If you’re interested in getting big budget looks in your low budget indie film, then you should be very familiar with the Shanks FX channel on YouTube. If you’re not, you should get acquainted with it… like now! Joe Schenkenberg aka Joey Shanks is the man with the know-how when it comes to creating Hollywood effects out of simple household items. He teamed up with PBS Digital Studios to bring you quality behind-the-scenes content online and has recently partnered with Red Giant to explain how he created a black hole effect very similar looking to the one in the recent movie Interstellar – all captured in-camera.
I took the little lady out last weekend to our local IMAX theater to see Interstellar, and we were far from disappointed. Because of how blown away I was at Christopher Nolan's latest cinematic endeavor, Joey's take on the black hole, Gargantua, immediately caught my eye. His original YouTube episode only clocks in at around four minutes, but there is a wealth of information packed in it. If that was all you had to view, you'd be better off for it, but thankfully he partnered with Red Giant and detailed out the whole process in the video above in a little over a half hour. I haven't worked with motion video or film in years, but Joey really sparked some ideas within me while watching and listening to what he did to create this cool effect. Make sure you dive into everything he has online. You're probably going to binge-watch his channel, so make sure you grab some snacks... you'll be there for a while! I luckily had the opportunity to talk with Joey about how this particular episode came to be, what it takes to plan to re-create something so epic, the challenges involved and what we can expect him to tackle next.
From Concept to Plan
Like me, Joey is a huge Christopher Nolan fan. Unlike me, he was able to meet Mr. Nolan at the Slamdance Film Festival last year when Nolan was there to receive the Founders Award. Joey is also a Slamdance alum so he had the chance to chat with Christopher backstage for 30-40 minutes about movies and such. Through a combination of fantastic conversation, learning about Nolan's next project, Interstellar, and then reading Adam Rodgers' Wired article about the science behind the astrophysics in the movie, Joey knew he had to put his next effort into paying homage to what Nolan had created - Gargantua! Joey felt comfortable with his background in making cosmic elements and star field backdrops that he could combine that knowledge with long exposures and light painting to somehow re-create the black hole. He took some screen shots from the exclusive black hole video Nolan and Kip Thorne gave to Wired and got to work figuring out his plan. You can actually see a lot of that in the video with Joey in front of print-outs and models.
Joey told me he wasn't aware at first that he could create a lot of the cosmic elements, particles and atmosphere with long exposures. "I thought I was going to have to do all of the black hole's effects on a plate of glass with liquids, but I kind of discovered if you shined a light on something that's highly reflective, that it creates a nice soft exposure that has some randomness and it creates kind of an atmospheric look that really works for creating atmosphere. It looks very cosmic." So he tried all kinds of shiny things with his old tungsten flashlight with long-exposure light-painting techniques until he got the warm, soft texture he was looking for to use as the ring elements, the glow and the core of the black hole. This was the main challenge that he used in tandem with lighting steel wool on fire and photographing it spinning in circles on an old fan. For the backdrop, he went with what he knew and used a plate of glass. It was a whole new way of creating cosmic elements that he discovered and it looks great!
What's Next To Come
"I love spaceships and science fiction action movies, and I've always wanted to do a dog fight out in space. I've done test-shots, but it's very challenging to make it look believable, realistic and have a sense of scale." It's something he's still working on now he admitted to me. It's still pretty tough for him, but it's definitely on his agenda. He's also going to try to re-create the Helix Nebula, aka the "Eye of God" or "Eye of Sauron" nebula with some of the same techniques. He also clued me in on a secret: that Terrance Malik's The Tree of Life, a visually stunning piece of cinema on top of a great story, was a game changer for him. "It was a revelation of what I wanted to do." It seems to me like if there are gorgeous other-worldly visuals, Joey Shanks will be breaking them down to re-create and teach others along the way.
By utilizing everyday household items and other easy-to-purchase materials, and by learning the techniques and expertise that Joey presents for free, you have the opportunity to add real value to your next production for what actually costs very little in comparison. As I mentioned before, I already have some cool ideas running around in my head that I want to play around with. I can't even guess what amazing things our creative readers will get going within their own epic films and videos.
Many thanks to Joey Shanks for sharing everything his does online and for letting me pick his brain a bit for this article today. If you want to learn more in-camera effect trickery like what we shared here, be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Have you already taken his tips to the next level? Share with us in the comments below. I'd love to check out what you've been up to!