Video Game Fan-Film Series: Red Sand
by Andrew Rainnie
In the second instalment of this series looking at video game adaptations by passionate fans, I spoke to writer and director Caleb Evans, along with producer, VFX supervisor and faculty advisor Paul DeNigris, about their short film Red Sand, based on BioWare space epic Mass Effect. The film, shot at the University of Advanced Technology in Phoenix, Arizona, delves into the discovery of the Prothean Ruins on Mars, 35 years before the events in the game, and features Mark Meer, voice actor behind Commander Shepard, as Colonel Jon Grissom.
AR: Given the scope of the film, could you give an introduction and overview of the production process you went through in order to make the film?
PD: I’m a full time professor at UAT, I’m the Program Champion of Digital Video – essentially I’m the department chair. The digital video program is specialised in visual effects filmmaking, that is the industry most of my alumni go into, so that is our focus here; genre films – sci-fi, horror, fantasy, action – the kind of thing where you have lots of effect work being done. Once the students have worked through the first two years of the program, they end up in Digital Video Production Studio, which is a three tier class where students from different experience levels and areas of expertise come together and collaborate on one specific project. In the fall semester of 2011, Caleb was among the group in the DVPS class, and we discussed pretty early on that we should do a video game fan film, because they get a lot of online attention and we thought that would be a really good way for us to illustrate what we are doing at the University.
CE: Yeah, when we were talking about what game we wanted to do we tossed around a couple of ideas. People responded quite well to Half-Life and Bioshock, as we thought those might work but we didn’t really know what to do with them. So I thought, “What is my favourite franchise?” and the answer, of course, was Mass Effect. Everyone in the room stopped and said, “Yes, we have to do that. Right now.” From that point it was kind of a no-brainer. I took it upon myself to write the story, because it was about something I love so I wanted it to be meticulous. I know many fans want it to be perfect otherwise they will never forgive you if you mess it up.
AR: I think BioWare found that out recently with the backlash surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3.
CE: Indeed. But at the same time, I wanted everyone in our group to have creative freedom as well and not get too-tied down in recreating the game, so I was trying to pick a point in the universe that offered us a way in. Since it takes a lot to do alien CG animation, and I was aware of the resources we had, I opted to do a prequel about the discovery of the Prothean ruins on Mars. I was looking at all the lore that exists and the timeline of events and that seemed to be a period with a rather sparse amount of information. It seemed to be they found the ruins, then suddenly had the Mass Effect technology, and no-one really knows what happened in the middle.
AR: So you took a section with no story so you could fill the gap?
CE: Exactly. I created a story within those events, and made a conflict that involved keeping the ruins out of the hands of these Red Sand marauders. According to some of the books and lore I researched, there were criminal Triads on Mars, so I moulded them more into a terrorist group that has their own section of the planet. I also made them addicted to Red Sand; it is a drug that exists with the Mass Effect universe that they inhale, which grants them temporary biotic abilities. This allowed us to have biotics in the film before the Mass Effect Relays had been discovered, although in a more savage, chaotic nature than the games.
PD: From my perspective, we looked at a lot of the Mass Effect fan films out there, and it seemed like nobody had ever tackled biotics with any great degree of success, so that was a fun visual effects challenge for us, and to make it a central part of the story was a very cool approach. As Caleb was developing the story, I was approaching it from a non-fan point of view, as I had never played any of the game. So while Caleb was making sure we stayed true to canon, I kept saying “Make it interesting for me,” because I did not know this universe.
AR: That’s quite interesting, as that is similar to what happened on the new Star Trek films. The director J.J.Abrams and one of the writers Alex Kurtzman did not consider themselves “trekkies,” while Kurtzman’s writing partner Bob Orci and producer Damon Lindelof were, so they were able to bring a balanced approach to a franchise with a large fan base.
PD: Exactly. The other thing we realised fairly early on was that we could make the stakes in our story pretty high; essentially we’re telling the story of how they find the Mass Effect Relay in our solar system. If our movie doesn’t happen, then entire Mass Effect universe does not happen. So what was nice about that was that we knew the outcome, but we didn’t know how we got there.
AR: Did BioWare know about the production at all before the trailer and website were released?
CE: In a way, yes, because there was a former student of UAT who is now a lead character artist at BioWare, and he spoke at the university during an event at called Tech Forum, where industry professionals come and give talks. So when he was here we reached out to him and asked if it was a good idea, and he seemed very positive; he said the company love it when fans of their games make fan films. I don’t think they officially knew that we were doing it, but unofficially…
PD: Well, I’m sure they know now, but they didn’t know beforehand.
AR: So you have yet to receive an official reaction from them?
PD: No, although the admins at the BioWare social network know about it, and they have asked us to keep them updated.
AR: So I have to ask, how did Mark Meer [the voice actor behind Commander Shepard] become involved with the project?
CE: We were trying to figure out who would be a good actor to play the main character, John Grissom. He is the only character in the film that is established in the Mass Effect lore. I used him so that fans of the film would have someone to relate to, but I also wanted to show a different side to him than what has been written. All the other characters are completely made up, and I had a fairly good idea of who I wanted to play them, but we had casting calls and readings for the role of Grissom, yet no-one seemed to inhabit the character the way I wanted them to. I remember saying to the rest of the cast “What if we asked the actor who voices Shepard?” So we looked up Mark on IMDB and immediately thought that he looked the part. From there we reached out to his agent, who asked for a script for Mark to read, and then after we sent that we heard back from Mark, who loved it. He has been behind us ever since he read the script.
AR: From the trailer and your production stills, you seem to have quite a high production value. Obviously you have the resources of the university, but have you had to look elsewhere for things like costumes and props?
PD: Yes, the main thing we outsourced was the costumes. We have a really great costume designer here in Phoenix named Nola Yergen. She had worked with us previously on a film that we made about the Iraq War, which was my Masters Thesis film which we shot last year. She is a great lady and a great person to work with; she is super creative and can make amazing costumes with no money. We brought her in really early and told her we had a serious need for great-looking costumes that look like Mass Effect but not exactly, they had to look more primitive than compared to what we see in the game because it is set decades earlier. She loved the sound of the project and saw it as a challenge, and she really came through for us on that.
CE: That was part of the creative freedom we had, was that we basically had to reverse engineer everything you see in the three games, to make it what we thought it would look like in the past, as Paul said a more primitive. That helped us a lot that it didn’t have to look exact, but we were not starting from scratch either.
PD: Props wise, the students and I did all the fabrications of the weaponry. So the guns were all Nerf guns and super-soakers that we kitbashed and out back together in different configurations, and then painted them to look essentially like an early version of the N7 arsenal. The other tool we have here is a 3D printer which can duplicate any of our models from 3D Studio Max or Maya. For example, some of our props, like the grenades Mark Meer’s character uses in the film or a piece of Prothean technology that is important in the film, were modelled in Maya then printed via the 3D printer. We still hade to dress them and paint them so they didn’t look like a piece of plastic, but that 3D printer is like our secret weapon.
AR: A secret you have now revealed to the world! So which filmmakers would you say most influence your work?
PD: For me, I’ve been a student of film for a long time so my influences run the gamut. As far as genre films go, like action and sci-fi, Ridley Scott would be my number one, with Chris Nolan a close second.
CE: For me, Nolan is also a big influence, but I would also say David Fincher as well.
AR: There has been a spate of video game adaptations in the last decade, but a few weeks ago I wrote an article suggesting with the success of Game of Thrones, the Mass Effect series may be better served as a TV show than as a film, given the scope of the world and sheer number of characters. Do you ever think we will see either a film or a TV show?
CE: I think we will see a movie before we see a TV show, but I am wary of how it is going to be made. It will probably be rushed and unless they get the right people, I’m afraid it will just be a shoddy version, like…
PD: Wing Commander? (Laughs) I don’t think anybody wants that.
CE: I don’t think anyone wants another Uwe Boll movie either.
AR: IMDB has it listed as in pre-production at Legendary Studios.
CE: It’s been in pre-production for a few years now, there’s not been any movement on it.
AR: So would you both describe yourself as gamers?
PD: Caleb is, I’m not. I’m a film professor; I don’t generally spend a lot of time on games. Occasionally I’ll play something like Ghost Recon with my sons to blow off steam, but I don’t have the time to dedicate to something as epic and immersive as Mass Effect.
AR: What do you think of this generation’s games becoming more cinematic and blurring the line between game and film, for example Uncharted, Mass Effect, and Assassin’s Creed ?
CE: Uncharted is a great example that I think a lot of companies need to pay attention to. The entire process of filming everything in a green screen studio, with the voice actors wearing motion tracker suits so you see the emotions in the characters in the game. Along with some excellent animation on top of this, and a great graphics engine, it really engrosses you within the game. And BioWare as well have stellar writing and amazing voice actors. They really know how to drive a story, and it is something they seem to do effortlessly, especially in their most recent titles. A lot of companies need to learn form that, I think a lot of game companies rush products or try to imitate successful games, but I think when people put in the creative energies to make an immersive world and story, it pays off in the end.
AR: Do you have any quirky anecdotes from making the film?
PD: Obviously having Mark Meer in the cast was pretty awesome, because he is just a great guy, just a genuinely amazing person to get to know, and super professional at what he does. When I picked him up from the airport, I warned him that he was going to a school full of avid gamers and so he should expect to be treated like a rock star. He was just cool and accepted it, but the guy couldn’t get through lunch without being mobbed by students. He was sitting in our cafeteria during a break, fully kitted out in his Grissom armour, with all these timid kids circling the room, wondering when the opportunity was going to arise for them to make eye contact with Mark, or go over and approach him. So one day he just stood up and gathered this swarm of fans around him. It reminded me of the end scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the little aliens come and grab Richard Dreyfuss . That’s what it was like! He was just standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by fans. And he looked over at me, and I was like, “I tried to warn you!”
AR: Caleb, you said earlier on that the class discussed other games before settling on Mass Effect. If for some reason you had not been able to do Red Sand, what other game would you have adapted?
CE: I really wanted to do one based on Bioshock, but I knew it was not very feasible. To do it properly we would have needed a lot of water shots; I knew we did not have the resources to do that, and I would not want to fake the water visual effects through glass. It would have been tough to justify that, because I felt it would have been something we would put a lot of effort into and it would still not work out. I love Half-Life, but I knew there was a couple of really great fan films based on that already out there, like Beyond Black Mesa. Those were the big two, but we also surveyed people from our school and asked them what we should do. A lot of people repeated Half-Life and Bioshock. Fable came up, which I thought was an interesting choice as it has no real lore, and the world is hardcore fantasy, which may have been fun to do, but I don’t like that universe. For me, Mass Effect was the only legitimate choice we had.
AR: It is a very good choice, not only for the existing lore you have been able to use, but also because of the huge fanbase that will be keen to see it.
CE: Yeah, definitely.
AR: So, once Red Sand is done and dusted, what are your plans?
CE: Well at the moment I have other projects I am working on, I’m currently editing on a web series here in Phoenix focused around UFC fighters that we hope will become a TV show. Some of the crew of Red Sand are helping me with that, and we will be doing that for a little while, but after that I have no idea.
PD: And as for the school, it will be up to an entire new class to try and top Red Sand!
AR: Do a decent Super Mario Bros. Film. If you can pull that off, everyone will love you.
PD: I dunno, hard to top Dennis Hopper as Bowser!
My thanks to both Paul and Caleb for taking the time out to take to me. They have just released a new kick-ass trailer on YouTube, while more information about the project can be found at the Red Sand website.