Unlike Demeusy’s other recent projects, Mulberry Woods (below), a feature-length horror comedy he’s been working on for a few years, and 3113 (below), a sci-fi short about an android on a mission to rescue an endangered species, Video contains few visual effects and was made in just three weeks.
What stands out in this film is the 3D-animated alien character Demeusy was able to create using Cinema 4D and After Effects after watching a BBC documentary in which Pixar founder John Lasseter described how he animated the hopping, father-and-son desk lamps in the 1986 short, Luxo Jr. “What John Lasseter set in stone for me was the fact that ‘you get nothing for free,’” Demeusy recalls. “He kept saying that in the documentary, and he was right. I just had to keep working until I got things right.”
Demeusy came up with the idea for Video on a Friday night around 11 p.m., called his friend Deep Rai, an actor who appeared in the Mulberry Woods trailer, and together with another friend, cameraman Jason Mitcheltree, shot the film over a weekend. As he always does, Demeusy planned all of the shots ahead of time so he could be sure he could get what he needed.
In all, the three of them shot footage in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, Amir’s Garden, a city street in Burbank and the farmers market in Hollywood—where they could easily get free crowd shots of people in the street. Helicopters and the alien spacecraft were created digitally in post.
One of the trickiest shots turned out to be the one where Rai’s character gets abducted by aliens in the park. Demeusy rented helium tanks and a weather balloon, intending to tie the camera to the balloon and float it up for a cool POV shot. “But I’d never blown up a weather balloon before, and I popped it,” he recalls, laughing. So they improvised by tying a string around the camera and just hoisting it up through a tree branch. “We pulled it up really fast and it worked surprisingly well,” he says.
A Realistic AlienTo ensure that the alien, who appears late in the film, seemed as realistic as possible, Demeusy shot reference footage of a Rai walking out from behind some trees, just as the alien does. Even though his character animation skills were limited, Demeusy knew before he even started shooting that he wanted to create a fully 3D alien creature. “I’m pretty comfortable with C4D’s sculpting tool, so I thought it would be pretty simple,” he says. But it wasn’t. After getting the alien modeled, lit and textured, he couldn’t get the animation right and wondered, “What’s the secret?”
Working in Cinema 4D, Demeusy tried to match the actor’s movements as closely as possible, but struggled to get the alien to walk into the scene smoothly. “I animated that shot about five times, trying to make the alien’s movements look fluid,” he recalls, explaining that he used C4D’s character tools and a biped structure and pretty much worked by trial and error.
“I had the video we shot in Cinema as a background object and I could see where the actor’s foot would land, so I would try to put the characters foot there,” he explains. After matching up movements like how the actor’s arms swung and his shoulders lifted, Demeusy painted him out of the scene and substituted the alien. “I camera tracked the shot so I could see the exact camera move and a bunch of 3D points like where bushes were and where the ground was, so I could put the alien in the exact spot,” he says.
Still, he thought the alien’s movements looked fake. So he started searching the Web for advice and found the Lasseter documentary, which helped him see that he needed to think about what he was doing differently. “Lasseter didn’t offer tips, what he beat over my head was that good filmmaking is about story and character and taking the time to perfect things,” Demeusy says. “The fact that he made a desk lamp seem alive and curious about a ball, that was the secret.”
In short, he continues, the main thing he learned is that a lot of people assume that 3D software makes animation easier, but it doesn’t. “The tools may have changed, but the fundamentals of animation have always been the same, frame by frame,” he explains. “I realized it’s okay to have a ton of keyframes and, in fact, that is the nature of animation. Cell animation and stop motion is every frame and computer animation isn’t much different.”
With that in mind, Demeusy was able to make the alien move in such a lifelike way; it almost looks like a human in a costume in the film. So though he initially thought of this short film as something fun to just go out and shoot, it has turned into something bigger than expected and he is looking at ways to expand the story and the character.
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.