On February 5, 1958, a B-47 bomber dropped a 7,000-pound nuclear bomb into the waters off Tybee Island, Georgia, after an F-86 fighter jet accidentally crashed into it while on an Air Force training mission. That bomb, which contains a much-debated quantity of radioactive material, has never been found and the Air Force wishes that people would stop looking for it. Left undisturbed, they say, the bomb is harmless. If it is disturbed, well, things could get ugly.
Directors Patrick Longstreth and Robert McLean had no trouble casting actors to battle murderous jellyfish.
And that’s exactly what happens in Patrick Longstreth’s short sci-fi horror spoof, Hellyfish, in which the lost bomb is leaking radioactive material and mutant, bloodthirsty jellyfish terrorize and devour beachgoers. “I saw a documentary about the lost bomb and thought it was so fascinating that I considered making my own documentary,” recalls Longstreth, who relied primarily on Cinema 4D, After Effects, RealFlow, Trapcode Particular and NUKE to create his film. “But then I thought about how there really was an actual jellyfish problem in Savannah and how much I love beach monster and horror movies, and the idea just came to me.”
Despite gusty winds and waves, the crew had just one opportunity to shoot actress Lillian McCotter being sucked down through her inner tube because after that, her hair would be wet.
Hellyfish, is Longstreth’s first independent film, but it’s not his first time in the director’s chair. After earning a business degree, he quickly changed directions and worked for NBC Network News as a motion graphics artist for three years. Next, he got his graduate degree in visual effects from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and moved to Los Angeles where he has worked for well-known production studios, Psyop and Imaginary Forces, while also freelancing as a director and VFX supervisor for commercials, corporate videos and independent films.
“I like directing projects where the visual effects are a big part of the production value, or they are even a character unto themselves,” he explains. Hellyfish is also Longstreth’s debut as a writer. After finishing a first draft of the script, he called on screenwriter Kate Fitzpatrick to help polish it into a final draft. In all, he spent the last three years working on the film in between paying jobs.
Plexiglass panels were used to shield equipment during shots in which water was splashing directly at the lens. “Our actors enjoyed fighting for their lives while being dragged through sand and water,” says Longstreth.
Longstreth and co-director Robert McLean, who brought his experience working with actors on film sets to the project, shot Hellyfish in Savannah, Georgia. The decision cost them must less than they would have had to spend on the same shoot in Los Angeles. In addition to being able to use some of SCAD’s equipment for free, they were also able to readily find local actors and friends to fill over 20 different roles in the film.
Looking back, Longstreth and McLean wish they had included the kids in even more scenes.
“The two kids were especially fun to have in the film,” McLean says. “We worked around their school schedule, and they did a great job of pretending to be terrified of an imaginary monster.” Rehearsals were done in Longstreth’s backyard, and the shoot spanned 16 days over the course of six months.
Longstreth modeled the killer jellyfish in Cinema 4D and additional sculpting was done in Zbrush by Trent Stroud. Structure and texture were both inspired by classic creatures from Aliens, Tremors, The Thing and other films. To create a fully digital environment with 3D camera movement, photos and video of sky, sand and ocean were projected onto geometry in C4D.
Talented Steadicam operator, Tobias Beidermühle, filmed this shot while running backwards.
But when it came time to create and rig a full-run cycle for a creature with five tentacles, fur, long stringy hairs and soft body dynamics, the team brought on experienced character animator, Pryce Duncalf. “With his help we were able to get the creatures running down the beach the way they should, so that was great,” Longstreth says.
Proper lighting, ground shadows and reflections in the water were vitally important to the shots of Hellyfish running along the beach.
For the final shot, in which the giant Hellyfish destroys the Tybee Pier, they created an exact model of the pier in C4D and then projected an image of the actual pier onto the 3D model. Because the interaction with the character proved to be too intricate for a full dynamic simulation, each individual piece of the pier was keyframed. “The C4D deformers were essential to this animation process,” Longstreth explains.
For dramatic effect, some shots were slowed down to 33 percent. This meant it was especially important to eliminate any imperfections in the animation because they would be easier to spot in slow motion.
The opening nighttime scene was shot on a green screen to allow for more control of the lighting camera movement. Shots were taken from every angle, including wrap-around dolly shots that were tracked with Pixel Farm’s PFTrack. The night sky was a 360-degree matte painting augmented by moving clouds, the shoreline on the horizon and a blinking lighthouse.
The nighttime ocean scene was shot on a green screen to allow for more control of the lighting and camera movement.
Creating realistic-looking water was one of the biggest challenges, says Longstreth, who laughs when, in all seriousness, he says “we used every trick in the book.” Underwater shots were filmed at a nearby scuba diving school and, fortunately, the actor who needed to do the underwater scenes was scuba-certified as was camera operator, Mehmet Caglayan, who had years of experiencing working for NBC News and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The crew developed a system of hand signals to coordinate the underwater action sequence.
For shots that required CG water, Cinema 4D and RealFlow were combined to get the best results. “Rob taught himself how to use RealFlow for this, which I thought was pretty amazing," says Longstreth, who then brought the simulations into C4D for use in the main title shot and others.
It helped that the actor doing the underwater scenes was actually a certified diver.
To create the feeling of being underwater, floating CG algae, dirt, and bubbles were added with the Trapcode Particular After Effect plug-in, which allowed full control over the density, size and animation. Video Copilot's Optical Flares and Action Essentials were used to help tie shots together. All told, over 20 artists ended up helping with the post-production.
When the film was finished, they had an advance screening in Savannah for cast, crew and friends. "Even the kids were cracking up laughing and that was really rewarding," Longstreth recalls, "because if they get the humor, that's exactly what we were going for. We didn't want something gruesome. We wanted it to be Halloween material in the category of Gremlins or Ghostbusters."
Many close up shots were filmed from extreme angles, which in some cases meant deep holes needed to be dug for Bob Jones, director of photography, to sit in while filming up at the subject.
Hellyfish starts the festival circuit this month and will run through mid-November, but the film is already getting positive reviews on movie blogs and elsewhere on the Web. “We’ve been getting emails from Germany, Spain, France, Belgium and Russia,” Longstreth says. “It’s always fun to take the translation from those articles and throw it into Google translate and see what they said about our movie. The one I read the other day from Germany said: ‘Turn off and enjoy brain.’”
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.
Rigging, Animation & Hair Simulation
3D camera tracking
3D water simulation
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