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August 22nd, 2017
Teetering on the sharp edge of a psychological breakdown, a neurotically troubled, obsessive protagonist leads us on a journey that blurs the fine line between genius and madness in Product Recall.

This short film, directed by Mill New York’s ECD Ben Smith, toured the 2016 festival circuit before releasing to the general public on Film Shortage earlier this year. 

We sat down with Smith, as he divulged to us the inspiration behind his action-packed short, and how the VFX team brought this passion project to life. 

Product Recall

Tell us a little more about what inspired you to write Product Recall? 

Ben Smith: I was inspired to write Product Recall by the connection of two seemingly random events in 2008: The struggle and ultimate demise of a gifted but troubled friend, Damon, and the incredible experiments beginning at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Damon’s life began to unravel with the onset of mental illness. Without medication, he created complex paranoid delusions that completely consumed him. With medication, his mind was reduced to a muted and unacceptable version of itself. Hating both versions of his existence, he tragically committed suicide.

In the same year, the Large Hadron Collider was activated for the first time – the largest, most complex experiment ever created and designed to answer the most fundamental questions about our universe.

I became fascinated with the experiments being conducted there, and what they might discover. More than anything, my own research revealed to me how little we really know about the mysterious inner workings of the universe. 

Product Recall

Before they turned it on, there was a lot of hysteria about how the Collider might create a black hole, or open a doorway to another dimension – paranoid delusions that sounded eerily similar to the elaborate constructions Damon had surrounded himself with during his illness.

A story connecting the schizophrenic delusions of a scientist with the enormous unknowns surrounding the experiments at the LHC emerged in my mind. The film is designed to make the audience question the events in the film, leaving each viewer to decide if they were real or imagined.

Product Recall

I’ve always been interested in films that make us question what’s real and what isn’t – films that force us to make up our own minds about the true nature of a story. Product Recall is a purposefully ambiguous film, designed to stimulate thought and conversation in this way.

I love Terry Gilliam's quote comparing Spielberg and Kubrick – he sums it up perfectly: “Spielberg's films are comforting, they always give you answers and I don't think they're very clever answers. … The success of most Hollywood films these days is down to fact that they're comforting. They tie things up in nice little bows and give you answers, even if the answers are stupid, you go home and you don't have to think about it. … The great filmmakers make you go home and think about it.” (Interview to TCM comparing the work of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick (2009)

Product RecallBehind the Scenes: Product Recall

How significant are the effects in this film in telling the story?

Ben Smith: The visual effects were hugely important to the success of this film, as they play an incredibly key role as the antagonist of the story. They form ‘The Effect,’ an onscreen presence that is critical in creating an imaginative yet believable adversary for lead character Richard, as well as motivating his own terrified performance. 

The Effect’s personality and animation were vital in informing the action and tonality of the film, so the team spent a great deal of time in crafting the various forms and appearances. 

We developed three primary states of being that The Effect inhabited, all operating intelligently with a sense of sentient purpose, but all with slight variances in behavior and motivation.

One of the primary goals of these diverging states was to convey distinct characteristics, differing from each other, but all ultimately coming to act as a persuasively opposing force to Richard’s own existence.

Product Recall

Initially, The Effect appears alluring and mesmerizing to Richard – his fractured mind is captivated by the beautiful strands, emerging as a visual echo of the primitive mathematical shapes of his own research. Like a siren luring a sailor to a tragic fate, the strands draw him in – once he touches the effect, its true purpose reveals itself, as it begins to engulf and consume him.

The Effect’s second particle stage is more calculatedly hypnotic yet ambiguous, born out of the glints of light that Richard sees around the window.

In its third and final stage, The Effect becomes aggressive and violent, with the malicious intent of pushing Richard over the edge into madness. It literally chases him out of his apartment and along the corridor, until it’s clear there’s no turning back – once it has set him onto his final path, the effect retracts and watches him meet his fate, its job done.

Product Recall

To ensure the VFX felt completely real within the environment, a highly detailed level of compositing and integration was crucially important to the scenes. The Effect had to feel like it was actually there to motivate the fear within each scene. If it ever felt fake, the film would fall apart.

The interaction between the antagonistic Effect and our protagonist in the opening scenes were the hardest moments to execute technically, with a high involvement of 3D rotoscoping of the talent. Richard’s shape, movement, and minute details such as the folds in his shirt all had to be accurately matched in 3D, so that the integration would be completely realistic.

Product Recall

All of the visual effects were generated using XSI’s ICE tree, rendered in Arnold, and composited in Nuke, with the 3D rotoscoping done in Maya.

Every artist working on the film did an incredible job – their attention to detail and work ethic as a team made the VFX feel completely real, and truly crafted The Effect as a character in its own right within the film.

For more information on Product Recall check out the website here.