PROTO – Interview with Director / VFX artist Nick Pittom

July 31, 2012

I’ve been following with interest the progress of a short film called “PROTO” – a love story involving two robots. It has been made by Director / VFX artist Nick Pittom, and I’ve been managing to get some sneaky, behind-the-scenes peaks of the shots as they have been developed. It’s now complete and so I caught up with Nick for an exclusive interview about the work that had gone into the project.

RF: So I’ve been hearing for some time about PROTO being made – how long has the movie taken to come together, and what has been the process of bringing it from script to final product.

NP: Being my first film I have no idea if it took a long time or not to get together in relative terms, but it’s been around about two years script to screen. I submitted the first version of the script to regional fund Screen East a couple of years ago, but they felt it was slightly too ambitious for the time constraints of the program of films they wanted to make and passed. But there was something about the story I felt was strong enough to push forward with it and spent the next 8 or 9 months rewriting with the idea of simply making it myself. While time-consuming I knew that it could be done, so I got in contact with Essex Uni’s robotics lab, who kindly let me go along for a day and shoot some footage. With the help of a 3D modeller for the CG robot itself worked up some test shots, which I hoped to use to attract other people to the project.

Early last year I entered another film fund this time by Screen South, using those test shots as a way to show my ambition for the project, and they seemed to like it enough to take it onto their Innovation Shorts program. Screen South have been amazingly supportive during the whole process and have shown a great deal of trust in me. I wanted to ensure their trust was repaid by directing the best film that I could. Their commitment to aspiring talent I think is to be applauded, because
without their, and FilmFyn’s help I do not believe I would have had the chance to make this film. Part of their plans for this fund was to collaborate with Danish film fund FilmFyn, which is how I got to work with producer Richard Georg Engström and shoot the film itself in Denmark. Richard, my Producer has shown a invested a great deal of faith in me and has encouraged me at every stage, helping me to make the right decisions for the film. Our production manager Julie was lucky enough to find an actual robotics lab in Denmark called Robotcluster and we shot there August of last year. The process of pre-production up to this point was probably 3-4 months of rewrites, designing and storyboarding, which brought in a new look for the robot and took us up to draft 22 of the script. The design process for the robot itself was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of the project.

After wrapping I edited the film myself, which took about a month, and then the post process too from around September of ’11 to June of ’12, including music and grading. The CG work was time-consuming, even with a team of 3 guys at VERL (Visual Effects Research Laboratory) in Dundee taking on the robot characters. Compositing these into the shots also took time. But there is something therapeutic about seeing the incremental drafts of each animation pass leading up to the final shots.

RF: Tell us a bit about you background / training and how you ended up working on PROTO.

I’m pretty much self taught.

I started editing and playing with VFX when I was 15, using one of the first consumer digital capture cards on the market myself and a friend put ourselves into Terminator, or made our own little Matrix short film. It was all nonsense of course, but great fun, and I think at that point I was dead set on going into film VFX. Through college I continued, learning 3D animation, compositing, playing with green screen and all the effects available at the time. Uni was very much the same, but with a bit more focus – I was on a TV and Film course at Bournemouth Uni, so there were a lot of other people with similar ambitions, although my particular focus on over-the top VFX was probably a little less serious than most. It was there myself and the same friend produced a bunch of fun/comedic/silly programming for the Student TV station (winning awards) and in the final year I made a really bad Zombie film, which I guess is mandatory for Student film makers.

After Uni I went to be a runner in Post in Soho, London, which was somewhat a disaster – I tended to get distracted and was not the best person to be making tea or fetching food for people. I also finally realised that post production would not be the direction I really wanted to go in, as it tended to be about bringing other people’s vision to life, rather than my own. So from there I decided to focus my skills, with the idea of making my own films – learning to write was probably the hardest part of all of that.

In the meantime I branched out. Camera work for weddings, music shows and MTV’s Pimp my Ride. Editing of music performances, documentaries, anything I could get my hand on. Motion graphics and VFX for anyone who would take me. I also started directing music videos – which was great fun and allowed me to learn how to pull the shots I needed – all the while throwing as much VFX at them as possible. There were a few very time consuming green-screen projects.

It’s all really been a process of trial and error, but all the more satisfying for it.

Eventually I felt I had the experience and skills to get on and make those films I had always wanted. I just needed to write them – and then make them. Which is probably the hardest part.

RF: What were your inspirations for the story? Was it something that you had been thinking about for some time? Was it conceived as a means of showing off your vfx / directing work?

NP: Sci-fi is something I’ve always loved, whether books, film or TV. The story itself originally came from watching the work of Neill Blomkamp, who I had been watching out for ever since seeing his Citroen C4 ‘transformer’ ad. I tracked down some of his earlier work; Alive in Joburg – which became District 9, and a small film called ‘Tempbot’ about an experimental robot being trialled out as a temp in an office. There was something so fresh and REAL about it. I would say it was seeing that film that made me think, “I can do this. I can make films” – not because it was ‘easy’, of course, but because I saw how VFX could be used for more than just empty visual spectacle: They could be used to help tell a story,

It fed into my love of Sci-fi, VFX and my desire to tell stories. Up until that point that had not really coalesced in my mind as it should have. Rather than “what story can I use to promote my VFX work” it became “what story can I tell in this mould”. It changed a lot from there, picking up a great many inspirations on the way. Wall-E was actually never a direct inspiration, but just happens to be the most obvious reference point. Strange how that works out.

RF: How did the design of the PROTO robot come about? Tell us about the design process of him and his companion SYMPHONY.

NP: I spend a long time attempting to design a robot that could exist in 5-10 years time – that would not look out of place, following design trends to ensure it didn’t look unrealistic or dated. was a great resource for this. A designer called James Wetherell is a long time collaborator and he helped me put together a design for the first version of PROTO, which was very realistic and mechanical and marvellous. However once we came to actually make the film the design needed to change in order to fit where the script was now headed – which would require a more appealing look, something you could look at and feel sympathy for. The redesign was made with the help of director Stefan Fjeldmark, who was creative director on the film (and business partner with the producer Richard). He directed “Help I’m A Fish”, a great kids film back in the 90s and an Asterix film, as well as a bunch of other great animations. We then took that more character-ful design to James to work up into something practical for the CG modellers to work with. Symphony very much went through a similar process, however without the ‘version 1’ proto did. Proto always needed to be bipedal to ensure he could achieve the actions required for the film. Symphony I always wanted to be more abstract – a head and arms – and we had far more freedom to be creative with her look. The head especially, being basically a ball ‘hanging’ inside the ‘hair’ I am especially proud of.

The original PROTO robot, which makes a cameo in the film, was modelled and textured by the amazing talented James Kearsley, who helped a great deal with pre-production on the film and without whom I do not believe I would have been able to create the test shots that led to the film getting funding. You can check out his work here.

RF: Tell us about the specifics of your role in the VFX – what aspects you worked on and what software was used.

NP: The CGI robots I always knew would be beyond my skill set in order to be animated with enough skill to be ‘good enough’. VERL (the Visual Effects Research Laboratory) in Dundee were attached to the Screen South program from the start and so I knew that they would be doing the heavy lifting on that aspect. However it is my experience in this area I feel gave me the tools I needed to be able to direct actors and camera with a protagonist that would not actually be there on set. In that respect I was never worried – and indeed it was real actors who I felt more of a challenge to direct, never having really done it before!

While the robots were being completed by VERL I took on every single other aspect of the VFX for the film – the greenscreen comps needed to place the actors in front of the robots, the computer screens, rotoscoping, compositing the CG – and the final scene, shot on a roof in Denmark, but relocated to a skyscraper in London.

Nuke was considered for the VFX, but for workflow reasons we went with After Effects. The film was edited in Premiere and so we were able to stay with the original RED rushes until the very end. Maya (mental ray) was used for the CG robots (3DS max (vray) for PROTO v1), with Boujou used for camera tracking.

RF: Did you encounter any technical problems in post production and how did you overcome them? If you were to make a similar movie again, are there any things you would do differently?

NP: There were no real ‘problems’, which is one thing I am very proud of – managing to be organised enough to complete what I set out to do. But the process of animation and CG for a 15 min film where the protagonist is CG is a LOT more work than I expected – and I did not go in blind or ignorant. Some keying work was a lot harder than it should have been outside (due to fading light on the shoot). I guess going over our planned schedule would be considered a problem – which could only have been solved by having a more realistic schedule.

I did lose a very short sequence from the film, mainly for pacing reasons, but also due to simply not working as I had shot it.

If I were to shoot something similar I would be more adventurous with the camera itself. I was very lucky to get a chance to make this film and had a responsibility to make sure it WAS made and did not crash and burn. From the start I moved towards a style that involved many static cameras and a few tracks – I would have a lot more movement in the camera – and be more daring with it. But I am happy to have a direction to grow in 🙂

RF: Anything else about the film-making process on this project that surprised you?

NP: The sheer scale of everything. How full on it is. How MUCH of everything there is on every level to make the right decisions on.
It’s a massive learning experience, but massively rewarding to go with it – especially when you finally get to reveal it!

‘PROTO’ is a short film, produced by Eye Candy Film as an international co-production between Screen South based in the UK and Film Fyn based in Denmark.
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