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Metroid: The Sky Calls (Short Film)
An in-depth look at the Sci-fi short in which intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran returns
December 16th, 2015 by Meleah Maynard | production
Los Angeles production company Rainfall Films has been doing award-winning work on projects ranging from films and videos to commercials, music videos and live events for more than seven years. But they may be best known for their high-profile creative productions that include, the fictitiousLegend of Zelda trailer they created for IGN as an April Fool’s prank in 2008. And the Wonder Woman short film they released in 2013, which was featured here on CGSociety as well as mainstream outlets like Good Morning America and The Today Show. Wonder Woman
Their most recent production, Metroid: The Sky Calls (above), garnered nearly a million YouTube views in its first week. Made by the Rainfall team using Cinema 4D and After Effects, the 12-minute, live-action short tells an original story based on Nintendo’s Metroid game, which was released in 1986.
Nerdist News host, Jessica Chobot, stars as Metroid series bounty hunter Samus Aran while America Young (check out her stunt reel below!), who has played over 275 characters in video games, handled the stunts
Sam Balcomb, one of Rainfall’s three founders, wrote and directed Metroid: The Sky Calls. Here’s what he had to say recently about the making of the film.
Rainfall has made several films as side projects over the last several years. Why did you choose Metroid as the inspiration for this one?
Fans voted for it. We asked people to email suggestions for the next adaptation we should do for Rainfall’s Fantasy Filmmaking project. We paired down the 200 ideas we got to the top five and Metroid was the winner.
What were the other four?
Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Final Fantasy VI and Red Sonja.
How long did you work on this?
We worked on it all year on and off on our free nights and weekends. We scrapped the original script and visuals, which were more slick and action-driven because we didn’t think that was very exciting. It was too expected. So we went back to the original inspiration for the game— sci-fi of the 60s and 70s and films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. We knew we wanted a slower pace with more exploration and atmosphere than action.
What story does the film tell?
Our adaptation was inspired by the game, and what happens is a lot like what it’s like to play the best Metroid games. You’re trapped underground, isolated and on your own and you have to get yourself out of there. That’s what Samus is experiencing through a first-person view in a lot of the film and people have told us that watching it did make them feel like a kid again, playing the game in the dark. There’s still something very charming about older games and how you have to imagine what’s there in the dark.
How did you make the Samus Aran character?
I reached out to a 3D modeler Azima Khan, who had an awesome, high-res Samus model that she had posted in an online portfolio. She was kind enough to let us use it for the film. It was very physically accurate, and it looked like someone could actually fit in the suit. Samus’ suit is usually cartoonishly proportioned with a super skinny waist. Once we had the model we had to figure out how to animate it.
Talk about how you went about that?
We don’t have much experience with human character animation, but I knew we wanted lifelike movement. I looked into motion capture and I found a suit that doesn’t require any complex rigging. It has wires built in that capture the data and send it to the computer, and that’s it.
We chose the actress America Young to do the motion-capture part of the performance. She’s done motion capture for a ton of video games, and I’ve known her for a while. Jessica Chobot did the other half of the performance as live-action shots.
The suit was very portable, so we went to Nerd Strong Gym and spent a whole day doing all of the mocap for the film. We used MotionBuilder to transfer the motion capture data to FBX (filmbox) files we could open in Cinema 4D. Once the data was applied to the model, there was very little cleanup to do. We did a bit of hand-tweaking to animate her fingers, and a few alterations so she could fit well into the environments.
How did you create the shots of the planet and the underground world?
I originally thought the planet surface would be live action but the footage of the desert that I shot looked too much like planet Southern California instead of a threatening, alien world. So we created it all in the computer. I liked the idea of having a planet be ripped apart by gravity wells and chunks flying through the air.
So we created simple shapes in Cinema and applied textures to them with normal mapping and heavy sub-poly displacement to give the landscape its detail. Once she goes underground, things gets heavily inspired by Alien. I remember seeing Alien for the first time and being really creeped out by the environment.
There’s a point in the film where Samus turns into a morph ball so she can go deeper into the underground world. What is that and did she do that in the game?
Yeah, the morph ball is one of her classic abilities and we wanted to showcase that effect. Using motion capture, we had America Young do a series of summersaults and then we transitioned halfway through into a hand-animation so the form could crumple up as small as possible and then the metallic shield expands around her.
All of the motion capture stuff was new and exciting to learn. We didn’t know it would work until it actually was working. C4D made the process of importing and custom-tweaking the data very fast and easy. What originally was considered the most complicated part of the process ended up being the easiest.
The film’s score adds so much atmosphere and suspense. Jeff Dodson, another Rainfall founder did all of that, right?
Jeff composed the music and did the sound design, which was inspired by old sci-fi films, as well as the music and sounds from the Metroid series. Composers like Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner were huge influences in the process. The trick was melding the old-school orchestral sound with the newer, synth-based acoustics of the game. The score was really well received, so we ended up doing a free digital release of it.
How did you give the whole film a retro look?
When we went back to the drawing board, my key goal was to find a look for the film that recalled an older style. The first time I watched 2001 and Alien were on crummy VHS copies, which isn't the ideal way, but it was the best I had at the time. So I wanted to make our Metroid short look like it was originally shot on film, scanned poorly and then transferred to tape once or twice. We ended up using custom-shot 16mm film stock, and an actual VCR to realize the look, which took several months of testing.
Can you point to a few places where you pay homage to certain films or where people might find Easter eggs?
Some people will probably notice that the interior of her ship was designed to mimic the shuttle pod in 2001. All of the lighting and control surfaces and buttons were modeled in Cinema to look extremely similar, which was fun. The time warp tunnel at the end is also a reference to 2001.
Some of the other Easter eggs in there are inside Samus’ ship. Under one of the monitors you’ll see a Nintendo entertainment system. But I don’t want to give too many away. If people look for them, they’ll find them. There are all kinds of references insider her ship.
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Written & Directed by: Sam Balcomb
Produced by: Sam Balcomb, Jesse Soff & Jeff Dodson
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