The Making of “Alien Outpost”

by Graham Edwards

"Alien Outpost" - the mothership attacks

Alien Outpost follows the fortunes of two documentary cameramen embedded in a USDF army unit at Outpost 37 – one of a dwindling number of military outposts built to defend the planet against an alien invasion that occurred ten years previously. With the war now over, both funding and support for these obsolete defences are in short supply, and all that remains is to mop up those aliens left behind after the departure of their mothership. But have the invaders – armoured giants known as Heavies – really retreated, or are they just biding their time before the next phase of the invasion begins?

Made on a budget of under $5 million and shot in the style of a military documentary – complete with cutaways to interviews with all the main protagonists – Alien Outpost is the feature directing debut of VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani. The film contains 322 visual effects shots, delivered primarily by Hybride, where the key staff were Daniel Leduc, Pierre Raymond, Thierry Delattre and Philippe Theroux. Additional visual effects support was given by Craig Crawford at Cadence Effects, and individual artists Colin McCusker and Neall Stafford. Practical creature effects were the province of Alliance Studios.

Alien-Outpost-Heavy-2

In addition, a handful of effects shots were created by the director himself, who also served the film as production visual effects supervisor. “It was offered to me to have a VFX supervisor, but I said, you know what, let’s save the money and put it towards the actual shots, and I’ll take on the extra workload,” Raisani explained. “I ended up doing about a dozen shots myself, when we’d run out of money, but I knew we still had to do them!”

The Origins of Alien Outpost

"Alien Outpost" is the feature debut of VFX supervisor turned director, Jabbar Raisani.

“Alien Outpost” is the feature debut of VFX supervisor turned director, Jabbar Raisani.

Jabbar Raisani’s film career began at the age of 17, when a high school mentorship programme in his home state of Texas introduced him to visual effects and animation. After a stint at Atomic Pictures in San Antonio, he gained his first feature credit on Spykids 3-D: Game Over, working as a technical director for Janimation in Dallas. Following a move to Los Angeles, Raisani found employment at Stan Winston Studio, where he worked as both CG supervisor and previs artist on features including Fantastic Four, Eight Below and Iron Man.

It was while at Stan Winston Studio that Raisani first felt the urge to direct. “We were doing the practical suit for Iron Man,” he recalled. “At the time, Stan Winston Studio was sort of at the forefront of the rapid prototyping game, and we decided collectively that this would be the best way to do the suit.”

Remembering the day when Robert Downey Jr. first walked on to the Iron Man set wearing the partial suit, Raisani said, “Marvel had never seen him in the suit before. The director, Jon Favreau, had never seen him in the suit before. So it was really a tense moment. I found myself just watching Favreau work – you know, he totally owned that moment. He had Robert Downey walk around, he tried out camera angles – he just had such confidence. Watching Favreau do that, I was like, ‘Oh man, now that’s what I want to do!’”

A subsequent move to Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios saw Raisani working as a visual effects supervisor on films including Machete and Predators. “I just pushed all the time to get on to set,” Raisani remarked, “and Robert Rodriguez gave me that chance.” After Predators, Raisani and another Troublemaker alumnus – Blake Clifton – returned to Los Angles to strike out on their own. “I wanted to direct films, and Blake wanted to be a cinematographer. So we started thinking about what was going to be our first feature.”

Drawing from their individual military backgrounds – and a shared love of military documentaries – Raisani and Clifton moved into an apartment and co-wrote the screenplay for Alien Outpost. “We had almost no furniture – a bed and a dresser each, and a television sitting on top of the box it came in. Oh, and two beanbags. All we did was watch movies and write.”

"Alien Outpost" was shot on location in South Africa.

“Alien Outpost” was co-written by Jabbar Raisani and Blake Clifton, and shot on a number of privately-owned farm locations in South Africa.

Building Outpost 37

Alien Outpost was shot in South Africa, on a small number of locations approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Johannesburg. Getting clearance to shoot a film full of firefights and pyrotechnics proved more difficult than the filmmakers had anticipated. “The first location we chose was a national park,” Raisani recalled. “At first they said, ‘Oh yeah – lots of people film commercials in here.’ So we met the park ranger and walked out to the place where I wanted to build the Outpost. I told him there were going to be explosions and gunfire, but said that we would not actually damage anything. He stopped me in mid-conversation and said, ‘I just want you to be aware that I’m uncomfortable even with how far we’ve walked on the grass here.”

With permission refused to film in the national park, the production team began investigating alternatives. “We found a farm that was privately owned – what in Texas I would call a ranch,” said Raisani. “It turned out that the guy who managed it was really into visual effects. So he and I kind of hit it off. I told him, ‘If you let us shoot here, I’ll put you in the film.’ And he was game.”

Other locations – including a quarry, a deserted village and the valley in which the film’s final confrontation would play out – were found nearby, each no more than 15 minutes’ drive from the farm, which would also function as the production’s base camp.

The large ensemble cast were put through a week of boot camp before shooting began, during which they were required to stay in character at all times.

The large ensemble cast were put through a week of boot camp before shooting began, during which they were required to stay in character at all times.

Before shooting began, the actors spent a week together on location, familiarising themselves with the environment and getting into character. “We did a week of boot camp,” Raisani confirmed. “All the guys were there from sunrise to sunset, and they had to stay in their ranks. We had a military advisor, and he ensured that each of them knew what their rank was, and how they worked in the hierarchy. They really fell into it.”

Raisani encouraged the actors to stay in role throughout the production by maintaining an open set. “A lot of guys spent a lot of time on set. I said, ‘Look, if any of you guys want to be there, you can be there. The more people on camera, the cooler this is going to look, and the more it’s going to feel like you guys really are together out there.’ Some of the scenes were very character-specific, but otherwise if they wanted to be there, they could absolutely be there.”

Creating the Aliens

Alien-Outpost-Design-1

Production designer Eddie Yang was responsible for the overall look of the film, from the run-down Outpost 37, around which much of the action is centred, to the alien Heavies and their associated technology. For the Heavies specifically, Yang worked hand-in-hand with Steve Wang, who led the Stan Winston Studio design team behind the iconic alien hunter in Predator.

“The idea was to have a future that’s based in reality,” Raisani remarked. “When the Heavies attacked, they decimated our ability to produce new things. So a lot of the human tech is the same as what we have now. Part of that was budgetary. If I could have built all kinds of brand new, cool, futuristic vehicles, I would have explored that more. But we knew it wasn’t feasible.”

Alien-Outpost-Design-2Yang and Wang turned to a number of reference sources for the aliens, including video games and films, as well as nature. “We looked at a lot of reptilian photographs,” commented Raisani, “particularly turtles and lizards – they were a big inspiration for the Heavy.”

While the designers explored a number of radical body shapes, the final Heavy design was a more conventional, lizard-like biped. “We tried something with multiple legs,” said Raisani. “We even had one whose bottom part was a snake. But ultimately I knew I wanted a guy in a suit. I come from a practical effects background, so I know that doing it that way is very cost-effective in the places where you can get away with it. Also, if you have the suit there in the plate, it’s perfect lighting reference.”

Initial Heavy designs took the form of sketches in both 2D and 3D, with the designers working primarily in Photoshop and ZBrush. From there, the team at Alliance Studios – a creature and make-up effects company newly set up by Yang and Wang – sculpted the creature in clay and took moulds. “They pulled foam rubber suits from the mould, and then airbrushed them,” Raisani explained. “The suit had a self-actuating jaw, which attached directly to the jaw of the suit performer, Doug Tate. When Doug opened his mouth, the mouth opened; when he closed his mouth, it closed.”

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The USDF troops have their first close encounter with the Heavies when they leave Outpost 37 to investigate allegations that one of their mortar rounds has hit the nearby village of Ghrem. While exploring a quarry littered with dead goats, they are ambushed by the waiting aliens.

“We had Doug Tait there in the suit all day,” Raisani recounted. “It was really rough terrain, so I knew it would be problematic having him take the suit on and off. We scouted all the places where he would appear, and then slotted our day based on the knowledge that it would take him roughly twenty minutes to move from place to place. We would do a shot of the Heavy, and then while he was moving location, we would be filming down in the quarry. So we were leapfrogging back and forth.”

Performer Doug Tait wore the Heavy suit, created by Alliance Studios, in all the scenes featuring the alien invaders.

Performer Doug Tait wore the Heavy suit, created by Alliance Studios, for most of the scenes featuring the alien invaders.

On a separate day, Raisani set up a rolling greenscreen shoot of Tait performing in the suit, in natural light. “We did a shot every half-hour throughout the day, when we knew we didn’t need the Heavy for anything else. That gave us a kind of library of elements to use later in post, with different actions and lighting.”

While most of the scenes featuring the alien Heavies were shot using Tait in the suit, many of the shots were augmented digitally. For some shots, the Heavy was replaced entirely by its digital counterpart.

Digital enhancements to the Heavy suit included a wider range of facial expressions and an additional reversed leg joint. In some scenes, Hybride replaced the suit entirely by its digital counterpart.

Digital enhancements to the Heavy suit included a wider range of facial expressions and an additional reversed leg joint. In some scenes, Hybride replaced the suit entirely by its digital counterpart.

“We knew he was going to be augmented from the beginning,” Raisani commented. “Given the budget, we knew we could afford one practical Heavy with a helmet and removable armour, which would give us multiple configurations. But we knew we couldn’t make the eyes move. We actually ended up adjusting the suit a little bit more than planned. We made a decision in post to give it a leg like a dog, which meant that in any scene where you see its bottom half, we had to adjust the legs to the new shape.”

The digital Heavy was based on a 3D scan of the suit. “We scanned the entire suit in LA, but decided to use our unit photographer for the texture shoot to reduce the cost,” Raisani recalled. “The resulting OBJ files, along with the raw data, all went up to Hybride.” Shots featuring the digital Heavy were modelled and animated in Autodesk Softimage and rendered out using Solid Angle Arnold.

Watch a video breakdown reel of visual effects from Alien Outpost:

Fire and Fights

The ambush in the quarry is just one of many firefights in Alien Outpost. Every shot featuring pyrotechnics – with the exception of a fully digital shot which comes at the film’s climax – began with a practical effect. Each the time the weapons of the Heavies came into play, however, digital enhancements were used to give them a suitably alien edge.

“When the Heavies’ weapons go off, I wanted blue energy tied in with that,” Raisani explained. “We did some tests, but actually having blue explosions is really difficult, both in terms of safety and the availability of materials. So we started with a real explosion, then Hybride went in and added a digital explosion that matched the timing of the practical one.”

With the exception of one fully digital explosion, all the pyrotechnics seen in "Alien Outpost" had a practical base.

With the exception of one fully digital explosion, all the pyrotechnics seen in “Alien Outpost” had a practical base.

The more conventional tracer fire seen throughout the action was created by UK-based visual effects artist Colin McCusker – with whom Raisani had worked previously on Game of Thrones.

Despite the “make do and mend” philosophy of their war-torn world, the USDF troops do have access to one piece of futuristic technology: their guns are loaded with High Impact Phosphorus Rounds (HIPR), otherwise known as “Reds”. The bullets have an outer armour-piercing case, which contains a second round whose purpose is to inject incendiaries directly into the enemy’s body. “The Reds are very high-tech,” Raisani confirmed, “although there’s nothing really radical that happens with them visually … except for when they explode.”

During one of the gun battles, a human insurgent is blown apart by one of the high-impact Reds. “We shot a stunt guy running up the hill with practical squibs on, shooting blood out,” Raisani stated. “Then we put a dummy out there, filled it with explosives and blew it apart. Hybride combined the two shots together, and added some digital gore.”

Outpost 37 Stills 2013

For a scene in which an insurgent is hit by an incendiary round, a dummy was filled with explosives and blown apart. Hybride combined the shot digitally with footage of a stuntman running into position, and enhanced it with digital gore.

A similar approach was used for a scene in which a captured Heavy is shot in the head at point-blank range: “Doug Tait did a performance in the suit of the Heavy dying, and then we shot a rig covered in blood bags that we exploded on camera. Again, Hybride did a digital blend and added gore.”

Additional gore effects can be seen in a scene where one of the USDF soldiers slashes the neck of an insurgent. The performer playing the victim wore a prosthetic fitted with a practical blood rig, while his attacker mimed the cutting action. Cadence Effects completed the effect by adding a digital blade to the practical knife hilt.

Seeing in the Dark

At key points in the story, important action is seen playing out on computer monitors, using either thermal or night vision. The thermal footage was shot for real using a heat-sensitive camera. With the exception of the screen on the thermal camera itself, all the monitor displays were tracked in during post-production.

“I worked on Predators, and although we did some real stuff for the Predators’ vision, most of it ended up being done digitally, and for me it just never looks the same,” Raisani confessed. “So I said, ‘Look, we have to have a thermal camera there every single day.’ We had a guy shooting in tandem with us; there are also some shots where the actors playing the journalists had the real thermal camera.”

A different approach was taken with the night vision. “The helicopter night vision was done by Cadence Effects,” Raisani revealed. “We had a little drone with a camera, and we put it everything through Nuke to make it look like night vision.”

Monitor screens featuring both real thermal imagery and simulated night vision were shot separately and composited into the live action plates during post-production.

Monitor screens featuring both real thermal imagery and simulated night vision were shot separately and composited into the live action plates during post-production.

The Spire

The film’s finale sees the USDF soldiers confronting both Heavies and their mind-controlled human minions in the shadow of a mysterious alien structure known as the Spire. While the Spire was a largely digital construct, strategically-positioned set pieces aided its integration into the environment. “We realised the landscape had nowhere for the bad guys to hide,” Raisani explained. “So we built these cubes, which we integrated into the design of the Spire. We worked a dozen or so of the cubes into the landscape, then Hybride worked those practical elements into the design.”

A similar approach was used for later scenes set inside the Spire. “The bottom ten feet of the Spire interior was a practical build, using the same cubes, because I knew that I didn’t want to have to extend the set for every shot,” commented Raisani. “We moved the cubes from shot to shot, so it would feel like the whole room was filled with them. Craig Crawford at Cadence Effects did some very simple digital augmentation: a light flicker with a little movement in it, and Hybride did a wide shot. But it was 90% there in-camera.”

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After the Battle

In a brief post-credits scene, the surviving members of the Outpost 37 team are seen embarking on their next operation. Andros (Reiley McClendon), who loses his hand during the film’s final battle, is seen wearing a prosthetic replacement. “Eddie Yang sculpted the hand digitally, and we rapid-prototyped the digital parts and joined all the mechanisms together,” Raisani explained. “It was kind of a puppet – like those little elasticated figurines where you push on the base and the whole thing collapses, then you let off the pressure and the whole thing pops back up. When you see Andros closing the prosthetic hand, Eddie’s just off-camera acting as puppeteer.”

Another character sports a prosthetic leg to replace the limb he lost in action. “That was done sort of old-school,” said Raisani. “The actor is just sitting on top of his own leg. For the replacement leg, Eddie just bought someone’s prosthetic leg in South Africa on the internet. It belonged to someone’s relative who had died. It cost about 50 bucks.”

A moment of rare calm in "Alien Outpost"

Reflections on Alien Outpost

Jabbar Raisani is one of a number of visual effects artist who have recently turned their hands to writing and directing. The highest profile example is perhaps Gareth Edwards, whose indie film Monsters led to his taking the helm on the 2014 big-budget reboot of Godzilla. At the same time, crowdsourcing has enabled other effects professionals to get their own feature projects into production.

“I think this is probably a trend,” Raisani opined. “There is more visual effects in film nowadays, which means guys like me are getting more control on set, and we’re naturally falling more and more into a directorial seat. I ended up doing a lot of second unit stuff before I even knew really what directing was. If you have a passion for storytelling, I think it’s a natural progression towards directing your own material.”

With his first feature under his belt, Raisani is already planning more films, including an additional three set in the same world as Alien Outpost. “The second one picks up close to where this one finishes,” he revealed. “There’s a third, which is really the end of the story, and then we’re coming back around for a prequel. So if everyone likes this one – and if all the numbers come back the way they should – then I think it’s likely there will be a follow-up.”

Other films in development include Capturing the Dead, a horror film co-written with Blake Clifton, and Pulse, adapted by Raisani from the novel by Jeremy Robinson. “When you’re setting out as a director – and maybe forever – you’ve got to have three or four projects all on the move,” Raisani reflected. “Then you just have to follow the heat. Whichever one gets steaming: go with it!”

“As for Alien Outpost, I feel really good about it. It’s one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done, but equally one of the most rewarding. At the end of the day it’s the movie I wanted to make.”

Jabbar Raisani and Blake Clifton with the cast of "Alien Outpost"

Jabbar Raisani and Blake Clifton with the cast of “Alien Outpost”

Special thanks to Craig Bankey and Laurie Cook. Alien Outpost photographs and video copyright © 2015 O37 Films Limited.

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