Chronicle's Simon Hansen on cheap effects and the importance of DIY movie making

CNET Australia spoke to Simon Hansen, Visual Effects Supervisor on Chronicle, about clever effects tricks, working within your limits, and the importance of the DIY backyard-effects scene to the health of the big-budget movie industry.

Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
Seamus Byrne
7 min read

CNET Australia spoke to Simon Hansen, Visual Effects Supervisor on Chronicle, about clever effects tricks, working within your limits, and the importance of the DIY backyard-effects scene to the health of the big-budget movie industry.

The car crushing scene was achieved with a physical effect, rather than a digital one. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

Anyone who has seen Chronicle, the "found footage" super-powered teenagers movie, knows that the quality of the effects far outstrip the movies limited budget. From football while flying in the clouds to crushing cars with the power of the mind, Chronicle brings a reality to a fantasy, typically experienced through the high-gloss filter of a nine figure budget. So how do you deliver first rate creative on a shoestring budget? Simon Hansen provides some insight .

What is it about "found footage" style that is so engaging for viewers?

I think "found footage" gives the audience a reason to invest and believe the fantasy or horror of the story more. It makes the film more "real", in a sense, and so the experience is heightened. We are all too aware of the fact that films are styled and fake, so we have lost some of that suspension of disbelief. Storytelling depends on this.

Does this style make it easier or harder for an effects artist?

It makes it harder in most cases, because you can’t just cut away or use any other angle. You are constrained by rules, which inevitably force you into a corner where there is more work, longer takes, where seamless integration is required.

Chronicle is well noted as having been shot on a tight budget, but it doesn't look that way on the screen. From your perspective, how do you give a film the full-fat look on a skim budget?

This has been my life’s work. I live in South Africa. We have a tiny film industry and if you are lucky enough to make anything, it’s on a shoestring. So you have to innovate. I also wanted to be part of the industry I saw and loved in Hollywood films, which is really the reason I ended up using [visual effects] VFX.

My Dad was a computer scientist and really helped shape my view of a digital world from a young age, so I was aware of most of what is happening now, from the beginning. This is why I pursued an understanding of VFX, because, as a filmmaker in South Africa, they could be used to level the playing field. As a film maker, I spent a lot of my time figuring out how to cut corners, how to do things for less, without compromising. So when Josh [Trank, director], Adam [Schroeder, producer] and Jimmy [James Dodson, executive producer] offered me a film from Fox [Studios] that wanted to do just that, it was a real breakthrough for me. No one really cared about that stuff before and, finally, what my dad had spoken about is coming true. Now there’s a drive from film companies to make more of these types of films, and I am so glad I did what I did.

The way to cut the budget and keep things looking good, isn’t one thing. It goes to the heart of film making. You have to look at everything. When you turn everything on its head and shake every coin out of every jar, you inadvertently discover things. Like how you could approach the problem differently or whether you really need something in the film, at all!

I believe in this era of being able to do anything — so directors tend to do anything and everything that is technically possible, which, I believe, hurts their films — theses constraints are good for the creative process, and I am proud of Josh and Chronicle because I think the film got it right. Albeit, the budget is massive by the usual projects we make ourselves in South Africa, but this is precisely the point. We had enough to make a good film, but not enough to spoil it.

Chronicle is now available on Blu-ray.(Credit: Fox Home Entertainment)

Do you have a favourite effects in the film, where you achieved a lot within your limits?

The flying in the clouds scenes were relatively low cost, for what we achieved. For me, they were the best bang-for-the-buck effect. Nick Lauer built the rig I designed, for around $10,000, which could manipulate the flyer very efficiently and in ways that had not been done before. I would have liked to have spent more, but that’s the whole challenge — getting it in on budget.

Everyone in effects has a story about when they first played with a computer to make home movies: what's yours?

I started getting into digital in the early nineties. So the first stuff I did was in Photoshop, where I started doing set extensions. But before that, I had this Hi8 video camera that could scan a black and white matte, and use that to store an image it scanned from the sensor. I would trace mattes with a black pen, using "making of" books from [Industrial Light and Magic], and then scan those sets into the camera and shoot my little brother onto those plates. It was fun. But my first efforts in VFX and movies were more SFX [Special Effects, done without computers]. I made laser beams with smoke and mirrors, and spacecrafts on wires. I even made a working Indiana Jones whip that I could swing on. So digital was a great extension for my over-developed imagination, but it came much later. I would love to be a kid today, where you can literally play with digital like I played with Lego.

How important is that DIY backyard filmmaker scene to the wider health of creative movie making?

I think it’s essential. The establishment will always lose sight of why they do things, and re-invention is an essential part of the process if you want to stay on the edge. At the same time, developments can cause the establishment to drop good ideas for new ideas. Green screen, by way of example, ended a lot of other processes, which I feel could have had a longer life. Now the process has gotten good enough that it matters less, but there are still times where I would rather use a process plate system than green screen. For this reason, I am a firm believer in thinking your problem through, and always looking for the best way to do what you want. Sometimes, it will surprise you that an older or cheaper solution is aesthetically better; but if you don’t play around, you won’t know.

Do you have any tips for people who are playing with DIY effects and movies on their home computers?

Yes. Write, write, write. Then, shoot, shoot, shoot. Then start over. Keep playing and honing your craft, but you need to practice with writing and conceptual work more than technical, because this is the backbone of any storyteller's arsenal. Everything else should flow from that passion, and then all the technical knowledge should come to bare on the result. Writing and good ideas are the most underrated aspect of the business, and suspension of disbelief, which is what effects are all about, don’t begin with technical. They begin with narrative.

How can someone do a flying effect on the cheap? Or, do some effects just always demand serious attention, time or money?

You can absolutely do cheap flying effects. My favourite way to do this is the zero-gravity-feel flying approach, which you can use to make a space scene or make people fly, depending on how you do it and whether you key them out or not. Flying is all about friction. Friction is the enemy (except for wind of course). I used to play around with a small wooden board, with very good wheels on it, which I would place on a very smooth surface — usually a surface integrated into my spaceship set. Then, the flyer lies on the trolley, front or back, and pulls himself around the floor. You’ll need to do lots of sit ups to get fit for good shots, though. By clocking the camera and cheating the direction of gravity, you can get some excellent results. Remember, speed is all about wind, so if you want your flyer moving at speed, get the biggest fan you can. Or, if you live in Cape Town, simply film outdoors when the South Easter is blowing.

Do you have any favourite websites that budding movie makers should put on their bookmarks list?

YouTube has just about everything on it, if you know how to search. Vimeo has good artists. I use search engines mostly, because everything that interests me is more random. If you are into VFX software, then CGTALK and other CGI sites are good for sharing work and ideas.

Most of the people I know, that really succeed, tend to cut their own path, though. They watch movies that inspire them and then work things out for themselves, which I think breeds innovation and originality. If you know how someone else did it, you might not figure out the next best thing. And success in this business is all about the next big thing. The best thing to do as an inspiring filmmaker is to find people to work with. People who want to go where you are going and can fulfil other roles in whatever you are doing. No matter how small a film, it’s always a team effort.