This is one of my newest writing samples, a preview of a student film created and produced for my former employer. Enjoy!
MASS EFFECT FILM
DIGITAL VIDEO PROGRAM CREATING MASS EFFECT FILM
Story by Trevor Green
More than a dozen people mill around a dirt lot next to University of Advancing Technology’s campus. Flanked by several portable green screens, two actors in futuristic-looking space suits linger as UAT students position camera equipment, move green-covered set props and tend to wardrobe. The costumed actors stand parallel to the green screen with guns pointed at the blank canvas until the snap of a slate announces the start of filming. The word “cut” is heard after a few minutes and the tension melts. Discussion points to the next scene for filming: camera equipment is moved once more; actors wait for their cues and grips move props for staging.
This was during a day of filming on the Digital Video program’s newest film, Red Sand, a prequel to the Mass Effect video games. The movie takes place approximately 50-100 years before the events of the first game. More than a dozen UAT students are involved with production, from filming to computer graphics and sound.
“I think it’s great. The story is great,” says student Ariel Navarrete, lead 3D artist and art director, regarding the first Mass Effect game. “I think it’s a good video game to make a film about. People are going to love it.”
The Story of Red Sand
Red Sand features two parallel storylines centering on planet Mars. Colonels Jon Grissom and Lily Sandhurst defend a military base from Mad Max-like marauders known as Red Sand, humans addicted to a substance called Element Zero. (Element Zero, or eezo, is a key part of the Mass Effect series, fueling weapons, ships and-when mixed with the planet’s dust-biotic powers.) The marauders want the base because it sits on a rich underground vein of eezo. Meanwhile, a team of scientists, led by Dr. Averroes, hope to attain the last secrets from the Prothean ruins to fully utilize the ancient technology. Both parties are racing against time before they are overrun by the marauders.
DeNigris was inspired to do a fan film after seeing Portal: No Escape, a tribute to the first-person shooter. He felt that his students could do better.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we did an awesome fan film with all that we can do here and all of our facilities and all of our technology and all of the skills that we have here in the program? Because it would be great to have 7 million views on YouTube for something we’ve done,” he says.
Student Caleb Evans, a Mass Effect fan, created the prequel’s story in fall 2011 after Digital Video Professor Paul DeNigris asked students in his DVA492 (Digital Video Production Studio II) class about doing a video game fan film-offering BioShock or Mass Effect for selection. Evans’ love for the game series was reflected in his dedication to writing a movie that could stand apart from the games-a challenge he noted because of the limitations of the University’s equipment.
“I found a way to give us some creative liberty with it by doing a prequel around the time where there really is no information on what went on,” he says.
This includes a focus on Jon Grissom, familiar to Mass Effect fans for his namesake on a military academy, a female counterpart to Grissom in the form of Lily Sandhurst, and various elements from the series-including color hues (blues, purples and oranges) and related weapons and costumes. The most evident example is incorporating the mass relay interstellar transport system, which plays a pivotal role in the games.
“We all love the story. We all thought it was great: it had a lot of action; it had some cool sci-fi concepts, great opportunities for visual effects and would be a challenge to shoot,” says DeNigris.
Evans fleshed out the story with DeNigris and Professor Sharon Bolman to make it accessible to fans and novices.
“If you’ve never played a single minute of those games (you don’t even know what those games are)… you’re still going to be entertained by this and still going to be engaging right from the get-go,” says DeNigris.
DeNigris let Evans run with his vision of a Mass Effect-inspired universe, putting him in the director’s chair. Evans previously directed projects with as many as six people, and he enjoyed his first large-scale role and the demands that came with it. He credited the cast and crew for their teamwork and efforts.
“It was great—a lot better than I thought. It’s stressful because you’re being pulled in a lot of different directions, and basically if you’re not there then everybody’s like, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ because you keep everything moving.”
Students from DeNigris’ Digital Video Production Studio I-III classes (some having roles on DeNigris’ previous production, Parallax; others are on their first film) and alumni have pitched in with various production roles. Work on the movie began during the fall 2011 semester, with the DVA492 (Digital Video Production Studio II) class devoted to pre-production.
Graduate Zach Robinson played a marauder in the film and worked off-camera as a grip. He will do 3D compositing, rotoscoping and other computer graphics effects for the movie in post-production.
“It’s actually not bad now because I do grip work when I’m not acting and then the acting stuff comes first, I guess, because they have 12 other grips to do work. So it’s been easy: I suit up when they want me to and I help out when I’m done suiting up,” says Robinson.
Student Paul Gandia did sound and grip duties for the film’s shoot, and he is bouncing between post-production editing and sound work. He desired to experience as much as possible.
“I want to be on set even though I’m going to be the editor. That’s why I took sound, so I can see what’s going on and learn a lot for editing as well.”
Navarrete says concept art for the 3D models is finished and they are doing post-production work while they are filming.
DeNigris recruited actors from previous works (like Aynam Samman from 2011’s Parallax) and the Phoenix community. He reached out to Mark Meer, a television, improv, sketch and voice actor-best known as playing the voice of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series, for a character new to the games’ lore. The script interested him, particularly the opportunity to play an action hero, noting that he is “a scrawny, nerdy voice actor.”
“This is quite fun, you know, getting to handle the weapons,” he says of the filming experience. “It’s been very fun working with this crew. It’s a great bunch, and the cast has been lots of fun as well.”
Phoenix-based actress Amy Searcy was thrilled to indulge her love of acting and science-fiction-particularly one that involved blank backdrops.
“For me, I mean, this is the ideal role, and I get to fight, which is even more fun. So yeah, it’s very cool working completely on green screen. I’ve never done an entire movie on green screen.”
Samman mentions the same intrigue in working with the green backdrops. His interest in the role of Dr. Averroes, a scientist bent on advancing humankind at any cost, came from the script and the character’s dedication to his research-a self-described “soldier of science.”
“He’s so dedicated to his work and to knowledge that he doesn’t care if he dies in the process or how many people die, so long as we figure something out that will make humankind better,” he says.
“He doesn’t care if he dies in pursuit of knowledge… And villains don’t think that they’re villains; they believe in something that is evil to other people.”
While Red Sand is in post-production, promotional efforts are underway to whet fans’ appetites. The film’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/MassEffectRedSand) offers behind-the-scenes pictures and designs. A teaser trailer featuring Meer will be online in the next few weeks along with a dedicated webpage.
Unlike the DV program’s last few movies (including FALLOUT, Flight of the Melvin), Red Sand will not be screened at festivals. DeNigris wants the film to be seen by the game’s fans, and he hopes it goes viral.
“I think it’s going to work the way we want it to and definitely take the DV [program] and UAT out to a bigger, broader audience out on the web and reach a lot more people than a festival run could reach. That’s ultimately what this film’s about,” he says.
The team hopes to have the movie done by the end of spring 2012 semester.