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How a Couple of Upstart Kids Became the Indie Kings of VFX

Chalk Warfare is both the history and future of DIY visual effects. And the SOKRISPYMEDIA filmmakers believe we are at a precipice where anyone can do this.

All you need is a little imagination and some chalk! And the patience to meticulously design 3D chalk particles, perhaps.

SOKRISPYMEDIA founders Sam Wickert and Eric Leigh were 16 years old when they released the very first Chalk Warfare. Praised by 54 million fans as one of the greatest YouTube videos ever, it was a 2-minute face-off where opposing teams would draw and then wield weapons—made with chalk.

Nine years later, the filmmakers and the SOKRISPYMEDIA team have grown, adding producer Micah Malinics and digital lead Brendan Ford, among others, and a re-imagined fourth installment, Chalk Warfare 4.0. The 16-minute epic rivals the look of a professional Hollywood VFX studio.

With each iteration, the chalk weapons have evolved to be more creatively outrageous and more technically incredible. Since releasing 4.0 last summer, the series has over 150 million total views

If you take a trip through their YouTube channel, you can see Chalk Warfare is not only a timeline of the SOKRISPYMEDIA filmmaker journey but of the art of VFX as a whole over the past decade.

Take a look at how the process has evolved from the making of the first Chalk Warfare  to the newest edition:

Micah Malinics and Sam Wickert spoke with No Film School to talk about their process, their insane R&D for their state-of-the-art chalk weapons, and the entirely Blackmagic Design pipeline that allows them to create this kind of work.

No Film School: So for Chalk Warfare 4.0, how did the process start? Do you start with the script, do you do pre-vis? With the visual effects being so front and center, how do you shoot for post?

Sam Wickert: The first question we had asked ourselves is, “Do I want to put myself through the pain of making another one of these?” Eric and I both were talking and we said, “We’re not going to make another one unless we can really create an experience that is exponentially better than the previous ones.” A big thing is the visual effects involved, and that’s where it all began.

As the VFX lead on this, for me, it was important that we create new tactics to handle these visual effects, so the visual effects look much more realistic and are also more possible to do. 

We started the entire process with doing test runs to improve the weapon-to-chalk process. And when I say we, in college I met one of our VFX partners, Brendan Ford. And he worked on tons of different aspects to try to figure out the best ways to accomplish the visual effects in a more efficient manner.

And it started with this idea that I had shortly after Chalk Warfare 3, which was, how can we make these weapons invisible? We wanted to create a see-through weapon prop to then at least take out half the workload of the visual effects, which entails painting out the weapon. And then rotoscoping the hands to put it back on top of the weapon. The weapon used to be cardboard.

Wickert: For Chalk Warfare 4.0, we were able to make the scans on the computer, make the guns, and then have them laser cut to a plexiglass. And we were working with a prop designer, Alex Lebow. He made me a quarter-inch thick cut of a see-through plexiglass. From that, we worked with this weapon on several different tests, basically shooting various placement of tracker markers. We wanted to figure out the most limited amount of dots on the prop to have the most efficient workflow.

Brendan was able to work with real-world scale to figure it out. He got to the point where he could look at something and say, “I know we need this many dots on it.” He made a template for every single piece we had created. He had it set up real-world scale and everything was ready to track. And then when I would have our shot and he did the tracking, I would load up the script that he’d give me and the tracking would stick like glue.

He would handle the technicals, and I was able to then specifically handle the art, which was making it look like chalk. We did some interesting things granularly, where literally every chalk had millions of tiny little particles that were 3D. And then at certain velocities that Brendan would give me, I could then have certain particles fling off. The process just became so much more involved when we were able to team together, and make this a more efficient and proper workflow. In the past, it was me doing planar tracking, and it wasn’t really based off of true movement and true scale.

Micah Malinics: And at some point, Sam did an announcement on YouTube, asking like, “What weapons do you guys want to see?” That was the official, we’re in it now. Because if you’re posting on the YouTube page, you can’t go back at that point. There’s so much R&D and prep work that goes into this, as you’d imagine. And then we’re announcing it. It’s going to happen. And then you reap the consequences of everything put out there.

Wickert: With all those tests, we were able to work with the Blackmagic G2. It was actually a reverse process compared to the older films. The older films used to be, we would come up with weapons that we would want to use, but then we’d have to make them in real-life first.

So I would be looking up images online and making cardboard cutouts with an Exacto knife. And we’d have these really terrible cardboard cutouts that would be bending and flopping by the end of the shoot. And again, we have to paint them out and do all this work on them.

But with Chalk Warfare 4, we actually could make them in the computer first. We’d come up with the weapons that we wanted. Then we’d make them on the computer, have them cut to scale. And then, because they’re already made in the computer, we have the exact dimensions. We have the exact outline, and it’s already made with chalk on the computer as well. It was that much better because everything for this was about scaling. It was about sizing and making sure everything was real-world scale. So everything kind of shifted to make that possible.

NFS: You mention the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro G2. Was that your main camera? How’d that work with the rest of the VFX pipeline?

Wickert: The Blackmagic G2 was our main camera. We ended up shooting with two of those during production, at least for the California section. I was manning one. We had a B camera operator as well, on a Steadicam for dual coverage. That’s not normal for us, but we wanted to make sure that we maximized the day since it was a fairly quick-moving set.

We also used a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera for various different shots, things that were on smaller gimbals if it was a more run-and-gun, or skydiving, for instance. And then we used DaVinci Resolve for all the editing. It worked really well with the native workflow with the raw capabilities from the camera.

And then from there, we’re already in that DaVinci ecosystem. We colored in Resolve. We used Fusion for the effects pipeline. I’m not so much a node guy as Brendan is. Brendan really knows nodes. That’s the joke we have here. Brendan was working alongside, doing all of the node set up. So it was literally a template where he would replace the track on the footage with that one node. And it would just go down the entire tree and we would be able to replace the weapon’s stencil and it would just replace it in that person’s hands. And then from that, we’re able to do all of the work that we need to do such as the rotoscoping.

I would go out and do the chalk art, and various effects to blend it and composite it in real life. Even from the tests, from the ground up, we were using DaVinci’s entire ecosystem to create our tests and ultimately used it for our VFX pipeline.

Malinics: I think the G2 had just come out right when we were kicking off the production. So we were super excited to try it out. It worked super well for us for a few different reasons. As you would imagine, our production style and even our production workflow is just pretty radically different than what you’d see on a standard Hollywood film, but we are constantly pushing to match that level of quality. So for us, there’s a necessity to be able to be versatile and shoot quickly, ingest footage quickly, and make it as streamlined as possible without quick limiting any of that quality or compromising on anything on the backend.

Being able to shoot Blackmagic RAW gave us cameras that are super versatile. It was the best-case scenario for us. I felt like we didn’t really have to compromise on the look or the quality at all. And we were able to have these crazy run-and-gun shoot days and be able to have the production that we needed to pull this off, with the budget and the time that we were limited to use.

Wickert: I love being behind camera, and I like to be manning a camera and by the South Carolina shoot, I was the only guy manning the camera and being able to have that Blackmagic with all the accessories on there, I had the sidearm, side handle and I was able to just literally run holding it raw without any support. That was really great. And then obviously I can put it on a rig. I can do whatever. It’s an extremely versatile camera, and it was great to utilize on the shoot.

Malinics: Even with all the virtual production stuff we were running, we were using Blackmagic’s cameras. They work so seamlessly with the deck link that we’re using with them too. It’s awesome.

Wickert: They’re a company that kind of has their feet in the water [in] various different facets of filmmaking. And it’s very, very awesome to be in that kind of ecosystem.

We did a lot of virtual production on Chalk Warfare 4.0, where a lot of the scenes were CG and were completely CG, and we’re actually using a fake camera, but we’re in our office, filming with a real camera, just for the weight of the camera, right, and then tracking that camera. And everything is being seen through a fake CG monitor or piped back to our monitor. That virtual camera technique, even that, Blackmagic’s involved with because we’re running that all in Unreal Engine, and Blackmagic has the DeckLink cards that are able to transmit the signal via SDI that are in our computers.

Then we’re also piping it over to our Blackmagic monitor, where we’re able to record directly for reference data. Unreal Engine is able to time-code lock everything because that DeckLink is bringing all that data in, and Blackmagic has a literal plugin in Unreal Engine. It’s the Blackmagic Media Plugin that allows us to ingest that data. It’s awesome that a company we’re familiar with, and that we use, is involved with so many different processes as we’re moving into new things.

Malinics: We’re super tech-heavy obviously, if you didn’t pick that up from the conversation! There’s tons of awesome tech companies that are just doing really incredible things, and we love working with Blackmagic as one of them, just because they’re really helping us pioneer the shoots that we want to do. We’re pretty regularly in communication, saying, “Hey, we want to try some cool stuff. We’d love to demo out some of these new cameras, see how they can work in these different new pipelines and workflows.”

Wickert: There were so many great tech sponsors that we had on Chalk Warfare 4.0, Blackmagic being one of them. But we’re no strangers to their cameras and their tech. We have been using Blackmagic since Chalk Warfare 3.0, when we weren’t sponsored. It was a no-brainer for us to use the Blackmagic cameras for 4.0.

On top of that, we worked with Other World Computing for our server solution, without which we would not have been able to create this film. We legitimately have, I think, 30 terabytes of data from that film that we were working with!

We used Frame.io for the video review process for shipping out various shots to friends and artists and whatnot to review and work on. And then Boris FX, which is obviously a plugins company that we use for a ton of different effects. Everybody involved made this film possible.

Wickert: We’re working a lot with virtual production. We’re at a point where we’re using Unreal Engine entirely for projects, which is really cool. Using this entire virtual production workflow, working with LED screens. And we’ve got quite a few films that we’ve wanted to make, and they’re becoming possible because of this tech.

NFS: If somebody loves what you do, and wants to get into this kind of filmmaking, but has no idea where to start, what’s your advice?

Wickert: The biggest thing that I always say, and still tell myself, to this day, is project-based learning.

I’m jealous of the people growing up now, with all of the tools and tech available to them. I used to come home from school, when I was in middle school and high school, and there would be one shot I’d want to do. I’d make hundreds of these test videos. I’d film my backyard fence, but then make it so that I turn, and it looks like I’m in Bozeman, Montana. I’d make a mountain-scape, where it’s snowing. You’re making the shot, you’re learning how to do set extensions, you’re learning how to do color correction, and you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B. From that, you learn.

I look on these apps, like TikTok and YouTube shorts and various things, and realize, if I was that age now doing those test shoots, I could have been uploading them. Although, maybe some of them I wouldn’t want an audience!

That’s often the biggest hurdle for me: to start something. You have to get yourself to this point where you believe that you can take on something artistically and you won’t fall into the slump of despair. Sometimes you just have to take that plunge and then know that you as an artist will work to make it as good as it can be.

Malinics: I’ll go out on a limb and say I believe there’s never a better time to get started than right now. We are at a precipice. We’re really passionate about democratizing content creation, democratizing filmmaking. There’s companies pioneering that. Someone now can get their phone out, film something, and go make a little scene in Unreal, an environment, and then use DaVinci to composite that. Someone who’s starting out now can probably, in a year, make something that would have taken us five years to make when we were learning it back in the day. The filmmakers getting started right now are going to continue to take the mantle and pioneer this content for decades to come. It’s becoming more and more exciting to see how tech is expanding creativity and the voices in filmmaking.     

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