As a VFX supervisor who has owned my own shop, Artifex Studios, for over 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on some incredible projects. I began my time in the industry “on the box,” gradually moving into the roles of VFX supervisor and producer. As I spent more time on-set working with and learning from directors, writers and producers, I developed a love for all aspects of filmmaking.
A few years ago, the idea of writing and directing my own projects began to take root; I had a desire to be much more intimately involved in the creation process and wanted to help give Artifex a chance to show its stuff in ways we hadn’t been able to in the past. Such projects could serve as a platform for my continuing creative growth, while incorporating and showcasing Artifex’s talents. It could also provide a window into the processes other colleagues worked through every day, allowing me to step out of my VFX shoes and better understand the roles played by others in bringing a film to life.
Our first effort was a short film called The Adept. We shot in early 2015, production went well, and I’m thankful to have had a gracious cast and crew that helped me step into this new role (and more than once gently guided me away from making a complete mess of things). Post was a remarkably seamless process — something I had always hoped it could be. I was able to put to use what I had learned on all manner of shows, the good and not-so-good, the easy and the difficult — and we moved through editorial, VFX, sound, music, final grade and conform with no hiccups. It was exciting to use all the new tools at our disposal, taking advantage of efficiencies and technologies I had wanted to try for some time, but that were always difficult to roll out in more traditional, somewhat-entrenched post workflows.
We released The Adept a couple of months later. Premiering at Sci-Fi London, it went on to have a terrific festival run, playing around the world and winning a number of awards. It wasn’t extremely VFX-heavy, as this time out my goal was to concentrate on story and working with actors, keeping things smaller in order to not over-reach out of the gate.
With The Adept under my belt, I was excited to tackle the next project. I felt I had gained confidence as a director, while getting a good sense of where I needed to improve and what I needed to focus on. I was also anxious to see how much we could push things on the VFX front, creating an even bigger showcase for Artifex.
I had been tossing around an idea for a few years — the story of the first faster-than-light space flight. It could be told primarily from the perspective of the pilot and the team at Mission Control.
While production felt like a manageable challenge, post would be a much different beast. We knew we could easily climb into triple-digit VFX shot counts, including a number of completely-CG sequences. But armed with the confidence from having completed one project, I pushed ahead with our new one, entitled FTL.
While The Adept was designed as a two-hander, utilizing the skills of actors Adam Reid and Jennifer Spence to tell a small story in one small location (albeit with large ramifications!),
FTL was a beast of a different nature. We shot on a small stage for two days, first capturing our Mission Control scenes followed by our interior cockpit sequences. The Mission Control set was comprised entirely of a green screen and several folding tables, while Artifex artists did double-duty as NASA extras, and the wonderful Karin Konoval, as Flight, worked with our one other actor on the day, the terrific Ronald Patrick Thompson as NavCom. Day 2 was entirely centered on our pilot, played by Ty Olsson, who delivered a fantastic performance while sitting on a beat-up, rented flight chair surrounded by a plywood control system built by producer Todd Giroux in his garage, then covered in green (for later interface work).
While still gaining experience as a director, I needed to use all my previous VFX knowledge to work out technical issues on the fly and keep the day running smoothly, to know what we could get away with and what we couldn’t. It was a huge challenge, but I loved being on-set and working with such an amazing group of people, including our cinematographer Stirling Bancroft, who embraced our guerilla-with-big-budget-look aspirations.
After completing our stage work, we shot for one more day on-location and wrapped production, jumping straight into our three-month post schedule. Working with producer Sara Irvine-Erickson and producer/post-producer Todd Giroux, we enlisted the help of the brilliant teams at Sharpe Sound and Encore Vancouver to work alongside Artifex. Three months later, we screened our 2K DCP for cast and crew, including a beautifully designed and mixed 5.1 soundscape and over 130 VFX shots. We were ready to show our film to audiences.
FTL screened at festivals around the world in 2017. Called “a breathtakingly emotional space ride with dazzling effects and true heart” by Starburst Magazine, the film won multiple awards, including “Best Drama” at the Toronto Shorts International Film Festival, “Best Sci-Fi Film” at Roswell, “Best Sci-Fi Action Film” at the Berlin Sci-Fi Film Festival, awards for its VFX work, performances and score, and many more. It has received over two million views online and I am currently developing it further alongside several other projects, while planning on directing my first feature shortly — knowing I have an amazing VFX house ready to tackle the work with confidence.
The experience directing my own films has significantly deepened my understanding of the entire filmmaking process, provided broader insight into managing the many moving parts of production, and, I believe, made me a better communicator. I’m looking forward to telling stories for years to come.
I encourage other VFX pros to take the plunge, expand your horizons and show potential clients or employers what you can do before you’re asked to do it. Creators live to create.
Adam Stern is the founder of Vancouver, British Columbia’s Artifex (www.artifexstudios.com). The studio’s main goal is to heighten the VFX experience, both artistically and technically, and collaborate globally with filmmakers to tell great stories.