In the independent sci-fi feature The Beyond, a group of cyber-enhanced astronauts voyages through a mysterious wormhole in space. Following their unexpected return, space experts investigate the enigma surrounding mankind’s first interstellar journey. Structured as a faux-documentary, The Beyond marks the directorial debut of Hasraf ‘Haz’ Dulull who, in addition to writing and producing the film, was the driving force behind its visual effects.
Having cut his filmmaking teeth as a visual effects artist on films including The Dark Knight and Prince of Persia, Dulull later worked as both visual effects supervisor and producer on other projects. Cinefex caught up with Dulull just a few days after the release of The Beyond on streaming platforms worldwide.
HASRAF DULULL: In between my visual effects jobs I created short films. One of them, Project Kronos, went viral on the Internet in 2013, which landed me a manager in Hollywood and my first feature film development deal with Benderspink, as well as development assignments with Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox. After that, I completed two other short films, IRIS and SYNC, both tapping into my love for grounded science fiction and serving as proof of concepts for feature films. Then came my debut feature, The Beyond.
Watch a 30-minute video on the making of The Beyond:
CINEFEX: How relevant was your visual effects experience as you moved up the ladder?
HASRAF DULULL: You could say working in visual effects was my film school! My career as a visual effects artist was a massive help in knowing how to achieve things digitally, but I only realized I wanted to go into directing when I became a visual effects supervisor, working closely with directors, editors, producers and cinematographers to figure out how to achieve things within budget and on schedule, yet still retain the vision of the story. I felt that I’d picked up enough knowledge and experience working on set and with studios to do that.
CINEFEX: And all of that culminated in The Beyond.
HASRAF DULULL: Yes, that visual effects education allowed me to make this film on an almost impossibly tight budget, and achieve what on the page might have appeared to be crazy-ambitious.
CINEFEX: Directing is one thing. How comfortable were you wearing your producer’s hat?
HASRAF DULULL: As producer on a commercial feature film I had to learn how to deal with things like clearances, errors and omission insurance, chain of title, script report, and a whole bunch of paperwork that’s required before a distributor will pick up your film. Thankfully, my co-producer Paula Crickard helped with this. The other thing I learned was the whole sales angle of getting a reputable distributor on board to sell the film in worldwide territories. Other filmmakers advised me that getting the right distributor is a big part in how your film will be released. The Beyond was never designed to be a theatrical film, and doesn’t have big-name actors, therefore I wanted someone with a big reach in the VOD world.
CINEFEX: It sounds like quite a journey.
HASRAF DULULL: It’s been one hell of a journey!
CINEFEX: Where did the idea for The Beyond first germinate?
HASRAF DULULL: It really started when I was working on the feature film development of Project Kronos in my spare time. That was great, as I learned so much from working with the executives and producers, but as with a lot of film development it took several years. I didn’t have the patience for that. Also, I was getting a lot of ‘first-time director’ stigma in Hollywood — studios were not keen on taking risks with someone who had only done short films.
CINEFEX: So you broke out on your own?
HASRAF DULULL: Yes. I took back the rights to The Beyond and planned that as my debut feature film. I redeveloped it to make it feel more like Project Kronos — a cerebral science fiction film that blends the realism of documentary with the fantastical ‘big ideas’ of science fiction films today. I’d describe it as a passion project with a commercial angle.
CINEFEX: Did things move faster once you were working independently?
HASRAF DULULL: Well, I spent a year developing the script, then raised the finance personally and gathered my team — the same people who had supported me on my short films including my cinematographer, Adam Batchelor, music composers, Zelig, and my visual effects support team. I had a good relationship with Blackmagic from using their cameras in my short film SYNC, so they came on as a technology sponsor, and I edited and post-finished the film in DaVinci Resolve 14. Adobe provided me with some access credits to their Adobe Stock library — The Beyond used stock footage for many of its supporting scenes, which we later augmented with visual effects. During the later stages, one of the co-producers, Lee Murphy, brought in a private investor who saw the rushes and was impressed with the fact I had the balls to finance my first film. He put in finishing funds to help get the audio mixed and finished.
CINEFEX: You mentioned using stock footage. How extensive was the live-action shoot, and where did you stage scenes?
HASRAF DULULL: A large portion of the film was shot like a traditional documentary with a guerilla feel — I wanted to shoot as much as possible in real locations. We were very lucky to get locations such as the UK’s National Space Centre in Leicester, rooftops at Malaysia’s Asia Pacific University, and Iceland for the alien planet. We shot interview scenes at the Escape Studios visual effects training facility in West London, and found an exterior location near York for the military scenes.
CINEFEX: What about the Human 2.0 laboratory? Surely you had to build a set for that?
HASRAF DULULL: That was a combination of a real location — a school design and tech classroom — augmented with great production design. Our production designers, Silvija Meilunaite and Oliver Spiers, really took an outside-the-box approach, sourcing materials and building the set in a single day ready to shoot the next day! We did extensive previs for those scenes by visiting the location in advance and taking tons of photos — that helped us figure out how to transform the room.
CINEFEX: Same thing with the Mission Control room?
HASRAF DULULL: Pretty much. That was another big school classroom that we converted. We rented several large screens hooked up to Hewlett Packard laptops, and loaded up pre-rendered animated screen content on those and all the classroom computer screens. Our art department worked their magic by adding props on the desk and making it look busy. We referenced NASA a lot.
CINEFEX: Did you shoot on stages, or use greenscreens, at any point?
HASRAF DULULL: No, we didn’t use any greenscreens or bluescreens. The only stage we used was for the ‘white room’ astronaut scene, which we shot over at Asylum FX in London. We had an actor wearing an astronaut suit and used brightly exposed lighting to give a surreal feeling, which we augmented further in visual effects.
CINEFEX: So how long did the shoot last?
HASRAF DULULL: In total, it was somewhere around 20 days. The shoot was staggered throughout 2016 because we needed to fit it around actors and location availability. We shot additional scenes in the summer of 2017 during the final stages of postproduction.
CINEFEX: With a film like this, postproduction means a whole heap of visual effects. You did most of that work yourself?
HASRAF DULULL: Yes a lot of the work I did do myself, but with support on the Human 2.0 CG scenes from Filmmore in Amsterdam and Squint VFX in London. I also had a small team of trusted freelancers that I worked with to provide additional support where needed.
CINEFEX: The Human 2.0 characters are kind of the poster children for The Beyond. How did you go about creating them?
HASRAF DULULL: They’re the next generation of astronauts, so it was important they looked cool yet not too fantastical. I originally wanted to do them as practical suits, but after some tests this proved to be too costly and limited us in so many ways. So, the digital approach was the only way to achieve it. I mapped out the workflow beforehand and then shared my plans with CG supervisor Charles Willcocks and on set visual effects supervisor John Sellings. I think that gave them the confidence that their director wasn’t a madman!
CINEFEX: You created the suits in CG, but kept the actors’ faces. What was your methodology during the shoot?
HASRAF DULULL: The actors wore custom tight-fitting grey suits with tracking markers. We didn’t record any dialogue — that was all done later in ADR. For each setup, we used two witness cameras to capture angles not visible with the main camera, and we shot a chrome ball for HDRs using a digital SLR camera at bracketed exposures, plus a grey ball for lighting reference. We recorded other data like camera distance, height, lens, field of view, on paper and then photographed that with an iPhone as well as a Ricoh Theta 360 camera to store digitally.
CINEFEX: Who handled the data capture?
HASRAF DULULL: Dan Newlands — he was my on-set tracking supervisor. John Sellings then organized the data in a labelled folder structure linked with the scene number on the slate.
CINEFEX: So, you captured the performances, plus peripheral data. What came next?
HASRAF DULULL: I would edit the sequence, lock the edit and export each shot as frames with a neutral tech grade applied. In Maya, the matchmove artist would track each plate using the camera data, and place the Human 2.0 asset in the correct world-space position against the footage. Then the animator would roto-animate the rigged asset over the actor’s performance, resulting in a file tagged with ‘ANIM.’ While all that was taking place, a CG artist would light the scene with V-Ray shaders using the HDR and lighting reference. As each animated shot was signed off, the lighting setup would be brought into the animation to create a new file tagged ‘LIGHTING.’
CINEFEX: So at that point it was ready for rendering?
HASRAF DULULL: Right. Once lighting was signed off, we’d render out passes for compositing — beauty, matte and so on. The CG artist would often do a precomp at that point, before sending it all to compositing.
CINEFEX: We’ve seen lots of weird dimensional anomalies in feature films recently. How did you approach making the wormholes in The Beyond?
HASRAF DULULL: Oh, the wormhole sequence was one of my favorites to work on! I didn’t want to have complex CG simulations as it would take too long and we didn’t have access to big render farms. So I took a compositing approach using cool abstract CG elements generated by Aleksandr Uusmees in Houdini. I then applied various distortion techniques in After Effects — such as lens distortion and warping — plus glows, displacements and keyframe animation to give additional movement. We rendered those comps out at 6K so I could distort them further in Resolve during the online editorial effects stage.
CINEFEX: Did you take a similar approach to those undulating spheres that hang in the sky?
HASRAF DULULL: The Dark Orbs took a while to design. I provided Alek with tons of images and textural references, then he used Houdini to create procedural textures driven by simulations — he sent those out to a cloud-based render farm. I used those CG passes in tons of shots, compositing the orbs into live-action skies.
CINEFEX: You mentioned that various people supported you with the visual effects. Apart from those you’ve already mentioned, are there any other names you’d like to shout out?
HASRAF DULULL: Of course! Rhys Griffin handled the Human 2.0 rigging in Maya and generated CG passes for a Human 2.0 skeletal scene using Blender. There was also Andrea Tedeschi, a long time collaborator, who did the CG and comps for the spacecraft carrier and rendered out the CG astronaut passes. Hussin Khan looked after the Malaysian team who provided rotoscope support and basic comps. JM Blay designed and created key motion graphics sequences, and Territory Studio created the awesome end titles and credits sequence. Although I designed all the visual effects, this film would not have been possible without the support of everyone who worked on their assigned sequences and shots, and generated tons of CG assets for me to use in comp.
CINEFEX: The Hollywood Reporter has quoted you as saying you want to “do for sci-fi what Blumhouse did for horror.” Is The Beyond your first step towards achieving that goal?
HASRAF DULULL: Absolutely. We want to make films smartly when it comes to budget and production execution, but most importantly we want to have a commercial route to market on those films. Blumhouse does this so well for the horror genre, and the production company I’ve just co-founded, HaZFilm, has that same ethos with sci-fi. The Beyond is the first film to demonstrate this.
CINEFEX: So what’s next?
HASRAF DULULL: I recently delivered my second feature, Origin Unknown, which is being sold by Kew Media Group. It stars Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica fame, and will get a release date for later in 2018. And HaZFilm has a slate of other projects for film and television at various stages of development and production.
The Beyond is now available worldwide from Gravitas Ventures on iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, Google Play, Amazon Video and other digital streaming platforms. For links visit the HaZFilm website.
Watch the trailer for The Beyond:
Images copyright 2018 © by HaZFilm.