The Wanting Mare has been in production for over 6 years and is an example of real immersion in fantasy with a DIY ethos.
The age-old question: If you knew what you now know, would you still carry out your project?
For director Nicholas Ashe Bateman, it was never a choice. He is drawn to tell stories in a fantasy universe that he has had in his mind since he was young: the mysterious and vast world of Anmaere. With an actor's background, Bateman knew very little about VFX – he didn't know if any of it was possible, but he was just starting to work. Six years and four computers later, armed with a copy of the Lord of the Rings DVD and a dedicated crew, Bateman's first entry into his fantasy universe is now undeniably real.
From the look of The Wanting Mare, you may find it hard to believe that most of it was shot in a small storage room in New Jersey. This caught the attention of executive producer Shane Carruth (primer, upstream color) and the finished film was premiered this weekend at the virtual film festival in Chattanooga. Watch the teaser and read on for a deep look at the process that brings everything to life.
(As a special offer for No Film School readers, the first 5 comments asking for a badge will receive a badge for attending the Chattanooga Digital Film Festival.)
"I appreciate restrictions. I love them. That's how I start."
NFS: I've been following this project for many years. How long has it been? How did it all start?
Nicholas: I started writing about this fictional world when I was a teenager – I like Tolkien's expression "secondary world" – but it hasn't really turned into a film idea for a while. I dropped out of college to make a film called Circus Animals with my friends, and after that I wanted to do something as far as possible from the previous one. At a certain point, I decided that I was interested in the limitation of working in a sandpit. I decided that I would never leave this world and commit to it and grow with it.
All the rest of the world (from Anmaere) was made when I wrote The Wanting Mare. It has a very purgatory feeling. In a way, that's the core of what's happening in the film. These people think about fantasy and narrative and what is the meaning of magic or myth? I thought of that when I did it. If someone had given me the budget to make the film I wanted to make in 2012, it would have been a disaster. When I photographed so much and had an incredibly small team of people ready for this process, we could see what worked and what didn't. I envy people who suddenly do something. It is incredible to do something with the lack of self-examination.
What is really challenging for me, working on something at the idea level for almost 8 years, is really hard not to look at yourself. The decision-making process involves talking to myself: sometimes I go to the 2015 version of Nick, sometimes the 2017 Nick is not the right guy for it, etc … So much of the process of making a film has changed the film. I was really just trying to make the film I wanted to make when I was 22. When I waited for it, it worked really well.
Still image from the birth scene in The Wanting Mare,
NFS: How long have you been shooting?
Bateman: I didn't know we would ever finish the film because we started with less than a quarter of the budget we needed for the film. And we made a third of the film. We started in 2016 with a small amount of money that we collected on IndieGoGo. It was a crew of 7 people. We got into a van, drove to Baltimore, drove to New Jersey, and put up a blue screen in a parking lot. Then we filmed 2 weeks in Nova Scotia. We picked an Airbnb that seemed to fit the world in terms of set design and we filmed for 2 weeks. Everyone was stacked in a van and a subway train. That was the main part of the film, then we used it to raise the next part of the money, to film with a little more people the next summer. We never had more than 20 people on the set. The difference between these two levels was enormous. It was mine on a green screen in a kitchen to shoot a lot more material, to build part sets. I thought we could pull off the VFX stuff as long as what the actors were standing for was real. But there are scenes where I walk and literally have to crouch to keep my head on the green screen.
The Wanting Mare directed by Nicholas Ashe Bateman
Blue screens are used in combination with 2D matte painting to create the city of Witherin.
We rented a warehouse in New Jersey, a huge empty warehouse in a dilapidated building surrounded by tire manufacturers. Audio was unusable except between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m. We were finally able to rent bigger blue screens, but each of the actors who came to this second spin found us totally crazy. Many of these scenes are said to be on cliffs, bogs, and extreme physical locations, but it's all in this warehouse. So it kind of became a black box theater thing. We could only rent a single fan. Sometimes someone just casually plays a fan running alongside the actors. We must have looked crazy, but I think since we were so calm, we sold them the idea that it would work. We were able to take more pictures and it was quiet at 4am. The last 30 minutes of the film are only in this room, we only moved parts.
"You just have to find out what is forbidden in terms of technical skills, then you can find out."
NFS: What is your background in VFX?
Nicholas: I'm from the generation of DVD specials, I probably make films because of DVD specials. The best of it is the attachments to the Lord of the Rings. These films have the spirit of a strange independent film. I think they started with 3 computers and somehow convinced a studio. I have always imagined the technology that these films are exactly what I am capable of today. So I thought if you remove the use of 3D elements and use digital tracking to reduce them to matte 2D images, everything will be very possible. When I was younger, I was very interested in digital matte painting. My whole interest in VFX results from this. It's really a way to learn compositing. They look at light, fog, exposure, etc.
Director Nicholas Ashe Bateman shoots scenes in his kitchen.
Years ago I moved to California to work with Coatwolf Productions on Chuck Hank and the San Diego Twins. I didn't have much else to do and they said come on, help me. I felt like I was running away with the circus and it was me and it was wonderful. There were a lot of visual effects in this film that weren't really taken into account. This long process of constantly revising the film is really only possible if there is a VFX component. It was this ecstatic process of how to make this big, funny, silly film together. So I lived in a garage in Ventura for 3 years with a hard drive and tried to create some effects that were a bit passable. That gave me enough foundation.
Jordan Monaghan in the dream mare
You really only need to find out what is prohibited in terms of technical skills, then you can find out. For me, the inclusion of 3D elements was forbidden because I was only just beginning to learn 3D models. I thought as long as I deal with matte paintings with 2D elements, I would be fine. Sometimes the floor the actors walk on is flat, just 2D with a projected background. If I had to render in 3D, it would have rendered every frame, and that would have been impossible at the cost level. Especially before Blender and all the video game real-time rendering.
I love painted backdrops. I love Victor Fleming's romantic backdrops. The biggest challenge was figuring out just one pass line. I'm not interested in everything looking real, it just had to look coherent. That was the battle.
"The way we made this film is not a specific case. A lot of people can. It just gets exponentially easier."
NFS: What was your core crew like and how did you take so many effects?
Nicholas: All the people who made the VFX were the people who made it. Everything was David Ross (DP and producer), Zach Schaefer (gaffer and producer) and I to find out what it was supposed to look like and then pick torches and defraud the eye. Without the two it would have been impossible. The reason we went to Nova Scotia at all was that we were unable to take 30 minutes of VFX footage. We also had massive restrictions on what was possible. I knew if I had a few actors in medium settings and the background was out of focus, we could get away with a pretty bad matte painting. But at some point you have to see what's going on. So this was the perfect time to get footage that felt as natural as possible. Footage that people look at and know it's real. If this is interrupted with someone in the same environment but digitally recreated, what was real before remains real. It adapts.
Nicholas Ashe Bateman, Zach Schaefer and David Ross on site in Nova Scotia
NFS: How has your process of creating effects changed since you started?
Nicholas: I hadn't been near the VFX skillset to end the movie when I started it. You read so much about people who welcome practical effects. I love all of these things, but everything that is done should be done in the same spirit. When we got over the idea that "the only way to make a real movie is to do everything practical," we were able to commit to the blue screens, and our production designer Cassandra Baker was able to build half of these sets. The more real the things we had in the scene, the better the visual effects. When we were proud that the production was largely digital, everyone had to do a lot more.
"My main interest, what moves me is a sense of place."
Zach and I put all 600 VFX recordings together in the film. We blew 4 computers that were just rendered. Even until last week there were scenes in the film that were made with software that I no longer use – that nobody uses anymore. I'm worried about updating the techniques and improving the film's balanced recipe. But everything changes. I've spent the past year and a half being obsessed with Blender. Now you have 3D objects with photo scan that you can insert into a scene with global lighting that immediately looks real. All this stuff is very exciting because the way we made this film is not a specific case. A lot of people can do that. It just gets exponentially easier. With the Unreal 5 engine, for example, we can import a photo scan piece of wood and achieve the most complicated geometry possible.
Wanting Mare's immersive 2D Matte Paintings
People ask me if I ever want to do VFX again. I have not yet decided whether it will be an integral part of my process or not. But it gets easier and more exciting every day. I also do a lot of VFX for other people and that really only happened 2 years ago. Every time that happened, I was able to do something new. I'm currently working on The Green Knight, which is the most exciting thing in the world for me.
NFS: It's incredible to see what you've done with such big limitations.
Nicholas: I appreciate restrictions. I love her. That's how I start. I've been thinking about world building and VFX. I've thought a lot about making maps. Every fantasy starts with someone making a card. Then you have characters that go left, right and everywhere, then you have the terrain. I think that's how my brain likes to work. I think that's how everyone's creative process works to a certain extent. I want to do X, what can we do and what can't?
Christine Kellogg-Darrin delves into the world.
If someone was shooting a scene in a real alley and wanted to run someone through the wall, that would be a challenge. I think what scares people about VFX is that there are no walls there. So I say, just choose where the walls are and light them accordingly, frame them accordingly. If you later decide that you need a hole in the wall, change all the scenes in which the hole is in the wall and play this game by connecting these elements. My main interest, what moves me is a sense of place. The film is about a place called Whithren that has been in my head for a long time. So I think about it like it's a real place.
World buildings with matt 2D paintings.
NFS: How did Shane Carruth get involved?
Nicholas: I met him through Evan Glodell once. For me, like many people, he was my absolute hero. He's the guy who really did it. I was this strange guy who said, "Hey, in an interview 10 years ago you said you were interested in VFX. Well, I spent 10 years trying to do that." I think for him it was a moment of understanding that he was impacting other people and he jumped up. I remember living in my car and sending articles to people like Shane and Evan to my parents and saying, "Look, someone else did it." I told him that we don't want to make a VFX film, we just want to make this film and we think we can do it. Since then he's been a great cheerleader.
"I was really just trying to make the film I wanted to make when I was 22. When I waited for it, it worked really well."
NFS: How do you see your film in relation to the VFX movement?
Nicholas: At the end of the Lord of the Rings backstage, Peter Jackson said the reason why they did all of this was because he knew something was going to change, and someday someone in their bedroom would make a movie like this. It really hit me in the stomach because I realized that I was, that was the last 20 years of my life. I think a lot will happen. The technology arrives. I love it.
For example, I think something else about our approach is that we wrote a scene that only described the wind blowing through the grass. Of course, we didn't have the money to get the number of fans blowing the grass. How do we get this blurry grass in motion? I keep thinking that digital grass is the most subtle but biggest change we've seen recently. The fact that we can let grass blow in the wind instead of trying to build an animated robot. The curtains that were inflated in the teaser, for example, these curtains were used. Using such things suggests less of VFX than people who are only able to make the film they want to make.
The Wanting Mare will premiere online this weekend at the Chattanooga digital film festival. On Monday, May 25th, a special live event with director Nicholas Ashe Bateman will take place, in which the origin of the film will be discussed and the VFX process will be discussed in detail. For tickets, visit ChattFilmFest.org. As a special offer for readers of the No Film School, the first 5 comments asking for a badge will receive a badge for participating in the digital festival.