‘The Squonk’ started back in 2010 in my first year of school at Film University Babelsberg. It’s based on an American folktale from the 19th century, about an ugly monster known as The Squonk that cries because he’s so lonely, but his tears bring forth the flowers of spring. My co-writer and director Mike Bothe and I fell in love with the story and wanted to make it as a short two-minute side project, but once we started to work on the script we realized it was bigger than that, so we pushed it back to 2011. At that point, we worked on the script and it grew to 15 minutes, which was not doable at the time, so we pushed it again to 2012. That was my penultimate year at film school so I decided to tackle it as my thesis project, which was a good chance to get some funding for set design and props. So, at that point it became a large-scale production; it actually ended up being the largest production in the history of the school, even though it’s just a short film.
We finally began principal photography in 2012. We built a 150 square foot life size set in a studio with real plants and fake life size trees and we built a real lake with eight tons of water. We also have a lot of blue screen shots; most of the visual effects work is creating backgrounds from matte paintings and using various miniature sets and individual elements. In 2013, we built every shot in miniature models on a 1:12 scale, plus 900 individual elements, and since then we’ve been working on the VFX.
Another VFX challenge is The Squonk itself. We have to track its eyes for every shot and replace them with digital eyes to look more life-like. Now we’re 89% done with VFX, and we’re looking forward to finishing the whole film sometime this year – about three years later than I originally intended! The final piece is 17 minutes and has 220 shots total; 153 of which are VFX shots.
How many people are working on ‘The Squonk?’
We have more than 300 people on board on for this project. It takes time because people are mostly working on this in their spare time, for free – we are totally relying on people’s help and I’m very indebted to so many people who have contributed their time and talent. Many of the shots are complicated and we need professional artists to work on them to do the high level matte painting and compositing. We’ve been lucky enough to get volunteers from Framestore, Double Negative, Digital Domain, Scanline, Weta; lots of people who already work in these top facilities pulling long days and then they’re nice enough to go home and work on ‘The Squonk.’ To find artists, I mostly skimmed through showreels on the internet and if I liked something then I reached out via email and convinced them that I needed their contribution. We’re actually still looking for some help with animation and compositing!
How did you first hear about Shotgun?
Shotgun came on board as early as 2011, before we started shooting. Our VFX Supervisor Timor Kardum had just started using Shotgun at his company OMSTUDIOS, and he recommended that I try it out for this project.
How are you using Shotgun on ‘The Squonk’?
In the beginning, we used it as a database for planning. We created all the shots and tasks, and Timor created bids for how long each task was estimated to take and their level of difficulty. This was very helpful when I was recruiting artists because I was able to give them an accurate idea of the scope of tasks and could assign ones that they were realistically able to fulfill.
Then, of course, we used Shotgun for the review and approval process and to keep track of progress.
How is Shotgun essential for this project?
‘The Squonk’ is really only possible because of Shotgun; it’s the backbone of this whole project. It has made it possible to realize a production of this scale with this environment of international artists working remotely. Since principal photography, everyone has been remote; some people would come into OMSTUDIOS if they are in Berlin and want to use the render farm, but for the most part people work from wherever they are. Having hundreds of people around the world all on Shotgun is a really cool way of working.
Shotgun actually helped right from the beginning while we were still in the planning stages. We set up the whole film in Shotgun before we shot anything. Every shot was storyboarded and some were previsualized, and they all had tasks attached – we had to create models for most shots in 3D to figure out how big the set had to be and what could fit in the studio. Shotgun became like my external memory. I just couldn’t keep track of hundreds of tasks and shots on my own.
It’s also the center of the review process, which is crucial. When you work remotely and you can’t get together with your team and look at the same screen and point at what’s in front of you, the Shotgun review system is really helpful to immediately make notes right in the browser. Our director of photography lives in Switzerland now, our director is in Hawaii, Timor and I are in Berlin, and we can all comment on the same version as soon as it’s uploaded. I don’t know how this would be possible without Shotgun.
What content creation tools are being used on ‘The Squonk?’
It really depends on what our artists have access to and their preferences, but we have mostly recruited Nuke artists for compositing and Maya artists for 3D. Some shots were also created in 3ds Max. In the beginning we wrote a very long FAQ that described the whole workflow including Shotgun. I’ve been impressed with how smoothly things have gone.
Describe a typical day in your life.
My day job is at a feature film production company where I do a lot of financing and screenplay development. I keep up with ‘The Squonk’ in my spare time after work and on the weekends to coincide with artists who might be working similar hours, so then I’m always looped in and I know where everything stands.
What has inspired you creatively?
We tried to create the film in the German fairy tale style that was en vogue during Romanticism and to replicate the symbolic language of that time. Visually the point of reference is Romanticist painter Casper David Friedrich. He traveled throughout Europe and captured details like single trees from all over, and then went back home to his workshop and put those disparate elements together to create a whole new landscape. This is very much how we created our landscape as well. We tried to replicate the feeling of his paintings in a film.
Lastly, what is your favorite thing about working in Berlin?
Berlin is awesome! It’s very international. For a city of this size, it’s very affordable. It’s very vibrant and welcoming, there are a lot of artists and start-ups, lots of creatives and cool stuff always happening.