One of my dreams in life is to perform an honest-to-God spit-take. You know, when you're in the middle of drinking a tasty beverage and someone or something hilarious or shocking happens and your body has no choice but to expel all that tasty liquid in disbelief? Yeah, that. (I'm going to resist the urge to link to a spit-take supercut because then you'll never read any further in this article.)
Well, the closest I've ever come to that dream happened yesterday morning - as I sipped my delicious Dirty Horchata and loaded up my daily Internets, I saw this:
That's when I almost spit-taked. The hands - that's Justin's video! From years back! I KNOW THAT GUY!
So do you, loyal readers, if you've been following Uncle Slavko's talk about V/H/S - Justin Martinez is not only Love in the Time of Monster's Visual Effects Supervisor but also one of the creative minds of Radio Silence, the troop responsible for "10/31/98", the last (and most say, best) segment in the V/H/S anthology. He's a good friend of ours and knows how jealous - DAMMIT I mean, proud - we all are of his recent success. Couple that with the fact that the Cracked website is pretty damn awesome and it made for a good morning for us here at Uncle Slavko's.
I figured it was a good of a time as any to chat with Justin about his success, his style, and his future. So, I did.
Me: Hey, guy.
JM: Hello, fellow guy.
Me: How's it going?
JM: I'm doing great. Finally coming down from the V/H/S high and looking to jump into the next project with my Radio Silence team.
Me: Good times. So, how did you feel when you saw your video on Cracked.com's front page?
JM: Well, the video has been linked all over the internet but this is the first time it's made it into any kind of ranking in my opinion. I was just happy to hear that it made the list, but then I found out that it was their number one choice! It's pretty badass to have that video hold up so long. I made it almost 4 years ago so to find out that, in their opinion, nothing has come along to beat it, feels like a great accomplishment.
Me: It totally is! I have to ask, where did you get the idea for Hand Demon Thing?
JM: Like most of my ideas, the demon arm video came from a vision I had while trying to think about the creepiest thing that could happen to me in my house. I remember telling the idea to my brother Jesse, who plays the voice you hear in the clip, and he thought it sounded like a cool idea. He also gave me the crazy look, so I'm not sure he was seeing it the way I saw it. [laughs] At the time, I pitched it taking place in the kitchen, but later changed it to my bedroom because it felt scarier in there.
Me: Care to explain how you made it?
JM: The camera I used was a Canon Power Shot in video mode. I knew it would be harder to put the VFX in that footage because of the resolution, but I also knew that I was trying to make something feel as real as possible.
The first thing I did was put little black dots on all my walls. I would never do this now, but at the time I needed points to track so that I could put the arms in. Tracking software is much better now so I could do it without dots. It took me a few days just to paint all the black dots out after I was done tracking. Ugh.
The next step was tricky - I knew I eventually needed it to look like the scene was shot using a flashlight as the source light, however, it would be very difficult to track the arms in if a flashlight was my only view of the room. I needed to have the whole room lit, but I also needed to have the light come from near the camera. I plugged in a really bright halogen light and used it like it was the flashlight. Every where I pointed the camera I pointed the light.
I wanted to make it feel like it was all one shot, so I found moments during the performance where I could cut on a whip pan, or when the camera dropped a couple times. It was extremely awkward doing this in my room alone. I had no crew, and most of my roommates didn't know I was shooting anything.
As for the arms, well, I did them twice. The first round was a complete failure in my book. It looked cool, but definitely didn't look real in the slightest. That first round was done by sticking my arm through black cloth and then keying out the darker footage leaving only my arm. I then used After Effects to put the arm in the tracked footage of my room. I used After Effects to change my arm color from the half Mexican/Caucasian that it is to a dark grey. Unfortunately, I was never able to get the color to look right, so I decided to reshoot. I also wasn't happy with the performance of the room footage, so I decided to scrap everything I had already done and start from scratch.
After reshooting the room footage, I set up a green screen in the living room, which is always fun with the roommates. The new plan was to paint my arm blackish with washable black paint. This turned out to be the right choice since it took very little color correction to make it look like it was part of the room footage. I also lit my arm with a light that was right next to the camera, just to make sure the angle felt like it was coming from a hand held light. The only thing that was different is that the motion of my arm poking through the roof needed to be animated since I didn't poke my arm through any holes. I used masks in After Effects to make it appear like the arm was passing through the roof.
At this time, everything looked pretty ridiculous because there was no flashlight effect. Now, this a good time to tell you that when I made this video I was still learning After Effects, teaching myself using the internet. I knew what it should look like when the light hit them, but I didn't really know how to achieve it. After Effects allows you to add lights to a 3D scene and being the amateur I was, and may still be, I decided to use a 3D light. Might sound like a good idea, but it was extremely hard to keep the light looking the same when it moved to different parts of the frame. It took a lot of experimenting and test before I got the right look. To make a long story short, what took me 3 days to perfect should have only taken me 3 minutes. Haha. There was a lot of that while making this video. The actual shape of the flash light was created using masks. I shot some footage of a real flash light in my room and tried my best to mimic that look. The one thing I wasn't able to do was shadows. The main reason was because I just didn't know how to do it easy. I didn't want to spend days trying to manually do each shadow, so I just decided that ghosts don't cast shadows. I did add a very slight drop shadow.
The little tiny arms reaching under the door are just smaller versions of the arms I recorded in front of the green screen. The eye, oh my, the eye. The more I look at it, the more I wish I would have done something else. It's kinda like that bad tattoo you might have gotten when you were a teenager. You look back on it and ask why? Why oh why. However, some people like it. Anyway, it was my eye and it was probably the easiest thing I did. Just had to track it into the footage, mask the face out, and color correct it. At one point, I had multiple eyes open, but it looked stupid so I just stayed with one.
The last thing I did in this video was the body of arms. I had spent more than a month doing the previous VFX shots and by the time it came to creating the hand demon I was out of energy - I just wanted it to be done. So, I spent 2 days total on the hand demon and as creepy as the thing is, it should have been done better. The body is just using all the greenscreen arm footage, strategically placed to make it look like a body. The head is basically a cut out of my face that I photoshopped. It really should have been an actual face or something, not just a still image that's shaking around in front of the camera. If I did it now, I'd probably model it in 3D, unless I had money to do make up, and in that case I would have an actor play the role. Big budget viral videos, that's where it's at right?
All in all, I was working on it for about 2 months from start to finish. I'm not sure how many hours exactly, but I can tell you there were a lot of 15 hour days. I would basically wake up and work on it until I went to sleep. Again, this video can be made by me now in about 4 days, so you can definitely tell I was taking the long way around to achieve the look. That's part of the problem with learning along the way.
Me: That's a hell of a process, but it sounds like you taught yourself a great amount of CGI skill. Now that you're a seasoned computer graphics artist, what's your opinion of how CGI is used in entertainment these days?
JM: CGI in films nowadays is very hit and miss, but for the most part it's way way better than it was a few years ago. Programs are getting extremely good at giving artists the tools they need to make their work look photo realistic. I can do stuff on my home computer now that at one point in the history of CGI was only possible by studios. However, like most things on set, CG is only as good as the time and money you put into it. Most of the Hollywood blockbusters nowadays are doing a very good job investing in VFX. Any time you can do an effect practically, you should, but I think CG is finally reaching the stage where you can blur that line while making that decision.
Me: Have you reached a stage where you've attained your signature style of CGI artistry, or is it more of an evolution?
JM: V/H/S does a pretty decent job representing my efforts. I'm always trying to find a way to make things feel like they were practical. I think there are very good CG artists out there, and I'd say a fuck load of them are better than me. The only real difference is going to be the ideas we come up with. I've got crazy ideas in my head and somehow I've given myself the tools to bring them to life. I can only hope my future projects continue to one up the last ones.
Me: Speaking of future projects, we're crazy glad to have you on board as Love in the Time of Monsters' Visual Effects Supervisor. Can you tell us about your approach to working on it? Do you foresee any stepping outside your comfort zone and changing things up in either style or content?
JM: This is the first time I've been a VFX supervisor, and it will take me some time to get use to not being the one who does every visual effect. So, in a sense I'm already stepping out of my comfort zone. Luckily, my style is all about making things look as close to practical as possible. However, I do have a unique style of animation and timing, so I'm curious to see how we achieve my look with a team. Looking forward to it.
Me: If you had the time and resources to create any special effect at all - your dream effect - what would it be?
JM: There's a mountain range near the California and Arizona border that I've always thought looked like the back of a huge monster of some sort. I have no idea what the things would look like, but I've always imagined this thing waking up from a deep sleep and slowly raising into the air while millions of tons of rock and debris fall from it's sides. The scale of this thing really intrigues me as well as the physics and power involved. I may just do it anyway. Shoot it on an iPhone so I can spread it on the internet as something real. [laughs]
Me: That is totally badass! You like spectacle, don't you.
JM: The thing that draws me to filmmaking is the chance to show people, and myself, something that we can never see in reality. My favorite movie of all time is Back to the Future as it definitely represents everything that I love about movies. I'm always looking to try new things, and as much as I would like to go out and make the next Back to the Future, I feel like there's room for movies to go in a new direction and that's part of my love for found footage. There's a famous story about the 1895 silent film L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de La Ciotat, in which people in the audience were said to have panicked during the approach of a train on screen. I've been pretty fascinated with the idea that people reacted so strongly to a movie that they thought it might be real for a long time. Ultimately, this is the thing I'm most intrigued by in movies. I may never get to go to space, let alone fight some insane creature, but if you can make me feel like I'm there then it's a step in the right direction. Conventional movies just don't do that for me anymore. I'm not saying that found footage is the answer, but I think it forces people in the right direction and it definitely makes you feel like you're a part of the journey. But don't leave out great characters, because we all wanna go on adventures with our best friends and there's nothing I'd rather do than travel through time with Michael J. Fox.
Me: Regarding digital escapism, I understand that you don't play Call of Duty as much as you used to, and also took a hiatus from Facebook. Is this isolation related to your success, and if so is it worth it bro?
JM: [laughs] I love this question. As far as Call of Duty, I played every version of that game since Modern Warfare was released. I probably played it everyday, and there were countless times where I said to myself, I wonder what kind of useful shit I could be doing right now. It was a trap game for sure. The other reason I stop playing it was to limit the amount of time I spend looking at a monitor during the day. Between VFX and Call of Duty, my brain was taking a hit. I do miss it though. Damn it, no I don't. I really don't. As for Facebook, I have two reasons for that as well. I want to hang out with my friends in the real world and number two is that I am a bit of a firecracker when it comes to talking about the cool shit we have going on. It was only a matter of time before I release top secret info for the world to see. Better safe than sorry. I'll be back soon. It's fun to stalk people and I miss that.
Me: Yeah, you can get pretty creepy. Speaking of women, describe your dream girl.
JM: I'm pretty sure that most of my friends know that my dream girl is Jennifer Love Hewitt. I don't care if people think she's crazy. Fuck them, she's one of the main reasons I wanted to be a director. [laughs] If we cast her in something someday, I'm gonna make a move. How about this bit of info - apparently they shot an episode of Ghost Whisperer in the same house that we shot our segment for V/H/S. I was definitely walking through that house wondering where she had stood. [laughs] I really wish I was joking. I just got sad.
Me: If you could get any tattoo?
JM: I would get full sleeves. I've got a few friends who are covered in tattoos and I think it's a pretty badass look. I don't have any tattoos right now, so it's all or nothing with me. As for the content, it would probably be a fuck load of dinosaur heads, various species. My hands would have a brachiosaurus on each of them with the neck running along my middle finger so that I could flip off people with a brachiosaurus. [laughs]
Me: What's your favorite sandwich?
JM: There's a place in Tucson, AZ called Beyond Bread. They make a sandwich called the Chad's Choice which consists of grilled chicken breast, melted mozzarella, sprouts, green chili, and mayonnaise on toasted sourdough bread. It's not just bread, it's beyond bread.
Me: How come you're so rad?
JM: I'm a robot.
Me: Does being a robot give you an advantage when dealing with torturous amounts of tedious computer animation?
JM: I've never had to use a mouse.
Me: I'd rather not follow up on that. Thanks for talking with me today.