Before directing Phoenix Forgotten, I started out my career as a graphics guy, doing titles and animation with Adobe After Effects and later stepping up to more advanced digital effects.
All that time spent in front of the computer has, conversely, made me really appreciate old-school practical effects.
With this movie, I wanted to do as much as possible in-camera—although in the end, I needed all the tools at my disposal to pull it off, including my Wacom tablet. Ultimately I think the sound of the film is what makes it scary, but as my background is in the visual realm, here is a run-down of some of the ways we made a small UFO movie feel big. Phoenix Forgotten was a small movie and we needed practical ways to make cool UFO shots that didn’t rely on large teams of digital artists—the way they used to do it.
Rigging an Anti-Gravity Set
I definitely stole some ideas from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In Spielberg’s movie, there’s that great scene where the UFO flies over Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) truck and all the loose material in the cab shoots up to the ceiling as if gravity is being affected. In reality, the camera was mounted to the truck, and the truck itself was rolling. On Phoenix Forgotten, we used the same gag but in a different setting: At the end of our movie (spoiler), our main character Josh is pursued by a UFO and takes refuge in an abandoned trailer home. There’s a moment where water starts to pour out of a bathroom sink, at first downward with gravity, then it slowly reverses direction—the dingy water crawling up the wall in front of us.
My producer Tom Moran from Scott Free introduced me to a guy named Joe Pancake and his team JEM FX. They took pity on us, and helped us make a bunch of cool stuff for the movie. For the Dreyfuss anti-gravity gag, Pancake’s team built a small bathroom set inside what they called a Rotisserie Rig. Basically it’s two metal hoops with some horizontal struts, set up on rollers.
In planning this shot, and the larger sequence, I made my own animatic in a program called Modo. I was able to dial-in my framing to the lens, and extrapolate how big the constructed set needed to be. My DP Jay Keitel was strapped into the bathroom while hand-holding the camera. Pancake and his team were able to run real water into the sink. They rigged lightbulbs to explode and at some point during the take somebody banged the back of the mirror with a hammer and shattered it.
To roll the set, they tied it to a forklift. During the take, somebody was just driving that thing forward across the stage, pulling the rig to turn it. This was a very fun day at work.
After this moment in the movie, Josh runs out into the living room of the trailer home where everything else is blowing up. The windows of the trailer were covered up with cellophane, so that it looked like glass. Then from outside, small bits of plastic were blown in, giving the appearance that the glass of the windows was breaking violently. We shot the material in from what they called air movers, which are basically industrial-grade reverse vacuum cleaners. The FX team was careful to aim them up into the set from below, as to not hit my cameraman in the face. There were other little practical gags throughout the movie, applying the same principles, but this rotating set was definitely an awesome thing to check off my cinematic bucket list.
No Animals Were Harmed During the Making of This Film—But They Were Stuffed
I had three key partners for the digital effects in the movie: Territory Studio in the U.K. duplicated some dead coyotes for me, and Synaptic VFX here in Los Angeles made my Petroglyphs. For the dead coyotes, we found what are referred to as “loose mount” animal props. These are taxidermied animals, but in non-rigid positions. You can drape them on the ground as you would a lifeless corpse. Usually these are rental items, but we needed to disfigure the little guys. So we bought two and then basically just blow-torched them. (Another fun day on set.)
Assembling Long Takes From Smaller Parts
Shawn Anderson, an independent digital artist, helped me with a lot of seamless work. Much of Phoenix Forgotten takes place at nighttime, in an area of the desert that is completely desolate. In reality, it’s hard to find places to shoot where there aren’t city lights of some kind visible in the background. These points of light made it into many shots, and Shawn was kind enough to paint them out for me.
We also did a lot of take-blending. There are handheld scenes in the final edit that unfold as single, long takes. In some cases, we blocked whip-pans into the scene as we were shooting—a way of giving us masked cut-points. Some of this blending was achieved with simple edits, but in other cases, we used more elaborate After Effects paint and roto techniques to Frankenstein scenes together.
Aging the Analog Way
Phoenix spans 20 years—sometimes we see characters in 1997, and then also we see these same characters in 2017. We couldn’t afford to use Benjamin Button-type digital toys. We had to rely on old-school Citizen Kane-style aging techniques.
When we first see Josh’s dad, played by Clint Jordan, in the film in 1997, his hair is short and he’s clean-shaven. He’s also slim, closer to Clint’s actual physique. For the modern-day scenes, we had him grow his hair out and asked him not to shave. We also put a fake belly on him, and beyond these superficial adjustments Clint tailored his gait and his dialogue to that of an older man. In our story, Josh’s disappearance shatters the family. In 2017, I wanted Josh’s dad to feel like a beat-up version of the happier guy we met 20 years ago.
We also did some subtle things with color correction. We made the skin tones of the parents in modern day a little paler than normal, and knocked back the color of the moms’ hair. I also shot them all from pretty unflattering angles—sorry moms!
Taking Stock in Tape Stock
All the modern-day footage is meant to feel like a contemporary, cinematic documentary. This was shot on a Red camera. All the ’90s material was shot on a smaller HD camcorder, but then for the final look we washed all that footage through a real VHS deck. We literally laid it to tape, copied it to another tape, re-ingested it back into our edit. I looked at a lot of different ways to filter footage to make it look like it originated on ’90s tape stock, nothing really felt as good to me as the real deal. (And in the end it was cheaper and faster.) Early in the process, I did explore the possibility of shooting the period scenes on actual period camcorders. I did find a number of working cameras on eBay, but tape stock itself was very tricky to get ahold of and this approach just didn’t prove feasible.
Recreating the Phoenix Lights
A key early scene in the movie is when Josh films the iconic Phoenix Lights sighting. For a couple of different reasons, we recreated these lights in the sky from scratch with After Effects. We needed more control of the timing, given how I wanted my characters to interact during the event. But also, when you look at the actual footage of the real Phoenix Lights… to me, they actually do look like military flares.
The official explanation of the Phoenix Lights is that they were illumination flares dropped from a couple A-10 Warthog aircraft on a training run. When you see the footage on TV documentaries, it’s usually edited in a way that makes it look like this big V-shaped craft that hovers over downtown Phoenix.
But having studied the actual event, and having looked at the naked footage outside of edited news packages, I lean toward thinking these are in fact military flares. So, part of the reason I recreated the sighting is so I could make it a little more UFO-ish. In our scene, what intrigues the characters is how the formation appears, and then seems to bank as if the lights are all connected to one structure.
The sighting was more or less animated from scratch, but I did photograph actual light sources—distant points of light on the side of a mountain—to use as the elements in the composite. So everything you see is a real light, flickering as it would in a camcorder frame, although moving freely within my animation.
Ultimately, that’s the key with any digital effect: Whenever possible, start with or try to integrate actual photographed elements. Have one foot in the real world, the other in the computer and hope the viewer doesn’t sense the boundary. MM
Phoenix Forgotten opened in theaters April 21, 2017, courtesy of Cinelou Films.