Behind the Scenes of Pleroma: Chris Browne's Adventures from Major Studios to Independent Filmmaking
In an era where technology and artistry intersect, Chris Browne emerges as a beacon of innovation and creativity. As a director, content creator and distinguished VFX supervisor at Sony Pictures Animation, he has transcended the conventional boundaries of visual storytelling. From his nascent days of molding stop-motion animations of spaceships to orchestrating grand CGI spectacles like Fast and Furious and Netflix animations, Chris's trajectory in the world of animation and VFX is a testament to his relentless pursuit of excellence.
His latest opus, “Pleroma”, delves deep into the philosophical quandaries of our time.
Set in a dystopian world where AI-run corporations overshadow human endeavors, the film raises poignant questions: What happens when creations surpass their creators? Where does humanity stand in a world dominated by its own technological offspring? Chris's narrative not only showcases his technical prowess but also challenges us to reflect on our place in an increasingly automated world.
Conceived and crafted amidst the global pandemic, "Pleroma” is more than just a film; it's a vision of a potential future and a proof-of-concept for ambitious projects Chris aspires to bring to life. As we embark on this enlightening conversation with Chris, we invite you, dear reader, to ponder the intricate dance between man, and machine, and the stories that bind us.
What role will you play in this unfolding narrative of the future?
Join us as we engage in a captivating conversation with Chris, exploring his inspirations, challenges, and aspirations.
Vinnie Jinn: Chris, let's start from the beginning. Do you remember your first-ever animation experiments?
Chris Browne: I remember borrowing my parents' hi-8 VHS camcorder to make rudimentary animated claymation creatures. They were very weird little productions for a 9-year-old. I think my parents and teachers started getting concerned.
Vinnie Jinn: Those claymation creatures sound intriguing! What initially drew you to the world of animation and VFX?
Chris Browne: I was obsessed with creative writing and filmmaking. I worked with whatever I could get my hands on to put in front of a camera… firecrackers, model spacecrafts, creature puppets. Of course, as a kid with no budget, it was pretty limiting.
As I started high school, I realized computer graphics could be used to bring to life anything I could imagine without limitation. So I knew I wanted to pursue it.
Vinnie Jinn: Can you share a pivotal moment in your life that significantly influenced your career path and led you to the world of VFX and directing?
Chris Browne: I honestly can’t remember wanting to do anything else. When I was in animation school, I made a short film about mutants in a Victorian-era setting that abducted people in the night. It started getting a lot of interest from the faculty, asking me for copies to show around. And then it got accepted into international film festivals all over the world. This was incredibly validating for me. I knew then that I was on the right path.
Vinnie Jinn: Having collaborated with major players like Sony Pictures Animation and Dreamworks playing significant roles in large-scale projects, it's interesting to see "Pleroma” emerge as a predominantly solo endeavor. What sparked your drive to shoulder such an ambitious project largely on your own?
Chris Browne: After overseeing dozens of projects in the hundred-million-dollar budget ranges, while collaborating with hundreds of artists and multiple studios, I really started to miss the independent vibe. I really wanted to push myself as a hands-on artist. And rely only on myself for all aspects of a project.
I did this for four reasons:
To innovate and learn new technical skills, and fine-tune the hands-on skills I already had.
To know every department of a live-action / visual effects-heavy production
To be able to express my ideas creatively and showcase my vision as a director/filmmaker
To create a project that can be adapted into a much larger production (feature, series, franchise).
Vinnie Jinn: Can you share some of the most significant challenges you faced while creating everything by yourself and how you overcame them? How do you balance your artistic vision with the practicalities and limitations of production?
Chris Browne: Every time there was a technical or logistical challenge I had no one to ask. I had to figure it out on my own. This was really fun and engaging but at times but also very draining. I programmed a lot of custom tools to make my workflow much faster and more efficient.
A very handy skill I picked up over the years is to work economically. If a hundred artists had to repeat the same tasks, I would often code tools to get around that. Taking this same approach to my independent film saved a TON of time.
In terms of balancing my artistic vision with the limitations of production, I really let things flow creatively. Sometimes when I would finally finish a particularly challenging visual effects shot, I would come up with two more shots I wanted to add, so at times it felt like it would never end. I did eventually reign myself in to a point where I was very happy. I felt I had accomplished everything I had wanted to tell.
Vinnie Jinn: While "Pleroma” is largely your creation, did others significantly contribute? Who were they and what roles did they play?
Chris Browne: Kiana Aletaha, producer and star of the production, was a great resource for the project. She was always there to help. No matter what hour of the night, she was available to bounce ideas off of, help with late-night or very early-morning shoots and was always ready to participate in any way. No task is too big or too small.
Vinnie Jinn: Kiana Aletaha's involvement has been invaluable. Similarly, your partnership with Tim Hedrick appears to have evolved beautifully. Can you share more about co-writing the feature adaptation of "Pleroma” with him?
Chris Browne: Tim was the Executive Producer on the FAST AND FURIOUS: SPYRACERS series that I worked on as a visual effects supervisor.
He really seemed to jive with what I had to offer creatively and we collaborated great together. As the production was ending, he invited me up to his beach house for drinks and cigars.
I expressed my interest in creating my own content.
I showed him a very early cut of PLEROMA, which he really seemed to love. He asked what my plans were with the project, and when I told him I wanted to adapt it into a feature, he wanted to help in any way. So we decided to collaborate on the feature film script together.
Vinnie Jinn: The title "Pleroma” is quite distinctive. Derived from the ancient Greek, "Pleroma” means “fullness” or “completion” and generally refers to the totality of divine powers. It's a term that carries depth and significance. Why did you choose this name for your film, and what does it signify to you?
PLEROMA, aka ‘the totality of divine powers’ refers to the AI superintelligence. But more specifically the human’s interpretation of it.
The board of directors value its knowledge over the human individuals who work there. They sort of worship it like a god, and they turn to it for all of the answers.
This, of course, leads to their potential downfall.
Vinnie Jinn: Without giving away too much, can you delve deeper into the plot of "Pleroma”? What inspired this particular narrative, and how did you approach its development? What core message or emotion do you want viewers to take away from "Pleroma”?
Chris Browne: The idea came to me well before the latest AI craze really took off…
AI currently is very user-driven “create me an image of…” or “write me something about this …”.
I have been doing different thought experiments on what an advanced AI could look like in the future. It won’t need such specific tasks. It will be more like “Create me an online business in cosmetics aimed at early twenty-something girls”.
The AI will create a website complete with ‘original’ art, e-commerce, marketing campaigns on social media, and advertisements. And will handle all communication and shipping with customers. Basically, the only thing the human will do is the initial prompt and then check their bank account.
So now imagine what will the humans do. The manual tasks of delivering the shipments (as physical robots are not quite there yet). OK, so in this scenario (just like in the story of the film) the AI is the CEO, CFO, and COO that runs the business and the humans are the workers carrying out the tasks of the AI. And the board of directors just guides it from afar.
Now let's assume that those board of directors and low-level workers don’t really understand what the AI is building, but they are happily working away on its wishes because the money is pouring in. Take it one step further and this super-intelligent AI will be worshiped like a ruler, and what if the things that are being built are now robots that can work more efficiently than humans? What does the business do then with the humans?
And to take it another step further, what if this now massive corporation built solely on achieving profit and growth for its shareholders has a conflict with the human workers? What if it divulges into something nefarious, and irresponsible? Sure, there will be legalities in place, but what if the design of these enterprises are sloppy or just plain illegal?
These are the thought experiments I was having that ultimately came up with the story of PLEROMA.
It sounds like a downer, but ultimately, it has an uplifting message of turning a negative into a positive, and that everyone has value, even a homeless man on the street with a disability.
Vinnie Jinn: Filming at Canada's particle nuclear physics laboratory, TRIUMF, must have been a unique experience. Can you share some challenges you faced during the shoot and how you overcame them?
Chris Browne: They never allow any film productions in their facilities. This is because of the sensitive nature of their equipment and how disruptive it would be for their scientists.
Since I had a tiny crew (only me operating a camera with 2 actors) AND based on my experience in the past creating CGI renderings for them of their physics simulations, they gave me the green light to shoot there. But, we only had one day. So I shot as much as I could and had to rebuild virtual environments later in CGI using the unreal game engine.
Another challenge was a certain level of radiation emitted in their laboratories. Each crew member had to be scanned for radiation levels regularly and had to leave and take a break if it got too high. Although we were never in real danger, it added a tense feeling.
Vinnie Jinn: In one of the podcasts, you mentioned being inspired by films like “The Terminator”, and “Blade Runner”. How do these classics influence your storytelling and visual style?
Chris Browne: To be honest as much as I love TERMINATOR and BLADE RUNNER, they were films I did not want to emulate. The reason was, that the robots were too advanced. They were too much like humans, and everyone instinctively knew they were actors ‘playing’ robots.
And those films took place too far into the future. I wanted the tech in PLEROMA to be grounded in as much present-day realism as possible. My outlook was that the film would be much more thrilling if the robots were a believable technology that we could see right around the corner.
Vinnie Jinn: The robots in "Pleroma”, especially STAN, have a distinct design. What inspired their creation, and how did you ensure their movements and interactions felt realistic?
Chris Browne: My inspiration came not from science fiction, but from what is currently being developed by companies like Boston Dynamics, and Darpa.
Their movements had to be based on industrial mechanics seen in robotic labs and manufacturing plants. This meant no ball joints. Everything moves with a logical hinge and swivel. You can also see all the pistons, servos, and cables that support their movements.
Even the cables and wires had to dangle and sway with realistic physics and gravity.
There is a robot that can unfold from a spinning wheel into a crab. All of those movements had to unfold, crawl in a plausible mechanical way with no cheats. Every nut and bolt was modeled with practical consideration. Even the wear and tear, collection of dirt, grime and grease were textured with a logic to it that added to the realism.
Vinnie Jinn: Creating a film, especially one as visually intricate as "Pleroma”, comes with its financial considerations. Did you primarily self-finance "Pleroma”, or did you seek external funding or sponsorships? Can you share insights into the budget you allocated for this project?
Chris Browne: The project was entirely self-financed, but it really didn't need much. Most of the film equipment I repurposed from my previous film “BAITING THE ABDUCTORS”.
I did purchase a handful of props, and costumes for the project that were uniquely for PLEROMA, but it only totaled a couple of thousand. It was all shot on location, so there was very little set dec needed. The Particle Nuclear Physics Lab already looked like a Sci-Fi film set on its own.
I did invest in a state-of-the-art computer. So much of the production was Visual Effects, and I didn't want to be slowed down by outdated technology.
I suppose the biggest investment was my time. Which was intentional, I loved every minute of it! :)
Vinnie Jinn: The visual quality of "Pleroma” is exceptional. Can you provide details on the gear and equipment you used during the production? Were there any specific tools or devices that were particularly crucial to achieving your vision? Beyond physical equipment, what software tools did you rely on for post-production, VFX, and editing?
Chris Browne: Here is a list of ALL production and post equipment I used for the film. All were critical:
3 Canon DSLR Camera’s - My “A” cams
A whole bunch of Canon lenses from 10 mm to 200 mm
DJI Ronin M Camera Gimbal - stabilizer for buttery smooth camera moves
Neewer Camera Shoulder Mount with Follow Focus - for that handheld run and gun feel
Edelkrone Camera Slider - adding subtle and smooth motion either side to side or push in’s
1 Monopod - good for holding high in the air for top-down shots
GoPro - good for action stuff to stick anywhere
DJI Osmo Pocket Cam - great small gimbal cam that can fit in tight places, or be used high up on the monopod where I can use my phone as a viewer while also panning and reframing on the fly remotely
DJI Drone F550 - high-action aerial shots
On-Set Visual Effects Equipment:
Macbeth Color Chart - color reference plate
Mirror Ball - reflection and lighting reference plate
Grey Ball - lighting reference plate
Ricoh Theta 360 camera - to shoot HDRIs for image-based lighting
Sigma 4.2 mm Fisheye Lens - shooting HDRIs in very hi-resolution that would be stitched later
Gigapan Pro Robot Camera Mount - a camera mount that auto-pivots and shoots many angles programmatically
Mannequin Reference Prop - for lighting reference and CG integration reference
Maya - Rigging and animating
Houdini - pyro simulations
Nuke - deep compositing
Epic Games Unreal Engine - photo-real environments and virtual sets for real-time renders
Substance Painter - surfacing/texturing
Zbrush - 3d sculpting
Meshroom - camera tracking and photogrammetry
Photoshop - matte painting
Adobe Premiere - editing
Davinci Resolve - color grading
Vinnie Jinn: The music in "Pleroma” truly sets the mood. Can you share your inspirations behind the musical choices and how they complement the narrative? Were there specific composers or musicians you collaborated with for the score of "Pleroma”?
Chris Browne: All of my music I pulled from stock that I found online and blended together in and out depending on the dramatic moments. I really wanted a really big epic feel to it, like you would get in a Christopher Nolan film.
The website AUDIOMACHINE has an incredible selection, in particular Paul Dinletir’s work.
Vinnie Jinn: Are you looking to collaborate with other filmmakers, studios, or artists for your upcoming projects or for the next phases of "Pleroma”?
Chris Browne: Definitely, I hope to make PLEROMA into a feature film where I could collaborate with a team of artists, engineers, studio executives and producers. And likewise with a whole bunch of upcoming projects I plan to create.
Vinnie Jinn: Our magazine community and audience are always eager to support groundbreaking work like "Pleroma”. How can they assist or contribute to your journey in achieving your goals?
Chris Browne: Spread the word on social media.
Like, comment, and share articles like these that bring awareness to the project.
Connect with me on LinkedIn to get updates (my favorite of the socials).
And keep an eye out for film festival screenings, and be sure to check out the full film online in the late fall/ early winter.
Vinnie Jinn: As someone who has successfully self-produced a project like "Pleroma”, what advice would you give to other aspiring self-producers?
Chris Browne: Pick a few filmmaking skills to be exceptional at. Experiment and get critiques. Hone your craft and share it with others. Put yourself in social circles, and professional work circumstances where you can make connections, learn, and grow from those around you. Share what you're passionate about and what you are striving for with industry professionals and the paths will unfold for you.
Vinnie Jinn: As you continue to make strides in the industry, how do you want to be remembered? What impact do you hope your work will have on future generations of filmmakers and VFX artists?
Chris Browne: I would like to be remembered as a filmmaker who has a unique vision, and who excels both creatively and technologically.
Someone who provides thrilling entertainment experiences yet also works on a much deeper and thought-provoking level.
Drawn into the world of Chris Browne and "Pleroma”? Dive deeper and lend your support by checking out the links provided below.
Explore the official website of Chris Browne
Reach out to Chris Brown on his LinkedIn profile
Explore more of Chris's projects here
Curious for more insights? Dive into the 'PLEROMA' Video Production Diaries.
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