The democratization of VFX is now in full effect. Where once the creation of high-end visual effects took millions of dollars, hundreds of staff, and access to proprietary equipment, it now requires nothing but a laptop, a few free online tutorials, and a lot of imagination. Case in point: Convolv (a.k.a. Zach Zombek), a one-man effects house whose Vimeo Staff Pick AWAY is a tour de force of visual manipulation.
In the film’s climactic scene, a towering rocket launches into space, comes apart, and then arcs its way back to earth. It’s a stunning moment. Best of all, Zach had no idea what he was doing. “I tell people that 90 percent of what I know about visual effects came from making this movie,” he told us. “When I started, I knew pretty much nothing. I learned as I went.”
We asked Zach to break down the scene, his process, and the lessons he learned.
FS: So, starting from scratch, how do you create a realistic-looking rocket launch?
Zach Zombek: To be honest, when I first started working on this sequence, I had no idea. But the entire idea for the film came from this image I had of a man on a really high cliff overlooking the ocean, and behind him there’s a rocket ship. So I knew I had to figure it out somehow. Basically it took months of R&D, failed experiments, and a lot of learning to figure out ways to accomplish this. I ended up using a lot of practical effects, starting with the rocket ship itself.
I had two rocket models. The first one I painted myself, and it turned out horribly. So I built another rocket and had this one painted by a professional miniature-painting company. Once I had the rocket, I wanted to figure out a way to do all the shots very dynamically. For example, I wanted to figure out a way for the rocket to spin without anything being attached to it, which took a really long time, believe it or not.
How did you work that out?
I got a hot needle, poked a hole through the nose of the rocket, and let it cool off until the needle was attached. Then I attached the needle to a string, and that’s how I ended up getting the rocket to spin without anything interfering with the shot.
What was your setup like?
My setup was in a couple rooms of my house. I started off using Home Depot lights, but that didn’t work very well. I tried to use them to light the bottom of the rocket where the flames would be, but it ended up melting the bottom of the model. I had to do some really gnarly repairs. So then I decided to just use sunlight and LEDs since the heat… well, now I knew the heat could melt the ship. Most of the scenes ended up being shot with natural sunlight through the window. Then I used a blue screen because there are a lot of green elements on the model. I strung the model from a mic stand, and I shot it with my Panasonic GH3.
For the shots when the camera seems attached to the rocket, I hollowed out one of those foam roller things and attached the rocket to that so it would seem like the camera was mounted to the ship. I just went outside and spun it in the sun. I did a lot of weird stuff like that.
So all the background elements I added in post. I got the clouds from a few different places. I went storm chasing in Arizona and got a bunch of cloud assets from that. I went to Alaska to see the Northern Lights, and on the flight I captured a bunch of clouds. There was this one area that looked like the stratosphere, which is what I used for the wide shot with the rockets going above the mountains and stuff. That’s all Alaska. Basically all the above-the-cloud assets I got from that flight.
What about the other elements, like the fire and particles?
The particles are a mixture of smoke bombs we set off. We bought smoke grenades because I was trying to find a way to do this without having to do particle simulations in 3D software. So I set off smoke bombs, and that became the exhaust coming out of the rocket, all that billowy smoke. I built the fire elements in After Effects. Then the boca overlays, where the moisture is moving across the screen, that was me filming a pane of glass, putting water on it, and then using a leaf blower to blow the water particles off the glass.
When the ship is taking off, there’s some grass in the foreground.
That ended up being generated digitally, but I did a lot of R&D where I tried to shoot grass on a blue screen. I tried shooting grass when it was sunset and the background is completely black and the grass is really bright. I tried to create a matte. But none of it worked at all. Grass is just so dynamic and it’s really thin. So I ended up creating it in After Effects using the puppet tool.
What software did you use for this?
I used After Effects for all the compositing. Photoshop for the background plates and stitching photos together. A program called Terragen, which is a world-building software, to build some of the atmospheric cloud elements. And then when the escape pod departs the rocket, that’s when I started using Cinema 4D. But I don’t remember the model I used for that. I think half of it was custom, and half of it was a bunch of different models put together. I think part of it is the Star Wars escape pod from A New Hope. And, another Easter egg, those seagulls you see in the wide shot when the rocket gets revealed? They’re actually dragons from Game of Thrones. It was pre-animated with wings and stuff, so I was like, “Oh, I’ll just use that.” They’re so small, you can’t tell.
How long did the sequence take to put together?
About six months total, but that’s because I spent a lot of time learning, doing R&D, doing tests, researching online. I tell people that 90 percent of what I know about visual effects came from making this movie. When I started, I knew pretty much nothing. I learned as I went.
What were the hard costs?
Zach: A rocket ship model and some smoke bombs.
Thanks to everyone for joining in the conversation, and congrats to Aaron Gerhart and Levente Safrany for being our winners!