Making a German Blockbuster

Tue 19th Aug 2014, by Rory Fellowes | Production

CGSociety talks to the directing partnership of Alex & Steffen about their commercial work, and their upcoming feature film Botwars.


Right from the start, Alex Kiesl (on the right) and Steffen Hacker have been destined for great things. While they were still at college they made their diploma piece, a mock-commercial called Racing Beats, which went on to win awards all around the world, including The Young Director’s Award at Cannes in 2005. Within a couple of months they were in Canada filming their first commercial and they haven’t looked back since.


I first met Alex at FMX 2014 in Stuttgart, Germany. He told me then that their company Unexpected Post Production GmbH had a feature film project in development and he showed me the teaser they had made. I was blown away, as I expect you will be, but not just by the film itself, which looks to be a thrilling adventure story, but by the quick and dirty low budget approach they had taken to make it. So when Alex emailed me to tell me they were now ready to start looking to finance the film, and would I be interested in writing about it, I jumped at the chance.


I should add here that Alex is one of those guys you can’t help liking, his energy, his infectious laugh, his vision, all go to make a very attractive personality, one which I am sure will help him go to the top of his profession. I haven’t met Steffen yet, except on Skype, but he too has the qualities that, in my experience anyway, make a successful director, meaning that combination of the vision to inspire a crew and the personality to make them want to work with you, to help you realise your dream.


Alex & Steffen have been working together for fourteen years. One imagines they must be very close friends and or they would have fallen out long ago, working as hard and intensely as they do. This symbiotic relationship is part of how they can deliver such high quality work for such low budgets. I don’t think I have seen anything so impressive before. I am only amazed that Botwars should be their first feature. They have taken their time, wanting to be sure of themselves and their skills before undertaking anything new. Alex calls it “the German safety thinking,” an instinctive caution, and maybe that’s all it is. I’d call it admirable and professional, and an attractive change from the multitude of over-ambitious, over-confident, self-promoting young directors I have met in my time.


Alex told me he and Steffen got to know each other at the Filmakademie Batten Würtemburg (coincidentally the organisers of the FMX annual conference).


“That’s where we studied visual effects. We actually come from this visual effects background, and by accident we became directors. During our studies we worked with a lot of directors, we made their visual effects, we made their dreams come true, their wishes come true. We realised that most directors really don’t know what they want, so we would end up with comments like ‘I don’t like it, but I don’t know what it is I want, so could you please propose something.’ So you take over the director’s vision, which he doesn’t have, and you give him input all the time.


“For our final exam we wanted to do something where we had all strings in our hands so we decided to do one last movie, where we direct, where we create, where we write the script, where we do everything, and we put it into a 120 second commercial format. And just for fun we submitted it to all the commercial awards, and we won every single award, even in Cannes, everywhere, everywhere...”


“Just Steffen and me did it together. It took us five weeks from scratch to final. That was the start.”



Racing Beats - english from Alex & Steffen on Vimeo.


“And then people started saying we are directors and we said ‘No, no, no, we are geeks, we are computer guys, we’re doing the effects’. But they said, ‘No, you are directors, that was perfect directing,’ and two months after Cannes we found ourselves in Vancouver shooting our first commercial, and since that point it never stopped. We direct, we write the treatments and we do the visual effects at the same time. It’s basically everything we wanted and we made it our job.”


It seems to me the key to their success is the very fact that they are geeks, as they first described themselves when the world came beating a path to their door. This has meant they are totally in control of all aspects of the filming process. They remind me of a Director of Photography I have known since the 1980s, Karl Watkins, who has a huge library at home of books about cameras, film and all of the technical as well as artistic aspects of his work. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the same is true of Alex and Steffen. They know their stuff and it shows, in the quality of the work but also in their budgets. They know how to get ten dollars worth out of every dollar spent. These guys are immersed in their work, they love it, they have mastered it, and it shows in the product (there is a link at the end of this article to their vimeo page).


Here’s an example that demonstrates how well they use their knowledge and understanding to good effect.



Before | After comparison "FANTA - official sponsor of fantasy" from Alex & Steffen on Vimeo.


FANTA - official sponsor of fantasy from Alex & Steffen on Vimeo.


“We work on 3DS Max. The whole company works with Studio Max. We are now in our fifteenth year. We started with 3D Studio Max so we stick to it. We started with four licenses and now we have forty-five, fifty licenses. You can’t just throw everything away. And all our artists are very experienced with it. And normally it’s like, people say ‘What, you’re working with Max not with Maya?!’ We keep saying, it’s not about the tool, it’s about the guy working with that tool. It doesn’t matter [what software you use], you get the same output. It’s just about how you use it.”


They render with V-Ray and in the main then composite with Nuke, but also “Steffen is one of THE Adobe guys since Day One. He attends all the speeches and lectures and he teaches people, and he just loves Adobe and Adobe loves him (Hah!). So he’s the only guy still working on After Effects, but he loves it and he has the same output, and sometimes his output is even faster than the guys with Nuke. I don’t know why, maybe it’s his way of thinking and way of working which makes him very fast and efficient in After Effects.


“It’s the same for me with 3D Studio Max. My and Steffen’s work shifted a bit from being the pure geek artists to writing concepts, and doing this and doing that, but there is still stuff where Steffen and I sit on a shot together and finish it entirely on our own as we have a dirty and direct way of solving it. Our 3D artists are definitely better with details, software technology and expertise, but if simpler solutions can do the shot we’d love to try that route first. It’s the way our brains work. We break it down to very basic things and then we are very fast.


“We own a motion capture system in-house, we have a stage here in our office where we can do that, because we use it a lot. But for us motion capture is just a base, it’s nothing you can use one to one, you always have to animate on top of it. Always.”


They use the XSens MVN Motion capture system, and its proprietary software MVN Studio to work on the mocap data and convert it into BVH files. From there they take it into Character Studio in 3DS Max. Alex told me that most of the time there is just a little cleaning work necessary as the mocap system works very well, but there is always some hand animation to be done on top of the mocap to get the feel of the movement exactly right.


“The problem is normally that you have a time frame for commercials or for whatever work, which doesn’t allow you to have hand animation. Hand animation takes definitely more time, so this is why we normally use lots and lots of motion capture. But again, as a base.”





I asked them how the feature film project came about.


“Five or six years ago we got a call from UTA [United Talent Agency], which is one of the biggest agencies in LA for directors and actors and screenwriters and stuff, and they asked ‘Why don’t you want to do a feature?’ We said, ‘Well, we just do this for three or four years now, we think we have to learn more. That’s more or less the German safety thinking always. But they kept sending us scripts, so we read lots of scripts, even for movies that have been done. We got used to reading scripts, which was a sort of training.


“And then, two years ago we got a call from them saying there is a novel on the market and the author, Jennifer [J.V. Kade], is interested in someone making a movie out of it.”


“So they sent us the book, we read the book, and we saw it was interesting, it was exactly our world, the world we love to create. It’s huge, it’s sci-fi, it has robots, but it also has this father/son story in it and we liked it. But we also saw there are too many characters in it, too many side stories.”


“ Not enough war,” Steffen added.


Alex went on. “Yeah, and not enough war. So what we did, we jumped on a call with the author. We told her that we liked the book, but we also told her where we see the problems, and what we think needed to be changed to make it a movie.


“So then, she gave us the option to adapt her book. We wrote a five or six page treatment, and then we had two LA script writers, Banipal and Benhur Ablakhad, who wrote the full script on spec, together with us, and now we have a script which is a good base, and then we decided to add value to the package, because we thought people might like our reel, people might like the script, they might like the book, but what if we do a trailer that shows what we have in mind, for the world and the ‘feel’ of the film, because from working in the commercial business, we know people always tend to believe you if they can see what you are talking about.



“So then we decided to shoot the trailer. We shot it in Toronto because we have good relationships with producers and crew members from shooting commercials [there]. So we had a small and effective team, we used city footage we had shot in the past, and we made some good shortcuts, and in the end we made the shoot happen for $70,000.”


The Botwars Principal Shoot Team in Toronto


Steffen told me “It was a three day shoot, plus  one day of Alex and me driving through Detroit, collecting footage, and then we came home to our office, locked ourselves in with all our guys and worked for three months on the effects. The teaser is what we ended up with. The original trailer which went to producers is five minutes long, with a longer acting sequence, but this version is not for the public yet. The teaser shows the world and the production values pretty good, we think.”


BotWars Teaser from Alex & Steffen on Vimeo.



“We Always Find Solutions”


A shooting budget of $70,000 works out at around $50K per minute, which is less than 10% of the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster. Even assuming they go to full cost for the final film and don’t call in favours, Alex and Steffen reckon they can make the film look much more expensive than the actual budget. Their experience in shooting commercials over the last nine years has taught them how to get more than they pay for, by good planning and sharp thinking.


“We found pretty smart ways to work with what we have, and to make things work no matter how we solve it. We always find solutions. We think if we could adapt our way of shooting commercials with the efficiency and sometimes the quick and dirty approach to it, we can make it look like a really big budget production. You need to be smart about it. As we always have to deal with these kind of situations, we think we can make it this way.”


“The Making Of shows some sequences where you look at the footage and ask yourself how this can be used at all. On some of the real sets there are no props, no art department, just some soldiers running around in the streets. But if you think big and don´t hesitate to replace a lot with digital effects, you can bring those shots very far.”



BotWars Trailer - Making-of from Alex & Steffen on Vimeo.


The trailer stars Burkley Duffield as the hero of the story, Trout. Burkley made his name in the TV series House Of Anubis, as the bad boy who enters the story in Series 2. His best friend is played by Richard Nu. Vee, the girl who becomes his ally, is played by Andrea Pavlovic.



Other characters in the trailer include the Secret Agent Sandra Hopper, played by Joann Nordstrom, her assistant played by James M. Jenkinson, and the SWAT Leader, Nir Yaniv Maman.


The concept art was produced by their lead designer Leszek Plichta, with additional work by Sebastian Badea


Alex and Steffen told me they have had a lot of conversations with Hollywood producers, and right now they want only to discuss the money they need to make the film. They want to know if the producer can back them, but some of the producers want to talk about the emotional stories (Alex and Steffen think this is all script development and that comes later).


Steffen said “There was a clear political statement in District 9 which appealed to mainsteam audiences, the metaphor of other races which are oppressed, and there is the same kind of political criticism in Botwars as well.”


Alex interjected, “Some? There is a lot.”


Steffen went on, “If you are a state anywhere in the world and you have the chance to reign as you want, without an opposition party, without anyone telling you what to do, you are in Heaven. This is what the society has become in Botwars, and what the Government has become. Now they can easily do whatever they want just by saying ‘Hey, we need this because of robot terrorist acts,’ which is pretty much the post-9/11 era in the United States. And that’s a strong message, we think.”


Alex said “It’s very funny, we had a talk to a producer last week and he said, ‘Yeah, but actually, why do you think the government in your Botwars scenario, why would they do this?’  and we said, ‘What do you mean why would they do this? Look at the States, what is your government doing?’


“It’s similar to what we´ve seen in the post 9/11-world. They control you by putting fear in your heads. They say, ‘We have to protect you, we have to know everything about you, we have to look into your files, just because we know there are terrorists among us.’


“So that’s what they do. They get a free pass on everything because they make you think there is terrorism all around you. And this is what the government in our book does too. it´s a hot topic currently, and we hope to use this political background to fuel our backstory about that not-so-bright future in Botwars.”They say we have to protect you because there are mean and bad robots that kill you, so we have to control the internet, we have to control everything. It’s all around the world. They control, just to control you. And it works.”


In his seminal work 1984, George Orwell predicted this sort of government manipulation by what he calls ‘Perpetual War’. In that dystopian science fiction novel the government, under the malign leadership of the Inner Party, led (ostensibly) by the cult figure of Big Brother, bombs its own people, telling them it is one of the other two major world powers attacking them. It is a device, as O’Brien explains to Winston during his final interrogation, to keep the people in a state of fear, thus allowing the Inner Party to maintain its control over the citizens of Oceania. I don’t suggest that our governments are going that far, but certainly the threat posed by no more than a few thousands of potential terrorist enemies has been used to deprive us of freedoms we once enjoyed, even if it is only the freedom to go aboard an aeroplane without spending ages in a security queue. But this isn’t a political blog so I won’t go on. Suffice to say, I like the idea of a film that tackles that issue, however obliquely and metaphorically.



What Next?


Simply put, they are looking for the money. They are even thinking about producing it with a German partner who is very excited about the material and it may well be that by the time you read this they will have done a deal. If not, production companies take note. Find them the money. This is a great story and it is going to look wonderful. This is indeed a blockbuster in the making, and when it is released, I for one will be in that queue around the block!




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