OSCAR SHORT FILM – Spotlight on LIFE RENDERED Director Emma Needell “I hope that someone who might be homophobic could see this film and feel empathy”

Emma Needell’s Oscar-qualified live action short film LIFE RENDERED is set in the near future, Mark Redman (Owen Teague) leads a double life: one in rural Colorado, where he takes care of his disabled cowboy father and tends to their family ranch; another in virtual reality, where he builds epic worlds and has found romance as a gay man. But the truth has a way of getting out, and when it does, will Mark be accepted for who he is?

We got the chance to talk with Emma about this OSCAR contender.

In the world of online dating, it isn’t unusual for people to fall in love without ever meeting, was this an inspiration for your lead character to fall in love in the world of Virtual Reality? If not, what inspired this part of the story?

This was absolutely an inspiration — and is, in fact, something I even experienced. I grew up in rural Colorado, on a solar-powered cattle ranch. We’re a Jewish family, so we didn’t go to church, which was the social hub of the community. Like the main character in my film, I was quite lonely growing up — but then my family got the internet, and suddenly I had (virtual) access to anyone and anywhere in the world. Similarly, my writing partner, Ryan Barton, who is a gay man, would escape into online video games in his conservative Arizona hometown.

Like the main character in my film, I was quite lonely growing up — but then my family got the internet, and suddenly I had (virtual) access to anyone and anywhere in the world.

When you’re an outsider in a homogenous place, your online identity can become the way you seek friendships or even romance.

The VR part of the film is very detailed, how long did this take to create? 

All in all, the VR part about 8 months of work — but most of it was cleaning up the motion capture animation of the two characters. The sets were relatively straightforward. 

We used Unreal Engine, a powerful game engine (and the software that built the video game Fortnite). It’s more and more being used in filmmaking, but because of its history as a video game engine, there are whole libraries of 3-D assets available to purchase. We bought a few “ready made” sets and props from the Unreal Engine Marketplace (a complete environment costs between $10 and 100). The most complicated set was the ranch house — for that, we hired a local photographer with a LIDAR camera to make a 3-D scan of the house and bedroom, which we then brought into Unreal Engine. I thought this part was going to be incredibly difficult, but it turned out to be pretty easy once we found the photographer!

It’s more and more being used in filmmaking, but because of its history as a video game engine, there are whole libraries of 3-D assets available to purchase.

Using VR alongside live-action is ground-breaking, what inspired you to mix these two art forms?

During COVID, my husband was playing a video game called THE LAST OF US and I was struck by how sophisticated and cinematic the cut scenes were, which is how I discovered Unreal Engine. But what really inspired the use of Unreal Engine was seeing how accessible it was: it’s free to use. I then took the Unreal Engine Fellowship course, where in 4 weeks I learned how to make a short film in Unreal Engine with just me, my iPhone, and my computer. It reminded me of the most super-charged version of the Sims, which I played incessantly growing up.

As I got to know the technical capabilities of Unreal Engine more, the visual intent of the film really came into place. For instance — the use of handheld camera in the virtual scenes. We used the virtual camera plug-in so all those handheld shots are actually our live-action cinematographer, using a virtual camera we connected to a real camera rig! I loved this because it gave the virtual scenes a human feel. This isn’t READY PLAYER ONE with action and crazy camera movements — this is an indie film on an epic scale.

This isn’t READY PLAYER ONE with action and crazy camera movements — this is an indie film on an epic scale.

Your film is resonating with critics from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, what does it mean to get validation from such high-profile trade magazines? 

It’s awesome!!!

I’ve learned there are three stages to filmmaking: getting the resources together to make it (script, financing, casting), making the film (production/post), and then getting people to see it. Getting recognition from festivals and these publications means the world, and is the part of the process that, as a filmmaker, you have the least control over. It’s great when your hard work pays off like this. 

What would you like viewers to take away from the film?

As human beings, we all crave connection — but real connection can only be found when we can be ourselves. I hope people see this film and come away with a bit more empathy about why people are lonely, and what they do about it. 

I spoke to someone who saw the film at Tribeca and admitted that she came away reexamining her own biases against the father, who she pegged as a bigot right at the start. I’ve also talked to people who admit they hate the idea of VR or video games at large, but after seeing this film, came away with an understanding of why someone might gravitate toward these digital places. I also hope that someone who might be homophobic could see this film and feel empathy, but I haven’t had that conversation with anyone yet!

I also hope that someone who might be homophobic could see this film and feel empathy

What is next for you?

I’m working on a feature screenplay that I want to direct, a family drama with an edge of supernatural/horror (I call this genre “evil with a heart”). I also have a fiction novel that’s out to publishers (fingers crossed) and am the world-builder for a Web3 storyworld called “Azurbala.” Lots of irons in the fire!

LIFE RENDERED was the recipient of an Epic Megagrant. Epic Games is the architect behind Unreal Engine, the world’s leading 3-D creation software. Unreal Engine has been utilized on major film and television projects including The Mandalorian and Game of Thrones to bring their fantastical worlds to life with stunning realism. The film team used Unreal Engine to build the expansive, vibrant virtual worlds seen in LIFE RENDERED.

For the virtual scenes, the LIFE RENDERED production team used the latest motion capture technology to film the actors’ performances while they piloted their characters’ digital avatars. They also used a custom-designed virtual camera system, complete with virtual anamorphic lenses, to film the scenes — accomplishing a first-of-its-kind virtual production.

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