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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dhampira: a full-length test movie

imageEduardo Soto-Falcon is an award-winning filmmaker and scriptwriter currently based in Toronto. Before graduating summa cum laude in the Cinema department of Ithaca College, NY, he worked on Like Water for Chocolate (1992), one of the most successful Mexican films of all time, and then went on to work on several major films, including Clear and Present Danger (1994) as well as the self-financed film El Paje (1999). His cult short movie Dhampira (2001) has been cited by critics as one of the most innovative Mexican horror films, alongside Guillermo de Toro’s Cronos. Recently, he has been developing content for Web distribution and low-budget films while continuing to work on the ideas in Dhampira.

He initially planned to write a novel to expand the story, and then decided instead to write two feature-length screenplays and submit them to Amazon Studios with the aim of getting them picked up for a big budget production. He was attracted by their idea of a “test movie” – basically a rough version of the movie that would get people interested in a way that a script or a trailer couldn’t.  For what he had in mind, live action was outside his budget, so Eduardo looked into animation as an alternative. 

Eduardo is no stranger to animation. “In college I took 2 animation classes, where we collaborated on several projects and all sorts of traditional animation, such as punched paper, stop motion, and collage. My thesis used a combination of those and was shot in 16mm.  It won an award at the Chicago International Film Festival. El Paje has 2 parallel stories, one live action, the other done with graphics. For that one I had originally hired a Russian artist to do the drawings, but I didn’t like the terms he wanted so I had to do it myself. A friend of mine, an architect, did the sets in 3D and I did the characters and composited both things. My characters were drawn on paper, then scanned, coloured and textured with Photoshop.”

For Dhampira, though, he needed something better. “Someone in the Amazon Studios forums was talking about machinima software and suggested several names, one of which was Moviestorm. The 14-day free trial was critical, because I couldn’t invest in something without knowing if I could use it. I used those 14 days to design the characters and play around, and decided to go for it. It was sort of easy, but sometimes I would stumble for a few hours trying to do something new. I needed all my focus to learn as I produced the movie, but found the program quite motivating to make you want to try more things.  Actually my mother helped me a lot with this project, as she was visiting me at the time. She won’t even touch a computer, but she would give me her opinion on the sets and the sequences. Her feminine touch helped me a lot designing the sets. When I was trying to do the very first set by myself, I was blocked, didn’t know where to put the walls or anything, so her help was crucial.”

image   image
3D set design ranged from simple interiors to more elaborate exteriors

It took Eduardo just over three months of solid work to create the test movie once the script was completed.  “Yes, that was exactly my calculation. I approached this movie as a real movie. Pre-production was doing the characters, gathering the props and preparing the sets, which took about one and a half months. Then it took three weeks of production to actually shoot the scenes, and about a month in post-production. It’s about the same as an indie live-action movie. But I was hoping it would be 6 days a week, 8 to 10 hours per day, and it ended up being 7 days a week, 10 to 14 hours (16 when I was editing). I suppose now I could have a more humane schedule and keep it under three months!”

He started by recording all the voices, using a cast of just three people. “I had a previous project in the Amazon contest that was a hybrid between a table read and a first rehearsal, so for that I met a few local actors through other contacts I had. That project didn’t achieve anything, but I met the guy who plays Gaston. He’s actually a photographer, not an actor. The female voices were all done by Victoria Murdoch, a non-union actress with tremendous versatility. I did the rest of the male voices. At first, this dialogue track was supposed to be a rough draft just to help me out with making the movie, but the quality was good enough and I didn’t get a chance to re-record, so they are the final thing. In fact, it’s been a semi-finalist in the Amazon Studios dialogue track contest for the last 2 months.”

image   image
The test movie allowed Eduardo to experiment with using camera angles to convey both character and atmosphere more effectively than he could with just the screenplay.

The movie is shot using about 2,000 screenshots (1 per 2.5 seconds, or 24 frames per minute) with motion and effects added in post-production. Eduardo blended 3D sets and characters with stock footage and photographs to create something quickly that conveyed what he needed. He grins, “I had a program called ScreenHunter Free running in the background that takes snapshots when I hit the right key. I got trigger happy and actually produced 20,000 stills!” He opted for this method because this enabled him to do more in the time than he could have done with using pure animation. “Doing a fully animated feature working alone, with the visuals and narrative style I wanted, would take forever. Also, there are a ton of things that I needed my characters to do that are impossible with Moviestorm, things that I had to create with trick shots and could only be tricked with stills.”

The look of the sets in particular is quite extraordinary. Eduardo made use of as many mods as he could find, and then taught himself to create his own using Google Warehouse, Sketchup, and the Modder’s Workshop. “I got the look I wanted. It helps that the movie is set in New England with lots of Victorian sets, because Moviestorm is rich with that (being a British product). Regarding characters, for the most part I got exactly what I wanted. The Daniel Kellek / Revenant character has an uncanny resemblance to the actor that portrayed him in the short. I wish that when I was in Boston, doing research for the novel, I would have taken more photos, as I find one can do easy and nice things combining a photo backdrop with the 3D characters.”

image    image
Two shots showing blend of 3D work with photos or composited in post-production

Eduardo made several edits of the film, all of which are available on Amazon Studios. The first cut took a week, and had no music. He then spent a week adding music and sound effects, which transformed it from a simple animated storyboard into a true test movie. “For Dhampira the short, I worked with a Mexican composer called Alejandro Giacoman. He’s one of the top film composers in Mexico, and he’s won the Ariel (the Mexican Oscar). I used five pieces from that in the movie, but those 10 or so minutes of original music weren’t enough for a 90-minute film. I had no money or time to look for an original soundtrack, but Amazon Studios has a music library for the contestants’ use that is amazing. It has Ennio Morricone, for example! I used 8 of his pieces and a total of 35 songs. One of the songs, the only one with voice, is by a Toronto band, Twirl. I got in contact with them, and they were really pleased I used their work. Today I edited a music video using their song and images from Dhampira.”

Following initial feedback, Eduardo then spent another two weeks creating a third edit, adding in more motion and sound effects.  “Editing was crazy. I forced Premiere Pro and my PC to their limits. It would take about 30 minutes just to load the project! The current version of the script does have a few differences in the dialogue, especially for Mara, but I just couldn’t re-record – if I could, I would! There are some parts at the beginning of the movie that I would like to re-shoot, since I was just learning the software at that stage and wasn’t using it at its full potential. There’s also a part or two where the characters talk about past events, where I wish I’d shot active images to go with that sound, but again, I probably won’t. I pretty much want to look at this as a finished product and try to lure Amazon or someone to make the real movie.”

Eduardo’s currently waiting to see what happens next. Amazon are due to announce the winner on February 7th, and are offering a grand prize of one million dollars.

He’s already planning his next project. “Definitely before the year ends, I plan to have another feature test movie. I’d like to use Moviestorm again soon, especially now that the new version has several things that I was wishing for. It was quite a trip those three months making a movie with virtual sets and virtual little people! This was a colossal endeavor for which I had to give myself fully artistically, physically, emotionally and financially. I’m happy to have created a feature-length work that is watchable and entertaining and that provides a very detailed idea of how the real movie could look and feel. It also gives an idea of the visual, narrative and cinematographic style I would use as a filmmaker for this or other similar projects. Thanks to Moviestorm, I was able to reproduce the images in my mind, which are impossible to explain in a script, and thus have a quite accurate representation of the movie that other people can see.”

Lighting was a crucial part of the test movie.

More info:

Eduardo’s Web site includes links to all his films
Dhampira test movie at Amazon Studios (90 mins)
More about test movies at Amazon Studios

(2) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Monday, January 09, 2012

I Fight Dragons contest winner

We’re very pleased to announce the winners of the contest run by music blog Consequence of Sound to make the next official video for Chicago-based rock’n’roll chiptune band I Fight Dragons.

Lead singer Brian Mazzaferri was impressed with all the entries. “I think there’s something great about each of these even if they obviously are very different in overall finished-product quality.  I’m amazed at how well the contestants re-created all of the band members in Moviestorm avatars!”

Consequence of Sound editor-in-chief Michael Roffman added: “It’s a very niche contest in that not everyone can do this. Some of the entries are exceptional, and I think they did admirably. I like the winner a lot.”

The four runners up are:

Jackson Hearing:


“A lot of work in a very short time. Wooo hoo! Had a lot of fun and I truly enjoy the song. Hope you enjoy. JXN”

Filip Degreef:


“I find it a very nice song. It was a real challenge to create this video. I had a great time making this, based on my imaginary world.”

Logan Payne:


“This is a great song and I had a great time making this video to the song. I tried my best to make each character look exactly like the original band member. I actually feel like I know Brian, Bill, Packy, Hari, and Chad after doing this video. I had to check out their live performances and watch their movements to get it just right.  And now after all this…I am a fan of I FIGHT DRAGONS!”

R. A. Peters:


“It was a tough song to come up with something fitting for the group and their concept. I had a lot of fun creating this video even if it doesn’t win.”

And finally, our huge congratulations to the winner,

Kera Hildebrandt:


“‘Tis an old tale (older than the jokes in Duke Nukem Forever). Guy loves girl. Other girl loves guy. Then someone gets shot by an arrow.  Feels SOOO good to stretch my wings again. Had fun and only one nervous breakdown making this!”

All five win a copy of Moviestorm Complete.

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 4

The fourth part of our free series of books on filmmaking is now published. It focuses on an area of filmmaking that’s easily overlooked, but is perhaps the most important part of the whole process - editing.

The popular perception of films is that they’re a creative collaboration between the director, the writer and the actors. It’s the director who always gets the credit for how a film turns out – or gets blamed if it’s a box office flop. Most aspiring filmmakers dream of being directors, because they want the creative control that directing seems to offer.

But it’s not the director who makes the film that the audience actually sees. The director decides what to shoot and tells his actors and crew what to do. It’s the editor who assembles everything into a completed movie – the footage, the sounds, the special effects, the titles and credits and anything else. In the editing stage, the pace of the story can be changed completely, and even the story-telling structure can be switched around to put emphasis on different characters or reveal key plot points in a different structure. Scenes can be removed to keep the story moving, and some of the director’s best work can end up as nothing more than a DVD extra. In extreme cases, editing can sometimes result in a film that’s very different to what the director intended – as a great example of what an editor can do with your carefully filmed footage, check out Scary Mary, the recut trailer for Disney’s Mary Poppins.  Skilful editing turns this classic family movie into a horror movie.

As a director, you need to understand the editing process instinctively. Working closely with your editor is key to a successful creative team. You have to remember that everything you film is just raw material for your editor – it’s just a stage in the process. In pre-production, you need to think about how your film will be edited. If you can previsualize your film and make an animatic, this can help immensely. Not only can you plan out your shots, but you will also be in a position to check the timing, pacing, sound, movement, and more.

This volume covers a range of common editing techniques, and provides exercises which help you think about different ways of cutting the same film.  They will help you develop a sense of what you as a director have to do to make the editor’s job easier, and to ensure that you are giving the editor what they need to create the film you envisage.

With live action film, you often find yourself making creative compromises when the footage you shot turns out not to be quite right. Reshoots are expensive, usually prohibitively so, and you’re forced to work with whatever you have. Using Moviestorm makes it easy to go back and forth between all stages of the film, so it’s easy to adjust anything that doesn’t work once it’s been in final edit. You can see how a scene turns out, and if you think you can do better, you can quickly make changes to the camerawork, the staging, or anything else, and try it again.

Download book (PDF)

Previous volumes



(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Moviestorm 1.5 released

Moviestorm 1.5 is now available!

We promised we’d get it to you by the end of the year, and here it is. Moviestorm 1.5 - shinier, faster, and with all-new added goodness. It’ll make your hair more lustrous, help you lose weight, and wash your clothes even whiter than before. Okay, maybe not, but it will help you make films faster and better.

What’s new

Moviestorm 1.5 includes a lot of new features. You can find full details in the release notes, along with the main bug fixes. Here are just some of the highlights:

  • Terrain editor: change the default mountains around the edge of the set.
  • Import video into the cutting room: you can now mix scenes from several different movies, or mix in external video files.
  • Save gestures to stock: once you’ve created a gesture for a character, you can easily use it again in other scenes or movies.
  • Tint the sky: gives you much more variation in the feel of your exterior sets.
  • Timeline grouping: group several activities together on the timeline and move them all together.
  • Text to speech allows you to create basic dialog without an audio file or microphone.
  • WebM video format gives better performance and quality on a wider range of hardware.
  • Dressing room user interface makes it easier to find costumes.
  • Screenshot button in Camera view makes it easy to create storyboards or stills.
  • Timeline user interface has been made clearer and easier to use.
  • Some Cutting Room filters now have options for different strengths of the filter.
  • Extra Large Set is a new stock set with the floor grid at 100m square instead of the normal 50m square.
  • You can now render stereoscopic 3D left and right eye views as separate renders, allowing you to re-combine them in the 3D software of you choice.
  • New audio filters give you better control over your sound.


Just start up Moviestorm as normal. It will automatically update the launcher (not the main program). Then when you’re ready, you can update Moviestorm from the launcher when it’s convenient. Be patient, it could take a while, especially if you’re on a slow connection.

If you have repeated problems downloading the file, you may need to temporarily disable your virus checker.


As far as we can tell, your existing movies should work fine with 1.5. There are however, a few things to watch out for.

  • Mods: we’ve tested some mods, and we haven’t found any problems, but we can’t 100% guarantee that your mods will continue to work.
  • Lighting: we fixed a bug with ambient lighting which meant that it was extra bright under some circumstances. You may need to adjust the ambient lighting to compensate.
  • Doors: we changed the pathfinding for going through doors. In some cases, your characters may take a different route, and will walk through walls instead of being stuck..
  • Dance floor: the dance floor works differently and you may need to tell each dance floor to flash instead of them all flashing at the same time.

If you have problems, please check the support forums or contact support via the support Web site.

(1) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Free filmmaking book - Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 3


Our series of books on using Moviestorm to practice filmmaking techniques gets its newest addition today with this third volume on sound and lighting.  As we’re fond of saying at Moviestorm, film is an audio-visual medium. It’s easy to focus all your attention and effort on what the actors are doing and how you’re filming what’s happening on the set, but that’s just half of what you need to do. Two hallmarks of quality films are good sound and good lighting. Often, they go completely unnoticed and unremarked. By contrast, you can usually tell an amateurish film by its poor quality sound and lighting - everything looks like it was shot with a cheap video camera and sound was added as an after-thought, if at all.

This book, like the previous two in the series, contains several practical exercises to help you develop useful skills. They include working with ambient sounds and music, and lighting techniques such as filming silhouettes and shadows. Each exercise is presented in a simple workbook format to encourage you to film scenes in several different ways to compare the effect of each technique and see how each element affects both the individual shots and the overall story.

These exercises aren’t in any way specific to making movies with Moviestorm. These are standard techniques that apply to all forms of film. You can take what you’ve learned to any other film-making medium - full CG animation, live action, or whatever. It’s about learning skills, not about learning to use specific tools or media.  The main advantage of using Moviestorm as a training tool is that you can practice whenever it’s convenient for you, and you don’t need to assemble a cast and crew each time. And if you’re not happy with what you’ve done, you can easily go back and do it again and again until you’re satisfied – reshoots are cheap and easy!

“A very fine job on sound and lighting. Kudos to you for the whole project.”
Ricky Grove, machinimator

“Learning how to make films to tell stories is not about theory. It’s about practice. If you want to get good at telling stories with films, there is absolutely no substitute for putting in the hours.”
Phil South, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Volumes 1 -3 are available now, as a free PDF download directly from Moviestorm.  Please feel free to pass them on to other filmmakers, and let us know what you think!

Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 1

Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 2

Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 3

(1) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Contest: Make the official video for I Fight Dragons next release!

imageIn recent weeks, Moviestorm Towers has been echoing to the sound of Chicago-based rock’n'roll chiptune from I Fight Dragons.  (To quote the band’s Web site, for those of you not in the proverbial ‘know,’ ‘chiptune’ is new music created on ‘obsolete’ video game ‘soundcards’ such as the Nintendo Gameboy.) This isn’t our usual brand of music, we’ll be honest, but it’s grown on us.


Well, we’ve teamed up with Consequence of Sound, one of America’s leading music blogs, to bring you a contest with a unique prize.  Use Moviestorm to make a video for Working, from the brand new album Kaboom! by I Fight Dragons, and submit it by December 21. The winning entry will be the official video for the track! And there will be Moviestorm prizes for the top five as well.

Now, we get that you don’t want to submit a video made with the watermarked trial version of Moviestorm. You want your video to look as good as possible. And we get that you probably don’t want to buy a $200 animation tool just to enter a contest. So, for contest entrants only, we’ve made the full version of Moviestorm completely free for the duration of the contest.  Go to the contest Web site and you’ll get a code that unlocks the whole of Moviestorm until the end of December.

Good luck - we’re really looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

Full contest rules and instructions

(1) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Monday, November 14, 2011

Celtx Shots


Our friends over at Celtx provide some of the best pre-production tools available. They’re not just good, they’re also surprisingly affordable - their desktop application is completely free! They’ve now started up a line of apps for mobile devices, so you can work any time, any place - on the train, on the sofa, or even while you’re right on set.

Their latest release for the iPad, Celtx Shots, gives you powerful, easy to use storyboarding and shot planning capability. If you’re a writer, you can combine that with Celtx Script, and write your screenplay on your iPhone.

At just $4.99 each, these are amazingly good value, and something that any filmmaker should have at their fingertips.

(0) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Monday, October 31, 2011

Free film teaching book - Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 2

The second volume in Matt Kelland’s series on improving your filmmaking technique with Moviestorm follows on from camerawork and moves onto the set. The first volume was about how your shot selection affects your story-telling; this second volume is about what it is that you film and how to place actors to get the shots that you want.

“The thing you need to realize about films is that what you see isn’t always what you think you see,” explains Matt. “Everything in a movie is carefully constructed to look good on the screen. It’s not real. Even documentaries and reality TV are staged. You can’t just put your actors on the set and tell them to behave normally. You often have to get them to behave in very strange ways or stand in odd positions in order to get the shots you want. It’s quite unnatural, but it’s something you have to get used to doing. More to the point, you have to do it without the audience being aware how artificial it all is. It has to look completely natural, and that’s harder than you might imagine.”

Like the previous volume, the book consists a series of workbook-style exercises. Each illustrated double page spread covers a specific technique or situation, and suggests several different ways to film it. By comparing the different versions, you quickly develop a sense of what works well, and how to translate your ideas into the language of film. Exercises in this volume include walking through doorways, dramatic conversations, deep staging, and using extras.

It’s about trying out different things to see what happens

The exercises aren’t aimed just at Moviestorm users. They’re useful for filmmakers working in any medium: live action, high end animation, or machinima.  Moviestorm provides a fast, easy way to try out techniques and experiment with style - it’s like sketching out a movie quickly to see what works. You get the idea down, evaluate it, and try again. You can then take those skills wherever you go.

Film teacher Andrew Segal has already begun using this series to help explain some aspects of filmmaking to animators.  “It proved to be useful when I was teaching Maya to a group of professional 2D animators who work on Peppa Pig. There is a marked difference in thinking for 2D animation and 3D shots, especially the use of physical depth. It saved me tearing my remaining hair out when trying to set up and explain the staging and set construction. I usually work backwards in Maya, blocking out the set/camera etc to get rough story shots, so I know how much set to build and how detailed the props and characters need to be. The practicality of learning these techniques in Moviestorm, rather than just the theory, gives you an easier way to fix these concepts in your head. I also like the lack of ‘what buttons do I press’: this gives the reader more control over what they have learned and how it’s implemented, and it makes the volume concise.”

“If someone goes through the book and does the exercises, they’re going to come out a better filmmaker, no question.”
Hugh Hancock, Guerilla Showrunner

“A really good primer for any film student, especially all crammed into 40 pages.”
Andrew Segal, Carshalton College

“An excellent resource for both new and veteran users.”
Shirley Martin, filmmaker

Volumes 1 & 2 are both available now, as a free PDF download directly from Moviestorm.  Please feel free to pass them on, and let us know what you think!

Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 1

Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 2



(1) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Moviestorm in Savannah

We’re very pleased to have been invited to present Moviestorm next week at the prestigious IDMAA conference at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. IDMAA (The International Digital Media and Arts Association) is an influential organization of senior digital media arts educators and academics. Their focus is on finding new ways to teach arts by using new technologies and methodologies, and they are fascinated by the potential that Moviestorm offers.

We’ll be there throughout Thursday and most of Friday. We’re very much looking forward to meeting the delegates from around the world, as well as enjoying beautiful Savannah’s legendary hospitality!

(2) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

Monday, October 03, 2011

Free film teaching book - Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 1

One of the things we realized over the last few years is that Moviestorm isn’t just a great way to make films quickly and cheaply. It’s an amazing way to learn about how films are made and develop your filmmaking techniques. As film teacher Phil South put it, it’s like a pilot using a simulator to train in - it’s affordable, safe, and convenient. 

Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 1 is the first book in a series by Moviestorm co-founder Matt Kelland showing how to use Moviestorm to improve your filmmaking. It includes a series of simple exercises which focus on specific techniques. Importantly, they’re not specific to Moviestorm: they’re generic exercises which are equally applicable whether you make your films with Moviestorm, high-end animation, live action or anything else. The advantage of using Moviestorm to film in a virtual world is that it’s fast and you can practice solo without needing to find cast, crew, or kit.

The books are designed as practical self-guided workbooks rather than textbooks. The books aren’t designed simply to be read - they’re a training course that helps you to practice what you already know until it becomes second nature, and experiment with ideas at your own pace.. Each illustrated double page spread explains a technique and then asks you to film a scene in various ways so you can experiment with that technique.  Review and follow-up sections encourage you to be critical of your own work and suggest further ways to film that scene or use that technique. 

It’s about the simple, everyday scenes that you need to master

“Over the last few years, I’ve shot literally hundreds of hours of footage,” explains Matt. “That’s taught me a lot more than I initially realized. It’s given me an intrinsic understanding of what makes a good shot, and more importantly, how those shots will cut together into the finished movie and what they say about the characters and the story. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about and practice directing, camerawork, editing, set design, and every other part of the movie-making process. I couldn’t have done nearly as much if I’d tried to do everything with real cameras and actors. It’s not just about the expensive shots like car chases, it’s also the simple, everyday scenes that you need to master.”

Phil South, who wrote the introduction, adds, ““How do you get good at telling stories with movies?  It comes down to experience, of course, and experience comes through practice. The same is true of any technical ability which has some art to it. The more you do it, the better you get.”

This first volume is about camerawork, and includes 17 exercises. These cover filming some of the most common situations you will encounter, including walks, conversations, and phone calls. More advanced techniques include reveals, POV shots and how to fake crowds with only a few extras. Future volumes are expected to be released monthly and will cover staging, editing, lighting and sound.

“Spot on. The exercises are set up in a very logical, progressive way.”
James Martin, University of North Texas

“Excellent - great for schools and colleges alike. The tone of the writing is perfect - neither patronising or too authoritative.”
Jezz Wright, Blockhouse TV

“I really liked how you tell the reader to try a shot with and without each technique to be able to actually see the difference they make.”
Dan Horne, film student, Full Sail University

Volume 1 is available now, as a free download directly from Moviestorm.  Please feel free to pass it on, and let us know what you think!

Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 1


(8) Comments | Permalink | Posted by Matt Kelland

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