This weekend, the teenage superheroes of "Chronicle" edged out Harry Potter himself at the box office with their amazing abilities. Made on a relatively tight budget of $12 million, the found-footage superhero movie made almost twice its budget back in domestic ticket sales alone.
Part of the reason for the success, no doubt, was due to the work of visual-effects supervisor Simon Hansen and his team in South Africa. They created all the usual sights of a superhero flick but with a fraction of the budget.
MTV News spoke with Hansen to find out how he did so much with so little. (There are minor spoilers ahead.)
MTV: Where does work begin when trying to tackle something like "Chronicle" on such a low budget?
Simon Hansen: That was obviously the challenge of the film and one of the reasons that I was keen to get involved with the project from the beginning. I get to play with commercially viable films that are also cost-effective to make. Having read the script, it was a small film. It's supposed to be low-budget, relatively. I started making notes when we read the script, noting down all the effects. By the time I got to the third act, I put my pen down because it got so hectic that making notes at that point was a bit of a waste of time. There was clearly a hell of a lot more work that needed to be done. From that point of view, it was a really big film for a low budget, and that was what excited me and what excited everyone on the project. This was the little film that we were going to push further than smaller films normally go.
MTV: What's your approach for doing what the big-budget movies do but with a fraction of the money?
Hansen: My background was actually pursuing that as a goal from a very early age in the industry, trying to make things that looked great but didn't cost a lot. It wasn't a new idea from that point of view. It wasn't daunting or hindering; it was actually the most exhilarating part of the process. The superhero genre is a good comparison, which I think has too much money. Having these large budgets is removing the innovation from the project. Capping the budget is a way to force that ingenuity and innovation into the project, which I think does come across. I think "Chronicle" has that feel of being a higher-budget film than it is, but it always has a kind of edginess to it at the same time.
MTV: Was there a question of "Can we do everything that's in the script?"
Hansen: Yes, the first question is, "Read the script and tell us how much of it we can do and what you think we can't do." My pitch that [producer] Adam [Schroeder] and [director] Josh [Trank] bought on "Chronicle" was that the first thing I was going to try to do was reduce the number of visual-effects shots in the film, because even though my background is visual effects, I like to think of myself as a filmmaker first. I'm not in love with CGI for its own sake. I'd rather do things in camera, and I think most directors would. I think audiences really appreciate the grittiness and edginess of stuff that's real. If you're forced to do CGI, try to do it in a way that's really minimalist, where most of what you're doing is real.
MTV: What was the most challenging shot on the film?
Hansen: The most important and the one I considered the biggest challenge was any kind of flying. What ended up happening was we ended up designing brand-new rigs to actually make people fly that worked out really well. It's probably my favorite part of the process. It's weird in effects how some shots start out one way and they don't seem that difficult, and they end up being really difficult. The most difficult sequence was where Andrew beats up the thugs and tosses them around the street because we had to shoot that all in one day and all those different people were on wires and rigs. We had to do it in different parts and put it all together. You get tripped up by the sun moving during the day when you have to shoot it all in one day. The light's changing all the time, and you're shooting different elements together. For the level of complexity of that shot and the time we had to do it, that was definitely the most difficult.
MTV: How did you come up with the solution for making the characters fly?
Hansen: I'd been very frustrated, even with big-budget films and how they've done flying. Some of the bad examples, not to knock anyone, "Armageddon" 's weightless sequence, for example, was a movie that had a lot of money and didn't get it right. Lots of films don't get it right. I knew it wasn't necessarily about the budget. It was about the technique to get flying to work. I spent a lot of time analyzing footage of sky diving and looking how bodies move in free motion. As a result, I ended up designing a big hamster-wheel rig that the subject would be strapped to in the center and he could be spun within this rig, which could turn itself. You'd get two axes out of it. The actors called it the Wheel of Death because you actually get strapped into this thing and a motor spins you around while the wheel is actually turning. You can do full-on McTwist-type movements. What I tried to get away from was a situation where you pick someone up on wires and move them from one side of a soundstage to another in front of a green screen.
MTV: Was there anything you simply couldn't accomplish with the budget?
Hansen: I think we pretty much did just about everything that we wanted to in the script. There were some shots that didn't work out the way that we wanted them to, where we had to reshoot them or come up with another way to do them. The closest we came to cutting things — we didn't in the end — but the closest we came was not the kind of effect that you'd even be aware of. When Andrew films himself in the mirror and we're using a considerably larger camera than the one he's using, we needed to shoot with one camera and replace it and Andrew in the mirror with the smaller camera. Those turned out to be really difficult shots to plan and get right. No one will really pay them any attention. It's amazing how that always happens.
Check out everything we've got on "Chronicle."