Watching Demonic, the first horror film from District 9 and Elysium writer-director Neill Blomkamp, most people won’t immediately think, “How could the technology that made this movie be used to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe more interactive?” But Blomkamp foresees a future where companies like Marvel will shoot their projects like he shot Demonic, and it will change how cinema works.
Some segments of Demonic were filmed via volumetric capture, a technology that takes in actors’ performances in three dimensions, through a complicated rig — in this case, using 260 cameras at once. Blomkamp processed the footage through the Unity game engine to get real-time results that placed his 3D actors in virtual environments, digitally derived from real buildings and areas his team had captured and rendered into the system. Volumetric capture, or vol-cap, is being billed as a new solution for creating photorealistic 3D models of actors for video games, but as a moviemaking tool, it creates environments that viewers could either watch on a 2D screen, or move through and interact with with in a VR setting.
“It’s a case of where I think technology is going,” Blomkamp tells Polygon. “When VFX first started off […] rendering a digital effect could take hours per frame, and you need 24 frames a second. It could take 24 hours of rendering for one second of film. And then you need more computers to do more rendering.” But new technologies both sped up the process and allowed for more realistic and more varied effects. Blomkamp says volumetric capture, which speeds up the process to real-time speeds, reminds him of the changes that were hitting the VFX industry around the time of movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.
“I think if you go forward a few years from now, there will only be real-time rendering,” he says. “Whether it’s a Marvel film you’re watching, or you’re playing Call of Duty, it’ll all be happening in a real-time calculated environment. Even if you watch a really big Marvel film, if it was done with real-time rendering — you could watch it passively on a giant movie screen, but later, shooting in real-time opens up hundreds of different avenues for the audience to experience more in the film, whether they want to physically go into the scene and walk around, or watch it in virtual reality, or use augmented reality.”
The idea of trying out that technology in a film was what drove Blomkamp to make Demonic. He says that while most films start with a script and then a crew decides how to put the film’s ideas onscreen, he started the other way around with this film. “This process was completely different. It was, ‘I want to experiment with real-time CG in a movie, so what would that look like?’ […] If you were to look at it from the standpoint of traditional filmmaking and writing a normal script, and then figuring out how to do it, you probably wouldn’t come to the conclusion that you need volumetric filmmaking here. But here, it drove how the creative side actually came about.”
In Demonic, a young woman named Carly (Carly Pope) learns that her estranged mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt) is being kept in an asylum that’s doing experimental work with its comatose patients. Hoping for some kind of closure with her mother, Carly reluctantly agrees to enter a digital simulation of her mother’s consciousness, where the two women can communicate. She rapidly finds out that something supernatural and dangerous is sharing Angela’s head — something that explains Angela’s violent past and erratic behavior.
Conceptually, the film resembles Tarsem Singh’s 2000 movie The Cell, where Jennifer Lopez enters the mind of a comatose serial killer to try to find out where he’s keeping his latest victim. But the technology behind the scenes more closely recalls Ari Folman’s high-concept 2013 movie The Congress, where a similar camera rig is used to scan actress Robin Wright (playing herself) and create a permanent digital avatar of her that can replace her in film. Behind-the-scenes footage from Czech effects company UPP shows Pope playing her role for the volumetric scenes from inside a dome-shaped camera rig similar to the one in The Congress.
Blomkamp says one side advantage to shooting scenes this way is that UPP will be able to render Demonic’s virtual-world scenes as interactive environments for later viewers. “We couldn’t do the whole film, we could only do the simulation scenes, but UPP are in the process of making basically a demo where you could watch those scenes on something like an HTC Vive Pro, which I’ve done. It’s a pretty cool experience.
“I think what film audiences [watching Demonic] don’t really understand is that the scenes with Carly, in the simulation with her mom, are entirely viewable in real, true virtual reality. You can stand there in the room with the two of them and look around, and they’re there. And it will look exactly the way that it looked in the movie. So it’s an unusual thing for people to get their heads around.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of Demonic is that Blomkamp used real-world spaces to create his virtual world, but he didn’t shoot any actual footage on location for the simulation sequences. “They’re real places — one is a house, the same way you would rent a house for normal filming. But instead of filming in the house, we just took 100,000 photos. And then the sanitarium at the end of the movie, where we physically shot, was also turned into a 3D model, with hundreds of thousands of photos. And the third simulation was a house not far from the sanitarium on the same piece of land, that was dilapidated and broken, and we did the same thing with that. But then we took geometry in there and broke it and shattered it and made it look a bit more like the characters.”
The look of the simulation segments in Demonic is glitchy and pixelated throughout, which Blomkamp says is both an artifact of the state of volumetric capture technology at this point — the software isn’t yet capable of integrating the feeds from those 260 cameras in perfect, smooth motion — and a deliberate choice for the film.
“The resolution hit we took is fine, it’s written into the script that it’s prototype technology that has glitches in it,” he says. “That was just sacrifice. We almost had no way to get around it.”
Knowing the simulation footage would have that jumpy style was part of the reason Blomkamp chose to make Demonic as an indie horror film. “I wanted to do a self-financed tiny horror film at some point in my career,” he says. “And when you’re operating in that realm, you can do whatever you want. There’s no restriction around what you’re doing. So that’s the perfect opportunity. Persuading a big studio to let me put 15 minutes of highly untested, super-volatile volumetric imagery into a film — I don’t even know if I could win that battle. And you can see in the movie how glitchy it is. Which I think is so awesome, since it ties into the narrative. It provides a place where we can experiment.”
That technological gap does leave Blomkamp’s expectations for the future of interactive and immersive blockbuster theater feeling up in the air — the technology still has a long way to go before it can lay the sleek, polished look of an MCU movie over real-time actors operating on digital stages for VR or AR audiences. Asked where the technology might go in the meantime, Blomkamp laughs.
“I have a bad answer to that, which is that I don’t really care,” he says. “I only care about the way I use stuff. People always ask me greater film-industry questions like that, and I really just don’t care. I only care about what I can use it for, in my own selfish way.”