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In an industrial park somewhere in Los Angeles, two visual effects veterans have concocted their most elaborate effect yet; they’ve started their own production company. The concept is fairly unique. They would have a feature film financed by independent sources. They would produce the film, as well as produce the visual effects in-house. Volker Engel and Marc Weigert have done it on a new film called "Coronado."
Engel is the Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor for "Independence Day" (1996). He also supervised visual effects on "Moon 44" (1990) and "Godzilla" (1998).
Weigert is a visual effects producer who ran his own company, Dreamscape Imagery, Inc., from 1995-2000. The company produced visual effects for "The Drew Carey Show" and "Flubber" (1997), among others.
Together, Engel and Weigert formed Uncharted Territory to produce features and mini series. Their first project was "Coronado," an action-adventure that takes place in a number of locations around the world. With a modest budget, cast and crew, Engel and Weigert set out to produce a visual effects feature that would rival many of Hollywood’s $100-million-plus budgeted films. With their extensive backgrounds in visual effects, it looks like the pair have pulled off what they set out to do. The effects are on par with the best of them.
The film stars Kristen Dattilo ("The Chris Issak Show") and John Rhys-Davies ("Raiders of the Lost Ark"-1981) and was directed by Claudio Fäh. The film will be distributed around the world for theatrical release. In North America, it will be released its original widescreen aspect ratio on DVD.
During a humid July afternoon in 2003, I sat down with Engel and Weigert to discuss their producing tasks on "Coronado." This is the first part of two interviews (Coronado or Bust: Supervising Visual Effects).
William Kallay, FSTD: Who are the principles of Uncharted Territory?
Volker Engel: I’m CEO. Marc is CFO-COO. Marc’s wife Stacy is part of the company, where she’s more of the administrative side. On "Coronado," Stacy was the Associate Producer. We couldn’t have done anything without her. She did all the crucial organizing.
FSTD: How did you and Marc decide to start Uncharted Territory?
Engel: Good one. I think there are a couple of answers to that. We knew each other since ’92 or ’91. Marc worked as Visual Effects Project manager on "Independence Day" and I was Visual Effects Supervisor, so we worked very closely on that project. Marc actually had his own visual effects company after "Independence Day." And after awhile, we said we don’t want to set up a visual effects company; we want to set up a production company. With our expertise in visual effects, we could then implement that into the company on a project-by-project basis. We would hire artists and also do the effects in-house. And so it’s really Uncharted Territory as a production company. That’s how we get projects. We develop our own projects, like "Coronado," or we co-produce, like on our next one that we’re doing which is a four hour mini-series.
FSTD: As a production company, do you look at outside projects or is everything developed in-house?
Engel: For example, a script was given to us and they said check it out. We said only if you hire us a production company.
FSTD: On "Coronado," did you write the script?
Engel: Yes, the three of us.
Marc Weigert: We co-wrote it together with the director, Claudio Fäh. With "Coronado," we have to say it’s a very special case. It was our first production. We had to go ahead and entirely finance it with private investors. We knew we wouldn’t immediately get a studio deal. We had to be fairly low budget. And we knew we had to do something that was a proof of concept. We could show that our concept of this production company was very unique. It’s something that does not exist anywhere else. What we wanted to do with the production company was really a new paradigm of how to produce movies. In the last ten to twelve years that we’ve been working here in Hollywood, we’ve seen a lot. You know everything from your own experience and from other people of all the waste that’s happening; all the millions of dollars that get thrown out of the window for nothing. We said okay, we want to switch it around.
Engel: And for that, we have to be in control.
Weigert: Exactly. It’s basically to change the way that movies are being produced. It sounds like a huge statement, but it’s really true because we did it. Our concept goes back to the way movies were done in the ’20s and ’30s, when every movie was done in a studio or back lot, no matter where it was. We thought that if you go back to that kind of production approach, you wouldn’t have to travel around to several different countries in the world. You wouldn’t have to build entire big sets. You do it the same way they did, only with modern technology.
FSTD: What are some of the responsibilities you have as producers?
Weigert: You have to take care of all the deals, all the contracts, the money side. Everything. Then you also have to deal with the creative side as producer. You have to make sure you chose the right people for the right job, starting from director, going to director of photography. You have to have sound people and so on. We are there everyday on-set. As producers, we guide the project all the way to the very last copy that gets sent out to Japan, for instance. Then on top of that, there’s the role as visual effects producer/visual effects supervisors, which means trying to figure out what is the cheapest, best quality wise way to make a film happen.
Engel: It’s also a visual effects supervisor’s dream come true. That’s a really big part of it and one of the main reasons for doing it that way. The main difference is that you’re not at the end of the food chain. You’re way up there with the other guys. But you have the knowledge of the visual effects supervisor to make these decisions way early.
Weigert: We have the power to say no. We have the experience in this kind of stuff. We only build a part of the set and there’s not a production designer who suddenly comes to us, “Oh yeah, but I want to build the whole thing.” As a visual effects supervisor you can say, “Well, okay you build the whole thing.” But now we’re in the position to say, “No, this doesn’t make sense. Instead of spending the money there, we take that money and put here where it makes a lot more impact.” The director is also our friend.
Engel: At the moment for the next project, we have the director also here and we are in constant discussion with him. When we discuss things, he might say, “I want to see this lake with a birds eye view.” And we’re like, “Mmm, we’re not really prepared to do that. So if we really do this additional elaborate sequence, what do you think about doing something else a little smarter and a little simpler?” A lot of times, he says, “Oh yeah, I don’t need to see that in the background there, because we have some people talking in the foreground so that’s fine with me.” It’s the constant information flow that needs to be there. That really makes it happen. But, as you said, we are able to say, “You know what? No, we can’t really give you that. If you really, really want that, that’ll cost more, which means we have to cut somewhere else if the budget stays the same.”
Weigert: Basically you can make educated decisions. Also for the director, because the director knows us and trusts us, that it’s in our best interest as producers to make this movie look as good as possible. If you’re just a visual effects company, your best interest is to make your visual effects look as good as possible. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the rest of the movie or what happens to that. And it also doesn’t really mean that you don’t care about the budget. Theoretically, the more money you get, the more profit you can make as a visual effects company. What we’re doing, a visual effects company has no interest in. They don’t have an interest in saving money for the producer, because it makes their life more miserable and it gives them much less profit.
Engel: And that’s the whole idea where we come full circle and say, “You know what? That doesn’t make any sense to have these twenty guys working on that. We know a great miniature company that can do that for you in one-in-half weeks-built.”
FSTD: "Coronado" was shot mostly in Mexico. Did you shoot down at the [Fox] Baja Studios?
Engel: No, our studio was actually an abandoned prison one hour from Mexico City. We found most of our locations through a location scout. The government gave us this abandoned prison pretty much for free.
Weigert: We worked very closely with the Morello State Film Commission. Mexico has several different states. Most of the states have their own film commissions. They gave us a lot of input and help. Our coordinator in Mexico was a lady from the film commission, so she was, for the time, just there for us. We never had a real studio, but we had just two days in an actual studio which was in Mexico City.
Engel: Then we also, once we knew that location, used a lot of corners from that actual prison location as sets for the movie. There’s a sequence that takes place in a prison cell. That was an easy one.
Weigert: There are other ones. There’s a scene that takes place on a ship. We shot that there, too.
Engel: There were towers on the roof that looked a little bit like something on the deck of a ship. We simply extended and put in water and CG.
FSTD: What was some of the reaction to you embarking on this production company venture?
Weigert: All our colleagues said, “Are you guys out of your mind? You’re in this safe haven of visual effects supervising making a lot of money a week.” Yeah, sure, we make more money, but we’d be unhappy. But this is great. It’s so much fun. It’s an enormously creative field. Normally, usually people think that producers are the guys who bring the money. It’s the opposite. We’re the first person ever to be involved in a project and the last person to let go of a project. You’re basically involved in every single aspect in the creative and the non-creative aspects. And even the non-creative aspects have to be fairly creative. How do make the money to finance it?
Engel: And after "Coronado," which was very important for us, during the distribution process, we go to know so many companies that now trust us. There’s a couple really big companies, at the moment, who definitely want to work together “with you guys, because we really like your concept.” But we had to prove it first. That was "Coronado." We sold it to 28 territories. So far, it’s in 28 major territories worldwide.
FSTD: First run release in those territories?
Weigert: Some territories are DVD premiere, like the U.S. is. We just sold it to Blockbuster. They’ll bring it out at the end of this year. A very big release. More than 36 copies per store. That’s a 150,000 copies. It’s like a major motion picture.
FSTD: How did you get this film financed?
Engel: Claudio, the director, came to us and said that he had an investor who will give some seed money to start a project. Once you have that, of course, it’s a little easier to get more people excited about it. Through of friend of this investor, who became our financial organizer for the project, we organized a couple of more meetings with potential investors in New York, Zurich, Hamburg and Frankfurt. Pretty much at every meeting, we found one investor.
FSTD: You make it sound so easy.
Weigert: We have to say we had a pretty big package. We used a little start-up money, which was really not much, to first produce production illustrations to show some of the locations. We started with pre-visualization and we cut one of our major scenes, the “bridge scene,” together in pre-vis with music so people could see what they were going to get later.
Engel: It was a massive presentation, actually. There was PowerPoint stuff and things we had done on "Independence Day." The most important thing, in hindsight, was the passion about doing this project. We remember one investor, and we did a three hour presentation, and he said after the presentation, “You had me after ten minutes.”
FSTD: Can you explain your roles as visual effects supervisors on the film.
Engel: It’s very different from "Independence Day" to "Coronado." Because on "Coronado," my role was being a producer, as was Marc’s role at the same time being visual effects supervisor. On a movie like "Independence Day," my sole role was visual effects supervisor, so I looked at things differently. And I also worked with a visual effects producer who had the actual producer [of the film] behind him. So my focus was way more on the creative process than always keeping in mind, “How can we do that a little more clever so we save some money on our shooting day?”
Weigert: For the concept we have now, the role is really three people in one, even though we usually do it together.
Engel: We should get paid more. We should get paid more doing three jobs.
Weigert: We are producers in a real sense of a producer. We are also visual effects supervisors, which would be a separate job for other people, otherwise. And we are also visual effects producers, which is also a separate job. We do all that together because of the concept. That’s a lot. If you look at the role as producer, it starts from development, developing a script, bringing screenwriters together, or in this case, we’re also the screenwriters so it’s even more work.
FSTD: I think it’s interesting that you guys are taking all these different jobs on to produce a film.
Engel: It’s a psychological effect that you’re responsible. It’s not somebody else who’s also responsible. If something is screwed up, you blame it on yourself, which also motivates you to not screw up. Because you don’t have that backup of somebody else, “Ah I’m not gonna take care of it. That’s two other guys who might do that.” It happens all the time in the real world. It’s between the two of us and we keep in close communication.
Weigert: You can’t blame other companies. On a studio picture, it’s very easily done. Five, six companies working on it, they say, “Yeah, that company there screwed up. They didn’t deliver in time or well, we cannot do that.” It’s us. It’s in our hands.
Special thanks to Volker Engel, Marc Weigert and Tom Atkin
Photos courtesy of Uncharted Territory
Copyright 2004 FSTD
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