking like they were really emerging from the facility. It didn’t look CG at all. There was no way we could have built all of that on location and we had limited time in Costa Rica, so just being able to be able to go back and add that stuff in made it seem like a much bigger story.

Demeusy used C4D to turn a ramshackle wooden structure he found in the forest into the entrance to a secret government facility.

Where else did you shoot besides LA and Costa Rica?
We also went to Washington and Northern California near Yosemite. We Went to Washington to get a cabin with the right look for the movie. But finding the right cabin in a good location was really difficult. I had a reference on Pinterest and, out of curiosity, I thought I try to find it so I contacted the photographer on Instagram and hired a location scout to drive out there. They actually found it and left a note on the door. The owners don’t live there year-round so we got to do the shoot, and it was great because there was a train nearby that we could also shoot on.

Lacking an establishing shot of the cabin, Demeusy made on in C4D.

But we had so much to cover on the day we had the cabin, we forgot to get an establishing shot of it. So that’s another one of the invisible VFX you see in the movie. We went through all of our footage and found as many pieces of the cabin as we could. Then we stitched them all together, built it in C4D and projected those images of the cabin onto the model. The trees were added into the foreground, and it looks very realistic.

Talk about the more complicated VFX and CG and how you pulled it all off.
When it came time to break down the VFX shots, I calculated everything out and looked at our deadline and knew I would have to do about five shots a day. I did a lot of the work, but we also brought in a small team of five people to help out for three months. We were pretty much a little studio with all of these machines and a render farm and cranked away and got as much done as we could. And then I spent the last three months mostly working alone on more than 100 shots. I would have loved to spend more time, but it just wasn’t realistic with the time we had. And I know that I can tweak stuff for too long and that, in the end, it really doesn’t make much of a difference.

Demeusy built a rough version of the diner environment in Cinema 4D for this scene to ensure everything reflected and refracted correctly.

One effect that was tricky happens when the main character reaches through to another dimension. I built a hand in Cinema that matched his hand and used a formula effector, jiggle effector and plane effector to get a rippled look, like you’d get if you touched water in zero gravity. I put the video behind the ripples to make it translucent, so you get the correct refraction through the plane.

After the abduction, the main character experiences strange things, like the ability to reach into another dimension.

Our most complicated effect was the alien creature. It really needed to be CG because it’s much taller and skinnier than a human. I thought motion capture would be out of the realm of possibility for us, but it turned out to be the most efficient way to go. With animation, we would have had to handle every single nuance. So we first sculpted the creature in ZBrush.

Then, we did a low-poly model in Cinema and projected all of the high-detail displacement onto the low-poly mesh before painting textures onto it in Substance Painter. I was getting all of this information back from everybody so I could do lighting tests and add in all of the subsurface scattering. Once we had the model finished, we animated it.

Demeusy, right, works on a scene with his crew in the motion capture stage.

We worked with an artist who is really good at rigging in Cinema 4D. He created a custom python script, so all we had to do was bring in the motion capture data and literally hit one button to lock it onto the creature’s body. The creature would move with the motion capture data, but we were able to animate on top of that if we needed to because of the rig. Like the creature’s hand, motion capture didn’t pick up its face or finger movements, so we did all of that animation by hand.

What do you want to say to other filmmakers about using C4D for CG and VFX?
I would encourage filmmakers to embrace the tools they have and learn how to get the job done. I knew early on that I was being pushed to use certain tools if I wanted to do high-end visual effects. But industry standards, and the status quo, have sort of been shattered by what we are capable of achieving digitally these days. It’s really about how you use your tools. I picked up my first copy of Cinema 4D almost 16 years ago and have never used another 3D program. It has every capability I’ve ever needed in a 3D package and every new version constantly blows me away. It’s a great time for indie filmmakers because we can shoot digitally to keep the cost down, and we can expand our world using VFX.

Watch the Mograph Podcast interview with Eric below

Directed by Eric Demeusy
Written by Eric Demeusy and Jason Mitcheltree
Starring: Ryan Masson, Highdee Kuan, Christian Prentice, Shaw Jones and Don Scribner

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.