"Postcards From The Future" is a 38-minute large-format motion picture feature that chronicles the life story of a civilian engineer working on the moon, set against the 'return to space' canvas that is laid out in NASA's declaration of a New Vision For Space Exploration. Director Alan Chan leverages a decade of visual effects experience along with the most technologically advanced digital cinema cameras to carve out an intriguing vision of the possible future.
From Humble Beginnings
For Alan, Postcards was always a labor of love. The wonder and excitement for space exploration that he experienced growing up in the post-Apollo era made for a lifelong passion of space. When NASA announced the New Vision in 2004, Alan found himself driven to help contribute to his love of science and exploration.. and so ‘Postcards From The Future’ was conceived.
With constant feedback and notes from editor John McGinley, the nucleus of the story was conceived and written in early 2005. The initial pitch line was designed to be doable on a limited independent film budget - “Guy sits down in front of camera and records anecdotes about his work to his wife”. We would simply build a back wall, drop an actor in front of the camera and call ‘Action!’ But then things changed…
"Alan had every intention of making a small film. But once he has an idea for the story he wants to tell, he won't let the constraints of a small budget get in the way of creating that vision. As the process went along we could see that it was better for the film, for example, to show a shot of a functioning space elevator, than it was to describe it in dialog. So the simple 40 shot project ballooned to 140 shots.”
“In his mind it is still a small film, and he won't allow the quality of the visuals to fall below a personal standard he's set during his years of visual effects work. I don't think you've seen this level of quality in any small independent short film, and that's because Alan is fearless when it comes to using bleeding edge technology and filmmaking techniques. To me his ideas on future filmaking techniques is more interesting than his vision of space travel."
Preproduction began in earnest with producer Linda Capetillo-Cunliffe joining the team to help put the shoot logistics together. Editor McGinley gave the production a hefty push when he edited 114 pages of storyboards together along with temp dialogue tracks, to build the first cut of Postcards. This draft became our ‘bible’, from which we would refine, modify, tweak and change sequences to lock down what we would eventually shoot on-stage.
The next few months of preproduction flew by extremely fast. As McGinley finetuned the storyboard edit with previsualization animatics, a casting call and audition brought in close to 700 headshot submissions, from which Alan selected Robert Hughes to play the protagonist engineer Sean Everman, and Cori Bright as his daughter Caleigh Everman.
Cinematographer Eric Adkins (“Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow”) also joined the team at this time to help plan the logistics for a greenscreen shoot.
“Alan had originally planned to shoot Postcards on HD cameras,” Eric explains, “but instead of recording the digital data output onto tape stock, Alan wanted to record straight to hard drive servers. Because it was an effects-heavy project, all the footage would eventually have to be manipulated digitally, and shooting direct-to-disk would eliminate having to convert from tape to disk, saving both money and time.”
Through Eric’s help, the production was put in touch with Dalsa’s Digital Cinema Group (http://www.dalsa.com/dc/), makers of the Dalsa Origin digital cinema camera, which would not only output direct-to-disk, but would also record at higher bit depths and at 4K resolution.
“It is amazing what this beautiful 4k sensor can deliver in terms of uncompressed clarity and detail,” Eric stated, “but what I really wanted to explore was the Origin’s extended dynamic range in exposure latitude, compared to various HD systems. The capture range of the images, as viewed on-set, convinced me to trust my eyes again instead of analyzing the monitor all the time.”
Principal photography was completed over the course of three days on a Hollywood greenscreen stage and generated a total of 3.24 Terabytes of image data (1 Terabyte is 1024 Gigabytes), or roughly about 200,000 total frames – 2.3 hours of raw footage.
With the raw footage “captured to disk”, the production shifted into post. Low-resolution proxy clips were made for offline editing. Actual shots started to replace the storyboard frames in the edit as McGinley worked to finetune the cut while Alan began marshalling resources for visual effects work.
The production leveraged a completely digital production pipeline. Software publisher Adobe Systems Inc. supported our cause and generously donated copies of Adobe Production Suite software; integrated software bundles consisting of Premiere Pro, After Effects and Photoshop CS2 were used heavily to manage postproduction workflow. CGI ships and effects elements were handled in NewTek’s LightWave 3D, Alan’s software-of-choice in over a decade of visual effects work. Leveraging his expertise in Academy Award winning visual effects, Alan assembled a team of modelers, shot lighters and matte painters from around the world to help breathe life into his story. Collaboration tools such as an internet-enabled shot tracking and management system as well as director-selected reference artwork and notes provided artists from such far-flung countries as Lithuania and Brazil to work as a team, allowing the production to “paint a bigger canvas” on screen.
As the effects work was completed, Alan turned to composer John Hunter and Sound Designer Tim Nagle to create the audio component of the project. Music and sound files were swapped back and forth between Dallas, where John and Tim are located, and Alan’s Los Angeles home base. The final colorgrading processed was completed at Dalsa LA headquarters on a Christie projector, and then sent to Curtis Drake at Quvis, who converted over 2 Terabytes of final project imagery and sound into DCI-compliant “digital cinema ready” data.
“It’s been a long ride,” says Alan, “with a lot of time spent creating an entire solar system for our characters to populate. In a sense, my journey on Postcards parallels that of our screen hero Sean Everman. We were pioneering new camera technology and exploring the frontiers of digital cinema. It’s been a rough ride at times, with a lot of stress, hard work and the sacrifice of taking time away from family.
But like space exploration, the final product that comes out of two years of toil contains the promise of a better future. “It is this promise that gives rise to the thinkers and dreamers that will build the technologies that we only dream about today. And if I am able to do that – then the journey will have been worth it.”