Out of this World

Be­hind the scenes of in­die sci-fi flick The Be­yond and VFX su­per­vi­sor-turned­di­rec­tor HAZ Du­l­ull

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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.”

Break­through

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

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