Out of this World
Behind the scenes of indie sci-fi flick The Beyond and VFX supervisor-turneddirector HAZ Dulull
when we first meet up-and-coming director hasraf Dulull – now better known by his industry nickname haz – it’s at the perfect place for any indie filmmaker: a busy pub in London’s soho.
taking a much-needed break from his work on an upcoming project, Dulull is juggling our meeting with calls from various production execs as they’re putting together the finishing touches to the press screening of his very first feature, The Beyond. it’s only a week away from its debut at the Dolby theatre and the trailer already has over one million views.
“if it weren’t for my VFX career, i would not be where i am today,” Dulull begins, coffee in hand. After 15 years working as an effects artist and supervisor, he had already earned high-end credits including The Dark Knight and Prince of Persia before taking the leap into directing. following in the footsteps of Neill Blomkamp and Gareth Edwards, he created his own short films during his spare time.
“Being on set as a visual effects supervisor was my film school,” he explains. “i learned what it meant to be a good director and aimed to apply that to all the shorts i made. One of them, a sci-fi documentary called Project Kronos, went viral and got me the attention of my current manager in LA. several short films later and i got the chance to adapt Project Kronos into a feature – The Beyond.”
Of course, there were challenges involved in going from creating shorts to a full-length film. “As a first-time director, it proved hard to find anyone that would sign off on financing – i didn’t have the industry’s trust yet,” Dulull reveals.
“there was also a stigma of ‘hey look, here’s the VFX guy who wants to make a movie’. i wanted to be known as someone who could not only create impressive effects, but tell great stories too. One of the movies that most inspired me growing up was Blade Runner and i loved how it integrated incredible visuals with an impressive script. i aimed to do something similar with The Beyond. Yes, it’s sci-fi with cyborgs, interstellar travel and alien planets, but as with any other movie, it’s really about the plot and characters first.”
told as a sci-fi mocumentary with echoes to District 9, The Beyond chronicles the story of a ground-breaking mission to send astronauts – modified with advanced robotics – through a newly discovered wormhole known as the Void. Off-the-shoulder camera work and talking head interviews intercut with more cinematic visual effects sequences, with Dulull involved in every aspect of the production from directing and producing to editing and creating effects.
“More than anything, i wanted to make sure The Beyond was made with the same ethos as my shorts; i actually self-financed the film and so our budget wasn’t big. however, i still wanted to create something that looked spectacular, so the production values had to be spot on,” Dulull continues. “With limited financing and a small crew, we had to think outside the box to tell a high-concept sci-fi story. Luckily, i had a team of incredible CG contacts that i’d met throughout my time in the industry to help, including Amsterdam post house filmore, VFX supervisor John sellings, CG supervisor Charles Wilcocks, and trusted regular VFX collaborators Andrea tedeschi and Aleksandr uusmees.”
Space and other planets from the beginning, one of Dulull’s main aims was to establish believable locations – including outer space. “We were able to use resources from one of the best places you can imagine: NASA! Many might not know this, but NASA has a lot of stock video footage that filmmakers can use, including several beautiful 4K shots of Earth and the international space station (iss). in fact, i had previously used this footage in my shorts. With a feature, of course, it’s different, as you need clearance rights and can’t use the NASA logo or show any astronauts’ faces.
“We got in touch with NASA for the relevant permissions, then i took the 4K footage and manipulated it through compositing in After Effects. My comp involved painting out the NASA logos and then adding CG extensions to the current iss. Another big aspect of creating the space sequences was designing the wormhole effect, which our td, Aleksandr uusmees, did in houdini by creating a procedural effect with simulations of a vortex along with light distortions.
“i would then retime and distort this to create the final wormhole look. finally, i’d use a piece of software called Neat Video to de-noise any stock footage shots i licensed that needed to be enlarged to hd and 2K for the final frame of the film. Everything was finally tied together in Davinci Resolve, which i used for editing as well as colour grading and delivery.”
for another sequence, which involved a POV shot of an astronaut stepping foot on an alien planet, there was a little more luck involved. “When we initially approached uusmees to ask him whether he could create the particle effects on The Beyond, he was really enthusiastic but had asked if he could start in a few weeks’ time,” continues Dulull. “he and a few of his friends were abroad shooting a documentary project at a national park in iceland that is renowned for its unique landscapes.
“i immediately thought – that would be perfect for an alien planet! We gave him a camera and a shot list, and he was able to capture some amazing stuff using a drone during any down time he had on his documentary project. it was amazing timing and all came together organically.”
the team blocked the camera work right away, preplanning all the cinematography in the scene
Mocap cyborgs the team’s greatest challenge, however, came with one of The Beyond’s pinnacle visual effects sequences: when human beings have to enhance their bodies with advanced robotics in order to survive an interstellar journey into the Void.
“We liked the idea of taking a synthetic shell and adding in human consciousness – it was the basic premise behind Project Kronos, the short film we adapted into The Beyond, and we wanted to retain that concept,” Dulull explains. “One of the first conversations we all had as a team was how we were going to make sure this was one of the film’s most iconic scenes.”
initially, there was indecision about whether to build a physical suit to represent the cyborgs – called human 2.0s – or to create them using CGI. After several tests, Dulull decided to go with the latter, using a form of motion capture to replace the heroine of the story’s human body with a CG cyborg suit.
to ensure they didn’t compromise on the final sequence while staying on budget, the team blocked the camera work right away, and preplanned all of the cinematography in the scene. Working closely with DP Adam Batchelor, haz used Maya to previs each shot, blocking characters and camera movement out using a rough low-poly human 2.0 model imported from Zbrush. the previs was printed and stuck onto a wall on the day of the shoot, so the production crew could cross off each shot as it happened. “We had to be meticulous when it came to collecting data for accurate motion capture,” Dulull remembers. “Dan Newlands, our tracking supervisor, measured the whole set with a distometer, which looks a bit like a laser pointer, and we took plenty of photographs. We also had a chrome ball for lighting and reflections, as well as a 360 camera to [let us] capture the entire environment in a single shot.”
When it came to the mocap itself, the team used rotomation, putting tracking markers on an actress, and using those and the data recorded from set in Pftrack to capture her movement for the CG human 2.0. “We then exported the track into Maya and finessed things a bit, making sure all the pivot points were correctly aligned before finalising the human 2.0 model, lighting and texturing, then rendering in V-ray and doing the final compositing for the sequence using a combination of Nuke and fusion,” adds Dulull.
“With today’s tracking technology, you really can track anything as long as it doesn’t have any motion blur or more complex movements like zooms. Our biggest issue came when our actress made very tiny movements due to breathing in close-up shots. Because our human 2.0 was human consciousness in a synthetic shell, breathing didn’t make sense and we began making up for it by freezing the image or shot stabilisation, which ended up being nearly impossible for the very close-up shots.
“in the end, we had to think outside the box. i wrote a few lines into the script that explained that the human 2.0 was breathing to make it psychologically more acceptable to other humans. those two lines saved us weeks and possibly months of time.”
You really can track anything as long as it doesn’t have any motion blur or complex movements
the road to Success for many in the industry, it’s exactly this kind of thinking that has made Dulull so successful – and as we hear his story in the pub, we couldn’t agree more. With The Beyond now imminent and his next feature as a director and coproducer, Origin Unknown, now in post-production, Dulull has certainly come a long way since his early childhood watching Blade Runner.
“if i could give any other VFX artist who wants to try their hand at directing any advice, i would first say to let go of your fear,” he concludes.
“i find that with many in the industry – and i used to be guilty of this, too – there’s this worry about sharing your ideas and a tendency to keep quiet about them. With filmmaking, though, it’s actually better to do the opposite. Don’t be secretive about your plans: tell the world all about the story you’d like to tell and film you’d like to make. Let your enthusiasm be infectious. the more people you talk to, the more feedback you’ll get on how to improve – and you might even meet others along the way who you’ll collaborate with years down the line.
“Last but not least, never be afraid to fail. if you want to direct a film, do it. i failed thousands of times and even when i haven’t, i have always still see plenty of things i can improve on. to quote one of my heroes, James Cameron: ‘failure is an option, fear is not.’”
The Beyond is available on most digital streaming sites. For more info go to: hazfilm.com/the-beyond.
“You can’t cheat on a feature film like on a short,” reveals Dulull
Storyboard used for shooting the Human 2.0 sequence
“we tried to make
[the sky] more imperfect by adding fake focus,” tells Dulull
Previs shot with plate from the uk’s National Space Centre, which the team gained access to film in