Stretch – The Project that Kept Trying to Kill Us

For every facility there is a first project. There’s that one thing you get that gets you going. Legion’s very first project was Joe Carnahan’s Stretch project. It was the first time shooting a feature for 5 million dollars, it was a project that rapidly spiraled out of control. At the heart of it, it was a beast that had to be tamed or it was going to get us.

Getting a chance to open a VFX house in California is a rare one indeed. Most companies are running for tax credit havens. Legion decided that we could use artists all over the world, use the best of the best and have a remarkably small foot print. Pay artists fairly for only what they work on, control costs very tightly, and use as much prosumer gear as possible. That was the plan… and it mostly worked, but Stretch stress tested that young pipeline out of the gate.

We shot for the usual 4-5 week schedule of a micro budget feature in Los Angeles. Our original bid was for around 100 shots in total. Most of those would be relatively easy to accomplish. The show secured 5 days on a green screen stage to shoot the drive and talking scenes. For safety they covered all of the in-car scenes, so that if something ran long when they were on location in Hollywood, they could fall back on the scenes shot against green. What we ended up with was nearly 350 shots inside a limo, outside a limo, being dragged by a limo and crashing a limo.

The first batch of shots that needed to be rushed to temp was about 200. We had two weeks to pull it off. Very early on we were very clear that all of our temps were going to be works in progress. There was never a point where we would slap something together simply to get it out the door and end up having to redo it. We created templates for Nuke and After Effects to hand out to the artists so that the first 70% of the shot was already underway. The first temps were done by 5 or 6 people at a pace of 100 per week. Most of these people had full time jobs at the time and were doing Legion work on the side. That’s 5 or 6 part time workers turning around 100 shots a week.

This is how we knew Legion would work. We could knock out an insane amount of work by doling out shots to artists around the world that were experienced and fast. Design for pop up text messages and CG parachute were done over the course of the two weeks, so that we could deliver first passes of that. Once we were able to get more of the show pulled for us to work on, all work on the show shut down. Universal had decided that it wasn’t going to release it as it was cut and this is where the trouble started.

We knew we had this show that had ballooned to nearly 400 shots just sitting there. Waiting to use all our resources at any minute. So we waited. We took on smaller shows, but nothing the size of another feature in fear that it would all show up at once and crush our little startup. So we waited, and waited, and waited. Months went by. Legion was shaken to its core, by its inability to showcase anything to potential clients because it was all locked up in features that wouldn’t release. Then came the call 6 weeks ago. “You know how you wanted 3.5 weeks to get the movie done? Yea…. you have 10 days.” No warning whatsoever. We had just moved the show off of our Aspera server so that we could make room for new shows that were coming in.

We had 10 days to crush out 366 shots to ‘as final as we could get them’ New shots were added. Old shots were cut out. It was a whirlwind. Editorial was constantly pulling new plates for us. We were getting drives as many as 2 or 3 times a day from the DI facility. Given that we had two other features in house at the time, there was only one production person who could be delegated to work on Stretch, so, James Hattin became the supervisor, lead artist, producer and coordinator for those remaining weeks. We reached around the planet to get people to work on it. New Zealand, Canada, Australia. We tapped a pool of people that we had been trying to work with for ages. It all came to pass. Less than two weeks to do all new sequences that had no templates. We ended up repurposing templates from other scenes that didn’t quite work on these new scenes. The professionalism and the dedication of the team of people we brought together was amazing. Simply amazing.

The work was relatively simple, but the quantity was something we hadn’t experienced before. The challenge became how to sustain ourselves in between these short bursts of furious activity. In the end, we’ve opted to take on as much as possible and build a pipeline that can handle these fast turn arounds. As long as we are clear that our temps are never throw away and we charge for methodology changes, which supports the artists doing the work, we feel that we can keep surpassing the client expectations.

On the last sleepless day with Stretch, we received a call from Joe Carnahan, the director of Stretch. He was over the moon, using all the profanity he could muster to tell us how F-ing great it was. It was a really proud day for Legion.