Rainfall Films and Producer Adi Shankar Have a New Take on the Marvel Villain

For many Spider-Man fans, the most intriguing character in Spider-Man 3 was Venom, the extra-terrestrial monster into which photographer Eddie Brock is transformed. Attendees at this year’s Comic-Con got another taste of Venom: this time, in the form of a highly stylized short film that added a unique twist to the Brock/Venom saga.

Rainfall Films and movie producer Adi Shankar’s company, 1984 Private Defense Contractors, worked together to create the 17-minute film, "Truth in Journalism," as a Comic-Con showpiece, knowing that the subject and participants (director Joe Lynch and True Blood actor Ryan Kwanten, who plays journalist Eddie Brock) would garner attention. Made using a mixture of old and new technology, including Maxon Cinema 4D, a 4K Red digital camera, and 16mm film, the short has been widely praised and racked up hundreds of thousands of hits online.

Rainfall Film’s producer Sam Balcomb says he had already worked with Lynch on a handful of music videos when the director approached him again with an idea for a top-secret project. “He asked if I was familiar with Venom from Marvel Comics,” recalls Balcomb. Lynch said he had an idea to do a short film on Venom, but that it would be an homage to the 1992 cult film Man Bites Dog, a faux-documentary murder mystery in grainy black-and-white. Balcomb liked Lynch’s approach to the character and signed on.

While Shankar’s company handled a lot of the shooting and production, Balcomb helped co-produce, with Rainfall Films providing post-production and effects. Though the setting was New York City, the film was shot just outside of downtown Los Angeles, and even though the look was intentionally that of grainy, 16mm film, everything was shot with a Red camera in full 4K resolution. “That way, says Balcomb, “we had a lot of information to play with, and it was easy for us to track everything.

Lynch used Man Bites Dog as a starting point for the film’s look and camera style, right down to the “crappy, VHS subtitle look that was really aliased,” Balcomb recalls. “There’s even a scene at the end where the boom mic falls to the ground and you hear screaming in the background. He wanted to keep it very cinéma vérité.”

Venom Comes to Life
Spoiler alert: At the end of the film, when Venom makes his appearance and mayhem ensues, it’s clear that the character is a combination of non-computer generated effects and CG. Robert Pendergraft, of the makeup effects house Aunt Dolly’s Garage, built the suit worn by Kwanten. The rest of Venom’s appearance was left up to the Rainfall team, who ended up having only two weeks for post-production after it was announced that the film would be premiering at Comic-Con. 

After looking at a variety of representations of Venon over the years, they opted to use the work of artist Todd McFarlane as inspiration. “The ones we liked the most were from when he was the most bulky and monstrous,” says Balcomb. “That way, there would really be a difference between Kwanten’s Eddie Brock character and Venom since Ryan Kwanten is a fit dude, but he’s not big and bulky.”

Though the team originally planned to add CG elements to Kwanten’s mask, they eventually decided to go with a head that was entirely CG. “Ryan was covered in this full-body suit and he had a static face mask with no eyes or mouth, just the rough shape," Balcomb explains. “In post-production, we motion-tracked him and added on the eyes and tentacles and mouth movements.” Rainfall artist Matt Oldfield used Cinema 4D to model, rig and animate the CG Venom’s head, including his otherworldly teeth and tongue. Compositing was done in After Effects by Rainfall’s Jason Schaefer and Nick Viola.

To give the finished film its distressed look, Rainfall shot 16mm test footage that was used as an overlay. The filmmakers didn’t want to use grain or noise filters for the 16mm look, according to Balcomb, since such devices can be easily spotted by the trained eye. “There was a lot of discussion about this in pre-production,” says Balcomb. “Our solution was to shoot real film stock against various solid backgrounds, ranging in brightness, plus some light leaks. This gave us a wide range of grain appearance appropriate for each scene.” 

That wasn’t the only low-tech solution Balcomb and his team employed successfully for their high-tech film. Those familiar with Venom know that the character is really a parasitic, alien symbiote that must have a host (usually human) to take shape. 

In order to become Venom, Kwanten’s character first had to vomit up the gooey, black symbiote inside of him in order to merge with it externally and attack. To create that substance, Rainfall concocted a mixture of maple syrup, soy sauce and flour, which “smelled amazing,” Balcomb recalls, adding that the forceful regurgitation was achieved by filming the mixture being dumped onto a tarp in his backyard. Later, the footage was composited into an existing scene.

Getting the Tendrils Right
Though Venom’s tendrils were conceived of as a fluid animation, Rainfall opted to use C4D’s spline animation tools instead. Artists used several spline deformations to create the tendrils and make them move in a realistic way. “We had target points in Cinema that the tendrils had to hit so it could be accurate,” he explains. Various Noise deformers kept the tendrils moving and squirming around in an erratic way, so the team only had to hand-animate where the tendrils were going and the deformer took care of the rest. 

Balcomb’s team was originally going to use fluid simulation to animate Venom’s tendrils, but when the project’s post-production timeline had to be moved up to make the Comic-Con screening, a quicker solution was needed. 

“The Cinema 4D Mograph effector called Random let us use a turbulent noise field to affect spline node points, essentially giving the splines a life of their own, but still letting us control where they were going,” recalled Balcomb. “In addition, the object’s texture used an animated sub-poly displacement map to make it pulse and squish around in an organic way.”

All in all, Balcomb says that making the film was great fun. He said his team especially enjoyed having the change to work on a story about a character a lot of people love, but believe hasn’t been done right. Now, Balcomb and Lynch are getting praise from film lovers and Marvel fans. “When it came out, I was really blown away by the response to this incarnation of Venom,” says Balcomb. “People really dissected the film, since there’s a lot of little Easter eggs in there for fans of the Marvel universe. I don’t think anyone expected this kind of interpretation of the Eddie Brock character, but it was cool to see how many people were drawn to it.”

Dan Heilman is a St. Paul-based writer and editor.