Wednesday, April 22, 2015

PLUG - A Refreshing Take on Classic Sci-Fi

Imagine earth, in the perhaps not-so-distant future, now a lifeless desert wasteland and all humans have escaped the planet to find a new home.  After a nuclear holocaust, Robots are now the only inhabitants... except one young girl, left behind and forgotten; on a quest to find any remains of life.  If you haven't had a chance to watch the trailers and short film PLUG, David Levy's refreshingly grass-roots sci-fi concept production, then you are missing out.  Do you remember what it felt like to watch Star Wars for the first time?  I remember being captivated by the believable used universe of Star Wars.  It struck chords deep within my imagination because it was so consistent with my own extrapolation of reality.  It's the same with PLUG, thanks to the countless hours, over weekends and holidays, that Levy and his team spend converting sprinkler heads into laser blasters, and jet-skies into dune-buggies.  It's a return to raw ingenuity in film production and home-spun adventure.

Late in October, 2014, the PLUG short film premiered at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood.  There, Levy, his production team, and the cast shared about the 4-year-long process of making the trailers and short.  Interestingly, the trailers were filmed sequentially before filming the short, and served as a sandbox for production ideas.  Consequently, there's a natural flow in the story from trailer 1 to trailer 2 and then the 18 minute short.  Levy shared the initial idea that got the project rolling: "What if this bad-ass girl plugs in an old robot and it comes to life and starts attacking her!" A simple idea, but it grew as he brainstormed it with friends.  The story evolved into a complex post-apocalyptic adventure of a girl and her robot friend in search for human life; a story Levy felt he had to turn into a film.  The title of the production is both a nod to the original idea and an acronym for Political Logistic Unifying Genome, the film's villainous computer mastermind.
Production Design panel discussion at the PLUG World Premier,
Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Hollywood, CA
From the left: David Levy, Dylan Cole, Ben Procter, Alex Cunningham, and Lex Cassar

Comparing the hyper-realistic style of today's sci-fi with the more fantasy-dominated style of the 70's and 80's, Levy said he wanted to incorporate it all in the look and feel of PLUG.  But he specifically wanted that vintage Star Wars, 80's sci-fi style to dominate.  In the case of PLUG, the low budget necessitated an old-school style of modding cheap hardware and scrap into props, but actually worked to great effect in achieving that vintage sci-fi look.

Dylan Cole (Prometheus and Maleficent production designer, now on Avatar II with Levy ) commented on how his job at a big studio with a large budget is easy compared to what was done for PLUG.  But the downside of a big studio is complex bureaucracy; something the production team for PLUG never had to deal with.  Production designers Alex Cunningham and Lex Cassar (who also played Marker in PLUG) talked about how much freedom they enjoyed in the making of PLUG, "We had a lot of control, David [Levy] gave us a lot of trust!"  Levy's open-minded approach to the process, treating his actors and production team as collaborators and fellow artists, he believes led to a better production.  "At the end of the day we're all story tellers," said Cassar, in his appreciation of Levy's openness to input which enable him to contribute valuable elements to the story.

Buggy concept
David Levy
Cunningham and Cassar made two custom helmets from scratch for Marker and Ray, complete with blinking LEDs.  All the other helmets in the film were kit-bashed.  They recounted moments of frustration and joy as they learned molding/casting through a trial-and-error approach.  But perhaps the most infamous prop by far turned out to be the buggy.  Starting with an old dune buggy, the production team worked through the night, before their first day of filming, to complete the body work and paint.  The most characteristic features were scavenged from an old jet-ski; the bottom hull actually became the buggy's hood.  Though they completed the buggy in time, it caused hours of frustration throughout filming.  The buggy would suddenly stall and refuse to start, often during key action sequences.  "I hate that buggy!" said Levy, "I want the first scene of the next episode to be that buggy exploding!"
Robot concept art by David Levy
Robot concept art by David Levy
Robot concept art
by Alex Cunningham
Kit-bashed helmet
Closeup of helmet damage detailing
Marker's helmet concept
Marker's helmet concept
Alex Cunningham
Marker's helmet
Actual costume
Ray's helmet
Actual costume
Ray's helmet - Actual costume
The fans work, and were added
to make the helmet more
comfortable to wear during filming 

Some sequences were done with visual effects.  Levy did much of the work himself, even learning visual effects software with online how-to videos so he could complete certain sequences.    Probably the most exciting and visually striking sequence of the film is the Bashunter.  The range-of-motion testing, and final sequence were done by Ray Pena of Moontower VFX based on concepts by Cunningham and Levy.  Commenting on the final look of the Bashunter, Pena said, "I know David likes big clunky machines, so I focused on that."
Early Bashunter concepts by David Levy
Refined Bashunter concept sketch
Alex Cunningham
3D modeling of Bashunter
Alex Cunningham and David Levy
Still shot of Ray Pena's final Bashunter in the film
The 4-year production timeline has provided a unique perspective on how technology has progressed in entertainment.  When they started, their cameras and equipment were cutting edge, but things like GoPro didn't exist yet.  Now, Levy says he wants to incorporate the concept behind what people are watching on YouTube, like those elusive moments caught on a cellphone camera.  But looking back, the biggest thing Levy said he would change is sound.  "I would have spent a lot more on sound." he said, "Sound and music is 50% of the feeling of a movie."

As a concept artist and art director, Levy talked about how patience is the most valuable skill he's developed through making PLUG.  He talked about how he's gained much more insight into the process of film making; designing characters, props, directing actors, visual effects and editing.

PLUG is a pleasure to watch, and knowing the amount of creative effort behind it only makes it better.  What impresses me most is that a group of busy professionals, with limited time and resources, invested their best effort in a dream and made something amazing.  Clearly David Levy and his team love what they do, and the world of sci-fi is richer for it.  Last month, PLUG won the Media category of Script Pipeline's annual contest... So here's to the bright future of an awesome story from some really cool people!

Share what you think of PLUG!
Concept Art, David Levy, based on Lex Cassar Design

Lots more cool PLUG stuff here:

Official Website: Short Film, and trailers

Facebook Page

World Premiere Event 2014 - Gnomon

Note: all photos taken by Carl Erickson, 10/25/2014, used here with the permission of David Levy

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter!

A cartoon I did in my representation of the Bunny Suicides style by Andy Riley