Reign of Death, the subject of our recent feature review, is one of the most confidently stylish shorts we’ve seen in a while. Its director, Matthew Savage, has served as a concept designer for several big budget features including The Dark Knight and Kick-Ass, but, not being content with that arrangement, has been stepping up to the director’s chair. Reign of Death is his third and most accomplished effort, and it has already attracted buzz regarding a feature adaptation. Mr. Savage was kind enough to answer some questions for Short of the Week via email.
Inane first question, but when I see a film with such a distinct visual style I can’t help but wonder as to its genesis—did you have a story idea that spoke to you which you worked out first, or was the idea of creating this stylized future noir world the spark?
The idea of combining Film Noir and Sci-Fi is of course nothing new and we’ll always wear the Blade Runner influence proudly on our sleeve. Having watched a few Anime films back to back over a weekend (namely Osamu Tezuka’s, Metropolis) I wanted to make something that embraced the clichés of film noir. Where Blade Runner combines noir and sci-fi in a very sophisticated way I wanted to literally take 1940’s noir and combine that with sci-fi. With that environment in mind, a friend and I started to storyboard a chase scene between a gumshoe and a robot, each drawing a panel and then handing it to the other to draw the next and seeing where that took us. I devised the rest of the story around this scene.
What were your visual influences for the piece?
The first and biggest influence is traditional film noir, films like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. I also drew a lot of inspiration from animation – the Animatrix shorts, Second Renaissance and Detective Story influenced me heavily as did Cowboy Bebop.
Can’t have a good film without talented people, how did you get the film team together?
Almost the entire crew was made up of people I had worked with before or crew that other members of the crew recommended. Most of the art department were friends from a TV show, Doctor Who, that I have worked on in the past.
Before I took any crew on I had produced nearly all the concept art, designs and storyboards and this is always a great way to pitch the project to people, giving them a taste for how the project will look and what we are all aiming for.
We have a lot of indie filmmakers who read this site, so if you would describe just a bit the process of incorporating VFX into films, especially CG composited with live-action. At what point are you bringing in the animators and what kind of role do they have in pre-production and production?
As a production we got the VFX team, headed up by Jon Rennie, on board very early on in pre-production. At this point I had already storyboarded the film and it was a case of going through every shot and talking about the best way to achieve the desired effect. Sometimes it would be a case of changing the compositions slightly or shooting completely clean plate shots, but by doing this very early on and sticking to the boards for all the VFX shots we managed to achieve about 95% of what I wanted to achieve and on an almost non existent budget.
During the shoot we had nearly the entire VFX team on set, mainly to take measurements from the location for elements they were going to have to either rebuild or “track in”. VFX supervisor Jon Rennie would stay by my side for most of the day, checking the monitor for anything that may give them problems in post-production. Due to the small budget we had to make particularly sure that we did everything we could during the one-day shoot to make the VFX run smoothly during post-production.
Organization and collaboration between all the departments really helped us in terms of making the one-day shoot as productive as it could have been and giving the post teams a fighting chance at completing all the VFX to the high standards we were looking for.
A lot of people seem to think that it’s shot with digital sets, and I alluded to that a little in my review, but that not the case is it?
The entire film was shot on location without a green screen in sight. We did this to both give the film a foot in reality and to save the VFX team from building entire 3D sets. We didn’t plan to shoot against green and chose instead to find locations that gave us enough of an environment to shoot the actors against but also had the potential to digitally extend upwards into the matte shots. The VFX break down is a good example of how we took real locations in the UK and twisted them enough to give the feel of a larger city.
This is a question I dislike because often pro labor is donated and you don’t want to belittle that effort, but it is something people like to make a big deal about, so… what did the film end up costing to make?
The total budget we had to play with was £5,000 pounds sterling, but we did of course have a lot of work done in kind. The budget was mostly spent on essential professional crew and equipment that we needed to give the film the polished look we were trying to achieve.
In your day job you work on a lot of big-name action features. What does the job of Concept Designer entail? How, if it all, did such work help you when it came to making Reign of Death?
Working as a concept designer entails designing or visualizing elements of a feature film script that do not already exist. So generally you work on genre films that need heavy visualization. These drawings can be used to help sell the look of a feature to a studio or as designs for sets, props or creatures when a film is in pre-production. I’m currently working on X-Men: First Class at Pinewood studios, London.
My concept design background helped me make Reign of Death because it enabled me to conceptualize and storyboard the film myself. This helped me get the buy in I needed from the crew but also meant we didn’t have to pay for this work to be done out of the budget!
Its my understanding that the film was created through a UK Film Program called “It’s My Shout!” What’s that about?
“It’s My Shout” is a fantastic film-making scheme here in the UK that gives many up and coming directors, writers and other crew the opportunity to make short films. I directed a short film for them in 2007 and once I had raised the funds for Reign I approached them to see if I could make the short in association with them. As I am not a producer and didn’t have time to crew up from scratch I wanted to work with a production team I had worked with before.
A couple of the feature films I compared Reign of Death to, Sin City and Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, started out as short films too. Was the idea of the Reign of Death serving as a proof of concept to pitch, something that had always been in your mind?
I didn’t ever see the short as a feature and was just keen to make it for my show reel or as a calling card. Noel Clarke, who had seen and liked the storyboards back in 2006 when we had both been working on Doctor Who, had always been keen to be involved. When I called him and asked if he would still like to be in the short film he said he would but only on the condition that we developed it as a feature project! In the years since I had seen him he had become a feature writer and director in his own right, not to mention won a Bafta so he was now clearly setting his sights much higher. With that in mind, every member of the crew stepped up their game knowing that if we did a good job on the short, we may have a shot at a feature.