By Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull
Portals is a genre-bending feature film anthology focusing on a series of worldwide blackouts — after which millions of mysterious objects appear everywhere across the planet. While many flee from the sentient objects, some people are drawn toward and into them with horrifying consequences.
The film was in the final stages of post when writer/director Liam O’Donnell (Beyond Skyline and the upcoming Skylines film) called to see if I would like to get involved and direct some bookend sequences to add more scope and setup, which the producers felt was very much needed. I loved the premise and the world of the anthology, so I said yes. I pitched an idea for an ending, that quickly evolved into an extra segment at the end of the film, which I directed. That’s why there are officially four directors on the show, with me getting executive producer and “end-segment created by” credits.
Two of the other sequences are around 20 to 25 minutes each, and O’Donnell’s sequence was around 35 minutes. The film is 85 minutes long. Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (The Blair Witch Project) co-directed their segments. So the anthology feature film is really three long segments with my bookend sequences. The only connections among all the stories are the objects that appear, the event itself and the actual “portal,” but everything else was unique to each segment’s story. In terms of production, the only consistencies throughout the anthology were the camera language — that slight hand-held feel — and, of course, the music/sound
I had to watch the latest cut of the entire anthology film to get my head into that world, but I was given freedom to bring my own style to my sequences. That is exactly the point of an anthology — for each director to bring his or her own sensibilities to the individual segments. Besides Liam, the main producers I worked closely with on this project were Alyssa Devine and Griffin Devine from Pigrat Productions. They are fans of my first feature film, The Beyond, so they really encouraged the grounded tone I had demonstrated in that film.
I’ve been a huge advocate of Blackmagic cameras and technology for a long time. Additionally, I knew I had to a lot to shoot in a very short time space (two days!), so I needed a camera that was light and flexible yet able to shoot 4K. I brought on cinematographer Colin Emerson, who shoots in a very loose way but always makes his stuff look cinematic. We watched the cut of the film and noticed the consistent loose nature to the cinematography on all the segments. Colin uses the Fig Rig a lot and I love the way that rig works and the BMD Pocket Cinema 4K fits nicely on it along with his DSLR lenses he likes to use. The other reason was to be able to use Blackmagic’s new BRaw format too.
We also shot the segment using a skeleton crew, which comprised of myself as director/producer; VFX supervisor/1st AD John Sellings, who also did some focus pulling; James De Taranto (sound recording); DP/camera op Colin Emerson, FX makeup artists Kate Griffith and Jay James; and our two actors, Georgina Blackledge and Dare Emmanuel. I worked with both of them on my feature film The Beyond.
One thing I wanted to make sure of was that the post team at The Institution in LA was able to take my Resolve files and literally work from that for the picture post. One of the things I did during prep of the project (before we even cast) was to shoot some tests to show what I had in mind in terms of look and feel. We also tested the BRaw and color workflow between my setup in London and the LA team. Colin and I did this during location recce. This proved to be extremely useful to ensure we set our camera to the exact specs the post house wanted. So we shot at 23.98, 4K (4096×1716) 2:39 cropped, Blackmagic color design log color space.
During the test, I did some quick color tests to show the producers in LA the tone and mood I was going for and to make sure everyone was on board before I shot it. The look was very post apocalyptic, as it’s set after the main events have happened. I wanted the locations to be a contrast with each other, one interior and one exterior with greens.
Colin is used to shooting most of his stuff on the Panasonic GH, but he had the Cinema Pocket Camera and was looking for the right project to use it on. He found he could use all of his usual lenses because the Cinema Pocket Camera has the same mount. Lenses used were the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 + Metabones Speedbooster; the Olympus 12mm f2; and the Lumix 35-100mm f2.8
Colin used the onboard monitor screen on the Pocket Cinema Camera, while I used a tethered external monitor — the Ikan DH5e — for directing. We used a 1TB Samsung external SSD securely attached to the rig cage along with a 64GB CFast card. The resolution we shot in was determined by the tests we did. We set up the rushes for post after each of the two days of the shoot, so during the day we would swap out drives and back things up. At the end of the day, we would bring in all the picture and sound rushes and use the amazing autosync feature in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve to set it all up. This way, when I headed back home I could start editing right away inside Resolve.
I have to admit, we were hesitant at first because I was shooting and capturing Log in QuickTime ProRes 4:4:4:4, and I always avoided DNG raw because of the huge file size and data transfer. But the team at Blackmagic has always been so supportive and provided us with support right up till the end of the shoot, so after testing BRaw I was impressed. We had so much control as all that information is accessed within Resolve. . I was able to set the temp look during editing, and the colorist worked from there. Skin tones were of utmost importance; because of the intimate nature of the drama, I wanted a natural look to the skin tones. I am really happy with the way they came out at the end.
They couldn’t believe how cinematic the footage was when we told them we shot using the Pocket Cinema Camera, since the other segments were shot on cameras like Red. We delivered the same 4K deliverables spec as the other segments in the film.
I used the AMD Radeon RX Vega 56 version of the Blackmagic eGPU. The reason was because I wanted to edit on my MacBook Pro (late 2017) and needed the power to run 4K in realtime. I was so impressed with how much power it provided; it was like having a new MacBook Pro without having to buy one. The eGPU had all the connectivity (two Thunderbolt and four USB-3) I needed, which is a limitation of the MacBook Pro.
The beauty of keeping everything native was that there wasn’t much work to do when porting, as it’s just plug and play. And the Resolve detects the eGPU, which you can then set as default. The BRaw format makes it all so manageable to preview and playback in real time. Also, since it’s native, Resolve doesn’t need to do any transcoding in the background. I have always been a huge fan of the tracking in Resolve, and I was able to do eye effects very easily without it being budgeted or done as a VFX shot. I was able to get the VFX render assets from the visual effects artist (Justin Martinez ) in LA and do quick-slap comps during editing. I love the idea that I can set looks and store them as memories, which I can then recall very quickly to apply on a bunch of shots. This allows me to have a slick-looking preview rough cut of the film.
I sent a hard drive containing all the organized rushes to the team in LA while I was doing the final tweaks to the edit. Once the edit was signed off, or if any last-minute notes came in, I would do them and email them my Resolve file. It was super simple, and the colorists (Oliver Ojeil) and post team (Chad Van Horn and Danny Barone) in LA appreciated the simple workflow because there really wasn’t any conforming for them to do apart from a one-click relink of media location; they would just take my Resolve file and start working away with it.
We used practical effects to keep the horror as real and grounded as possible, and used VFX to augment further. We were fortunate to be able to get special effects makeup artist Kate Griffiths. Given the tight schedule she was able to create a terrifying effect, which I won’t give away. You need to watch the film to see it! We had to shoot those make-up FX-heavy shots at the end of the day, which meant we had to be smart about how we scheduled the shoot given the hours-long make-up process. Kate was also on hand to provide effects like the liquid coming out of the eyes and sweat etc. — every detail of which the camera picked up for us so we could bring it out in the grade.
The Skype-style shots at the start of the film (phone and computer monitor shots) had their VFX screen elements placed as a separate layer so the post team in LA could grade them separately and control the filters applied on them. For some of the wide shots showing our characters entering and leaving the portal, we keyframed some movement of the 4K shot along with motion blur to give the effect of in-camera movement. I also used the camera shake within Resolve, which comes with so many options to create bespoke movement on static frames.
Portals is now available on iTunes and other VOD platforms.
HaZ Dulull is known for his sci-fi feature films The Beyond and 2036 Origin Unknown, also in television for his pilot and episodes on Disney’s Fast Layne. He is currently busy on projects at various stages of development and production at his production company, hazfilm.com.