Howard Gardner CG
Protein is a 2018 science fiction/horror short which I wrote and directed myself. The run time is 11 minutes 27 seconds.
The initial footage was shot in December 2014 using a Canon SLR. Additional footage (including a re-shot ending) was added in autumn 2017 using a Panasonic HC-W580 camcorder. Some B-roll was shot using Samsung and Nokia smartphones.
As this film is self-initiated and not intended to make any profit, it was a 'back-burner project' over the course of four years. The following software was used:
Adobe Media Encoder
Evolution of an idea
2002 - I watched 28 Days Later for the first time. I loved the film and it made quite an impression on me, but one particular thing which stayed with me was a deleted scene included in the DVD release. One scene (a part of the sequence where the heroes flee London in a taxi) was shot in my home town of Croydon, where one lane of the flyover had been temporarily closed and a number of derelict cars had been strewn all over it. In the director's commentary, Danny Boyle explained that Croydon didn't quite fit the epic look he was going for, hence the scene being cut. I disgreed; Croydon could look very dark and apocalyptic, and often without needing to try.
2011 - my brother-in-law Marius Smuts came to visit over Christmas. He brought with him a camcorder and suggested that we set our alarm early on Christmas morning, in the hope of filming the streets of Croydon looking all eerily deserted. I was skeptical at first but I agreed and the footage we shot over the course of one hour looked so good we later turned it into a promotional video for a piece of music I'd composed.
2014 - I went out early on Christmas morning again with a camcorder, with the intention of filming some different parts of the town in higher definition and hopefully better my earlier achievement with Marius. By this time I was going into business as a visual effects artist and I filmed locations around Croydon with the intention of putting CGI elements onto the plate. I hadn't yet got as far as designing anything but I liked the concept of a huge alien spacecraft hovering menacingly above the deserted streets.
2017 - a number of other VFX projects had got in the way and prevented me from completing the 'Abandoned Croydon' film. When a quiet patch came along with my freelancing work I decided to take this film off the backburner and complete it once and for all. By now I'd had a number of new ideas, particularly regarding the design of the alien spaceships and the final scene (which I ended up re-shooting). I dropped the expository voice over in favour of a fast-paced TV news montage to open the film and I recorded half an hour of ambient music to give the project a suitably creepy soundtrack. It was a lot of hard work and the film frequently had to go back on the backburner due to the demands of other projects, but by the summer of 2018 the film was looking and sounding good enough to send to festivals.
The development of the alien spacecraft - my original idea was to have a single large ship hovering over the town. It would have a 'classic' UFO disc shape, weathering and industrial-looking design features but I later dropped this concept because it looked too much like an obvious reference to Neill Blomkamp's film District 9.
Later ideas focused on a more biomechanical look, with a not entirely harmonious-looking union of metallic and fleshy parts. I liked the idea of it having squid-like tentacles which it could use to interact with the cityscape beneath. I also liked using a red colouring because there are no naturally occurring or man-made flying objects with this colour and it makes the ship look more unsettling; together with its mottled surface it almost becomes like a colossal hunk of raw meat floating in the sky.
The scene in the alleyway was difficult to design. I settled quite early on the idea that a few stray humans had been gathered by the aliens and used for some kind of horrific medical experiment. I went through many concepts for the machinery running the experiment until I finally settled on a look which seemed appropriate and fitted into the (already shot) backplate. I knew at least I definitely wanted to keep a similar biomechanical look to the spaceship. Some of the shapes were inspired by 3D fractal imagery I was creating with Mandelbulb 3D.
The alleyway scene was not essential to the story being told but I felt it was important for building the world and (after I changed the film's ending) for explaining the protagonist's anger. Inspired by films such as John Carpenter's The Thing, I envisioned a grotesque and spectacular transformation all within one shot.
I knew that a practical effect would be the ideal way of achieving this but I had no budget for one so complex - and in any case I have my own CGI business to promote, so I took a ready-made humanoid mesh and constructed a detailed character model designed to split its head in half like a clam shell.
The second version of the alien ships was based around a 3D fractal shape generated with Mandelbulb 3D. I decided this was the best way to ensure a believable-looking organic appearance. I then used the program's voxel stack feature to convert it into an OBJ file I could import into Maya.
The mesh was incredibly dense (around 4,000,000 triangular faces) and also rather messy and distorted. It took three days to manually clean up the geometry in Maya before I was ready to start building on and rigging my own polygonal parts such as the tentacles.
The metal parts were textured using photographs I took myself of corroded metal panels, while the organic central body was given its mottled colouring with a 2D fractal algorithm. For the detail shots with the opening hatches I built separate close-up models.
The first version of the alien spacecraft was a stright-forward polygonal model built within Maya and textured using stock photographs of metal panels on aircraft and ship hulls. I got as far as completing two VFX shots with this CGI model before the project went onto hiatus and I went on to abandon this look.
The small creatures which attack our protagonist were partly inspired by the Francis Bacon painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and also by the Facehuggers of the Alien film series; they are parasitic beings which live on the surface of the large ships and are able to survive in the environment of deep space for long periods. For the film's original ending I intended that their bites would be venomous, hence them having syringe-like tongues.
I built these as polygonal models in Maya and then used Autodesk Mudbox to add detail and surface texture. The teeth were taken from a pre-existing mesh I imported from Daz 3D.
Various earth vehicles, both operational and abandoned, were required to add realism to some scenes. The London ambulance was a realtively hi-poly model (125k faces) while the Army Chinook was only ever seen in distance shots and could be kept fairly low poly. Other CGI vehicles included crashed cars and Army Landrover Defenders (stock models which I downloaded from Turbosquid.com) and Army 2-Tonne Trucks which I modeled myself in Maya.
The man in the alleyway was a very difficult model to make. I took the base mesh from a model in Daz 3D and used Maya and Sculptris to customise and texture the head and clothing. The hair is polygonal and I added this myself.
My original plan had been for the halves of the head to peel open completely, hence the level of detail I put into modeling the head interior (see the cutaway image below) but this proved unexpectedly difficult to engineer an the finished shot cuts just before this is about to happen.
Animation, render and compositing
SynthEyes was used to track all the camera movements and to remove the lens warping from all the footage I shot. I was then able to import this data into Maya for the construction and animation of all the scenes requiring three-dimensional CGI elements. The CGI was all rendered out using Mental Ray software and, as I'm not currently in posession of a Nuke license, I used After Effects to combine these elements with the backplate.
Some scenes, such as the one pictured to the right, required a combination of multiple elements - the 3D spaceship from Maya, multiple flame and explosion clips (courtesy of Detonation Films), smoke columns and damage to the buildings which were created using Photoshop and tracked to the plate using AE's own motion tracking feature. Some AE compositions used had as many as twenty layers active at the same time.
In the film's final minute I tried to create a more foreboding ambience by showing flurries of ash particles blowing about in the air from the many fires. This was achieved using Trapcode's CC Paticle World plugin, with numerous dark, defocused triangular-shaped objects tumbling through the shot.
A recurrant problem in shooting outdoor scenes for my film was birds, planes and moving cars straying into the frame. Since the premise of the film dictates all human and animal life has vanished, I had to remove all these unwanted items using discete editing, rotoscoping them out, or by placing CGI objects in front of them.
One model I built which was noticeably not CGI was the bazooka (although I did create a low-poly CGI model of it also for one distance shot). The CRM-114 is a fictional anti-tank weapon but I loosely based its design on the M72 LAW used by the US Army and constructed it from a length of plastic drainpipe, old toy parts and a guitar strap.
Numerous people have asked me how I carried a replica weapon like this around the town centre during filming without getting 'into trouble'. Actually I never did carry it into any public spaces; I instead used a foot long 'sawn-off' version and did the rest with some discrete editing!
Once the compositing phase was complete, I would export each shot as a PNG sequence, re-import this into SynthEyes and then restore the lens warp to make the shot look natural again. Finally I would import all the shots into Adobe Premiere Pro for grading and editing (the washed out/sepia tinted look was achieved using Red Giant's Mojo plugin).
The digital glitching footage was created using a heavily modified video game toy which I refer to as The Video Beetle and then captured using a USB video grabber.
The original ending of the film was rather more downbeat. I got as far as filming it and animating the VFX but then decided it simply didn't fit right and went about re-writing and re-shooting three minutes of the story.
You can see the original/alternate end here and decide which one you prefer...
Some of the news graphics used in the opening montage were made using templates and stock footage obtained from videoblocks.com. However I created other parts such as banners, lower thirds and splash screens (as many as time permitted!) from scratch using Maya, Photoshop and After Effects.
For the shots of chaos in the streets I used actual footage of unrest which I had shot during the summer riots of 2011. I rigged up powerful strobe lights outside a window of my house to simulate the glare of the alien weapons firing and, in May 2018, I was fortunate enough to capture lighting with my camcorder in the skies over Croydon. I later tinted this orange with After Effects to make it look strange and unnatural.
"And special effects that mean something... They aren't just frosting on the cake!"
- The Wizard of Speed and Time, 1988
Copyright 2023 Howard Gardner
Howard Gardner CG