DaVinci Resolve Studio was used for editing, color grading, visual effects (VFX) and audio post production on the animated feature film “Rift” by London production company Hazimation. We recently spoke with HaZ about his journey into directing and editing, feature film Rift, and his experience using Unreal Engine and DaVinci Resolve Studio.
PH: How did you break into the industry? What led you to directing and editing?
HaZ: I broke into directing whilst I was a VFX supervisor / producer. Back in 2013, I released a short film called Project Kronos which went viral and landed me a Hollywood manager and several development gigs at studios like Paramount and Fox.
I continued making a few more shorts including SYNC, which was shot entirely with Blackmagic Design cameras. In 2016 I decided to leave the VFX industry completely to focus on directing and producing my debut feature film THE BEYOND. The film was released in 2018 on every single VOD platform, and proved to be a commercial hit before landing on Netflix for 12 months. It was one of the first indie feature films to be edited completely in Davinci Resolve. A little fun fact: When you load up DaVinci Resolve today, you may see an image of The Beyond pop up as part of the loading splash screen.
On every single project I’ve done, I’ve always been involved in the editing. As a director, my head works in a very editorial way. From my shot lists to creating the movie, I can’t imagine handing over creative editing to someone else! Editing is a huge part in shaping the vision of the film, which is why I love DaVinci Resolve – it is fast and intuitive to use, but I’m also able to find the look of the film whilst editing.
Since The Beyond, I directed another feature called 2036 Origin Unknown (also landed on Netflix back in 2019) and a show for Disney+ called Fast Layne where I was not only the director but also a creative consultant / EP on the series. For those two projects, I didn’t edit directly, but I did do temp edits on my laptop of the previews.
I met my producing / business partner Paula Crickard whilst on 2036 Origin Unknown, who then helped me get The Beyond to the finish line with additional reshoots and then to distribution and sales. We then set up a production company together (HaZ Film, which then became HaZimation) to focus on producing our own IP across various mediums (live action, animation, and video games).
PH: Can you share some of your biggest influences and inspirations?
HaZ: My biggest influence in cinema are filmmakers like Spielberg, James Cameron and Ridley Scott, but I am also inspired by today’s filmmakers which are breaking new ground, like Ben Wheatley (he also edits!), Neil Blomkamp and Jordan Peele. I also find music plays a huge part of my filmmaking, and for each project I tend to curate a playlist with music that inspires me for certain scenes in the project. For The Beyond, it was the Interstellar soundtrack on loop! For RIFT, it was soundtracks from anime films like Akira and Cybercity Oedo 808.
PH: What led you to working on Rift? Can you share an overview of the feature film with our readers?
HaZ: It was around 2020 and our live action projects had to be put on hold due to Covid. My team and I started looking at animation as another format to keep telling stories. We fell in love with Unreal Engine instantly and ended up doing two short films (Battlesuits and Mutant Year Zero) to really see if using a game engine would be possible to make feature films with. Mutant Year Zero was actually a pitch, which turned into a sizzle teaser trailer for the feature film we are going into production for after RIFT.
After doing those two projects, we decided we should be making a full length animated feature film. Instead of developing one from scratch, we looked in our vault of projects and one of them was a project called RIFT, which we had been developing with an awesome writer called Stavros Pamballis. The story is based on a short idea I developed years ago called Brother, about a big brother breaking his little brother out of hospital, with shades of John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Then Paula and I took it further with a story that reflected our love for smart sci-fi, and Stavros crafted a story with characters with heart.
We started prep on the film in October 2020 after securing the financing for it, and having received an Epic Megagrant to help us kick start production fast, as well as an additional grant from Reallusion. We are currently in post production and scheduled to finish it by end of July ready for sales and distribution in August.
PH: You recently attended the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. What was that experience like? Could you feel the excitement building around Rift?
HaZ: Annecy International Animation Film Festival was a dream to be at. I always said to myself that I would love to go there one day with a project, and boom 2022! It happened! Thanks to Yann Marchet, who I met at another conference called Paris Image Digital Summit a few years ago, who invited me over to Annecy to show off the work we are doing on RIFT. Showing that trailer on the big screen was a so overwhelming and seeing the reaction of the audience made me smile. I got a lot of people commenting on how the visual look is so fresh from a typical CG animated film, which made me happy, as the art direction was something the team and I spent a significant amount of time trying to nail.
PH: What was one of the toughest aspects of production?
HaZ: The art direction of the film was the toughest aspect. We didn’t want the film to look like a CG game cinematic or have that “Unreal Engine” look, so we looked at a lot of CG anime out there to see what we liked and what we wanted to avoid. I experimented a lot in DaVinci Resolve first using Fusion as well as open FX plugins, like the line art in the watercolour node, to do some look dev on the early Unreal Engine renders. This helped us to try ideas out before we went back into Unreal Engine. With a combination of specific art directed lighting and shaders, we spent months and months developing with our head of CG – Andrea Tedeschi. Eventually we found a look we were happy with as a team.
The other tough aspect was finding people to join the team as we ramped up. We were not taking a typical CG pipeline, it was very much that each artists owned a scene or level and everyone did many tasks, as opposed to a traditional situation with each artist doing a specific task like lighting, hair grooming, animation etc. We ended up hiring people that came from a games background because they can create cinematic visuals in real time. They know all about scene optimization, as opposed to artists who came from VFX who wouldn’t optimize their shots, since they are so used to just throwing it on the render farm to render overnight or something. Whereas with RIFT, it’s all real time rendering. What you see is what you get, so making something look cinematic yet optimized for the GPU is a must skillset in our team.
PH: Can you share what your experience was like using Unreal Engine and DaVinci Resolve Studio? How did this improve collaboration and production overall, especially with a remote team?
HaZ: I treated each shot coming out of Unreal Engine as live action footage. We were dealing with a ‘final pixel’ approach as opposed to a conventional CG approach where each shot has passes render out and then composited together later. In our case, it was rendered straight out of Unreal Engine 4K EXRs which get thrown straight into the timeline in Resolve.
Every time we iterated the shot, the EXRs updated automatically in the timeline in Resolve. We actually didn’t even do transcodes or proxies, as I split the project into 8 Reels, and each reel having its own dedicated SSD (WDBlack SSD drives) which I render the EXRs to and edit in Resolve from (so even the Resolve cache data is on those SSD drives). I was able to scrub back and forth with the EXRs in Resolve and create a look for each scene whilst editing.
With animation, you don’t have a lot of waste with footage or frames like you do with live action footage, so a lot of the time I was just trimming a little and moving things around as opposed to finding takes or chopping big sections off. In Unreal Engine, my start and end are pretty much what I want in a shot with some additional handles on both ends.
Every week I would render the dailies out of Resolve as Quicktimes and put them on our private Vimeo site for our team to check out and see how the film is progressing.
What’s great is that I am getting pure 10bit colour space when working with the EXRs out of Unreal Engine, and have the freedom to really finesse the overall look in Resolve myself to set the tone and mood I want. I always hand the entire project over to a colourist to do a colour once over pass on my work, which I think is important to do. I can get so tunnel vision into the look of something, so an experienced colourist can then come in and look at what I have done, knowing clearly what I am after and then that colourist can take it to the finish line. I am not a fan of sitting in a grade room for hours watching a colourist do their thing and trying to direct them. I find it easier to set the look myself and then give the colourist the creative freedom to make it better.
PH: How did these tools help you as both a director and editor?
HaZ: I couldn’t have made this film without Unreal Engine and Resolve working hand in hand, it’s as simple as that. As a director working this way, I have the luxury to experiment and find the look I want, and even try out the crazier ideas without disturbing the team. Only until I know something is going to work based on tests and idea explorations I’m doing in both Unreal and Resolve, do I present it to the team to work on. As an editor, to be able to constantly be in the timeline and jump between Unreal Engine and the timeline to craft the story, is a luxury I don’t think I’ve ever had before working in the animation space (specially the real time animation space). With live action, once its shot, its shot, so you must make it work with what you have (unless you do a reshoot), but with animation I’m literally reshooting all the time to get to the place I want to be without disrupting the schedule and budget.
PH: Speaking of, what are some of the challenges associated with holding both of these jobs on one set? And what are some of the positives?
HaZ: To put it boldly, there are no challenges (to me anyways) because directing and editing is my process as a filmmaker to tell the story the way I best can. The big positive is that I can always try my ideas out in the edit, even at 3am when I have a crazy idea come to me. If I had an editor, I’d have to wait until the morning when the idea wouldn’t be as fresh by the time I explain what I’m seeing in my head.
PH: What are you most excited for viewers to experience once they watch Rift?
HaZ: The journey of the characters. I want the audience to be rooting for the characters and then be thrown a curve ball mid-way emotionally when things get a little twisty. Of course, this movie has wall to wall action, but the way I hope it will come across is that the violence is justified, and the fact we are seeing all this throughout the POV of an eight year old who has the ability to jump multiverses.
PH: How have visual effects continued to grow and evolve?
HaZ: I think we have gotten to the point where we can seamlessly integrate CG and live action so well, it’s something hard to spot in movies from robots, to environments to FX. Although I think digital humans are getting much better on each movie, I still think they have a ways to go to break that uncanny valley. On the other hand, creatures that perform so emotionally engaging are here! I mean, have you seen the last Planet of the Apes movie? At one point I forgot they were CG apes!
PH: What do you expect the future of VFX to look like?
HaZ: I think virtual production, specifically real time rendering of graphics on LED volumes synchronized with the real camera, is going to accelerate how we shoot movies. With virtual production, VFX is no longer the last thing in the pipeline, it’s now part of production. In fact, it will be done first to have the final pixels on the LED walls to shoot with.
PH: Can you share any other upcoming projects in the works?
HaZ: We actually announced our kids and family sci-fi feature film Moontopia, at Annecy, with some early teaser production footage created entirely in Unreal Engine 5. We are in development of that project, which, like all the IP we produce at HaZimation, will have a video game spin off to it too. Other projects we have in development are more web3 / Metaverse based, where we are looking to create worlds to give the audience to play in and create user generated content (UGC) as part of the storytelling experience.
HaZ started his career in video games before moving into Visual Effects, and then later transitioning over to Directing & Producing with his breakout feature film THE BEYOND, the indie sci-fi was released in 2018 and was number two in the iTunes charts before being licensed on Netflix and turning into a profitable movie. His second feature film – 2036 Origin Unknown, starring Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica, The Mandalorian) earned a limited theatrical release before landing on Netflix. He was then hired by Disney to helm the pilot for action-comedy series Fast Layne, where he also served as EP / Creative Consultant on the entire series. HaZ is the co-founder of production company HaZimation producing animated feature films, series and video games based on their propriety pipeline utilizing Unreal Engine. Currently in production of RIFT (animated feature film + video game).