How One Indie Filmmaker Completed a VFX-Heavy Feature Film in Six Years on $200,000
In filmmaker Carlos Ferrer’s new thriller, Retina, a young woman signs on for a medical study and winds up being injected with a microchip aimed at programming her for a terrorist attack. It’s a riveting story, but what’s really caught people’s attention is the fact that he made the movie mostly on his own, with help from a two-person crew.
Writing, directing, producing, editing, composing and post-production — including creating visual effects using Maxon Cinema 4D — Ferrer did it all for the 92-minute film over the course of six years and for $200,000 that he raised from friends, family and investors. He wasn’t out to prove something, and he isn’t a control freak. He just wanted to learn.
“I wanted to tell the story, but I also wanted to know what goes into every aspect of a film so as a director I’ll be better able to understand what everyone on the crew is doing,” he explains. “It helps to speak the same language. I don’t want to do their jobs for them, but I do want to be on the same page.”
Ferrer was 10 when he first picked up his family’s home video camera and started making movies for fun. By 14 he had made his first short film with a small crew. At 16, his first feature, Scallop Pond, a thriller that he wrote, shot, directed and edited won best student feature at the Long Island Film Festival in 2005. “I remember starting out by playing around with my younger brother, making short experimental videos, and I saw how magical it could be to use a camera to tell a story,” he recalls.
Dream sequences throughout the film appear in blue. Carlos Ferrer says he created this room entirely in C4D because “I wanted to create a place I had in my mind that I couldn’t find in real life.”
After earning a BFA in film from SUNY Purchase College in New York, Ferrer has been teaching himself other aspects of filmmaking, including 3D animation and VFX. The latter has been more challenging, but he says he continues to push himself because the relationship between a film’s director and VFX artists is so crucial.
“There seems to be a great divide between directors and VFX teams today,” he says, explaining that instructions are handed down through chains of people who, in many cases, don’t ever even meet each other. “Work takes longer, and there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. As a director, I want to be able to communicate with the VFX artists on set — not just for my sake but to allow the artists to shine and do their best work too.”
A Post 9/11 Experience
Ferrer grew up in New York City and was a kid at the time of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The fear and anxiety he experienced was part of what inspired him to make this film. “That day really affected me, and I wanted to tell a story on multiple levels that gets at that feeling I remember — that something could happen again,” he says.
Ferrer chose Lindsay Goranson to play the lead role after working with her on a short film he made in college.
Ferrer primarily used a Sony CineAlta HDW-F900R for Retina, but also used a Phantom HD for some super-slow-motion shots as well as a Nikon 7D for tight spaces.
Ferrer’s friends Joshua Jenks and Jared Goldman served as production assistants for the shoot, which took place at various locations around New York City. Lindsay Goranson leads the 15-person cast as the film’s protagonist, April Watson. Once everything was shot, Ferrer settled into a small studio in his dad’s apartment in Manhattan for the post-production phase. He knew it would take a while, but he never imagined spending six years on the project. “It was a very intense time to work on a film for that long, but I really believed in telling the story and learning all of these skills, so I kept working even though it was really hard and I even lost friends over it,” he says.
Ferrer used footage he shot of a New York City rooftop as a reference when modeling and texturing the film’s helicopter scene. Adobe After Effects was used for compositing.
To accomplish all that he needed to in post-production, Ferrer taught himself how to use Cinema 4D. He modeled everything in the film that wasn’t practically shot, with the exception of the helicopter and cars, which he purchased online and modified. The helicopter shot is one of the most impressive because the aerial vantage point is so convincing. But it was actually created in post.
“A lot of people have said they thought the shot where the helicopter hovers over the rooftop was real, so I take that as a huge compliment,” he says, adding that everything else was created in C4D and rendered with Chaos Group V-Ray. “I mostly used Cinema’s native renderer, but I chose V-Ray for this. It made that shot look more believable, since I was able to better match the look of the live-action footage from the scene.”
Big Effects on a Small Budget
As you’d expect from a film about large-scale terrorism, Retina is not short on fire, explosions and destruction. But the VFX far surpasses what you’d think one man on a budget could produce. The most challenging to pull off was the destruction of the Manhattan bridge. Ferrer wanted the disaster scene to be dramatic, but not the kind of exciting spectacle you see in superhero films. “In real life, disasters like this aren’t fun or exciting,” he says. “You’re not in awe. It’s terrifying. So I shortened all of the scenes to make them less of a spectacle.”
After modeling the bridge in C4D, Ferrer fractured it and used rigid body dynamics to make it fall apart and crash into the water.
To create the Manhattan Bridge scene, Ferrer started by shooting live-action footage and then painted out the center before bringing the footage into C4D to model the center of the bridge back in. Compositing was done in After Effects. (The Brooklyn Bridge can be seen in the background.)
The bridge’s cables were one of the hardest things to get right because as the bridge collapsed, they needed to fall apart. “I used Hair linked to splines inside of sweep objects with a bunch of constraints and spline dynamics, and I was able to create the effect of the cables flying around out of control as the bridge collapsed in the center,” he explains.
To capture the point of view of the drivers on the Manhattan Bridge, Ferrer and Jenks drove over the bridge repeatedly, waiting for a chance to shoot it empty of cars. Once it was, he shot footage from the passenger seat while his friend drove. Cars he purchased on TurboSquid were added in Cinema 4D and then animated. The explosion and flying debris were composited in later in After Effects.
Car models were purchased through TurboSquid.
Having to cut shots he worked so hard on was tough, but he figures it gave him a real taste of what it must be like to be a visual effects artist. “VFX companies work on complicated shots for months all the time and then have to cut them,” he says. “I really learned what it feels like to kill your darlings, and that’s probably a good thing.”
Retina has so far been screened in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as for marketers and others, and Ferrer is looking for a distributor. At the same time, he is already at work on another feature film, a fantasy going by the working title Zoey. A sci-fi short called "Sound of Obsession" is also in the works, and he’s already hearing from people who are interested in investing in future projects. “If I were making this same film today, it would take me much less time, even without a team,” he says. “But I’m excited to get back to working with a team again, especially with all that I’ve learned.”
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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