❉ The ‘Devil May Call’ director on his VR Twilight Zone homage, ‘Reap What You Sow’ and making films with video game technology.
It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call “The Twilight Zone”…
Drive and ambition have never been in short supply for New York filmmaker Jason Cuadrado. He burst on the scene with Chalk, a short influenced by the then-burgeoning new wave of Japanese horror. Cast and crewed via Craigslist, it was subsequently expanded into the anthology feature Tales From the Dead. His determination to emulate J-Horror tropes ran so deep, Cuadrado chose to shoot “Chalk” and Tales entirely in Japanese – despite not speaking a word of the language. Naturally this led to some challenges in the editing bay, but damned if he didn’t pull it off, twice.
Not long after, I had the good fortune to collaborate with Cuadrado on the screenplay I’m Here For You, which he also directed. It was released by Lionsgate as Devil May Call, starring Tyler Mane, Corri English, and Traci Lords.
But once introduced to virtual reality and its storytelling potential, Cuadrado realized he could create immersive narrative experiences without having to rely on the logistics of traditional film productions…if he could learn to code. So he took a few online courses, and went on to publish a collection of VR games to both the App Store and Google Play. He also developed a Roblox adventure game called Help! I’m Trapped in a Horror Movie! In addition to a universe of narrative possibilities, game development offered real autonomy over the creative process.
This led to his current creative obsession: virtual production. And among the first fruits of that obsession is his remarkable Twilight Zone homage, “Reap What You Sow,” which arrived with the new year to blow minds on YouTube.
Like everyone, you’re locked down for the pandemic.
Still locked down. I was here in NYC when the pandemic began back in March, and the lockdown was deadly serious. It was certainly a jarring disruption to everyday life, but it also represented an enormous challenge for filmmakers and content creators. My transition to indie game development had already meant taking a step back from the collaborative limitations of production, so I was accustomed to sitting at a computer and creating with autonomy. That was helpful when I suddenly had all the time in the world!
A little less than a year later, and you’ve evolved from a filmmaker creating video games to a filmmaker making films with video game technology.
It does all feel like a natural progression, to go from traditional filmmaking to game development to real-time cinematic animation. To me, it stems from control. I told stories with my games, but I didn’t have to assemble a cast and crew to help execute an idea. Performance capture was a natural next step once I realized if I had the ability to do custom animation at home, I could act out any scene that would pop into my head. That just blew the doors off everything I believed to be possible with game engines like Unity and Unreal.
Game engines, like Unreal and Unity, are software titles that offer a development environment and a collection of tools that facilitate the creation of games. That was how they started, anyway. The ability to direct cut scenes within the software was being used to explore narrative animation, so game engines began to expand that feature. Game engines and their ability to incorporate real-time effects are now being used to fuel the future of VFX.
Got it. So your short, “Witch’s Brew,” was a return to traditional storytelling, but using video game technology.
“Witch’s Brew” was my first real stab at putting all the pieces together to create a pipeline for myself, to establish a process. AAA game development teams and large VFX studios have battle-tested processes for breaking down a story, compiling assets, recording animation, and outputting a final composite. I had to develop a system of my own, so rather than get too ambitious, I thought a small scene would be a perfect test run.
For a film that clocks in under two minutes, “Witch’s Brew” has a lot going on.
The goal was to use this technology to create something that would be challenging to produce traditionally. “Witch’s Brew” was a great success in terms of putting my pipeline through its paces, so I immediately began dreaming up more ambitious projects.
And Twilight Zone is something that looms large for you as a filmmaker, as a storyteller.
I don’t think I approach any project without seeing it through the filter of the original Twilight Zone. It remains a constant source of inspiration and factors heavily into my work. I’ve been obsessed with it since childhood. It’s a rare series that has a “feeling.” Part of that may be pure nostalgia on my part, but Rod Serling’s prophetic words, the way the show was approached stylistically, the unforgettable music…it’s timeless storytelling, dressed in sci-fi/horror tropes. It’s really no surprise that when it came time to push my newfound technical skills into ambitious, uncharted territory, I found myself drawn to the Twilight Zone universe.
But it’s one thing to borrow the theme music, tell a story with a sting in the tail and call it The Twilight Zone. You take your tribute much further.
I don’t think I approached “Reap What You Sow” as a fan film, or even as a tribute to Twilight Zone. It went much deeper than that. I wanted to use performance capture and Unreal Engine in a magical way, to do something that was, well, impossible. It wasn’t enough to create an original Twilight Zone episode; I wanted to watch it and feel like I was a part of that historic moment in television history. That was the dream, and the goal. This gave me permission to be obsessive with the little details.
The classic, surrealistic “You unlock this door…” opening sequence has a wonderful DIY quality from the early days of special effects. There’s a unique detail in that sequence that’s etched in my memory: The first shot of the rotating door reveals a rod attached to the base, to puppeteer the spinning motion (which is why even the original sequence looks a little wonky). It’s not easy to see until the door swings to a certain angle and the rod casts a shadow. Yes, I added that rod to my 3D model when I recreated the opening sequence in Unreal. I couldn’t have my very first shot destroy the illusion!
But the most important thing to capture was that Twilight Zone “feel.” Once I was able to achieve the “feel,” I knew I was headed in the right direction. Fellow fanatical admirers of Twilight Zone will catch other shots that were borrowed directly from some of the classic episodes. I also included Easter eggs that might require a second watch to spot—even for fellow obsessives.
How did you handle casting during a pandemic?
Casting this project was the easiest challenge to overcome; I just grabbed the people closest to me! Work with what you’ve got, I always say. I cast my aunt and father since they’re in lockdown, too. Thankfully, my aunt has been acting for many years, and my dad was genuinely curious about this strange tech I was constantly going on about. This is where you really get to appreciate the power of performance capture technology: The fact is, the majority of the mocap performance in “Reap” is me—all the characters, including their facial expressions. It was just easier! But the three of us could have been anything: WWII soldiers in a trench, knights storming a castle, gangsters in a seedy alley, aliens on Mars. This technology allows you record performances and apply them to an almost infinite amount of scenarios. It democratizes casting in a way, because performers are no longer held back by their physicality. My aunt could’ve played a five-year-old child, my father a cave-dwelling ogre, and me, a sixty-foot tall robot overlord. In this particular case, none of us were really playing against type—other than me performing as a queen made from twigs!
Where did you shoot the motion capture performances?
The mocap was all shot in my living room, in what can’t be more than a 10’ X 10’ space. I would start by “suiting up” the talent (actors are fitted with motion capture sensors) and then I would stream their character/performance data into Unreal Engine to help position them. This would be an immense help in blocking shots and creating marks for them to hit in the Unreal environment. What I learned is that you don’t need much space to create the illusion of space. When you watch “Reap,” you never get the sense that the actor is confined to a small performance space. It’s another reason I love directing within the game engine. The creative tools available allow you to think expansively, far beyond the usual limitations of a physical production.
What were the greatest challenges you faced creating “Reap”?
The greatest challenge to creating films this way is that this technology is relatively new. There are incredible resources out there, but when bouncing between different software titles (which is practically essential), it’s mostly a lot of trial and error. I learned this early on with game development. You’ll have an idea to do something, and then you have to scour documentation, tutorials, and forums to figure out how to achieve it. Or maybe something inside the software isn’t quite working, and you have to become an internet detective to troubleshoot the issue. It can be very time consuming and frustrating at times. It once took me a week to figure out how to add the sound of footsteps when the player walked!
Seems like a lot to master.
The good news is that as the software evolves, it yearns to streamline. What’s difficult to achieve today could be as simple as checking a box a version from now. I feel incredibly grateful to be growing as a filmmaker alongside a technology that’s continuing to grow itself. You never want to become stagnant as an artist so being tied to constantly evolving technology makes that difficult.
I know you’re optimistic about what this alternative to conventional production could mean for filmmakers—especially filmmakers who mega-budget blockbuster moviemaking has left behind.
This is the future of storytelling to me. I envision a day in the near future when performance capture solutions are so incredibly affordable that they’ll be as essential as a great headshot. It will allow actors to stream performances conveniently from home to filmmakers who can then integrate them into any world they can imagine. The boundaries of traditional filmmaking we’re so used to beating our heads against will fall away. This will mean anyone can tell any story, from anywhere, any time. When that happens, the world will flush with interesting stories and unique voices. For someone who loves the art of film, that sounds like an intriguing future to me.
I’ve already written the script for my next performance capture project. Before I write a single word, I ask myself if it’s something that I could only create using this technology. I want to continue to leverage its power to push what stories can be told with software that was developed to create games. I love games. I love developing games, but my passion is film. With “Reap What You Sow,” I was able to apply a certain aesthetic standard that I’ve nurtured since childhood. Unreal Engine gives me tools to create things that “feel” like film. That’s what I want to achieve with every project, and that’s why I love the way “Reap” turned out. It has a hint of the magic, the feeling that has been such a pivotal inspiration to me. So I’m very excited to see where this road leads.
Finally: Do you have a single favourite Twilight Zone episode?
Ah, the most difficult question of all! As a hardcore fan of the original series, I think it’s officially a sin to answer this question with a single episode. For me, Twilight Zone is quintessentially greater than the sum of its parts. It evokes a time in my young life when my eyes were just starting to open to a larger world full of complex ideologies. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, Twilight Zone was my introduction to being a grown-up. Rod Serling exposed me to ideas that challenged my growing mind and forced me to accept the ugly truth of adulthood: fallibility. Maybe that’s why Twilight Zone remains such a powerful source of inspiration for me. It’s more than an incredible television show. It offers lessons in reality cloaked in fantasy, and is as pertinent today as ever. That’s the genius of Rod Serling’s legacy.
Gun to your head.
“On Thursday We Leave For Home.”