October 15, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Hannah Bang '20 and Margo Sawaya '19

By Jason Ng

Writer-directors Hannah Bang '20 and Margo Sawaya '19 join us to discuss their sci-fi short Ripple Effect, produced in collaboration with USC’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Ripple Effect is the product of these recent alumnae’s commitment to create an ambitious film while staying within current safety guidelines. 

To achieve this, the production sought ways to implement technology into the filmmaking process in order to minimize and avoid risks. The result: a bold endeavor that pushed the boundaries for filmmaking in a pandemic. Bang, Sawaya, and fellow USC alum Sabina Vajraca are the recipients of the ETC’s 2020 Innovative Technology Award for their work on Ripple Effect.  

How has COVID-19 changed the process of filmmaking?

Hannah: COVID-19 deeply impacted and changed the filmmaking process - along with everything else - from pre-production to post. We had to rely heavily on Zoom and Slack to communicate and hold meetings in order to limit physical contact. It took a bit of an adjustment period trying to communicate EVERYTHING online. I don’t think I’m completely used to it, even now. The casting and rehearsal processes were especially a challenge to do over zoom. In that sense, having our virtual world built in the Unreal Engine was really helpful because we could plan our shots and previs some of the blocking in a more detailed way without ever being on set. Right now, we are in the middle of post-production, and that is taking place online as well.

As a filmmaker, why is it important for you to continue work during this time, even in the midst of a pandemic?

Margo: I think as an artist it’s important to make content that is reflective of the times, especially during times of struggle. So, it’s important to create during this time in general, because the world is changing and we can understand it better by relating to one another through our art. But specifically as a filmmaker, it’s critical to learn the new protocols that the pandemic calls for in order to work safely and stay healthy. The way we make movies is changing with the times, from the tech that we’re using and how it interacts with the stories we want to tell, to how we can interact with each other. We as a society have been struggling through this pandemic together. Continuing to work, whether from your computer at home or safely on site, is helpful to stay mentally healthy during such chaotic times.

What are some of the safety measures that were taken to ensure the safety of the crew when filming Ripple Effect?

H: We made sure to get bi-weekly testing as well as answering the daily questionnaire that asked about our symptoms and who we had been in contact with. On set, all crew members were wearing masks as well as face shields. Plus, we had hand sanitizers throughout the set. It was pretty meticulous. Most helpful was having a safety officer, Catherine Shin, who would keep an eye on the set and make sure we weren’t huddled together in groups, which was prone to happen. We also wore devices called Set Buddies that made a beeping noise and warned us whenever we got closer than six feet to another person.

Ripple Effect is about human survival in a whole new world. How might the themes in Ripple Effect reflect the current world that we live in?

M: In many ways, Ripple Effect is a cautionary tale. Our main character, Ara, has a rebellious spirit that pushes her to think for herself in a world where mass-thinking is the norm. In the dystopian world we created, the human settlement is occupied by a military state that leads its people to believe that the war they’re fighting will help save the human race. But in actuality, the war is about acquiring more land and resources, and human beings are being turned into cyborg-soldiers in order to fight. So, in the process of “preserving humanity” the people in this world are losing their humanity. This isn’t so different from the world we live in today. In the current world we live in, the constant access to information on our phones, tablets, and laptops can be dangerous. The information is filtered through a bias that is catered to you as a user, to manipulate you. As technology advances, it is going to continue to become more manipulative. In Ripple Effect, the cyborg-soldiers are controlled by a chip that’s inserted into them once they go through the training program to fight in the war. This is us making an estimation of what we think will be possible with neuro-chip technology in the future, which in our story is government issued mind control for soldiers at war. What’s more, in the world we live in today, the idea of protesting has been painted in a negative light by many people. The line between protesting and looting was blurred by the way some news channels covered what’s happening in recent events, and this is a problem. Protesting is meant to be a way to peacefully make your voice heard, to stand up for something you believe in, and the ability to protest should be protected by our right to freedom of speech. In Ripple Effect, the protestors’ right to freedom of speech is betrayed much like we see in our lives every day.

Ripple Effect is developed as a live-action project with the aim of testing the limits of virtual production. How did the project incorporate virtual technology within its production?

H: By building not only our background displays but the entire set and film world in a game engine, we were able to use previs not only for camera and actor blocking but also for other parts of production, like making production design choices ahead of time so that our physical props would match the VAD. In terms of using our LED screens, I think we definitely tested the limits with different camera movement and lighting to blend the real world to the virtual. Our story was specifically designed to have three distinct sets that were all built virtually through the Unreal Engine: the dining room, the truck, and the battlefield. The dining room and truck both had our virtual background displayed outside the windows while on the battlefield, everything except the ground the that the actors stood on was a screen, including the ceiling. Within each of those sets, there was a lot of trial and error to figure out the types of camera and actor blocking that could be done without breaking the fidelity of the LED screens.

How did virtual production alter your approach to making Ripple Effect?

M: Because it was a virtual production-based project, Ripple Effect was much heavier in pre-production than any other project I’ve worked on to date. One of the goals of Ripple Effect was to commit to the idea that most, if not all, of the VFX would be done in camera. In the past, my perspective of using VFX has been using green screen to add a background later or rotoscoping something in post-production. In this case, all of the virtual elements were planned out and designed in pre-production. “Fix it in post” virtually doesn’t exist here in terms of imagery, except for color correction. We were lucky enough to know that we would have at least one CG shot provided to us by our partners in post so we could have an establishing shot of the world (it’s hard to get establishing shots when you’re filming on the stage.) With that CG shot in mind, we planned the other shots in that scene so they didn’t reveal too much, so we could save the world reveal in the CG shot itself. On one hand, the virtual production planning in pre-production is really cool because you know what the world is going to look like once you get to set. We were able to have previs sessions with our partners (ICVR and Halon) to build out the environments with the digital assets that we handpicked. On the other hand, it requires you as a filmmaker to know exactly what you want while finding the digital assets, and then be willing to constantly adjust what the picture in your head is to whatever assets you can find, and then adjust again to what you can afford, or to which assets have the right fidelity to be used in Unreal Engine. It requires you to dream very big, and then whittle away at that dream until it’s something achievable. As we were communicating with the team virtually (mostly over Zoom and Slack), it was helpful to be able to pull an asset and say, “here’s what we mean when we say the rocks should be overgrown with moss.” It was an elaborate process to make sure our physical production designer had the resources she needed to match her sets with the digital world that would be up on our LED screens.

How has the Entertainment Technology Center at USC helped to support this project?

H: ETC gave us the opportunity to get on this project as writers and directors, so we wouldn’t have been on it were it not for them. I think giving emerging filmmakers the opportunity to play with these expensive toys of virtual production is great. It primes the next generation to rethink the way film productions can be run.

M: Ripple Effect would not have been possible without the 2020 Innovative Technology Award that the Entertainment Technology Center awarded to Hannah, Sabina and I. The ETC at USC has supported us throughout this project, from ideation sessions between us three writers to where we are in post-production today. Since we knew we would be using virtual production to tell this story, we were empowered to think big as we put pen to paper on the first draft. This is why we decided to set this story in a dystopian, future world. As we learned more about the test cases needed to be fulfilled by our sponsors that the ETC brought on, the story evolved from there. Because ETC brought on sponsors that are leaders in our industry, we’ve been given the opportunity to talk with and utilize tools from cutting edge applications in workflow (like 5th Kind), world design (like Unreal Engine), production stages (like Lux Machina) and more.

In what ways did your studies at SCA help you during this filmmaking experience?

H: Just the number of projects we worked on while we were at SCA helped me make quick decisions without panicking too much, despite the many challenges that arose due to COVID and the personal learning curve of working with virtual production. Sometimes we would realize the day before shooting or even on set that we couldn’t do certain camera moves or shoot with certain lenses. I think having gone through the same program at SCA with my co-director allowed us to brave through that together. Also, this experience really taught me that no matter the technology that gets involved, the focus of the director should always remain on the storytelling with your actors and camera. You get it drilled into your head in school but it’s easy to get distracted. Finally, almost all of our crew except for the virtual production team came from people we met at SCA. That network proved truly invaluable.

M: The films I worked on in my coursework at SCA showed me that as filmmakers one must be resilient, collaborative, and communicative in every stage of production. While no two films or two sets are ever the same, you can utilize past experiences to creatively problem solve in the moment to help get you where you need to be. This was my first time truly utilizing virtual production, which is where my resilience as a filmmaker had to come in. There was definitely a learning curve in understanding the tech and what was possible with it. We went into Ripple Effect with the base filmmaking knowledge we gained on past films, so it was just a matter of adding this new layer of “virtual” onto what we already understood as “production.” Also, a lot of the day-to-day crew were past classmates at USC, and it’s nice to be on set with people you’ve worked with in some capacity before.

What precedent do you want Ripple Effect to set in terms of the possibilities of using technology to assist with filmmaking?

H: Small-scale world-building. Ripple Effect was an extremely ambitious project that pushed the limits of what was possible for a short film production in terms of world-building through the game engine and using that as an environment on the LED screens to shoot in front of. I think these are all incredible tools as long as you are aware of the limits of the technology and plan the style and story of your movie accordingly. I hope Ripple Effect can be a useful test case for following films that want to use virtual production or LED screens but don’t have the budget of The Mandalorian.

M: The biggest takeaway for me is that having access to this type of technology changes the way you can build out a world for filmmaking. In a world-building capacity, the filmmaker is a lot less limited and more empowered to dream up something big. Also, if you want to use a location that you can’t get a crew to, it’s possible to still use that location if you have a 360° photo of the area you’re hoping to shoot. This means a film can have locations in the middle of a tropical jungle, an alleyway in Beirut, and on a space station in Mars all in one movie, without needing the budget to actually go there. I’m not sure why one film would need those three particular locations, but if you made a movie that had them, it would definitely pique my interest.