GMod Stories: The Making of Haven

"Can I make an avant-garde 40 minute film with almost no dialogue, multiple interconnecting storylines, an original score and minimal animation in Garry's Mod, solely utilizing visuals and sound design to tell the story? It sounded impossible. I had to do it."

2 February 2018 by Craig Pearson

What if Gordon Freeman didn't exist? That's the very basic premise behind Haven, a 40 minute experimental machinima that has just been released, filmed in Garry's Mod. I wasn't even 10 minutes into watching it when I started making notes to send to the creator, because I had so many questions about how something like this was possible. It's probably the single most impressive piece of machinima I've seen using our tools.

Creator Daniel Schetter was kind enough to respond to my babble on the making and story of Haven. You might want to watch his work first, because there' spoilers below.

I’m Daniel Schetter, a young filmmaker currently building his career in Phoenix, AZ. More importantly I’m a person who’s probably spent way too much time in Garry’s Mod.

The film itself started as a joke when discussing it with some friends in Discord in September of 2017. I had started making films in Garry’s Mod ten years before and stopped over four years ago due to life being a bit too busy, so the idea was almost nostalgic. I had always been inspired by the old Garry’s Mod machinima groups Lit Fuse Film and Pixel Eyes Productions, who moved on to be industry working professionals today. It soon became a bug in my brain day-to-day, I had to ask myself the question: can I make a near avant-garde 40 minute film with almost no dialogue, multiple interconnecting storylines, an original score and minimal animation completely done in Garry's Mod, solely utilizing visuals and sound design to tell the story? It sounded almost impossible, and I’m a bit of a creative masochist, so that’s why I had to do it.

I’ve always admired Valve’s “Show don’t tell” mentality to Half-Life in introducing story and gameplay elements. I asked myself, “What if every character was Gordon Freeman? What if all of the citizens have had their voice taken from them and the only ones who can speak are the ones in power?” I knew it was a very abstract idea that I knew was going to be a bit difficult to sell. Movies are a visual medium and I’ve always stuck to the idea that you should be able to watch this film mute and still understand where the story is going. This was certainly one of the many challenges that came out of producing this film.

Garry’s Mod is particularly special to me because it allows an entire digital crew to film on a digital set in real time. I am by no means an animator, but Garry’s Mod helps that by encompassing scene building, contraptions, and physics. For every camera move, lighting cue, and “actor” movement you need to block out the scene. Coming from my occupation of commercial freelance in Arizona, I can use the language from a live action set and translate it in-game. When working with real people in the game you can say “Everyone back to one” or “Action on three” and get the shot off in a timely manner by being able to direct your set. For the scenes that aren’t done in multiplayer, you are given the ultimate auteurs playground where you have total control of what is happening in frame. You get a different result each time for a shot that is utilizing physics or a contraption that you built. This all makes for exciting and unpredictable moments when the camera is rolling.

The very first shots in this film were extremely important. The idea was to establish a new but familiar take on the Half-Life universe, where Gordon Freeman did not exist. In the design of the city I tried to relay how filthy it is as well as how over-crowded it is, with people physically living on the rooftops.

Another idea is that nobody can ever escape the confines of the city walls, so everyone is stuck like caged animals on the inside. The resistance hides in abandoned tunnels, under the city like ants, as the Combine blast their way through the maze like tunnels in an effort to snuff them out.

When the character dubbed “Padder” is revealed to have escaped, it’s the first time anyone is really experiencing the outside world in years.

Every cityscape shot was done from scratch using skybox props, and other scaled down props on empty open maps since it would be otherwise impossible to create them in full and record it at 24 frames a second.

Fog and particle effects were used to add to the illusion of depth. The G-man and the railing are full-sized props in the very first shot, but everything beyond that, as the camera pans, is a miniature scene-build utilizing hundreds of tiny props. NPCs, birds, and helicopters were also shrunken down in the scene to help sell the lie.

One of the main design elements I wanted to add to the city was gigantic propaganda screens that relayed commercials to join civil protection, PSAs to turn in your disobeying neighbors and general city announcements. I used RT screens from an addon called PlayX and Media Player to stream private YouTube links where I had pre-rendered propaganda videos to play in and around the city with voiceovers by Ashley Alonso. A similar process of screen projection was used for the Dr. Breen speech and to imagine the psychedelic G-man sequence towards the end of the film.

A fun shot to imagine was the APC exploding in the final battle sequence. An APC was rigged with several detached pieces set at a low weld rate along with several particle triggers, invisible dynamite and thrusters set on the bottom and wheels. Hidden behind the APC were two already-burning metrocops set to walk out behind the APC. When the dynamite detonated, it would detach all of the welds and the thrusters would shoot them off in every direction. You’d get a different look in every take, but the trick was getting the timing just perfect from the explosion looking right to the NPCs walking out into frame.

Some small but very important aspects to every shot was getting it to have that live-action feel. The majority of the film was shot in a 1920x810 windowed mode to achieve an anamorphic look. In approaching the cinematography I filmed with only live-action techniques in mind. I’d approach each shot as if it were on a gimbal, shoulder rig, dolly system, crane shot, mounted camera, helicopter shot ect. I find in a lot of animated films and CGI, when the camera makes physically impossible movements, it takes me out of the universe, so I tried to keep it as real as possible. The color tool was used on almost every single prop and actor in the film to keep the color even and to make certain parts of the frame “pop” or silhouette characters. When it came to post-production, many shots were rotoscoped and had custom DOF applied to them as well as a shutter speed simulator to smooth out movement and add blur. On top of the final color grade, 35mm film grain was applied to even out the rest of the footage and add some texture. It’s not very noticable when watching for some, but with a side-by-side comparison there’s quite a difference.

I try my absolute hardest to not have any throw-away shots. An important point I make is to have every shot and moment have a purpose, with a visual cue or character intent to drive the story forward. There’s never a moment or a shot that’s just random. With the scene of the men around the table, the man in the middle is seen many times throughout the film. He’s always shown as the leader, with two familiar henchmen at his side. His motives were designed to be blurry as a person who is utilizing a movement and these individuals to have power over something. It’s slightly unclear who he is until the camera moves in and his eye color is revealed through the menacing light. The reverse is just as import with the low power-shot of the man at the door. He has information of coordinates to the haven that gives him power over him. The exchange that followed that moment is a mystery, but one can assume given the power dynamics of the characters how it went. I’m sure this film needs multiple viewings to catch some of these small nuances, and it’s where I leave a lot of moments in the film up to the viewers interpretation.

That Bird Tracking Shot

The problem I always foresaw with city scanners is that, after a while, if a citizen was up to nefarious acts and sees one, their initial idea would be to hide from it or act innocently. If their eyes in the sky became the birds themselves, nobody would ever know. This is where I created the idea that the Overwatch eventually designed biomechanical pigeons to spy on their citizens in the slums, while keeping scanners out in the open streets to give them a false sense of security. I focus a large amount of time on the pigeons in the film, to drop hints for the audience and to get them familiar with what pigeons were real versus what ones were biomechanical: the real ones make cooing noises whereas the fake ones never make a sound.

I had always joked about having myself or another player floating in the background of one of the shots to give a nod that this was made in Garry’s Mod, but I never consciously did this. In a large transition shot that follows one of these biomechanical pigeons across the city, you can catch a glimpse of me for a few frames, poorly hidden behind one of the buildings. This was by no means intentional, and I still can’t believe I never noticed scrubbing over that shot countless times that there was a giant man with a camera standing in the city. It was an easter egg that had to be.

Forest Attacks

The forest attack scene was extremely tricky and almost got cut. I wanted to plant the idea that G-man was the one pulling the strings behind almost every sequence, driving the characters where they need to be. It hints that time paused after the fire supernaturally burns out, and the forest goes completely silent. This is where at 08:55 you can catch a glimpse of his pale eyes voyeuristically watching him. When the zombie charges out of the the forest it doesn’t have a headcrab, which is another hint that it is being controlled by something else. When he runs back into shelter and the rest never show up this is another bizarre moment for the character. He decides to then move on through the wilderness the next morning to find another mysterious shack. This all happens so fast, and some is a bit hard to catch, which is why it almost didn’t make it in the final cut.

Strider Fight!

If there was a scene that took the most amount of takes, it was the strider fight. Out of the whole film I wanted to have a single take that would push the boundaries of what we were filming. We set up turrets, particle triggers, light flashes, rain, NPC’s, paths, all triggered by the numpad. The jeep had a real driver while I sat in a welded chair on the passenger side shooting handheld. I have to give credit to the jeep driver (Sara Barnes) and the doomed Metrocop (Steven Barnes) for sticking through the countless takes it took to do this. Since framerate was an issue, this entire part was shot in host_timescale 0.5 to slow down the processing effects and bring it to a recordable state.

A constant battle with the limitations of animation was selling the “lie” with punch-in cuts. An example of this is when the metropolice is impaled in the neck by a crossbow bolt and pinned into the window pane. I couldn’t animate the bolt going in through his neck, into the window and have his hands come up to his neck while blood streams out all in one continuous shot. Whenever I ran into a problem such as this one I would split the main movements into two or three different shots, mainly with the camera punching in closer. The shots need to be trimmed down to the very last frame at the exact right times where your brain can fill in the rest in-between the cuts. This method was also used when a metrocop was ran over by the APC and during the fight sequence in the alleyway. It’s cheap, but effective.

The entire film, from pre-production to post-production, took from October 2017 to January 2018, with some gaps in-between. I began with character breakdowns, where I laid out every character on screen with their personality, their motives, what they wanted, what was their end goal and how they got there. What followed this was a shot-list, composing a musical suite, and then building the actual sets to see how much of this was even visually possible within Garry’s Mod. A challenge was building the set, having the lighting, particles effects, and NPCs all moving at once, and actually getting the engine to run at 24fps to be able to capture the shot. This pre-production and knowing exactly what every frame to be is what sped up the production process exponentially.

The biggest challenge with the idea was to create it as a cinematic experience rather than just a visual puzzle given the nature of the narrative. I wanted it to be nearly all self-contained, so I had myself working with mostly pre-set animations and custom animations done in-game. I had to base explaining story information and characterization off of the environment and smaller animated gestures. For example, there’s many sequences where there’s a close-up shot of the character looking at something, the next cut needed to be what they were looking at and their motivation the viewer manifested from that had to be based on their given circumstances set up in that scene.

The emotion would come from the stakes, what’s at risk for the character, the camera constantly having even the slightest motion in each shot, and a sonically relentless sound design that never lets up. I told myself the design in every department had to be highly kinetic and anxiety-driven to keep it in constant motion. Each and every scene was also structured to always end on a cliff hanger and never fully conclude, but always lead to what happens next to hopefully keep the viewers attention. I knew I was aiming for a niche audience with this one, but my main goal was to hopefully revive something in the community.

While it’s two completely different beasts, there’s still many similarities in making a large machinima as there is to a live-action movie.

The main difference is you don’t have producers breathing down your neck about money when you want to roll fifty takes of pyrotechnic shots, because it’s all digital. There’s also the physicality to the production and how many bodies need to be on set to all the departments gears turn. When it comes to Garry’s Mod, most of this is in a confined and controlled environment where you can take control of all of those departments yourself.

What is similar is the stages it takes to get the camera rolling and the phases of post-production. It really comes down to knowing what you want and knowing what is possible within the constraints of what you’re working with. Being a filmmaker also means being attentive to design. This involves thinking about what colors are going to be present, why do the colors shift, how is the camera going to behave around the characters, how do the characters communicate, and how do we see what a character is thinking? The list goes on and it all needs to be accounted for, because when you get on your digital set you need to apply an answer to all these questions if you want a clear vision. Fleshing all of this out in pre-production is extremely important. When it comes to post-production the layout is very similar. Start with an assembly cut, rough cut, fine cut, sound design, scoring, compositing, color grading, credits, and picture lock in that order.

I can’t express how much that this film would not be possible without the community efforts that are put into the

Steam Workshop. As for the map makers, coders, and other artists work that was included in this film I can only hope it helps get them exposure as well. In my opinion when it comes to games and movies the names that roll beyond the director are the most critical components to the production and sometimes the most underlooked.

This film in particular is what I called a “silent” sequel to “Anticitizen One” that was part of a much larger treatment that I wrote. I never stated this directly, due to the fact I wanted this to be its own standalone film with a beginning, middle and end even though the story does go much deeper than just what is presented. I’ve always been interested in re-wiring the Half-Life universe into a film setting and this began with my unfinished series “7” and “Fight With Sound” which was released on Machinima.com and unfortunately never concluded.

For now I’m continuing to freelance and work camera department in Phoenix until I can make the move to Los Angeles with some other close friends and am taking whatever opportunities come my way. I can’t say much for what I’ll make in the future in Garry’s Mod, but only time can tell. My hope is that this film can inspire other storytellers in the community to band together keeping Half-Life and the true definition of machinima alive.

It was a real pleasure being walked through the making of Haven by you, Daniel. I'm always blown away by what the Garry's Mod community is capable of, and I can't wait to see where you go from here.

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