Indie filmmakers are frequently forced to use anything and everything they can get their hands on in order to realize their vision, but artist couple Miguel Ortega and Tran Ma have taken that concept further than most.
Relying on VFX skills the duo earned through years of working on big budget Hollywood films, the pair turned their home into a movie set. Three years later, the result is The Ningyo, an award-winning short film that has attracted the attention of some of Hollywood’s biggest players.
Set in 1911, The Ningyo follows a professor who specializes in cryptozoology, the search for mythological creatures. The title stems from a Japanese myth about a fish-like creature known as the ningyo that can curse a person with immortality. When a map leading to one is discovered, it sets off a globe-spanning hunt that takes our protagonist from his university office to a secret cryptozoo and the bottom of the sea.
The 27-minute film may take audiences on an incredible voyage, but behind-the-scenes the production was surprisingly humble. Where practical photography was possible, they used it. Everything else was created in 3D using industry-standard software like Maya, Nuke and V-Ray.
The Ningyo began in 2013 as a Kickstarter campaign seeking $50,000, and thanks to the donations of 1,025 contributors, the project went on to far surpass its goal and receive over $80,000. One of the largest contributors was Chaos Group, which supported the project as part of its Partners in Art programme, an initiative designed to help independent filmmakers by providing financial backing, software licenses and custom tools.
“When Miguel showed me what they were working on, I knew we had to help,” informed Lon Grohs, Chief Commercial Officer at Chaos Group. “Talent and technology are breaking down barriers, allowing artists to create blockbuster-quality productions at home. Miguel and Tran’s work is living proof.”
To create The Ningyo, Ortega and Ma turned their living room into the primary sound stage, while their bedroom doubled as a Victorian-style college professor’s office. Even the stairway played a role, transforming into a cavern’s sloping entrance. Each set consisted of physical objects paired with black screens rather than green, in order to help establish the Lovecraftian tone while honoring the look and feel of films like The Godfather, which is famous for using darkness to help create atmosphere. Once the sets were ready, the 3D part of the environments were lit in the Academy Award-winning rendering software V-Ray, using up to 80 CG stand-ins for the characters.
Once each scene was filmed, Ortega and Ma would break down the set and begin creating the next. The process could take months, as each new scene needed to first be populated with real-world objects that fit with the film’s turn-of-the-century look and feel. Some were created by altering modern objects, while others were vintage items purchased online. Once filming was complete, Ortega and Ma began digitally enhancing the scenes, which included the creation of several studio-quality creatures that were meticulously sculpted in 3D before being photorealistically rendered with V-Ray.
“By jumping back and forth between camera trickery and then just straight up visual effects, people are kind of thrown off balance, they’re not sure,” said Ortega. “They can’t say ‘oh, that’s a CG shot’ or ‘oh that’s a practical shot’ because it’s jumping back and forth.”
Ortega and Ma came to the project with more than 20 years of VFX experience between them, having worked on blockbuster films such as Marvel’s Thor, Transformers 3, The Mist and more. The Ningyo however, challenged them to use tools and processes they had never needed to learn until now. The two had worked with V-Ray and Nuke on their previous short, the award-winning nThe Green Ruby Pumpkin, but with nearly 90-percent of the CG coming from just the two of them, the process was at times slow going.