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July 2014
Issue: June 1, 2006

INDEPENDENTS SAY: PREHYSTERICS IN HIGH DEF

By: Ken McGorry

LOS ANGELES - With 35 years in the business, Scott Billups is both a proselytizer and practitioner of innovation in digital filmmaking. A true believer, he writes articles and books about his passion - and he personally ushers the digital pictures he works on from acquisition to screen by providing the increasingly valuable one-two punch of both DP and VFX services.

Now, most DPs don’t have the time to sit and fuss over pixels. Once they wrap principal photography, it behooves them to move on to the next gig. But Billups works fast and likes to acquire raw digits and get right to work on them; and that is proving to be the new wave in production. He may shoot three films a year as DP, but his VFX company, PixelMonger (www.pixelmonger.com), works year-round on many Hollywood films, sometimes as subcontractors.

“We do a lot of salvage work,” he says.

Additionally, Billups has years of experience in VFX cinematography (he did Barb Wire 10 years ago!) and that places him squarely in the vortex where shooting and effects meet more than ever today.

“That’s where the post budget always falls apart,” Billups says, “because everything’s always shot incorrectly. If you shoot it correctly in the first place, you save so much money. And more important than the money is time!” Billups shot the caveman comedy Homo Erectus with a Sony F-900 HDCAM and, for pickup and second-camera scenes, the Canon XL H1. He’s a big tester of cameras and a fan of side-by-side comparisons, including one he conducted in Las Vegas during NAB using nearly all the digital film cameras available.

PRIMATIVE HUMOR

Also at NAB was a company closely aligned with Canon and Homo Erectus - Wafian (www.wafian.com) and its direct-to-disk HD-SDI recorder, the HR-1, which ingested XL H1 Erectus footage on location. Homo Erectus, starring and written and directed by Adam Rifkin, involves lots of physical humor and many sight gags. Billups compares it to an “early Woody Allen movie” in which the lead caveman is trying to get his tribe to evolve. Action includes a comical confrontation with a prehistoric Amazon tribe - Carol Alt and the gals from A&E’s Rollergirls clad in Raquel Welch-style cavewear.

Billups likes shooting in HD with Sony’s F-900 and with Grass Valley’s Viper, but he says he especially appreciates the Canon’s full external matrix control that allows him to match exactly the XL H1’s look with that of the principal camera on a shoot: “You’re really hard pressed to tell the difference. If I need a B-camera out there, then that’s the camera to go for.” He also envisions the XL H1 seeing a lot of use as the principal camera on independent films that do not rely on effects.

THERE'S GOLD IN VFX

Billups loves to shoot but allows that, for PixelMonger, the profitability lies in visual effects. One Homo Erectus hero shot features the men (are they not men?) being pursued by a giant, photoreal wooly mammoth. The CG mammoth is being created in Maya by Pierre de Lespinois, who directed Alien Planet and Before We Ruled the Earth (which also features a mammoth) for Discovery. Billups’s wife, Minky, is comping the mammoth into scenes, including the background of an existing shot of cavemen, using After Effects. She is a specialist in intricate wire removal as well as compositing and design, and is expert on everything from Inferno to Flash.

Another shot has “a couple hundred people” chasing Rifkin’s lead character with crowd replication courtesy of PixelMonger. PixelMonger’s own creature work leans toward After Effects gags like prehistoric butterflies and frogs baring their saber-tooth-style fangs. Billups worked with four After Effects artists on Erectus. When PixelMonger works with another VFX house, like one that uses Shake, PixelMonger can switch to Shake as well. “Every [program] has its reason for existence,” Billups says, “they’re all good at this stage in the game.”