Monsters of Man is the feature debut of Mark Toia, a long time senior TVC director who decided to bypass the whole studio system and self-produce his own action feature film. The film centres around the dangers of sophisticated AI robotics used for military applications when a corrupt CIA agent (Neal McDonough – Minority Report, Captain America and Altered Carbon) conspires with a robotics company to field test highly advanced prototype robots with the aim of winning a lucrative military contract. In the film, their plan is to drop the robots into the infamous Golden Triangle to test their battle skills on unsuspecting armed drug cartels that no one will miss. The illegal mission is a disaster; haywire robots slaughter an entire village of innocent people.
Toia delivers high-end storytelling and capturing strong performances, with complex visual effects. The Toia bid out the visual effects through normal paths, having done decades of high-end, big budget visual effects rich TVC work, for clients such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Toshiba, and Yamaha, but in the end, he decided to run the entire VFX crew directly. Individually sourcing artists from around the world, Toia did all the visual effects work remotely with handpicked artists. While Toia commented that he would have happily used a major effects house if he had a huge budget for the film, as he was self-financing, Toia estimates that he saved millions by working this way.
Toia has always been very hands-on, and as such he has forged strong links to both the Apple and RED camera community. He has a suite of state of the art computers, monitors, as well as massive amounts of film kit, and some eight RED cameras (mainly RED Monstro 8K Cameras). “We were shooting Monsters of Men on three Red Dragons, the 6K dragons – and then I had the very first Red Helium (8K),” he recalls. Toia is as comfortable picking up a camera as he is doing his own edit or After Effects shots, although juggling this project and maintaining his worldwide TVC commitments was not easy. Toia was hands-on at every level and even mastered his own DCP master for the premiere in Australia last week. He used the open-source software DCP 0 Matic, commenting that “making my own DCP was better than the one I paid for. On the IMAX screen with the 4K projector, it was literally exactly the same as what I see in P3 on my Apple monitors, – almost exactly the same. I was so impressed with the image when I had a professional DCP done, it was crushed and dark by comparison.”
Toia is also a huge advocate of the Frame.io software. The professional industry collaboration tool allowed the director to both review and work on shots from his film while he traveled. He would often find himself in a hotel room in a remote location working successfully with just his MacBook Pro, thanks to the collaborative structure he had built up around Frame.io. Raoul Teague helped co-ordinate all the visual effects work; he set up all the clips and clip names & numbers in FCP Pro, gathered all the plates and elements for the artists, and supervised with Toia the work as it came in. “We had bins set up in Frame.io – so all the roto work goes there, all the tracking goes in there, and animation in there, etc,” Toia explains. “So each artist only had what they needed.” In addition to using Frame.io to allocate work, Toia found himself reviewing shots via Frame.io and its automatic Quicktime generator, all over the world. “Frame.io literally saved us so much time,” he comments. “It was funny being able to see comps come through on my iPad, on my iPhone or laptop anywhere. I remember quite vividly in Indonesia in Jakarta review a shot that was getting worked on in Sweden. Frame.io sent me a little notification and I looked at it and went, ‘Oh, that’s awesome animation’, I’d hit the green approved button. Plus – when my team back home saw the approved button, they would pay them, it is such a nice simple system.” Once any shot was approved it would move to the next bin or folder and then go right into the edit of the film to be watched in context.
Teague, in addition to VFX supervising, did the primary setups for the lighting and compositing. Onset Toia decided to shoot in the jungle with mainly natural light. This meant that the robots needed to be lit very naturally, but as the team was working so quickly, there was no technical HDRs taken for each robot VFX shot. Instead, the team shot an approximate HDR, with a 16mm lens on the Red for a wide view of the setup. The team actually matched the lighting it in post, often finding approximate solutions that seem to work perfectly well. The 3D tracking software would provide a lens solution that could be checked against the MetaData from the Red Camera. Instead of technical HDRs, Teague found a set of ambient HDRs online created in a similar jungle setting. “He found some HDRs, which were literally the same as ours, and they were free off the internet, so we just used those,” he explained. “We didn’t use any lights on set on purpose. We just wanted to use the natural ambiance”. The Robots were animated in Maya and rendered in RedShift. In addition to using off the shelf HDR skydomes, the lighting artists would add gobo/dapalled light over the robots. “If the robot was walking through the forest, we would just create gobos, in our lighting rig in Maya, and just put a sun in the right spot to match the stand-in actor,” he adds.
Toia was very impressed with RedShift as a renderer. “That’s what saved our arses,” he explained. “We were getting the renders down really fast, in 4k renders and really good. Our renders were combined, we didn’t do matte pass and you know, a whole bunch of passes. Instead of doing, 10 or 15 passes of different lights and occlusion passes, I said to the guys, ‘Let’s just get this robot and all the lighting on the robot, right it in the render’.” Toia was extremely pleased with the quality and latitude of the 32-bit file renders from RedShift. “They were awesome straight up. The OpenEXR when we dropped it into our comp, it was almost done, all we had to do was match grade color, noise, and blur.”
The comp was done in both the Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe After Effects. The film was edited in FCP Pro and graded in da Vinci, with the film being mastered in 4K, with some additional grading, or ‘fussing’ as Toia calls it, back in FCP. When looking back on the project the only thing that Toia thinks he would have done differently in terms of post was shooting more clean plates or rather clearing the frame. “I didn’t probably shoot enough backplates for our robots,” he comments. “I didn’t give our guys that were doing the clean-up work enough decent background plates. We should have just run the camera longer when they finished acted, you know, when the actor being the robot was done, I should’ve just said, ‘jump out and just kept the camera rolling’. Rather than shooting another take, if I just left the tape rolling, then I knew it would have had that shot and it would have been easier for us to gather that info of that shot, as it was the end of the same take.”
Toia has not modified his TVC workflow based on his experiences, but he did ask himself the question. Toia extolls the virtual of doing meaningful post-mortems on his professional jobs. ” I debrief myself all the time. Right after each job go. Where did we make a mistake there? Where can we do better?” He says right after he finished Monsters of Man he took a long look at the process and concluded that if he did this again he would have, “brought along a proper dedicated key-grip, to help us in certain things. But from a post perspective, I think with the tools we had when we started, – two or three years ago – to do this movie, I think we did exceptionally well and we literally saved $2 or $3 million doing it this way.”
Mark Toia is a valued time friend of this site. Long time readers of fxguide and fxphd will recall that our team joined Toia in Brisbane and first introduced Mark to the original RED camera, and the VFXSHOW’s own Jason Diamond, not only helped with the film in NY, but appears in a cameo, in the film. The film was also graded by Warren Eagles, who has been a long term fxphd.com contributor.