MEGAN: Award-winning Viral Fan Short Tests 8K RED Workflow
COW Library : RED Digital Cinema : Christine Bunish : MEGAN: Award-winning Viral Fan Short Tests 8K RED Workflow
It’s no exaggeration to say that the proof-of-concept film Megan is ambitious. The seven-minute short, designed by its creators to push the limits of advanced workflows using the RED DSMC2 camera and HELIUM 8K sensor, garnered its first million views within weeks of being posted on YouTube, with multiple film festival wins around the globe.
An homage to the “Cloverfield” franchise, the film was produced by Jean de Meuron, Giuseppe Mercadante and Olcun Tan, and conceived by de Meuron, directed by Greg Strasz, edited by Zimo Huang, and written by Mercadante and Strasz. The short tells the story of Megan Paulson, the estranged daughter of Howard Stambler (played by John Goodman) from 10 Cloverfield Lane. Accompanied by the elite Delta Force team, Megan investigates a mysterious attack in downtown Los Angeles after deep-sea drilling has unleashed the unknown.
Writer-Producer Giuseppe Marcadante with Megan's awards for Best Proof-of-Concept, Best Director, Best Cinematographer, and Best Editor at the Pitch To Screen Festival. Megan also won Best International Sci-Fi Short from the London International Short Film Festival.
De Meuron had read about J.J. Abrams’s desire to expand the “Cloverfield” universe and thought that prospect would be quite an opportunity for up-and-coming filmmakers to show their chops. He wrote an abstract and shared his draft with Mercadante and Strasz.
“I have been a great fan of the Cloverfield universe since the first movie came out and it wasn’t yet a franchise,” says Strasz. “The film itself was different from anything we had seen in the movies at that time. The marketing and ARG created by the filmmakers were so new and fresh, it drew me right in making me want to explore the world that they created. And now, in 2018, I still wanted to explore that world.
“We wondered what character could possibly carry their own story within the Cloverfield universe. It began almost like a game, and then Giuseppe brought up the idea of focusing on the character of Megan Paulson – the daughter of Howard Stambler. We started discussing who she is, and where she would be at the time when the events of 10 Cloverfield Lane took place.
Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz as Megan Paulson in Megan. (Click for larger, but please note: compressed for web viewing.)
“This conversation ultimately turned into a script for Megan. The project intended to stay true to the genre – a monster movie – while also having a unique creative perspective. We wanted Megan to fall squarely between Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, like a piece of jigsaw puzzle connecting the worlds created by these two fantastic films.”
The creative team behind Megan were already friends and had substantial professional credits. Mercadante has a background in sound and music and was VFX production coordinator on Independence Day: Resurgence. De Meuron was executive producer of the Academy Award-nominated short film, La Femme et le TGV and has worked with director Roland Emmerich and his Centropolis Entertainment. Strasz was VFX supervisor on Independence Day: Resurgence and has been in the VFX field for more than 17 years, seven of them with Centropolis. Cinematographer Markus Förderer, BVK, was DP on that same feature.
Since the Megan creative team does not have any copyright or IP to the Cloverfield franchise, they declared their short as a tribute film from the beginning. “It’s the first fan film for the Cloverfield universe,” De Meuron explains. “Our goal was to make a calling card for our talent, have it go viral, get a response that would give traction to our campaign, and make the feature film. We studied in-depth how other filmmakers made Star Trek and Portal fan films.”
At the start of the project, Mercadante and de Meuron were a duo, producing and fundraising. “Since it was just the two of us, we could move really fast,” Mercadante says. “A studio with a bureaucracy and lots of people in every department can slow down the machinery.”
Armed with a script and an impressive look book compiled by Strasz, the creatives began to pitch the project. By this point, Olcun Tan, co-founder of Gradient Effects, joined as a producer and helped with planning and executing postproduction and VFX. “An incredible list of state-of-the-art vendors wanted to support us,” Mercadante reports.
Ed note: Here's one page from the team's look book, which you can click to see larger. We were intrigued with the concept of a look book at this level of production -- not just pre-viz or collections of evocative images to guide designers, but something to engage some of the biggest names in Hollywood to donate time, equipment, and other resources to what was ultimately a fan film. We asked if we could see it for ourselves, and we were completely blown away. With our gratitude to the team behind Megan, we're happy to share it here with you. We hope you find it as inspiring as we did, and hope you take this idea and use it to make movies, make money, or both. lick here for a lo-res preview that will definitely get the point across.
Förderer got RED involved providing their RED Studios Hollywood facility and RED DSMC2 camera with the HELIUM 8K sensor.
Cinematographer Markus Förderer and RED DSMC2 camera with the HELIUM 8K sensor with Megan star Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz. Click for larger.
OverDrive LED panel technology was provided by PRG. Lenses and lighting equipment came from Keslow Camera and Digital Sputnik. Helinet supplied the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and Independent Studio Services the weapons and costumes in collaboration with Western Costume Co. and Demobaza. Dolby Laboratories offered their mix stages for a Dolby Atmos sound mix and Dolby Vision HDR color finishing.
PRG OverDrive LED Panel and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter. Click for larger.
Megan was shot in three days. “Greg was incredibly meticulous; he had a storyboard for every shot, he visualized everything, so we were super-efficient on the set,” says de Meuron.
The story opens with a sudden and unseen threat to beachgoers, cuts to Megan on board the Black Hawk with Delta Force and the mysterious Mr. Yoshida, the ensuing copter crash where Megan and Yoshida appear to be the only survivors, and the arrival of another mysterious man in the woods with a message.
“We knew it had to be structured like a trailer, where only the most impressive shots are created and used,” says de Meuron. “We planted certain references, like Megan’s drink, so people from the fan base know exactly what we’re doing. We hinted that this was a ‘Cloverfield’ tribute film when we posted it on YouTube, but fans did more digging into the storyline.”
One of the storyboards from Megan. Click for larger.
The production shot on the beach in Santa Monica and Venice, California, the Helinet hangar, the downtown Los Angeles River bed and RED Studios Hollywood. The opening beach scene, in which a Japanese boy plays with Godzilla-like monster toys, is a twin salute to classic Japanese monster movies and the story of Abrams’s son making a beeline for a Godzilla toy in a Tokyo store, thereby inspiring his father to make an American monster movie.
(Click for larger, but please note: image compressed for web viewing.)
“We were very, very low budget but every detail is there,” Mercadante emphasizes. “We found the only operational Black Hawk – it’s not a mock up. The Delta Force uniforms, how the military puts on a gas mask, how they hold a weapon – it’s all authentic.”
Förderer has used RED cameras to shoot most of his features, beginning with the RED ONE M-X. “I think each project has different requirements, but the RED camera system fits my style of shooting,” he says. “It is a very versatile camera, giving me as a cinematographer a wide range of options to shape the image. One of the benefits is the high-resolution sensor, which allows for multiple sensor formats to be mixed and matched within a project. Like spherical, anamorphic, VistaVision, Super 35, even down to 16mm-sized sensor modes.”
For Megan, Förderer shot 8K at 5:1 compression. He shot everything in RAW with simultaneous ProRes proxies for editing. The cinematographer used one LUT to apply a general image characteristic to the footage and selected Todd-AO anamorphic lenses plus Tokina 16-28mm and GL Optix 11-20mm lenses.
Förderer likes the smooth skin and detail in actors’ eyes that you can capture with an 8K image sensor. “That translates even down the line when you downsample the image for a 4K delivery,” he reports.
Instead of relying on bluescreen or greenscreen composites for the flying scenes inside the helicopter, Strasz opted for the still relatively new technique of on-set playback on an LED videowall provided by PRG. Förderer had previously shot drone footage along the Los Angeles river bed with a DJI Inspire 1 drone. “The real-time display of looped drone footage helped the actors to see exactly how the copter was going to crash,” explains Mercadante. “There were no reflections from the greenscreen on the actors’ skin, and we got the correct light effects, too.”
RED’s HELIUM 8K sensor proved to be an ideal match for the LED video playback. “I have quite a lot of experience shooting bluescreen but was never really satisfied with the resulting image,” Förderer notes. “There is always a mismatch in lighting the background and foreground elements.
“By contrast, the videowall creates a realistic environment for the actors and camera operators to compose a shot,” he continues. “The lighting looks very realistic, as the background is the main light source creating the correct contrast range and real reflections in the set. One of the biggest challenges with videowalls is the risk of moiré. The higher the pixel density on the recording sensor the smaller the risk for moiré. In our case, it allowed us to use a fairly small videowall close to the helicopter. The HELIUM sensor performed flawlessly in that environment.”
Strasz was aware of LED video playback technology and says, “I could not wait to put my hands on it. With the help of Markus, we were able to make a case for PRG to become our partner on this film, providing their OverDrive interactive LED lighting solution.” He echoes Förderer in describing the advantages to using the LED videowall and especially liked the ability of talent to interact with the backgrounds. “This is a new level of storytelling. For future projects, whenever possible, I will always recommend using the LED wall instead of green or bluescreens.” Förderer already used LED videowall playback on a larger scale for the upcoming series Nightflyers for Syfy.
Megan has more than 100 VFX shots, including the realistic Black Hawk crash whose mattes, rotoscoping and paint were performed by Mist VFX.
“Gradient Effects and their sister company Secret Lab also adapted the eerie haze of the Upside Down from Stranger Things to create raining spores in the alien hot zone that Megan finds herself in after the spectacular helicopter crash,” explains Strasz. “Houdini-driven spores were applied to the shots and tweaked so they would not obstruct actors’ faces or flow in the wrong direction.”
(Click for larger, but please note: compressed for web viewing)
Strasz gives kudos to Gradient Effects’ impressive infrastructure for handling the 8K workflow. This included a high-speed network, clustered storage and a core engine that engineers could upgrade and tweak whenever a new insight came into play.
The director and supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Peter Bawiec worked closely to achieve sound that matched the power of the images. “We started working on Megan soundscapes early on, and it was an easy and inspired collaboration,” he says. “Peter is all about figuring out what the sound story is; he wants to take the film to another level. For him, it’s never about the effects or gimmicks, it’s about evoking feelings and emotions in the audience. We mixed in Dolby Atmos which provides a new level of immersion.”
Förderer supervised the 4K color grading with Strasz in Gradient’s DI suite. “I always try to get as close as possible to the final look in camera,” says Förderer. “We did extensive testing and created a LUT so we could focus on refining in the look in grading with colorist Sean Rutledge (of Secret Lab) and not creating it.”
(Click for larger, but please note: compressed for web viewing)
“The phenomenal success of Megan has exceeded our expectations,” Mercadante admits. “We weren’t expecting all the love we got from the YouTube community; it’s been really amazing.”
“We thought we’d get 10,000 views, but the strength of any viral video is sharing and the snowball effect that you can’t control,” notes de Meuron. “The fan community in sci-fi, especially, is very protective of a beloved franchise. We took a big gamble on how they and J.J. Abrams might respond.”
As of today, the short has over 1.1M views, and recently won Best Proof of Concept, Best Director, Best Cinematographer and Best Editor at the 2018 Pitch To Screen Film Awards, as well as Best International Sci-Fi Short at the London International Short Film Festival.
Mercadante has begun adapting the short film into a feature-length screenplay and Greg Strasz has several other projects in development.
“We read that J.J. wants to expand on the first Cloverfield film with what he refers to as ‘blood relatives,’” says de Meuron. “But within the franchise you can approach stories from different angles and time frames – the possibilities are endless. It’s a very innovative franchise that goes beyond pure entertainment.”
The response of industry professionals to Megan also been greatly gratifying to the creative team. “It’s been really strong,” de Meuron reports. “Everybody is impressed with how we did it.”
Team MEGAN: Markus, Jean, Greg, Giuseppe
Strasz emphasizes that Megan was not done for financial reward, but rather as an endeavor by a group of friends about a franchise they all love. “I would recommend this experience to everyone, no matter where you are in your career,” he opines. “Find time to rally some friends, pick up a camera and do something crazy. Tell a short story just for the fun of it, shoot with a small crew on a beach or in the woods, wear multiple hats and, most of all, have fun doing it. Trust me, you will not regret the experience.”
[Ed note: Be sure to view this full screen!]
Megan poster from the London International Short Film Festival, where it won Best International Sci-Fi Short