Filmmaker Oliver Daly’s short film made all the right noises when it premiered online in January 2015. It got featured on blogs and websites, it earned over 77,000 views on Vimeo (at the time of writing), and in that ultimate acknowledgment of the indie spirit: Hollywood came calling. According to this piece on Deadline Hollywood, a feature version of Mr. Daly’s film is going to be developed and shepherded into production by David S. Goyer and his Phantom Four production company.
If you haven’t yet seen Miles, check it out below and then scroll on down for my interview with the filmmaker Oliver Daly.
First of all: Congratulations on the short film version of Miles. And secondly, congratulations on capturing the interest of Hollywood and taking those steps towards getting this feature film made!
Thanks Elvis! I’m really happy to be finally sharing the project with everyone.
For Miles, how did you decide to set your story in the world of dirt bike racing?
I’m very interested in a genre-bending style of film making that I call “New American Realism.” I define this as an American (usually independent) film set in a contemporary and authentic world. Great examples of this are Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), Bubble (Steven Soderbergh, 2005), and A Place Beyond The Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012). These films follow the narrative structure of a classic Hollywood genre film, but leave the authenticity of their settings 100% intact. The result is a much-needed reinvention of the kind of Hollywood storytelling that is normally found in old-fashioned westerns, noirs, etc. I wanted to build on this theory of New American Realism by bringing what we’ve learned about digital cinema and CGI into a specific reality. The challenge I set up was to leave the world that we were working in unchanged, and to find space for the narrative within that world. In the off-roading scene, I found an authentic youth culture that harmonically aligned with the spectacle, emotional core, and larger themes of the story that I wanted to tell. Miles is about blurring the boundaries between humanity and technology, so it makes sense that we’re blurring filmmaking boundaries as well, and I think this results in an interesting confluence of the commercial and independent film worlds.
How long did it take for you and your team to truly embed within that community?
This is where social media really became a great tool. I started an Instagram account for the project about 8 months before we shot the film. I used the account to post concept art and follow motocross athletes in Southern California that fit the profile of the characters in the film. Soon enough, I was out at the track pitching the movie to the very kids that it was based on. My primary goal is to make something that actual MX riders respond well to. A lot of specifics changed after I started getting feedback from people who have been in the sport since they were 5.
How long did it take you to arrive on a design of M.A.X. that you were happy with?
This was the longest part of the process. I started the first designs of MAX two years ago and several really talented artists, each with different specialty, have lent their hands along the way. For a while, I was sort of groping in the dark. Without a world to place the character in, it’s pretty hard to tell what works. Once I started shooting MX riders and comping in test versions of M.A.X, the design process became a lot more focused. The creature had to be convincing moving along with the bikes. He had to be powerful looking, but not grotesque. He had to be relatable as a dog, but not cartoony.
How long did it take to work out how the character would interact with–and blend into–the documentary style footage you were capturing of the actors?
We started with 2D drawings and then moved to what you might call a “digital clay” sculpt. From there, we modeled, rigged, and animated in Maya. For the feature length production, I’d like to work with sculpture and 3D printing to further refine things.
Integrating M.A.X. into the live action is an incredible art that takes a number of very gifted artists. I think of the process as bridging the physical and virtual worlds, and it’s not quite magic but close to it. We capture the light of the scene on set by taking HDRI photos of a chrome ball. Then, we use that photo as a sort of dome in the CGI world where MAX resides. We “shoot” MAX in this simulated lighting environment with a virtual camera that’s built off data we collect from the camera used on set. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into every stage and we had a fantastic team.
How hard was it to get your actors to interact with a significant character that wasn’t there? Did you show them what M.A.X. looked like before filming?
Yes, I showed them pictures. I relied on my actors to guide how M.A.X. would interact with them, since we were animating based on what they did in the shot. Sometimes I stood in for M.A.X. and waved a stick and barked at them. For the feature, I’d like to use a motion capture performer to handle the scenes where actors are directly interacting with M.A.X. I also hope we can do some shots in-camera with 3D printed M.A.X. parts.
When working with a purely virtual character how do you think about, and deal with, the ideas of weight and heft for a creature like M.A.X.?
Weight is enormously important and I have to thank my lead animator Delano Althais for really figuring out how to make M.A.X. feel powerful. Another important thing is to have M.A.X. interacting with the environment somehow. I think of the dust that he kicks up as an extension of the character.
How long did it take to make the film?
I had been working on the project in some capacity for a year before we launched the Kickstarter campaign in Feb 2014. We shot in June over two days and two nights and finished up the post right at the end of the year.
Was there any one point where you looked at everything you had and thought: ‘this is not going to work out’?
When I first started the project, it was just a big dream. Having a big dream gives you a certain ecstatic energy. That energy is the constant force that keeps me going, but it also needs to be kept in check. I constantly have to simplify and take a very task-oriented approach to things.
When I get constructive feedback, it can be hard to listen to, but it is critical to put defensiveness aside and focus on a solution. Most of the big breakthroughs happen this way. This requires patience and it is a frustrating process at times, but also incredibly life-affirming and rewarding. At this point, the project has become more special and exciting than I even imagined.
It’s also key to keep focus on the people that are collaborating with you. Make their job as clear, interesting, and valued as possible. The driving momentum for the project is passion, and everyone who has worked on this is genuinely passionate about what they do.
You run a scientific animation studio, tell us a little about that: what does a scientific animation studio do?
We mostly make animated videos of new medical technologies. This includes implantable devices like stent grafts or pace makers. The weirdest gig I’ve ever had was animating an ultrasonic treatment to increase vaginal tightness after childbirth. I’d love to see a coffee table book of the work well-known filmmakers did before they were making movies full-time.
Tell us about the opportunity that has presented itself for Miles. You’ve secured representation, your movie is being ‘packaged’, what does this all mean?
It has taken two years to get to this point, so I wager it’ll be two more years before Miles hits theaters. Perhaps it will be sooner, perhaps later. I don’t want to slow down, I don’t want to speed up. I just want to keep the train moving!
Once I finished the short, it was time to team up with an agency that would help me put together the pieces necessary to get the feature film financed. I signed with a team of younger agents who were very energized to build upon the short, and had done so successfully with similar clients in their roster. I had luck with approaching representatives like other collaborators: reach out to people who aim high, have a clear idea of where you’d like to go as a team, be open to their suggestions, and find out what you can do to make their work most effective.
“Packaging” simply means that the agency will assemble all of the pieces of the film into a “package” that would be desirous to a studio or financier. The package for Miles will include a director (me), a script, producers, a budget, key cast members, etc. The agency will also broker the deal for distribution.
To start this process, my agents set me out on dozens of meetings to find the right producer for the project. Every day since the short came out, I’ve been driving all over Los Angeles on the “couch and water” tour. It’s called this because the receptionist offers you a water before the meeting starts and you’re usually sitting on a couch in a fancy office. Some of these offices are in bungalows on studio lots and you really feel like you’re in “The Bad and the Beautiful.” It’s a bit gruelling, but getting to pitch the feature-length story over and over again has given me an even deeper understanding of the project. I always learn something from every meeting, even if the company I’m meeting with isn’t a match for my project.
After three weeks of these meetings, I selected a production company run by an interesting team. With these guys on board, I’ve begun working on the screenplay under the best possible mentorship anyone could ask for. Meanwhile, we’re developing our plan to get this movie made in a really innovative way.
On your Kickstarter page, where you raised over $40,000 to make the short, you said you hope to make a significant contribution to the legacy of the movie monster. Are we to read that as a clue to a development in the relationship between Miles and M.A.X.?
When I say movie monster, I’m not talking about horror films. I’m referring to the classics: Frankenstein, Island of the Lost Souls, Terminator. These movies are about a “monster” that’s created by humans out of a hunger for more power. What’s interesting about these movies is that the people usually end up acting more like monsters than the monsters themselves. I’m very interested in how we might make monsters out of today’s emerging technological powers, and I’d like to use this film as an opportunity to explore that. The relationship between Miles and M.A.X. is an important part of the story, but the movie is really about what people do with a new kind of power, and the difference between power and strength.
[All pictures courtesy Oliver Daly]