In 2014, animator turned director Brian Vowles set out to create a movie with a 4-month production timeline. Four years later, he has released Robot Attack, a post-apocalyptic action short featuring his two boys.
Brian was kind enough to give the Moondog Labs community a behind-the-scenes look into his filmmaking process in a meet-the-director interview:
MDL: Tell us a little about yourself, creatively.
Brian Vowles: I live just outside of Toronto and I got my first animation job in November 2002. Since then I have been bouncing around the various studios. Toronto is a great animation town so there is always something going on. Most of my career has been working on 3D kids shows as either an animator, modeller, rigger or layout artist. About a year ago, I decided to leave the studio I was at and try freelancing from home……. it would give me more time with the family, less time commuting, and more time to finish Robot Attack.
MDL: What prompted you to create Robot Attack? Where did your concept come from?
BV: I have wanted to make my own short film since I saw 405 back in the late 90’s. That film blew my mind. The thought that a couple of guys could make an action packed short, with a desktop computer was amazing to me. It still is. Over the years I had done a bunch of VFX “tests”….. and those are fun for learning and demo reels…… but I wanted to make a movie. I wanted to see if I could shoot something that told a story and had some cool visual effects in it. Robot Attack was a great project that had a lot of things in it that I wanted to try or get better at.
MDL: How did working with your boys influence the making of the film?
BV: They were awesome. In the very first episode Dylan picked the name Robot Attack so for sure they had huge influence on it. The colour of the robots eyes, the skulls in the pool, the fact that Brandon gets to say “Oh Crap” because his "brother got to say it"…. they contributed so much. I think Brandon has an extra little bit of pride in the pool sequence knowing that was his idea. I’m really proud of their “performances” because they were so young at the time……they aren’t actors and they had no clue what was going on. We were all just learning as we went because this was the first thing I had ever shot. We had good days and bad days but they were real troopers.
MDL: What were your essential pieces of hardware during production?
BV: First thing was my fancy iPhone 5s. I was amazed at the quality of the footage coming out of that thing and I thought it was plenty good enough for what I wanted to do. I’m not a DP, and while it would have been great to have a state of the art whatever camera……. I wouldn’t even know how to use it. I also thought the constraints of mobile filming were an interesting challenge. Could you make something that doesn’t look like crap?
Once I decided to use the phone I plunged down the rabbit hole of accessories that I could use to add to “production value.” Things like tripods, mics, and sliders. I had no clue that you could buy lens adapters. So when I stumbled on the Moondog Labs site, I was so happy. I think at the time there was some simple footage of a bridge, and some people talking on a boardwalk. It wasn’t anything fancy but the footage had this epic anamorphic feel to it that made it feel way more cinematic then the regular 16:9 stuff I was testing. I was sold. I thought, "if regular footage of people talking can look this good, Robot Attacks going to be awesome."
It was so long ago but if I remember, when I first got the lens the workflow with the footage was a bit wonky because you had to de-squeeze everything. At some point, I picked up FilmicPro and they had added a preset for shooting with the MoondogLens. That was a big deal because the two of them working together really polished the workflow.
MDL: Tell us about the shooting process.
BV: The beginning of the movie was a lot of fun because it was mostly self contained shots. It gave me a chance to go to a location, set up a shot and just learn how to work with the camera. I had never done that before. I knew it would be pretty easy to tell the kids to “just sit there and look sad,” so that’s the stuff we did first. Shooting all the beginning stuff helped us figure everything out. Just stupid things like loading up the van, getting all their costume on, remembering to bring the tripod, some water, some snacks, a ladder, a charger for the phone. We eventually got pretty efficient so when we got to the harder stuff at the end it was easier to tackle.
I already knew that I was going to be cutting it to that piece of music so it was just about going out and finding a bunch of cold wet miserable locations that already looked like the end of the world if you squinted a bit.
MDL: What software did you use in post production?
BV: I did all of the editing in Premiere and compositing in Nuke. I had always wanted to learn Nuke because I love VFX and there was a time when I thought I might take a break from animation and get into compositing. Nuke is a really expensive program and not exactly an “independent” tool. However, I was fortunate enough to know someone at the Foundry that offered me a license so I could try learning Nuke while I made Robot Attack. However, all that’s changed now. Anyone making an indy film can go to the Foundry website and download a free “Non-Commercial” version of Nuke if they want to give it a go.
MDL: Tell us about the 3D modeling process.
BV: I used a program called MODO for all of the 3D work. The Robot was difficult because I'm not really a “designer” so I waste a lot of time just mashing pieces together until it kind of works. Halfway through production I realized that the robot was pretty much garbage. I cut a lot of corners in his construction and the more I looked at him, the more I hated him.
What's the point of shooting all these beautiful shots if a giant Fisher-Price robot is going to come stomping through your scenes?
So I decided to rebuild him. I bought some online training and learned a new way to model things that look more mechanical. The new robot took about five months to build but he reads way better on screen. He has parts that work together and he feels technically plausible. That was a dark time in production. The rebuild almost ended the project, but in the end it was totally worth it. I think all the extra detail really helped sell his weight and menace.
MDL: Any hacks or advice for other indie filmmakers?
BV: I think we live in a magical time for creative people. We have every single tool at our disposal and if you have an idea you can do it...and you can do it relatively cheap. I think if you have an idea that you keep coming back to you should just start it. I liked Robot Attack because it was so huge that I always had something to work on….. but anything I did was pushing toward the same goal, instead of working on five little things in five different projects that just vaporize. We all have that hard drive full of half finished projects. Even if you go to your office for one hour and do something……. you did something. Just do a little bit each day.
MDL: How have your children taken to their new identities as movie stars?
BV: They are so happy. It's been a great experience for them. When we started Robot Attack, Brandon (the big one) was painfully shy. I think having him talk on camera and seeing himself in the episodes helped him come out of his shell a bit. Now the neighbours are coming up to them and saying what “good little actors” they are. I think they have a real sense of pride and accomplishment… and they should… if they really sucked, a cool robot couldn’t have saved the movie.
MDL: What's next for you creatively?
BV: This may sound weird but I kind of want to do nothing for awhile. This was a draining project and i’m pretty burnt out now. I think I need to get back to a more normal life with proper sleep, less coffee and a bit of exercise. I'm looking forward to unplugging for a bit and doing some analog stuff around the house. I have loads of ideas and things for down the road…….. but that’s such a next year problem.
You can learn more about the Robot Attacks creative process from Brian's YouTube channel, where his vlog style videos capture all the triumphs and challenges of his filmmaking journey. His story has also been featured on CTV and
Yahoo! Movies. Additional information is at robotattackmovie.com.