By Randi Altman
Writer/director/VFX supervisor Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull, whose sci-fi short Project Kronos is currently being adapted into a feature film, recently completed another short, Sync. Dulull says this proof-of-concept piece is part of a package used when developing feature film and TV properties.
Sync’s story is that every 15 seconds, a computer, network or mobile device is hacked by cyber-terrorists. To combat this problem, the fictional Syntek Industries has manufactured data couriers designed from advanced machine robotics. These couriers are known as Syncs, who are programmed to securely deliver data packages without interruption.
This busy London-based pro, who started out in visual effects working on films such as the Dark Knight and Hell Boy 2, and who has a number of VES Awards noms under his belt, transitioned to writing and directing with Project Kronos, and he just keeps testing himself in all aspects of filmmaking. That includes his own HaZ VFX Ltd, which offers visual effects supervision and consulting.
Sync, which launched on the Web this week took four months to produce, from initial concept to shooting to post. Let’s dig in a bit deeper.
You were producer, writer and director on this one. Can you talk about the kind of control that gives you?
It gives me a lot of control, but it mainly means I can pick the team I want and pretty much be OCD on every single detail, from the shooting to editorial and even audio. The producer part means I make sure every penny spent is not wasted especially as I self-financed the project.
Who do you rely on a for a second set of eyes, so to speak?
My manager Scott Glassgold from IAM Entertainment. He knows what the studios want and is constantly pushing me to make the film I want but present it the best possible way, often pushing me to become an even better filmmaker. Having that second pair of eyes from someone in the industry goes a long way to ensure I’m making a commercial property that will attract the studios.
What was the film shot on and why?
It was shot entirely on Blackmagic cameras: the Pocket, Cinema and 4K Camera, which I used mainly to compensate for the global shutter since we had strobe lighting effects for the gun, and the 4K camera global shutter avoided any rolling shutter. The Pocket camera was used on a lot of shots to allow me and my cinematographer Adam Batchelor to get the cool angles in a guerrilla-type way without the need for expensive and large rigging and set-ups.
That initial shot and the second city shot. Was that a stock shot with effects? A matte painting?
Well spotted. Using the same technique I did for my previous short Project Kronos, I purchased stock footage of cityscapes and then using visual effects I was able to augment them a lot to achieve the landscape vision I wanted. Pretty much a live-action matte painting all done in Adobe After Effects.
How many visual effects shots were there?
I can actually tell you the exact number because I used Ftrack to manage the entire visual effects process. The number of visual effects in the film from small clean-up to full-on CG and compositing totaled 128 shots — for an eight-minute piece. I’m sure there are more as I was doing some last-minute ones in After Effects while my colorist Simon Dinnigan was busy grading the film in Resolve right until launch.
What are the benefits of having the director also be a visual effects guy?
Well, for starters, I wouldn’t shoot crazy hand-held camera with flowing hair and badly lit greenscreens because I know the pain it causes a compositor. So I would frame the shot and sort of composite the shot in my mind as I watched the monitor. I always shoot a locked-off shot for safety just in case a nightmare occurs with tracking and rotoscoping of the shot.
I also know what can be achieved in visual effects and what should be in-camera and then augmented in-camera. For example, the FBI surveillance scene in Sync is actually ALL in-camera, I created the screen graphics a few days before the shoot and then on the day of the shoot we would have those graphics play back. It worked great because we get the graphics lighting on the actors’ faces as they look at the screen, but also for the actors. They really felt like they were in a big mission control room, which helped with performances.
If I didn’t have a VFX background I would have shot it clean and then in post do all the graphics and deal with tracking and rotoscoping etc. So doing that in-camera and having VFX material before the shoot meant I was able to save time and money!
The other thing worth noting is I thought about color during the shoot, as most productions deal with this in the grading suite. I had discussions with my DP Adam and my colorist Simon during the shoot about how we light things while looking at development images I created in Photoshop to show the sort of thing I was after. So we shot and lit the scenes for the grade.
How were the VFX created? By you? With what tools?
On my previous short film projects I did all the VFX myself, but this time I was fortunate to have a fantastic team of artists who helped out on the film from motion graphics to complicated visual effect shots to CGI assets and elements. This meant I could push my visual direction style further than my previous films. I had artists around the world working on this project from countries such as Canada, Italy, India and, of course, England.
A group of those artists were graduates from Escape Studios, a VFX training facility I have links with. They were fantastic in supporting the project by putting those artists in touch with me and using their facility and Nuke and Maya workstations to do the VFX shots. It was important for me to also break out of that “do it all yourself” mindset and work within a big team. So directing while also being very hands on supporting the visual effects artists and taking on a lot of VFX shots myself too using After Effects.
How was the film edited?
I was fortunate to work closely with an editor on this one. So I would do a rough cut and then send it over to Simon Dinnigan, who co-edited the film with me and who has a heavy drama background, so his editing sensibilities were great.
We would bounce the Adobe Premiere file back and forth using our Dropbox set-up. He then would do a heavy technical pass. Once the edit locked we would then XML it out to Resolve to do the grade.
Can you talk about the audio, the mix, the sound design?
I enlisted the amazing and talented Zelig Sound, who are Matthew Wilcocks and Aleah Morrison. I worked with them on another project in the past. They came on straight away after I pitched the idea to them, so instrumental in setting that dark sci-fi mood I wanted… they handled sound design, the original music and the sound mix.
What was the most challenging part of the shoot and post?
Location was tough as we had to work with the limited time available for the use of the location. But I was fortunate to have a great 1st AD John Sellings on some of the big sequences to ensure we got all the shots on time. But apart from that this was a very smooth production, and that’s partly because of the planning me and my DP did months in advance.
What are you most proud of about the film, and why?
I think everything because it was the exact film I wrote and envisioned. I am proud of everyone who contributed to making this film with me, and it would not have been possible without the amazing, hard-working, talented artists and crew. Also working with production managers such as Ellen Payne from Escape Studios (where a lot of the scenes were shot) and Tammy Ellis from South Essex University, who let us use their amazing facility and car park for the big scenes. This is by far my biggest yet best short form work I’ve put together.