Act Of War is an elaborate action/espionage film project, lost in development hell since 2009. The story is about a special forces unit left behind "enemy" lines. They soon realize their mission is not what they thought it was. Instead of finding a way to return home they decide to go beyond the line of duty and stop an impending war.
When the main plot was built, i decided to shoot a four-scene teaser to establish the movie's mood and style. This (i thought) would make my life easier when shopping it around for financing. Eventually, it was clear that shooting a teaser video for a huge action film is not that easy when resources are minimum. As it turned out, scene 01 was the only one we shot.
The scene's theme was about the fact that there is always something we are unaware of, hidden from our daily routines, that could affect us in unexpected ways. The sequence was showing a young woman enjoying an afternoon beach stroll when a multiple fighter-jet interception is disturbing her tranquility.
While i was preparing the project, i directed a TV commercial starring Dimitra Kaldi, a talented and photogenic girl who i thought was perfect for this sequence. When i suggested the part to her she thought she would be perfect too! So, she came on board immediately and we were ready to go and shoot it!
Shooting on a shoestring budget
The beach was supposed to be on a Greek island close to the national border but our non existent budget forced us to settle for a beach in Athens. Shooting day was the 8th of October. Athens can be warm like summer during that time but you can't depend on it.
Unfortunately, it was evident early in the morning that we would have none of the summer vibe we wanted. It was freezing cold and super windy. Occasionally, it actually felt like we were being sandblasted. The idea of canceling the shooting occurred to us but to everyone's credit we held our grounds.
The sand castle was built by art director Christos Voulgaris. Its design followed the one in the storyboard i made so that it would allow for certain actions and camera framing.
Christos had prefabricated the foundation parts and added the sand on location. It took him a couple of hours but at the end it looked wonderful and it was solid as a rock. In the meantime we were rehearsing the action with Dimitra.
When i finished blocking the scene, the sun somehow miraculously appeared and brought smiles to our faces. We powered the RED ONE and started shooting. The camera at the time was not yet upgraded with the MX sensor but it handled the high-contrast sunset gracefully.
By design, i wanted the scene to unfold before magic hour. To maintain sky consistency, we decided with D.o.P Nathan Nathanailoglou to shot the wide shot at two different times. The first was a normal take with the talent and the second for the sky before sunset. We used the same lens and camera position so we could easily replace the sky in post production.
I think it worked well. Color-wise, having the real sunset footage from the later shots as reference, made compositing a breeze. I would have never guessed that the horizon line could divide a warm sky color from a cool-hued sea to that extend. Without reference, i would have probably thought that the sea surface would reflect the warm sky colors. It didn't!
To complete the composit, I added some trees shot in another location (for another project!) and a white small church like the ones found on Greek Islands. The church was shot during an overcast day so i had to do some relighting in Fusion to match the plate's light. It was located close to Athens.
Reaching our VFX production limits
The fighter-jet dogfight was a total technical nightmare. I was over-optimistic during production and shot it without tracking markers. As it turned out, camera-tracking the shot was next to impossible until Gerald Feather, a talented guy working for ILM Vancouver solved it manualy. It wasn't a 100% accurate solution but gave us the grounds to start animating. Levon Avakian, a visual FX supervisor with Illusive Imaging in Athens, animated the jet planes in a number of sessions with me. Nick Moutafis, now with CityScape Digital helped with some technical issues. Johan Gårdfeldt in Gothenburg helped with Houdini simulations for some of the atmospheric elements. I am glad for all the help that everybody generously offered!
Besides all the help, i thought that this shot would never be completed. It was the sequence's 'money shot' so i felt like we would only do it justice by making it perfect. But, a very limited budget can only take you so far. Eventually, i accepted the fact that perfection was un-achievable with our resources. Some of the atmospheric VFX elements needed too much research and development to look right and nobody had the necessary time for them. So, jet fumes, contrails, jet heat streaks, etc were not composited in. That was a tough pill to swallow.
Sound and Music
An aural version of the dogfight sequence was edited before filming. We used it on location to help with acting (against and empty sky) and timing the shot. The audio was played via a loud CD boombox during every take of the dogfight shot. Later in post-production, i used parts of it while sound designing the actual sequence. I think that more than 70% of what we heard on that beach remained in the final mix.
Most of the sound design was comprised of editing and mixing natural audio recordings. Some of the ambiance tracks were recorder with my Tascam DR100 while on summer holidays. The only synthesized sound used was an LFE sweetener for the sonic boom. Jet plane samples were from an old Sound Ideas SXF library we used to have in a production company i used to work with. The whole project fit into 24 audio tracks which were fed into 3 audio buses. It was mixed in Audition.
The music was composed by Thanos Papadellis. Finding the right tone and mood was very tricky because only the first of the four scenes was actually shot. So, there was little to inspire a music direction that would approach what i had in mind for the actual film. After some initial back and forth with Thanos, he managed to come up with a mood that would reflect what the film would be about.
Both me and Thanos love "old-school" film music so that's what our goal was from the start. We recorded live strings in his studio and experimented with ways to make the music sound like the films we loved. There were many lessons learned from that process (microphone placement is important!) that i am sure will benefit us on future projects. More about the recording session here.
This video was completed during a time when i used to edit in Adobe Premiere. Most of the color work i did back then was unconventionally done on (Eyeon's) Fusion. I am using Fusion since 2002 so i was very comfortable with its color/masking tools even though it is designed for single-shot-Visual-FX work.
The goal for me was to give to the video a late 80's or 90's film stock aesthetic and move away from the typical high glossy or teal and orange color processing that is currently in fashion. I wanted it to look slightly unprocessed. Similar to how movies looked before the Digital Intermediate era. Or at least... how i remember them looking.
Color correction/Shot matching was done on REDCINE and then it was passed through a custom-made color processing pipeline i created in Fusion. I usually remove grain or noise from my recent videos but in this project i added some 35mm grain at the end. I think it suited it well.
The last 4 years i am grading in Davinci Resolve. I think that if i colored the video now, i would have done it slightly different. It makes me wonder if the tools we use sometimes influence the result more than our intentions.
The ones we left behind
There was some pre-production work done for the other 3 scenes as well. Location scouting was almost complete, props were purchased and prepared, casting was mostly decided. In an nutshell:
- Scene 02 was a moonlit forest scene with unidentified guerrilla troops guarding a mobile ballistic missile launcher.
- Scene 03 was an interior scene in the ministry of defense.
- Scene 04 had the special forces squad surfacing from underwater next to a foreign beach. All hell is about to break loose. CUT TO: Main Title.
We came close to shooting scene 04 immediately after scene 01 but due to scheduling conflicts it was repeatedly getting postponed. At the time, Greece was hit with a financial crisis that was getting worse by the month. This changed the balance of things and shifted our personal priorities. It was a difficult project to produce in the first place and it became almost impossible to do so during that ongoing economic turmoil.
Although i am sad that we never managed to properly finish the teaser and move on to doing the actual film, i am grateful of the beautiful collaboration i experienced with the people that worked on it.
Trying to do this film helped me redefine some of my traits as a film director. I can see more clearly now what is possible and what not when planning for projects of this scale. Enthusiasm is an excellent motive to keep you going but sometimes it needs to be scaled to the realistic resources.
I have no idea if Act Of War will ever get made. The emergence of ISIS since the initial story concept was made means that parts of the plot need to be reworked and adapted to the current geopolitical situation. This could probably make it an even better movie than it would once be. However, currently i am working on another film project. One that is much more likely to get into production and that means that Act Of War has to wait. For now the teaser will be the only reminder of what could have been.