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Creating a digital city – Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi short film


Creating a digital city

Expressionism is a modernist concept that saw its way into film making after Word War I, when  German cinema industry flourished vigorously with such hits as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu. Hollywood invested huge amounts of cash to create exuberant settings and Deutsch studios knew they could not compete with that kind of spending. They decided to take a less realistic scope on their productions and use ingeniously whatever budget they had at hand.

That amongst many other reasons, was why German filmmakers adopted a more stylistic approach to film making, compensating their relatively small pockets with a highly creative use of scenery and lighting. It was common for them to paint a shadow on the wall instead of creating it with light, or to contrast the makeup on a face in an almost ghostly manner to make it stand out and symbolize angst or insanity.

Fritz Langs's "Metropolis" is one of my favorite movies and the main inspiration for "Servicios Públicos"

In order to pull off the ambitious sets of Servicios Públicos we have to do something very similar; compensate our shallow pockets with a creative use of the few resources we have at hand. Digital tools give us the possibility of building our sets inside a computer at a fraction of the cost it would take to construct them in traditional ways. Additionally, working digitally allows us the freedom of placing each lamp light, brick and window exactly where we want them to be, in a very similar way to how a writer plays with words.

Our 3D version of the Camacho Building next to the real one.

Choosing Bogotá as the location of the film was a pretty obvious choice. Bogotá is the setting of the strongest memories of my life, good, bad and ugly. Although this story can resemble the harsh life in other Latin American cities, I wanted to write something that could only be possible in my city. I’ve always felt that throughout Colombia’s irregular film production history, there isn’t a single film that does for Bogotá what Manhattan does to New York or Blade Runner represents for Los Angeles. It’s natural for any casual moviegoer anywhere in the world to have watched tales unfold on the streets of San Francisco, Paris or Venice. But I doubt any of you readers remembers Bogotá beyond what the 6 o’clock news has shown. Even in our local filmography, Medellín and Cali have had a certain degree of exposure courtesy of our only internationally acclaimed directors, Victor Gaviria and Luis Ospina. But Bogotá still remains unexplored territory for film goers.

This is a comparison between the real life city and our black and white stylized version.

If I were to give my beloved city a digital homage, there is no street here that can better exemplify Bogota’s identity, with its unstoppable growth, chaos and eclecticism than the four century old Jimenez Avenue. This is a place where you can find neoclassical buildings and horrible present day McDonald’s restaurants beside a completely preserved 16th century church. It nicely represents the forced process of modernization the city had experienced in the early 19th century, going from a rural province to a massive modern vertical city in just a couple of decades. The passage of time is evident and we wanted to extrapolate it even further into an imaginary future.

Real life and 3D version of the headquarters of the Newspaper

We created the models from the official street plans. I drew splines over the blueprints delimiting each structure, extruded and began to add detail. The height of each building and the size of columns, doors and other elements was deduced by reference photographs and on location measurements. The textures were grabbed on site with an 8 Megapixel SONY DSC-F828.

We modeled the 3D buildings from the city plans and took real life measurements to refine the details.

We recreated every iconic building on the block and around those we created new, imaginary structures to imply a different time period. We didn’t want to use slick and organic shapes like those of Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry that although very cool, could deviate us from our conceptual main frame. We looked instead at modernist architectural movements like Art Deco, Russian Constructivism, Functionalism and the Chicago school. We limited our materials to steel, brick and concrete, not going so far from the existent buildings and trying to create an almost seamless transition from the present structures and the imaginary ones.

I spent a couple of weeks researching into the history of architecture and checked out dozens of tutorials on line to get the hang of poly modeling in 3D Studio Max. Every building was made with a maximum of 5000 polygons to prevent my machine from dying at renders. I also decided to use bitmaps weathered by hand in Photoshop for each of the buildings that would appear in the foreground of a given shot, and procedural textures for models farther away from the camera in order to save up RAM at render times and previs stage. I used meters for consistency, as all our on set measurements were taken in meters.

Besides the always trusty 3D Studio Max manual, these are some of the sites I constantly checked for learning and reference. These artists are real,  generous geniuses that gave me invaluable knowledge and inspiration to make this movie happen.

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13 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Creating a digital city”

  1. Lord Xavier July 2, 2011 at 2:17 am

    These 3D models are fantastic! Very impressive project man. good luck!

  2. Adriana July 30, 2011 at 1:13 am

    I can’t believe all this work is for a short film! You guys are a real inspiration. Thank you for sharing your talent to with the world.

    • Benjamin Piñeros August 3, 2011 at 2:14 am

      Thank you Adriana! That is one of the best compliments we can ever receive. We are very happy our work got into you.

  3. Deepti May 20, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Wow wow wow! Fantastic work Ben! 🙂 Can we see the short film?

    • Benjamin Piñeros May 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      Thanks Deepti! I appreciate your good vibes! We still are in post production, but hope to have the film ready by October. Stay tuned for updates, wallpapers, teasers and more…

  4. Izat Abdraimov April 21, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Hey Benjamin. Really inspiring work.

  5. Geof Sneider May 22, 2013 at 9:57 pm

    I’m extremely pleased to have stumbled with this project! Looks really amazing! Keep up all the good work, you guys will get to Hollywood soon with this quality! I’d love a feature with this look and underground dystopian theme.

    • Benjamin Piñeros August 11, 2013 at 10:30 pm

      Hey Geof! Thanks a lot for your nice words man! … A feature film version of ‘Servicios Públicos’ would be cool. Let’s see if the Weinsteins will finance it 🙂 Follow me on Twitter to check out our progress real time.

  6. Jared January 30, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    This film is a true work of art. Your resolve will be compensated. Congratulations, it looks stunning.

    • Benjamin Piñeros August 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

      Thank you Jared very much! The best compensation possible is to find encouraging words like yours. Glad you like what we’re doing.

  7. Antonetta October 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

    …you modeled all this by yourself?

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Benjamin Piñeros was born in 1978 in Bogotá, Colombia but lived his entire childhood in NYC.

Fed up with working in the advertising world, one good day he threw everything to hell and decided to make a film on his personal computer. Now he has a huge credit card debt, no girlfriend and no income. Well, at least he has this blog...

He's a self taught filmmaker and 3D artist in love with all good sounds from Bach to David Bowie. He writes first drafts on paper, hates smartphones and wants to learn to play guitar someday. You can contact him on Twitter for multi-million dollar screenplay deals, indecent proposals or if you just want to have a nice chat about movies.