The world is filled with tales about superheroes who overcome tragic backstory pasts to win the hearts of fans and followers everywhere. Batman struggled with the loss of his parents, as did Spider-Man, who lost his father figure, his uncle Ben, and Daredevil, who also became fatherless at the hands of a criminal. There are also the antiheroes who come to grips with their mutant capabilities to help others: The Hulk, Wolverine and his X-Men buddies…the list goes on. While each has his or her own challenges, perhaps none compares to those incurred by Dr. Obsidian.
Dr. Obsidian is a comic-book character from the 1930s who starred in a serial release from Brazen Pictures that featured the masked hero, special effects, and an action-packed story infused with sci-fi gadgetry and compelling characters. His tragedy, however, centers around events that occurred “offscreen.” The film footage shot for a Dr. Obsidian movie sequel was deemed lost at sea when a German sub sank the ship carrying the precious cargo back home at the height of World War II. For the next decade, Dr. Obsidian vanished from the public’s eye until Brazen fought its way back from bankruptcy to bring back the hero – this time to the small screen. Again, an unfortunate circumstance (a shocking scandal involving his costar) shelved the project, and the hero, until it was revived in the 1960s with a campy theme for television, though never broadcast.
More recently, comic-book heroes and antiheroes have made a huge comeback, accounting for wild successes at the box office. So, it seemed like a good time to put together a documentary about Dr. Obsidian and the circumstances that had plagued the character and property in attempt to raise interest and, hopefully, resurrect Dr. Obsidian under the direction of someone like Michael Bay for a new generation of fans – most of whom never heard of this film-noir hero. And, with good reason: Dr. Obsidian and his tragic “living” past are total fiction, created in-camera and using NewTek’s LightWave 3D software.
“[The film] is a fake documentary about something that never happened, and it only works if viewers go into it slightly believing that it is true,” says Director Mark Kochinski, who conceived the character and premise, and has labored at the project for the past six years with assistance from friends. “The idea is to outline this completely plausible idea and then build on it and pile on [circumstances] until it becomes obvious that this cannot possibly be true. And that is the basis for the gag.”
While the character and backstory of Dr. Obsidian’s struggle to find his way to the public is pure fantasy, Kochinski’s goal of creating a faux documentary around the hero and his made-up past is anything but. The actual movie Kochinski is making during his spare time is called Lost Hero: The Search for Dr. Obsidian and uses various styles to bring the misfortunates of Dr. Obsidian to the big screen “once again.” Shot in documentary style, the movie contains a great deal of footage that mimics 1930s black-and-white film, the campy, psychedelic television look of 1960s cartoons, and then the dramatic, intensive CGI of today to tell the tale.
“The movie will contain a mixture of footage from directors, comic-book people, actors, and others, as well as a central narrator,” explains Kochinski. At this time, he is trying to prepare enough footage to start a social media campaign to generate interest and a Kickstarter campaign asking for $50,000 to cover postproduction costs to complete the movie this year.
“It’s been a labor of love for a bunch of people, about 15 involved over the years, and the last hurdle – the final shooting, postproduction (effects), and editing – is too much for us to bear without any help,” says Kochinski, who over the years has had his hands full creating complex effects in various VFX-heavy TV series (Babylon 5, The X-Files, Star Trek: Voyager) and feature films (Red Planet, Battle of Los Angeles), projects for which he has always been an avid LightWave user.
So far, Kochinski has shot the 1930s period footage using a Panasonic SLR and standard HD Canon camera, and plans to use a RED camera for the present-day footage. The dated material, meanwhile, has to be graded and treated to reflect the targeted era. A substantial number of shots has been done against greenscreen and inserted into virtual sets, generated in LightWave, or even within photographs of old sets or locations. The characters shot against greenscreen are run through a keyer to pull the matte and then it is mapped onto a 3D card and placed within the digital set. The challenge is that, in the end, they all have to look cohesive.
“Our process is different on every shot, and we have to reinvent the process every time to get the shot to look like it belongs where it is,” says Kochinski.
Dr. Obsidian contains a number of sets that are completely computer-generated, designed and modeled by Kochinski in LightWave, including the interior of a zeppelin, which serves as the villain’s command center. In all, approximately 30 to 40 percent of the imagery is or will be CG, augmented with various miniature models of cars, planes, and so forth to help add realism to the scenes. “What’s fun is that you are building a shot that is not really reflecting what something actually looked like in the 1930s, but rather Hollywood’s interpretation of what it looked like in the 1930s,” Kochinski says. “Hollywood was not shooting reality, but rather what it built on a stage and pretend was reality. That is what we are emulating.”
Kochinski also built lots of “crazy” weaponry, straight out of the pages of a science-fiction novel – or more accurately, straight out of a 1930s Popular Mechanics issue containing futuristic weapons and aircraft, which ties into another gag in the film that Kochinski would rather not reveal at this time to avoid spoiling the story. The LightWave Modeler was ideal for that type of hard-surface modeling as well as set building.
“I have been building spaceships for Star Trek to Babylon 5, and now Dr. Obsidian in LightWave. The rendering out of the box is excellent, especially if you know to use it properly,” Kochinski says, adding that there are many features in LightWave that have always kept the software in the forefront of content creation for Hollywood. “It is a tremendous piece of software,” he points out, “and if a good artist is using it, a lot of work can be done in a fraction of the time it seems to take other software pipelines.”
Kochinski likes LightWave’s intuitive interface and the fact that everything is logical and where it should be. “It is organized in a way that makes sense. The fact that the buttons have what they do written on them, as opposed to a funky little picture that you have to take time to figure out what it means, saves a lot of time,” he adds.
The filmmaker also likes that Modeling and Layout are broken into separate sections. “That makes perfect sense to me, coming from practical digital effects standpoint,” he says. “You have the model shop and then the stage where you shoot at, and they are two very different things. But, you need to incorporate [this structure] into your thinking.” Kochinski has bypassed the sketch-design process for years now, preferring to start modeling immediately in LightWave – this after first going through reference material to get a feel for what he wants.
“The pipeline supports this. Rather than having an artist conceptualize a set and then draw it on paper and build it in 3D, I design it in 3D to see what works and what doesn’t, so I design and build simultaneously,” explains Kochinski. “For me, it is more efficient. But, not every modeler is a designer, or vice versa.”
One of Kochinski’s favorite features within LightWave is the Edge Bevel. “Adding beveling properly adds a lot of realism to what you are doing,” he says, adding that the Cloning tool also works well for the art-deco look of the 1930s sequences in Dr. Obsidian with it curving surfaces and repeating geometric shapes.
The object textures are basic tones of gray for the most part, so Kochinski uses a lot of bump mapping and procedural textures. The camera moves for the majority of shots mimicking those from the 1930s are fairly simplistic, reflecting what was used during that time. The lighting mostly mimics classical stage lighting, achieved in LightWave using three-point lighting, backfill, and key lighting. He also uses the Radiosity tool quite a bit, at times using an HDR image map to start off. For more of a studio look, he will use a few dome lights and Monte Carlo radiosity to get bouncy shadows and lights, which “usually generates a nice three-dimensional-looking render.” For interiors, dome lights are preferred; for exterior shots, area lights.
“The renderer is fantastic,” says Kochinski of the feature in LightWave. “When set up properly, you get really wonderful photorealistic effects.” He finds the Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) interactive renderer in LightWave especially valuable, enabling him to experiment with lighting, textures, volumetrics, and shading right in the LightWave viewport. “There isn’t anything quite like it, and I use it a lot with the work I am doing. It is really useful to get that kind of real-time feedback out of the software and see the results of my lighting almost immediately,” he says.
When asked which feature Kochinski could not do without, he paused, and then explained that was a tough question to answer. Then he offered this: “It is the ability to get things done in a timeframe that makes it worthwhile, whether it’s lighting, modeling, surfacing, that I cannot do without. It’s the ability to get up in the morning and start a project and know that I should be able to finish it by the end of the day; I don’t have to spend three weeks trying to figure out how to do something. To me, that is the best function of the software.”