Stockholm-based studio Bläck has produced a great deal of eye-catching work in the past, including an award-winning Nike+ campaign with classic black-and-white cartoons designed by French illustrator McBess, and a series of commercials for Electronic Arts' fantasy role-playing game, Dragon Age Inquisition. But with State Zero – a live-action short film directed by Andrée Wallin – the team had to take on a very different task altogether: it had to transform its very own backyard into a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
State Zero’s backdrop is that of Stockholm; a near-future take on the city, plunged into pure dystopia. Aggressive, mutated vampires stalk the land while military teams venture into hazardous zones, attempting to maintain invaluable surveillance towers.
Using captured footage of the city around them, the Bläck team gave the locale a gritty look, added futuristic architecture, and then filled it with the beasts – all without losing the city’s realistic edge.
While the film itself is brief, the scale of the project was large indeed. State Zero required 88 visual effects shots and an array of design work, spread across user interfaces, the WASP aircraft, and much more. But with ftrack in its corner, Bläck was more than up for the challenge, as the studio could easily track shots across multiple artists and deal with pauses in post-production without losing a beat.
Zero to hero
State Zero is Wallin's first directorial effort, but he has impressive credits as a concept artist, working on projects such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Oblivion and Godzilla. Wallin is an old pal of Calle Granström, Bläck's lead compositor, so the idea of collaborating on this high-impact short came naturally. Granström started working on the project independently, but as the scale grew, the Bläck team came aboard as well.
"Everyone at Bläck agreed that this was a brilliant opportunity to push our character and VFX work up a notch, with the ambition to make feature film-quality effects without the constraints of regular commercial productions," says Granström.
Luckily, their location proved an immediate benefit, as they could capture footage from Stockholm as a basis for shots. Wallin and Granström worked together on ground stills and video footage, and collaborated with aerial cinematographer Björn Olin to grab clips using a custom-built flying drone.
"Since the world of State Zero exists in the aftermath of an event that has left large parts of the world uninhabitable and ghostlike, it was a big effort to paint out and retouch the moving plates, removing cars, people, and other vehicles that existed in the original shots," notes Granström. He adds that maintaining the correct scale of items in the world was essential, since the massive atrium and the smaller foliage-draped buildings used the same asset library and had to remain consistent.
State Zero’s uncanny, vampiric creatures also provided a significant challenge for Bläck. Not only did they have to build these soft-body humanistic creatures, but they had to stand up to scrutiny, with static shots that revealed the creatures in their entirety. "It's always hard to pull off a convincing humanoid performance in CG, especially when the action is subtle as in some of the vampire shots," admits Granström.
Luckily, Bläck's sister company Imagination Studios provided convincing motion-capture work for the vampires, while the team put extensive work into their standard bipedal character rig using ZBrush, Maya, Marvelous, Arnold, and Yeti for the muscles, clothes, hair, and skin. The result is impressive, especially considering the twist ending that hints at their real origins in this nightmarish dystopia...
For the WASP – the film’s sci-fi take on a troop carrier – the team began with a 2D concept delivered by Wallin's fellow Star Wars concept artist, Matt Allsopp. This was then translated into 3D by robotics artist Gavriil Klimov.
Bläck also designed the user interface elements seen on the WASP and the ground crew's gadgets – holographic readouts consisting glowing figures and charts. These elements, along with the environments, creatures and vehicles, meant that Bläck was tasked with significant creative responsibility. As such, it was absolutely crucial that the team employed a finely tuned project management system to oversee the project. And that’s where ftrack comes in...
Bläck first used ftrack when it joined the Goodbye Kansas Entertainment Group, which also includes Fido, Imagination Studios, and Infinity Entertainment.
Fido's use of ftrack is well documented, of course: ftrack began life as that studio's internal production tracking tool before growing into a commercial product. Fido and Bläck alike use ftrack for all of their work, and for Granström it’s an essential part of any post-production process worth its salt.
"It's obvious that when doing effects for more than just a couple of shots, you need to have a system that can help you keep track of all versions and revisions," he says. "Since we did upwards of 100 shots forState Zero – and with occasional longer periods between work being done due to switching gears or spending time on other commercial work – ftrack was crucial to us during production."
Pontus Garmvild, Bläck’s head of production, believes tools like ftrack are absolutely essential, and not just for 100+ visual effects vendors: "As soon as you start doing more than 10 shots or assets, and have a bigger crew, you notice it's a train wreck waiting to happen in terms of structure and organization,” he explains. “If you add on people working remotely, or the project gets chopped up time-wise for to one reason or another, you realize it's impossible to work without a proper asset/project management tool like ftrack."
For Bläck, it’s the way in which all of ftrack’s features work in tandem that makes it such an invaluable part of the studio's process. “The review functionality in particular makes it easy to loop in comments and keep everything in a central location, which makes working with partners of all sizes a much smoother process,” says Granström. "Also, the ease of passing data between applications, and making sure you are working on the correct versions of cameras, geometries, and renders is what really makes the difference when working with ftrack."
The team has even done some custom development to make ftrack a more comfortable fit with their specific workflow. Using Python scripting, Bläck also created a custom launcher, which Granström says "sets a bunch of variables specific to the individual shot and takes away a lot of headaches from the artist. The launcher also lets the artist log time in a very easy and intuitive way, which is greatly appreciated across the team."
Since State Zero was released online, Bläck's work has been widely praised, with many lauding the visual effects’ success in creating a believable, near-future Stockholm. The short has racked up an impressive amount of views, and the cliffhanger conclusion sets its premise up for more. Whether that comes in the form of another short or perhaps a feature-length follow-up that fully explores the dangling thread remains to be seen...
"We can't give any indications," says Granström, "but of course everyone at Bläck is eager to return to the world of State Zero and elaborate on its environments, vehicles, and characters. And you can count on Andrée Wallin to be working hard to make this happen!"
However that possible future shakes out, Bläck says that having ftrack as a trusted ally allows the studio to dream bigger – and most importantly, execute on those ambitious plans. "Since we started implementing ftrack into our workflow, we have been able to take on projects that are far bigger than we have ever done before,” asserts Granström. ”We can produce more shots at a higher quality in the same time that would be spent doing fewer shots in the past.
"We are confident it would not have been possible to complete State Zero in the same timeframe had we not been using ftrack to help us keep up efficiency, making sure all data was lined up correctly for each asset and shot," he concludes. “It’s been vital to making this vision come to life.”
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