While many software companies release demo footage of what their new products are capable of, few have done so at the level of Red Giant Films with the recent release of an ambitious sci-fi comedy short film called Hewlogram, which can be viewed here: youtube.com/watch?v=KbK3CFkcBr4 The 5:22-long film follows the antics of a modern-day animator who accidentally generates a holographic, crime-fighting superhero. The character, played by Stargate: Atlantis alumnus David Hewlett, is generated by a “freak accident, involving highly unlikely, one-of-a-kind circumstances.” What makes the film interesting, besides the high-concept comedy, is that Red Giant’s new Universe 2.2 plug-ins and transitions were liberally used throughout the film to create interesting, retro-styled looks.
I asked Aharon Rabinowitz, executive producer for Red Giant Films, how the idea to create the film developed. “It all happened because David Hewlett, who has been in some of my favorite sci-fi films and TV shows, like Stargate: Atlantis, Dark Matter and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, reached out to Red Giant. It turns out he is a big fan of our films and loves visual effects. He’s watched a ton of our tutorials and thought it would be fun to work on something with us. The challenge was that I didn’t have any ideas at the time and had never directed, and I didn’t want to just do something for the sake of making something. I wanted to make something good that we would both enjoy doing together. We actually spent about five months just communicating as friends before the idea surfaced—probably because that’s when I got comfortable enough with Hewlett to expose my true level of geekiness.”
As you watch the film, and as you can tell by the title, holograms play an integral part in the story. Rabinowitz confesses, “Ever since I was 3 years old, I have been fascinated with holograms. That’s when I first saw Princess Leia, reaching out to Obi-Wan Kenobi for help. But in 1983, my fascination turned to obsession when Chuck Wagner became the first living hologram in the visually stunning but short-lived TV show Automan. That show sealed the deal. I’ve spent years learning about and hyper-focused on holograms. How obsessed am I? Enough that I co-created Red Giant Holomatrix, which has become the definitive industry tool for creating Star Wars-like holograms and the like. I think that people like the way it looks, but they can also feel how much love went into making that tool what it is. So when Hewlett asked me again about working on a short together, I naturally turned to my obsession and cranked out a ridiculous script about a holographic TV superhero from the 1980s appearing in the current day and sent it off. He loved it, and then I suddenly had to make a film, which I had never done before. I mean, yeah, as a writer/producer, sure, but it is not the same thing as actually having a film and carrying a vision from start to end.”
It’s rare that a piece of marketing takes on a life of its own, but Hewlogram answers one of my own complaints about most marketing and demo reels. They’re usually heavy on visuals and light on story. The film is very entertaining to watch, and you forget, at times, that it was mainly conceived to market Red Giant’s products. By the time you’ve finished watching the film, you begin to wonder about how some of the effects were created.
When asked about the reaction to Hewlogram so far, Rabinowitz replies, “As I’ve been working on it, I’ve shown it to many people across the film/VFX industry (and beyond) for feedback, and the reaction has been amazing. In fact, it seems to resonate with people far better than I could ever have imagined or hoped for at the beginning of the project. Whether it’s because it reminds folks what it was like staying up on a Saturday night to watch ridiculous sci-fi TV shows as a kid, or because they identify with my character as an artist struggling to do good work with a tough client, or because they just like the visuals, I’m thrilled at how much great feedback I’ve gotten.”
Some of that praise included prime real estate on the Syfy Wire home page, and The Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick calling Hewlogram “Pitch Perfect 80s.”
Rabinowitz explains some of the design impetus for the effects, noting, “While almost every one of these tools was created because, internally, we at Red Giant, wanted these cool things for ourselves, it turns out that the demand for them is far higher than you’d probably imagine. Red Giant Universe is our fastest-growing product from both the software side and the customer side. More and more people are using it every day, and we add new stuff far more frequently than any product. And while we can’t see what people are making with the tools (unless they share it with us), our metrics let us know what tools are being used the most—which is important because it tells us what tools people want more of. By far, the Universe Stylization tools like VHS, Holomatrix, Glitch and Retrograde are the most popular ones we have. Transitions are also really popular, which is why, for Universe 2.2, we’ve created a ton of new transitions based on our stylization tools, like VHS transition or Retrograde Transition.”
The one stand-out effect from Hewlogram, for me, is the bodysuit effect reminiscent of Disney’s Tron. I asked Rabinowitz how they were created.
“As the centerpiece for the film,” he says, “this effect needed to look like it came out of the ’80s, but they were using completely different tools back then, and it’s hard to re-create those analog effects with digital tools. But, thankfully, ILM veteran and Red Giant Creative Director Stu Maschwitz did some ’80s special effects research, and then he sent me a video of a hologram boot that felt ’80s legit, and once I saw it, I knew we could apply the same principles he used to a bodysuit and make this work. We bought a pair of Chroma Blue Bodysuits from chromakeysuit.com and, after some camera tests, our costume and props designer, Jason Parish, slavishly painted black lines on the suits for the final look. The compositing and visual effects were done in Adobe After Effects.
“For the Hologram suit, I keyed out the blue with Primatte Keyer and used the footage as an Alpha Inverted Matte to reveal a layer of Trapcode Particular Particles from Stu’s example. I created some off-centered white mattes so it looked like the effect didn’t line up perfectly, as it might happen when doing this kind of effect with analog tools, and then I composited that on top of Hewlett with a screen-blending mode. Then I applied Red Giant Universe’s Holomatrix for the holographic look—such as the scan lines and flickering distortions—and, to top it off, I added the most ’80s blue glow ever.”
Rabinowitz enlisted a team of collaborators to help him realize his vision. As a first-time director, he felt it important to stick with what he knew he was capable of doing on his own but assembling the right team to help him realize his vision was crucial to the project’s success.
“People always talk about wanting to try something beyond their skillset to grow,” says. “For a VFX artist, trying new things is critical to become better. However, in this case, I felt that being a first-time director was so far outside of my comfort zone that, from a VFX standpoint, I would be foolish not to stick to what I believed I could already do on my own (with the exception of a few areas, where I knew I could get help). Don’t get me wrong; while I was pretty sure I could pull off all of this, I had never done a bunch of it. It was all theoretical, and there were a few times my plans didn’t work out as expected. But I also prepared and tested a lot before we shot, and that made all the difference. By the time we actually filmed, I had spent a month doing test runs on anything that I thought would be problematic. It saved me a ton of trouble later in post. And my producer, Ian Voglesong, and cinematographer, Alex Corn, were both super-helpful in this process.
“Any shot where it was not practical to light the suit evenly was a lot of tedious hard work because keying alone was not going to work. In those cases, Ryan Welborn rotoscoped the blue suit parts, and then I did the same holographic VFX treatment I talked about earlier. Also, the two 3D shots in the film (spaceship shooting at us and the exploding Killbot) were a bit outside my skillset. Thankfully, Daniel Hashimoto (from Action Movie Kid) and Brian Behm (from Rooster Teeth) were very willing to help me out, and those are two of the most fun shots in the film.”
As a longtime user of Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks Suite, I was interested to see what Red Giant’s transition and effects suite looked like. I downloaded Red Giant Universe 2.2 and took a couple of hours to explore it. Universe features quite a diverse and robust toolset that can be used for simple, mundane tasks, such as animating logos or correcting fisheye distortion with Go Pro footage, all the way to creating sophisticated motion graphics like heads-up displays and a degraded ’80s TV look. The effects are intuitive and relatively easy to use.
The suite currently features 76 tools and is designed to run on most host editing applications on the market, including Adobe After Effects, Premiere Pro CC, FCP X, Apple Motion, AVID Media Composer, MAGIX Vegas, DaVinci Resolve and HitFilm Pro. As you go through the application, effects like VHS, Retrograde Carousel, Glitch and Holomatrix II allow you to distort and stylize your footage, while Motion Graphic elements can be generated, like HUD components, Line, Knoll Light Factory EZ and Fractal Background. The suite also features numerous stylized transitions, like Exposure Blur and Glitch Transitions, which can give your footage a highly stylized and/or retro feel, and which were perfect for linking the scenes in Hewlogram.
When asked if he has greater directorial ambitions with the success of the short film Hewlogram, Rabinowitz replies, “It’s funny; I would not have said I wanted to be a director. I certainly have wanted to try my hand at directing, but wasn’t convinced I could do a good job. I am very confident as a VFX artist and good at problem-solving in that venue. But problem-solving in VFX is very different than problem-solving on set—which is much more in the moment. I didn’t know if I could do that well. It’s what I was most worried about. But when a guy like David Hewlett enthusiastically invites you to work with him, it throws every bad excuse to not do it to the wind. I warned him ahead I would probably suck at it, but he kept encouraging me throughout the process. He has been a great friend and mentor. Having a good team makes all the difference. Every single person I worked with on this project was professional and super-positive. I really felt that they all had my back and believed in me. I’ve enjoyed working on Hewlogram more than any project I’ve ever worked on. As a writer/director, you collaborate with creative people at every level of production, and I would absolutely love to repeat the experience.”
Red Giant Universe 2.2 is available for download at redgiant.com/universe/pricing for $99 per year or for $20 per month.