A Journey with Dust

Wed 5th Feb 2014, by Mike Grier and Szabolcs Menyhei. Edited by Andrew Plumer | Production

Just over four years ago Mike Grier set about making a film with ambitious goals including; over 11 days of live action shooting, seven unique CG Creatures and the creation of amazing environments with complex set extensions and mattes.


Now, following a successful Kick-Starter campaign and the production of trailer that has captivated over a quarter of a million viewers the film is almost done. CGSociety caught up with Mike and Environment Artist, Szabolcs Menyhei to talk about the journey of Dust.






Congratulations on all the amazing work you have done so far on Dust. To kick off can you give a bit of background on the project to our readers who may not know a lot about the project?


Mike: Dust is a short film that has been in development here at Ember Lab for several years. We expect to finish this spring and are very excited to be so close to completion. We began production in late 2009 with an 11day, guerilla-style shoot in the remote island of Shikoku Japan. From there, our team constructed several remarkable sets on the Chapman University sound stages. We also filmed a portion in Pfeifer State Park, Big Sur California.

After wrapping production in 2011, we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign. We hoped our fundraising would speed up the post-production for Dust and it did. I can’t begin to imagine where we would be in the post process without the Kickstarter funds. The support from the online community was amazing. We exceeded our goal of 80K and raised just over 100K. Not having to rely solely on Ember Lab’s resources helped tremendously. The funds have expedited development of some amazing VFX for the film. Even more important, the excitement and support we received from the Kickstarter community has fuelled our passion and kept us going. The campaign fortified us to see Dust through to the end.

Kickstarter also helped us showcase the film at Comic-Con last year. We released the trailer for the film a few days before the convention and took the entire team to San Diego where we promoted the film just outside the convention center. The trailer received tremendous positive feedback online and garnered recognition from several major studios. Once we complete the short film, we hope to take the next steps toward creating a feature film.


It’s very difficult to describe the depth passion the entire team has for this project. The initial spark, the one idea that fueled everything, was the world we set out to create. The world and its’ many stories evolved over years of living abroad and reflect not only our experience with different cultures but our love of fantasy and sci-fi.



Can you tell us about some of the world of Dust?

Mike: The world was our central focus for a long time. As it took shape and solidified, it fueled our desire to tell stories in its environments. It is a fantasy world: completely unique but somehow familiar; an alternate reality where evolution and adaptation are accelerated, where cause and effect are closely connected in time.


Dust is just one of the stories set in this world. Here is a quick excerpt from our site,


“Throughout history the role of trackers was to study the shifts in the environment and teach people to live in harmony with the natural world as it changed. Regarded as spiritual guides, Trackers cultivated and protected the balance hat existed between the land and its people.


But slowly, people’s views began to shift and the balance was lost.


Turning from their ancient traditions, people felt empowered by knowledge and came to rely on technology. The rise of walled cities led many to flee the harsh environment of the countryside in search of an easier life. Evolutionary jumps, speciation and regional adaptation among plants and animals accelerated. Trackers struggled to document the evolutionary changes that were occurring sometimes in a single generation. Ordinary people, emboldened by technology, began to view nature as an element to be controlled and conquered.”


Many of the themes we touch on in the story are embodied in the world and its society. Some of them reflect today’s issues: the conflict of cultures and ideas, the lack of connection between people and their institutions and dangerous imbalances that exist in the natural environment. These themes shaped the world of Dust and it’s these forces that are at work to defeat our main character, Irezumi. His survival hinges on humanity’s strengths: the power of compassion, the fortifying nature of trust and the transcendence of family,  community and tradition. 

How long is the film?

Mike: Dust is a short film. We wanted to keep the run time about the length of an episodic TV show, about 22 minutes.

A lot of small established studio's create their own content alongside doing fee-for-service work to pay the rent but it seems you guys have got to where you are via a different path. Creating a fee-for-service studio to support your own film. Is that a correct assumption? Which came first Dust or Ember Lab?


Mike: When my brother and I established Ember Lab in 2009, it was very much a means to create the short film, Dust. Our major goal was to develop the resources, both financial and artistic, to produce this short film with a level of quality not usually seen in independent projects.


Just starting out as artists, we didn’t really have a vision for the opportunities that would arise for Ember Lab, how far the studio could grow or how much of our time it would demand. We simply tried to infuse the passion we had for Dust into the work we developed for our clients. Our philosophy has paid off. We have grown the studio tremendously over the past 5 years. We’ve created and developed several unique marketing campaigns for the Coca-Cola Company - their Coke Classic and Fanta Brands. We’ve also done work for popular Machinima Web series and several feature films. Ember Lab’s recent evolution into game development spun us in a new direction and provided some amazing opportunities for the future. Our game team is currently developing exciting content for next gen consoles.


At first, we honestly believed we could do creative work for others and still have big blocks of time to devote to Dust. As it turned out, we were forced to put Dust on hold several times as we raced to make production deadlines for our clients.


You have built an amazing team from your core of four people and I am guessing that most of them are working for love of the project. Can you explain how you have managed to get so many talented technicians on board?

Mike: Working on smaller, independent projects is exciting because everyone involved has the opportunity to impact the final product in a significant way. Infusing the project with the new ideas and direction from the team is both exciting and energizing. I think the collaborative culture at our studio has helped us build some amazing partnerships.


We’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing artists. The talent and commitment of our team is nothing short of amazing.


The film is highly visual. Did you start with a script or visual concepts?

Mike: We started out with a script and went through several revisions before shooting. However, the original ideas for the project were captured visually through collaboration with some great artists like our art director, Eoin Colgan. His art direction had a huge impact on the film’s tone. The concept work established the texture and visual aesthetic for everything that followed and it truly added a lot to the story. Eoin’s character designs gave the cast a strong foundation to build upon. The art really helped the team get a feel for the people and the world we were about to realize.


Considering the costs associated with shooting live action on built sets did you intend to do a studio shoot from the beginning? If not when did you decide to do it?

Mike: We did spend some time looking for practical locations for the workshop but most of our options would have been limiting from a photography perspective. Constructing a custom set allowed us complete freedom. It was a daunting task because we had to create something from scratch that matched the visual aesthetic of the amazing landscapes we shot in Japan. Not to mention the 600 year old traditional Japanese home (Chiiori) where we shot for several days.


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Irezumi’s workshop: The challange here was to reconstruct the set in 3d and add more detail to the scenes. We had to match the plate in temrs of perspective and lighting, my work had to be invisible. We also created smaller dmps of Kabe that you can see outside the window.


There were a couple of things that fell into place to make it possible. First, Chapman University gave us access to their amazing sound stages. We found a great reclaimed lumber yard near the sound stages where we sourced perfectly aged materials. We recruited talented scenic artists from Disneyland to help with production design. Finally, we worked with a cool antique and restoration shop called Itchy Knee to help furnish the set. Constructing Irezumi’s Workshop was a huge undertaking but it paid off in the end.

Did you budget the entire production at the outset?

Mike: Yes we budgeted everything for the production before shooting began. We had an idea of our post budget before shooting but had to make some adjustments after completing principle photography.

You have hinted that you built more sets than just Irezúmi's Workshop. Can you tell us what the others are?

Mike: Yes, you can see at the end of the trailer there is a fight scene between Irezumi and a CG creature. The scene is an integral part of the short and includes some of the most challenging visual effects shots in the film. It was shot on an abandoned mine shaft that was designed to match the exterior of a location we captured in Japan.

Designing and constructing the 5,000 square foot set was a big task for our small team. We basically lived on the soundstage for about 3 weeks getting the set ready for production. Scale and spacing were very important for this scene. The space needed to feel cavernous but still confined enough to make for an engaging fight sequence. We design a detailed blueprint for the set allowing us to create an animatic that helped block out most of the shots. We used a few hundred bags of rubber mulch for ground cover. The mulch looked great and acted as padding for the stunts.

The live action shoot happened before the Kickstarter campaign. How did you initially fund production?

Mike: We utilized earnings from Ember Lab to complete the live action shoot before running our Kickstarter campaign. The team made big sacrifices to make the international shoot possible. The concept of Dust was a unifying force that drove everyone. We worked hard so that we could create a film we believed in.

What will be the format of the digital download and will the film have subtitles?

Mike: The digital download will be a DRM free, 1080p video. All versions of the film will include English and Japanese subtitles. Based on our funding from Kickstarter, we may look into other language translations.


What are your plans for Dust after completing the film?

Mike: We plan on entering Dust in film festivals and hopefully expanding upon the concept. We are open to any medium that allows us to continue exploring the world of Dust including feature film, an episodic series or even a game experience.


What camera did you shoot on for Dust?

Mike: The film was shot on the Red One (Mysterium-X) with Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses.

Was much shot on green screen?

Mike: There are quite a few set extensions but none of the principal photography was shot on green.

How many creatures are there in the film?


Mike: The film features 7 unique creatures.



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Mooncatcher Shrine: Technically it was a difficult one. The statues and the latnterns are added in CG but we also had to relight the plate, so the lanterns lit the trees. Nuke projections helped us to make this shot work.


What challenges have you faced in seamlessly integrating the creatures with the live-action and other components of the film?


Mike: Where to begin? Seamlessly integrating creatures into live-action is probably one of the most challenging undertakings when it comes to CG. A living creature is so nuanced and its every movement so subtle that creating believable fantasy creatures from scratch and maintaining believability as you drop them into a real environment with real people is an enormous task. What nature does effortlessly is tough to recreate even with today’s technology.

I spent a lot of time looking to the natural world for guidance as we fleshed out the creatures during concept work and then breathed life into them with animation. In fact, studying the actual movement of animals became an obsession of mine as I tried to figure out what would make “believable” movement for each Dust creature.



The biggest challenge with Dust is that there is such a variety of creatures and diversity of environments. Each creature required a unique approach so we couldn’t use one pattern over and over.

It starts with a strong concept. We spent lots of time and effort coming up with designs that both looked interesting and whose parts served some purpose in the wild. It’s really a hard balance that requires lots of research. In the end, we discovered that nature had already thought up some of the wildest and craziest creatures. So, it was in our best interest to take these ideas and let our creativity run on top of them. Every creature in the film is based on an animal or a combination of animals that exist on earth.


We took lots of reference photos, light probes and camera notes while on set to help match lighting and integrate the CG during post. Practical lighting was also a huge part of our CG integration. For example the Hydra creature in the film is a bioluminescent microorganism that emits light and lives in the water. We had various water proof LED light rigs to give us a glowing water effect.

You have said that the film is roughly 50% live action and 50% digital. Are there any scenes that are fully digital or are you working on a lot of composited shots?


Mike: Only one shot in the film is full CG. We made the choice early on with this film to work from the practical base whenever possible. I have nothing against full CG but we made the choice early on with this film to always work from the practical base. Even though the film is a mixture of fantasy and Sci-fi, I wanted it to feel very earthy and close to home. I intended the environments to be both familiar and strange at the same time. It just made senses to use natural landscapes and enhance them with CG.


During our stage time we also shot a variety of custom stock elements. These proved to be really valuable and helped to keep the dynamics workload manageable.



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City Gate: This shot was one of the full CG shots. We had to make sure to maintain consistency throught the Kabe city establishing shots. We rendered one frame of the CG wall, bridge and buildings and then I took these renders to Photoshop. The matte paintings were projected back to geo in Nuke. I created a simple projection script, but later I decided top pre-render separate elements for comp. So once we finalized the camera movement, I rendered the sky, city, wall etc as a separate sequence. One of the biggest challeges for this shot was the foliage on the wall. The CG foliage just wasn’t good enough so I had to take my camera and shoot reference photos here in London.


Can you tell us more about the your VFX pipeline, the tools and software used?


Mike: We use a variety of software depending on the task. Our primary 3D application is Maya. Animation, rigging and lighting are all done in Maya. The majority of rendering was done with RenderMan. Dust really made us refine many aspects of our workflow especially when it came to the creatures. Sculpting was done in Zbrush and texture work was completed in Mari. We took advantage of RenderMan’s efficient displacements and utilized vector displacement maps to capture all the high frequency detail put into the models. All compositing was done in Nuke.


Szaby: For the environments we used industry standard softwares, such as Maya for 3d, Photoshop for matte painting, Nuke for projections and compositing. We used Mental Ray, RenderMan and Vray to render our 3d elements. Due to the budget of the production and the time constraints we had, we couldn’t create a big library of 3d assets. We had models developed for the city and for the country side as well, but there was no time to texture and lookdev all of them. For example, the gate, the bridge and the wall surrounding the city of Kabe have been textured, but most of the buildings were rendered with a simple grey shader and we had to paint them over.


Once the matte painting was done we had to project it back onto the geometry. Mari is a great tool for texturing and I wish we could have used it, but we had to rely on matte painting a lot this time around. I guess that’s the beauty of matte painting, you can achieve great results in a relatively quick and simple way. It has its limitations though.

Szaby. Can you tell us about yourself and your role on the film?


Szaby: Szabolcs Menyhei (pronounced SUH-bohlch) but everyone calls me Szaby. I am an Environment Artist/ matte painter / texture painter working in London at Double Negative. I work as a lead environment TD / matte painter.


On Dust I was responsible for setting up 3d scenes for the shots as well as modelling assets. I also worked on the layout for most of the shots and lit them. Besides working on my own shots, it was also my job to help other artists by commenting on their work or painting on top of their matte painting.


Could you introduce the artists who worked on the environments of the film?

Szaby: We were lucky to have some really talented people in our crew. The concepts for the environments were established by Kalen Chock and Kentaro Kanamoto. Sometimes they had to come up with ideas from scratch, sometimes they had to take a frame of a shot and paint it over. They did an amazing job. Once the concepts had been approved, they were given to the environment artists. Besides me, Nick Giassullo and Talon Nightshade worked on the environments.


The arists' tasks weren't limited just to matte painting. Usually they involved some 3d work as well, and after the matte painting was done, we had to project it back to geometry. These guys are really experienced artists, Nick has just finished working on Iron Man 3, Kalen worked for Lucasfilm etc.


How hard has it been working on the environments with you guys being in different countries and how did you guys hook up in the first place?


Szaby: It wasn’t difficult at all. It’s funny because with the help of the internet, you work with people you’ve never met in real life. I think it was back in 2011 when I got an email from Ember Lab. They saw some of my work online and asked me if I could help them out with some matte paintings. I wasn’t sure, because I’m always busy. But after I saw some stills of what they had shot in Japan I couldn’t say no. It looked like a project that I wanted to do just for the fun of it.


Did you know any of them beforehand?


Szaby: I’ve worked with Nick on several smaller projects before. We both wanted to have some nice shots in our portfolio and get a job at a big studio. Since then, he’s worked on movies like Jack the Giant Killer and Iron Man 3. I’m doing same here in London (most recently I’ve done Rush and Thor: The Dark World) I think we started doing Dust for the fun of it, and also because we love what we do. And probably because we’re a little crazy and work in our spare time as well.

How many matte paintings and set extensions have you used in the Film?


Szaby: It is really difficult to tell, because the project is not done yet. We’ve worked on the city of Kabe and the Countryside, but there’s a part of the film that you haven’t seen yet... I can’t tell more about that yet.




What was the difference working on a big budget blockbuster and a short indie film?


Szaby: When working on a big budget movie, you have lot of resources that help you work faster. Usually you have lots of hi-res reference photos, lidar scans, matchmove cameras, textured assets etc. There’s a big group of people who can build on the work of each other. You have to take multiple roles when working on a low budget flick. You have to find the easiest and fastest way to get the job done.


As the environment is so much a part of the film. What have been the biggest challenges with the mattes?


Szaby: Each environment had its own challenge. In general, I think one of the biggest challenges was to stick to the sketches provided by the concept artists. We tried to recreate the mood established by the paintings, extended the landscapes, added new buildings and details and then blended them with those beautiful plates. As a concept artist you have complete freedom. You can be painterly, you can leave wide brush strokes on the canvas. On the other hand, as an environment artist your language is the language of the camera.


The environment had to look real and convincing. The footages the crew had shot in Japan helped us to ground the environments in reality, but there is also a fantastic side of the world of Dust. We had to find the right balance between looking real and creating a unique, non-existing world.


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Kabe Super Wide: One of the establishing shots of the city of Kabe. The plate was shot on location in Japan. I setup the scene in 3d and started to work on the layout. Nick Giassullo was working on the dmp. At the end I added some more detail on the city.


What are your thoughts on the future of matte painting?


We’ve come a long way from traditional matte paintings, painted on large sheets of glass to digital environments. Some people believed that 3d is the death of matte painting. I don’t think it’s dead, but technically it has changed a lot. I think studios will need environment artists with a great knowledge of 3d, but also very strong 2d skills. And most importantly, a very good eye. I think traditional art skills combined with technical knowledge is the key.


Matte painting will remain the fastest way to create environments but it will involve a lot a 3d work, and artists will have to know a lot about a compositing, projections etc. And now we have great tools, like Nuke, Mari.. I'm really excited to see where it’s heading.


Dust was due to release in December 2013. What stage are you at now with the project?

Mike: We only have a few key scenes to complete. Unfortunately, these are some of the most complex in terms of CG and we are unwilling to compromise the look and feel of what has already been done just to finish. What is left will take several weeks of our undivided attention. Fortunately, we now have the opportunity to devote some time solely to Dust.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing right now?

Mike : Finding the time to balance finishing the film with client obligations is our biggest challenge. Many people are surprised to find out just how small our studio is in terms of manpower. It amazes even myself how much such a small team can accomplish.

We are very close to being complete, but want to make sure every aspect is as strong as possible. This includes the feature script and a game plan to expand Dust into something larger.


The project had been in production for a long time now. Over eight years for some of you? What things have you had to do to keep the energy up and to keep it fresh for the team?


Mike: This is a problem that faces all projects, especially ones that last for years. I do my best to remind myself and the team of our purpose. We are creating something very ambitious and the work just takes time. Getting a response to the film always re-energizes me.  It does that for all of us. Kickstarter went a long way to keep us working hard.

The positive experience we had on Kickstarter gave us a fresh perspective on the project and more recently releasing the trailer was a huge surge in energy. The positive reactions from people all over the world are highly motivating.

If you had your time over would you undertake a project like this again? and if so what would you do differently?

Mike: Without a doubt, I would undertake a project like this again! While it has been challenging and at times extremely frustrating, Dust has also been rewarding on many fronts. The experience, exposure and friendships the project has afforded all of us on the Dust team are beyond measure. 

It is very difficult for me to objectively analyze Dust as a project.  I have grown as a person and artist over the lengthy course of making this film, so it’s hard for me to look back at certain things and not want to change them. On the whole I am very proud of how the film is turning out and the amazing things the team has accomplished.


I also recognize that Dust is a project that belongs to many people. Already many more people anticipate its release than most short films experience: 1,000 kickstarter backers, 250,000 Youtube viewers, dozens of artists, cast, crew and volunteers. Of course, that adds to the pressure both to complete the short and for it to be stunning. It won’t be long now. In a few months, you will all get a chance to experience the world and some of its characters for yourself. I hope you enjoy it.


Follow the final production stages of dust on their Facebook Page.


Related Links

Ember Lab

Emberlab on Facebook

Dust the

Dust on Facebook

The Art of Szabolcs Menyhei

The Art of Nick Giassullo

The Art Eoin Colgan

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