When the Gulf Film Festival was launched three years ago, most of the screenings were a reflection of the rather poor filmmaking standards in the GCC. Most entries were shorts and in many cases, abstract pieces that failed to appeal to the public. Three years down the line, we have begun to see a more impressive line-up of films that demonstrate greater sophistication in terms of scripts as well as the art of filmmaking itself.
One entry that stood out at this year’s festival was a sci-fi short developed by CG expert Ashraf Ghori under the banner of his company Xpanse CGI.
The seven-minute film entitled Levity – Xero Error Minus 1 was screened to a packed house at Dubai Festival City, and was a clear reflection of the growing talent in this region.
The storyline is complicated. Scientists from the future create their first time travel experiment and their first natural intelligence Cyborg — an advanced version of artificial intelligence. The Cyborg, named XE7 has been assigned the task of traveling back in time to recover earth’s lost history. Levity is a glimpse of the Cyborg as he revisits one event in history.
The film generated a lot of interest at the festival for several reasons.
For one, this genre has not been attempted by any other filmmaker in the region thus far. Secondly, the character has been so well crafted that it could easily be mistaken for a production straight out of Hollywood.
That sophistication comes from combining passion and talent while also engaging the local community in some of the filmmaking process, says Ghori.
Although a talented artist who studied graphic design at the University of Houston, Ghori says he is a self-taught animator.
“I’ll go back to my roots. I used to do a lot of illustrations in the US and the UAE. Super heroes and comics fascinated me. After I came back from the US, I started doing laser shows and some commercial work but my love for sci-fi, comics and super heroes compelled me to think of a project that would combine all of these entities.
“Essentially, I wanted to use my skills to feed my passion. That’s how I came up with the concept of Xero Error. This was in late 2007. Back then, it was just a short script and it was much smaller in scope than what we see now,” he says.
However, it’s not until Ghori and his friend Mohammed Mondal met Waqqas Qadir Sheikh, an industry specialist with a hand in several film ventures, that they began to dream of turning their small project in a basement into a big-budget venture.
“I had a look at some of their rough illustrations on paper and when I heard the story, I realised that we had something of international calibre here,” says Sheikh.
“I told them not to waste their time making a short as it wouldn’t fetch any revenues. Rather we saw that the story had huge potential to be a made into 100 episodes or even into a proper trilogy. That meant thinking much bigger than a shoe-string budget. People go scouting for such projects and these two had such a winning concept,” he explains.
With four months to go for the GFF, the team decided to create a small teaser short to give potential investors an idea of what they could put together.
“Our initial budget for this seven-minute short was US $27,000 but we overshot our estimates by $10,000,” says Sheikh.
“But it helped us put up a good film and show people what the team was capable of. Of course, we have not revealed any of the action sequences. That would be giving away too much of the film.”
Ghori says he got the whole project going “through underground virals”.
“Word of mouth and social networks like Facebook helped immensely. We told people that it was an independent project so a lot of people joined us. Some people volunteered to do bits and pieces of the production. Now, we have more than 1000 fans on FB,” he says.
Seven people worked on the production full time while several others volunteered to do parts of the project.
Ghori, however, reiterates that besides passion, there was no secret ingredient to creating the film.
“We haven’t used many unique techniques to create the effects we have. We started with sketches, started building the model; we had a couple of people on board to model the character and rig and set up the bone system. All of the 3D work was done on 3DSMax while V-ray was used for rendering, and the compositing was done on Fusion. The motion graphics were put together in After Effects and a combination of Flash.
“When we couldn’t afford to do something, we invited volunteers to come in and help us,” he says.
One volunteer who deserves special mention is post production supervisor Tamas Tancos.
According to Ghori, the team saved a lot of time because of the way Tancos worked.
“The techniques he uses are not stuff I have seen used in commercial work. We used the EXR format and we had all our separate passes for render like our shadows, our reflection, the highlight, the diffuse, indirect lighting etc in one file. Usually, people tend to make each of these layers a separate file. Getting them all into one file meant they were easier to manipulate in post production. Additionally, we didn’t have to re-feed anything this way. We were also very short of time so we used to edit on the fly even while we were rendering,” he adds. In addition to Tancos, several other well known people and companies have come together to be a part of this project.
Phat Mo, who is quite well known for writing songs, supplied the original song for this project.
Tambi Studios helped with the audio production for the short while Abdul Razzak Al Busmait, popularly called Q in the community and well known for composing music for several US singers, composed the theme music for Xero Error.
Though most of the work for this film has been created on the desktop, there are a few scenes, where models have been shot against the green screen and then composited back into the 3D environment.
According to Ghori, the team went with industry standard solutions to create this project although he quickly adds that to do a series of episodes or a motion picture, they will require much higher spec solutions and adequate funding.
“We did the rendering at our office with just eight Boxx systems so we were hugely limited. As a result, we approached Blackstone Studios, who offered to help us with 20% of our renders,” says Ghori.
“However, a full length feature film will require the kind of budget that any proper international motion picture of this scale and size would require,” he explains.
The team is currently on the lookout for investors to take this project forward.
“We know we have what it takes in terms of talent and skill to take this project forward. Perhaps our biggest challenge at this point is finding appropriate investors who believe in this project and will take us seriously enough to fund it,” adds Ghori.
3DSMax – Rigging and skinning of the character XE7
Vray - rendering.
Fusion - compositing.
After effects - Motion graphics.
Photoshop / illustrator – Creating various elements.
Vue – Used for the opening scene showing a vast Arabian mountain range.
Custom scripts were written to ensure better control of the hand/finger movements.
BOXX systems with the following specs:
Dual QuadCore systems with Intel Xeon processors [2.83 Ghz].
8 GB RAM.
Windows XP 64 bit version.
The final output for cinema projection was done on HD CAM at full HD 1080 at 25fps.