How these amazing Hollywood-level VFX were created for a low budget film

Director Steve Gomez explains how the VFX was created for his upcoming and astonishingly low-budget sci-fi thriller.

Taking on the expensive dazzle of Hollywood with his humble allowance is visual effects guru - and close friend of Gareth Edwards (Monsters) - Steve Gomez. Steve has worked on the visual effects of projects including Mermaids: The Body Found, but Kill Command is his directorial debut.

We catch up with Steve to find out the (many) challenges of making such an impressive-looking film on a titchy budget, how he developed his ideas and how the team created such creepy robots.

Mimi Launder: How did you come up with Kill Command’s narrative?

Steve Gomez: “Initially it was a simple outline, a small group of marines would have to face up to their replacements in the near future. An outsider would join this group, a much more tech savvy individual who would play off against the marines, and together they would have to survive.

“I felt that it could be a contained story, not a global one, inspired by the eighties’ action movies I grew up on, with a little bit of the Alamo thrown in for good measure. We wanted to take this idea and make it a real ride - a chase movie that would feel dynamic, atmospheric and tense. Most importantly the heroes wouldn’t be supermen - they would be frail and human. One wrong turn and they could lose their lives.

“When Vertigo gave me the go ahead to write the script, I stumbled across a couple of websites, most notably Boston Dynamics, where they were developing real military robots. I was kind of fascinated by the way they mimicked animals.

“It was a simple step to then imagine a more fearsome version of one of these robots. The other idea I borrowed from Boston Dynamics was to introduce these robots into the wild. It’s an unsettling image this kind of tech crawling around and completely at home in nature.”

Image: before VFX (top); after (bottom) 

ML: What was your goal for Kill Command’s visual effects?

SG: “Our goal was always to try and integrate the machines into their surroundings and make them look believable. We really wanted them to feel as solid as any machine that you could see in everyday life.

“The other main goal was to improve the production values of the shoot. Kill Command is a very low budget film, but we felt that we could perhaps elevate it beyond its low budget roots and make it stand out from the indie crowd.

“We also knew that we were up against it from the start as the script was outrageously ambitious, so we had to find a consistency to our shots that was achievable.”

ML: How did you make the visual effects believable?

SG: “The devil really is in the detail. When the effects are good in the film it is usually because a lot of fine detailed work has gone into them. It tends to be the case that with a budget like ours, this attention to detail would normally be sacrificed to get the job done.

“To achieve this, we first contacted a great concept artist by the name of Fausto Di Martini to help us flesh out our robots and make them look functional. Fausto has a terrific knack for making models that have weight and a good sense of design. The robots had to look like they really worked even if they couldn’t possibly do so.

Peter Duncan, our senior artist, then took Fausto’s designs and rebuilt them in Maya, which was no small order as each robot had thousands of individual parts. Our lead texture artist Johnny Jenkins then generated 800 texture maps using Mari. An incredible amount of detail went into each texture, making the finished robot feel real. We made sure each robot was covered in scratches, manufacturing stickers and oil drips - anything that would confuse the eye into thinking the robots were actually in the scene.

“Animation was also key. Peter Duncan and I chose to make the robots move slowly and deliberately rather than tearing around at top speed. It would have been easier perhaps to work on shots where the robots appeared briefly but it became more interesting to hold the shots on the robots to make them feel like a real presence in the film.”

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ML: How much of the effects for Kill Command were digital?

SG: “Due to budget, very few of the effects in Kill Command are practical. We could afford one open and closing futuristic door and a handful of sets including the interior of the transport drone. We carted that door around everywhere it was the same door in every room!

James Lapsley our production designer worked tirelessly and inventively to ensure we got the best out of our budget, but we always knew that everything would have to be enhanced later. This did afford us some freedom to change the narrative in post, but was challenging to say the least.”

ML: How did you develop the appearance of the robots?

SG: “Save for The Terminator, robots do not tend to be frightening in films. The more human they act, the less scary they are to the audience, as we know what to expect. It really was that initial brush with real world robotics that gave me the idea that robots are in fact very creepy.

“All we had to do was hold true to that feeling you get watching these real robots on YouTube. The strange mirroring of nature and the realisation that these are robots taking their first baby steps towards something greater makes them frightening. 

“This also informed us in other ways. Rather than beat the same drum as other films where the robots want to destroy humanity and rule the earth, our robots would feel nothing. They have no human characteristics at all - good or bad - and they are not evil. Instead they are unaware and uncaring, carrying out their killing program to the letter. 

“Our editor Celeste Bothwick also ensured that we would hold every robot shot rather than pass by them at one hundred miles an hour, this ensures a ratcheting up of tension, but was again adding pressure to our VFX work!”

ML: What are the tricks to visual effects on a small budget?

SG: “Teamwork! It seems obvious, but again it’s amazing how much people are taken for granted in the process of VFX. Very often VFX companies will wax lyrical on the virtues of a certain kind of proprietary software or a piece of hardware, and in truth it all helps, but it’s the artists that make all the difference. 

“Even with an extended schedule, the VFX for Kill Command was a mountain to climb. It took real character, talent and teamwork for the small team at Bandito to actually scale that mountain. That the film was completed at all was a tribute to their ingenuity, goodwill and hard work.”

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ML: How did such a small team complete so much work?

SG:  "To give you an idea of what was done, Peter Duncan - as well as VFX supervising animated two-hundred robot shots singlehandedly - tracked a little over six hundred shots along with Jamie Barty. Celeste Bothwick served as editor on the film as well as supervising hundreds of animatics and making sure the VFX would edit seamlessly into the film. 

"Mark Braithwaite and Charlie Ellis composited their way through nearly six hundred shots using Nuke software. Pedrom Dadgostar lit and rendered three hundred and fifty shots using Arnold renderer. Michael Gardiner produced nearly eighty digital matte paintings which is every digital matte seen in the film. Leah Appleton rotoscoped and supervised the rotoscoping of close to five hundred shots. Johnny Jenkins made eight hundred texture maps to fit onto thousands of individual parts that made up the lead bad robot “Multi-Arm”… this was just one of Johnny’s robots."

ML: How did Kill Command differ from other projects you’ve worked on?

SG: “My VFX company Bandito and I come from a television background so making the leap to film was a huge jump. We had to change the way we think about hardware, software and working methodologies because although we had been involved in many quality television productions, nothing can really prepare you for putting a film up onto the big screen where it will be thoroughly scrutinised. There’s real pressure that your work is on show and you have to stand by it.”

“Usually working in television, you can do without in some areas. This time we could not do without the right software and fast computers. This was a major problem for our low budget. However, if we wanted to produce Hollywood effects, we had to grow up and use the same equipment that Hollywood was using or we would have no chance.

“Fortunately, Bandito had developed a good working relationship with Dan Goldsmith at computer manufacturers Armari, who were keen to support us in return for a chance to push their computers to the limit. It was a huge boost. The faster the computer, the more time you gain as an artist to make creative decisions and to produce more work. It’s that simple. We liked working with Armari so much that if you look closely you’ll see many of the robots have Armari manufacturing stickers and branding!”

Image: stills from the film

ML: How much involvement did Gareth Edwards have on the film?

“Happily, Celeste Bothwick and I have known Gareth since film school - almost twenty years! He’s a close friend and a genuinely generous guy. Once Gareth finished Monsters for Vertigo he recommended us to Al Niblo and James Richardson (producers) and got us our first meeting.

“For someone so busy, he’s very supportive and good with advice, which has been enormously helpful on this film. It’s been inspiring watching our friend’s career take off over the years. He really did fire the starting gun for me, and I suspect a great many first time filmmakers with his debut movie. “

Image: stills from the film

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