Episode 213 — Ruairi Robinson — Director
Episode 213 — Ruairi Robinson — Director
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 213! I will be chatting about a new short film Corporate Monster from Director Ruairi Robinson who’s been nominated for an Oscar for his previous short film Fifty Percent Gray. He also directed The Last Days on Mars with Liev Schreiber. He’s done a lot of amazing short films. He comes from a 3D background and has moved into directing feature films, and has lots of insight into film making. This is going to be an amazing Episode!
I’m really excited about this Episode! Ruairi is a good buddy of mine, I’ve known him since the beginning of my career. It’s amazing to see him go from working as a 3D Artist in Ireland, to Hollywood, directing feature films and an assortment of short films with great visuals. This interview is high energy with lots of information: We talk about his Oscar nomination, his feature film and his short films; the production process and everything that entails.
Please do me and Ruairi a favor and share the link to this film (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O9OO5TWY2c), as well as this Podcast.
Let’s dive in!
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR RUAIRI ROBINSON
Ruairi Robinson is a Filmmaker: Director, Writer and VFX Artist. His science fiction short film Fifty Percent Gray was nominated for an Academy Award. His short film The Silent City with Cillian Murphy concerns a group of soldiers wandering through a perilous post-apocalyptic wasteland.
In 2013, Ruairi directed a feature film The Last Days on Mars, starring Liev Schreiber, which was an adaptation of the science-fiction short story The Animators by Sydney J. Bounds. In early 2015, he directed the proof of concept short film Leviathan which became a viral hit.
In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Ruairi Robinson about his career as a VFX Artist and Film Director, his latest short film Corporate Monster — as well as the importance of being familiar with all the aspects of film making.
Corporate Monster by Ruairi Robinson (YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O9OO5TWY2c
Corporate Monster by Ruairi Robinson (Vimeo): https://vimeo.com/360228562
Leviathan Teaser: https://vimeo.com/ruairirobinson
Ruairi Robinson on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1099711/
Ruairi Robinson’s Website: www.ruairirobinson.com
Ruairi Robinson on Vimeo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O9OO5TWY2c
Ruairi Robinson on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcL_0WVGJe-ji6PLa4TrxUQ
Ruairi Robinson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RuairiRobinson
Ruairi: Hi, I’m Ruairi Robinson. I am a filmmaker who sometimes makes short films, and feature films. And I’ve lost an Oscar to a Pixar movie.
[03:15] Allan: I love that! It’s something you would say at a bar. It’s funny how when someone introduces himself, it always leads to a follow-up. It’s a secret to good communication. What was the short film from Pixar?
Ruairi: It’s kind of hard to compete with Pixar. So I feel honored I was in the running! This was like a billion years ago!
[03:55] Allan: That’s so cool! I feel like with us, we’re going to go all over the place. A. We’re pressed for time and B. We have so much crap to talk about. I’ll do my best to steer us in the right direction. I’m just curious: How did you start out? Did you always want to be an artist or a creative?
Ruairi: I think I started out wanting to do VFX, once movies like Jurassic Park came out. There was no degree in effects at that time. My mom wanted me to have a degree which came in useful for visa purposes. But in general, you don’t really need a degree in creative arts. I did a degree in Graphic Design, but I made my project an animated short film. I basically realized, when doing VFX, you’re at the mercy of someone else. You’ve got hundreds of artists!
Someone once asked me, “Why would you want to be a cog in the machine when you could be running the machine?” Nobody offers you that, you have to assert yourself. I’d been learning VFX and realized: Instead of being of service, I could make a short film myself. I’ve learned just enough by that point, I could put an animated short film. [05:42] By the time I do something, I kind of know 80% of what I need to know, to do it — and leave 20% for there to be a fresh challenge; for me to learn something new so I’m not just repeating myself. So for BlinkyTM, there was the water running down the robot. It took 9 months in post to do Blinky, and 3.5 months out of that was just the water. I developed a twitch in my left eyelid…
[06:08] Allan: Don’t say that because I’ve got that right now! I’ve had it since the Thanos Training I did.
Ruairi: It’s been a matter of regulating it since then. I can stare at a monitor without blinking.
[06:33] Allan: There is a sick joke in there that you got that working on Blinky.
Ruairi: Every time I get stressed out or overworked, it comes back.
[06:51] Allan: I just lost an employee last night who was working crazy hours and agreed to jump onto something. But his doctor told him to not work so much. So he told me, “My doctor told me I can’t work with you anymore.” I’m pretty empathetic to everyone I work with. That’s always been my rule: I don’t ask people to work for free. I don’t want to beat around the bush [with my notes] either. I want to be honest and say, “It’s not good enough”.
Ruairi: I have worked on a projects with small budgets where I’ve had to ask people for a favor. I like to pay people and pay them really well. If you are asking people to work for free, you can’t really be blunt about stuff. It takes so much longer.
[08:27] Allan: And you want people to be all in!
Ruairi: That’s exactly right!
[08:30] Allan: And you don’t want to owe people anything. Most Presidents owe so many favors by the time they become Presidents, they become puppets. (As we’re about to talk about Corporate Monster in a minute!) I think we’ve talked about this before. I used to talk to you so much! You were so knowledgeable, and you were this smart ass.
Ruairi: I think I’ve calmed down a bit.
[09:38] Allan: The older we get, the more we’re over everything. But it was so clear at the time. I remember seeing this gnome commercial and I had written this short film about gnomes.
Ruairi: That was done in Arnold, I think. In those early 3DS Max, Arnold days before it was officially released.
[10:02] Allan: Yeah! It’s been evolving and evolving. So you did your short film. How was that received?
Ruairi: Well, I did a student short. It was pretty good for what it was. It was loosely based on the Case of Charles Dexter Ward. I thought it was fun. Mainly, it was a test for me to see if what my intention was coming across clearly. Is how I’m placing the camera making sense in terms of storytelling? That was a big test for me. Once you’ve made a film, you’ve hooked into that pattern. It’s really hard to do anything else. I’ve spent a little while hoping to get something else, hoping for opportunities. A producer friend of mine told me there was new funding coming in and they wanted [people] to submit ideas. And I was like, “Yeah!” I came home and story boarded it out, made a presentation and it got accepted. That was my first professional short film, which was done at 10 thousand Euros budget. It took me 6 months to do the animation. There wasn’t real time playback back then. I had to animate / intercut, animate / intercut; do little sections at a time. I couldn’t play the whole movie.
[12:26] Allan: Did making that short plant the seed, “Yeah, I want to be a filmmaker”? You were still in 3D but you were seeing the potential to engage with people. I interviewed Victor Navone (www.allanmckay.com/104) and we talked about how his Alien Song went viral before there was internet. It was all done through email. And people approached him and asked him to make viral commercials for them too.
Ruairi: I followed it with a live action film. I really wanted to make a short film. Cillian Murphy agreed to do it. He took time off from his schedule.
[13:31] Allan: How did that feel, getting him onboard?
Ruairi: He’s amazing! It was like a master class at testing your ideas through a superb performance. There was a death scene in this short film and it was uncomfortable to watch him die in front of us. He’s fucking brilliant! He’s superb. It’s like one of those things: This is how good an actor can be to work with! You didn’t have to hold his hand, he knew what kind of questions to ask; tested me that I knew what to do. It was a good taste of dealing with actors and problem solving on set, be it weather or timing. I storyboarded it all myself. [Cinematographer] Robbie Ryan and I did this lens training together, where we went through a bunch of movies together and I’d ask, “What lens is that?” I mentally check-listed all the perspectives you get.
[15:45] Allan: It’s interesting how everyone has a favorite shot they can recite. I interviewed the Baker Brothers who directed KIN with Michael B. Jordan (www.allanmckay.com/155). I remember they did a short film and I showed it to a director in LA, and he reached out to them to find out what lens they used on a particular shot. He prefers older lens. He wants all those imperfections. The more you build those relationships with directors, you know what you want and what they want. But it’s their vision and you can line yourself with that. You aren’t a vendor, you’re creating stuff yourself.
Ruairi: I still do the visual effects in my films myself.
[17:10] Allan: With that, do you think it’s a huge advantage to know all that. I’ve read Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel without a Crew so many times! I love that book because it gives the advice: Learn every part of the process as well as everyone doing it. That way you can find solutions and no one can bullshit you.
Ruairi: It’s true! There is a lot to know and not everyone can be an expert. There is not enough time to learn all of it. I’m never going to know sound design but I can know enough to speak the language. I think there are different types of filmmakers. Some people are good at getting other people to do what they want and some people just roll up their sleeves and get it done themselves. If I had to rely on favors for other people to finish Corporate Monster! I’ve basically had to set aside a year with no income to finish it! It’s hard to ask other people to do that!
[18:49] Allan: I think that’s so powerful too! Half the feature film directors I know are twins. Peter and Michael Spierig, the directors of Daybreakers, did 450 of their VFX shots themselves. They ran out of money. Even on their short film, they did most of it themselves. If you’re coming from that background — of creating visuals and understanding the post-production process — it’s a huge step-up. They know how to manipulate things to get things done. There are so many people who are saying, “Why are there so many reboots? Why can’t you make originals?!” They don’t understand how Hollywood works. Most studios are like banks. But when you understand their thought process, you wouldn’t go pitching them a brand new IP.
Ruairi: I think it’s been many years of alleviating the anxieties of executives who would be nervous to take a risk on an original idea. If that idea fails, they have no one else to blame but themselves. It’s about a plausible deniability. It’s become a perfect storm of that going on, plus corporate consolidation, plus marketing costs going up, plus streamers upending the process. Studios are built into this distribution system that’s expensive. It’s become the system where they might as well make the big movies. Where are the mid-level budget David Fincher paranoia thrillers? All those 70s conspiracy movies, like Conversation? It’s hard with the fragmented market place, except for streaming services. It’s a safer zone to try loads of things. The question is: How do decisions get made about which projects are green lit on those streamers? That’s interesting. A lot of films feel rushed when they come out. You could do better! The money is there right now and you might as well make the movie now.
[23:04] Allan: Yeah, without getting political, let’s say on streamers today, there is the massive one. With that, there are politics in that. They’re looking to tick a box of the right sex or race. It’s cool to have those opportunities, but I feel like a lot of streamers are just looking to tick that box.
Ruairi: There was a period where I’d say for a decade, there were no movies made for older women. They weren’t being catered to. It’s weird to think who’s empowering the idea whether an audience wants that stuff? What gets made? Where is my District 9? I feed on that stuff: original sci-fi, super crazy shit! When District 9 came out, I thought we’d get more of that. But we got none!
[25:19] Allan: I feel like you and I could talk for hours about this! Can we talk for two seconds about District 9? I went to a talk at ILM with Neill Blomkamp and he talked about that. It’s interesting to see that he was able to get that made.
Ruairi: There aren’t many filmmakers who use their powers to shepherd younger filmmakers. Directors are on their own islands. There is no community that’s self supporting.
[26:48] Allan: So what do you think about Blomkamp? Obviously, he’s doing a lot of shorts. He’s experimenting with so many cool things, like VR, because he’s realizing there is an audience there. You can leverage a short to go make something bigger.
Ruairi: I’ve worked with Neill on Leviathan. I love working with him! He only cares about what’s best for the story, and that’s fantastic to deal with! I love talking to him about ideas, he gets so excited. He’s always working on several things at once.
[27:55] Allan: To go back to a big, pivotal moment in your career: Fifty Percent Gray. It’s a CG short film, simplistic but it’s such a fun idea! There were so many things you were ahead of the curve on. It was really creative. What was your experience doing that? Was it intimidating? You were getting backing.
Ruairi: There was pressure afterwards. After I got nominated for an Oscar, it created this false expectation as if anyone would give a shit. Or that there would be offers. All the work was ahead of me. I thought that getting a nomination would get some stuff — but nothing! Actually, after the nomination, I submitted for some funding but I was turned down for 2 years. I ended going out and shooting The Silent City myself. Nick Ryan, my Producer (on Corporate Monster as well) put in some money, so did I. We shot the film with Cillian Murphy and then went back to the Irish Film Board to get completion money. We had to do all the proving ourselves. At the time, there was a stereotype that if you were an animator, you’re working alone in the room, with no one around.
[30:13] Allan: I was going to ask about that: Was there any preconception that you were making a cartoon? At that time, animation was being seen as a cartoon.
Ruairi: No one had any preconception about what I was doing. I think it was hard for animation directors to jump into live action.
[31:02] Allan: Going to the Oscars, that must’ve been a surreal experience!
Ruairi: Well, The Silent City was the film that got me kind of noticed in Hollywood. I posted a teaser for it online and by the end of the week, I was signed with CAA. I was brought on to do the adaptation of Akira. I’ve spent 2 years of my life not directing that movie. It ended up falling apart for me. But since then, everyone has had a go of it, and [has not succeeded]. It’s really sad! I just hope it gets made well. There is nothing worse than failing and watching someone else fuck it up! I’d rather they do an amazing job and I’ve just failed. I still love the thing!
[32:28] Allan: That’s got to be tricky! What are your thoughts on that? If you look at Final Fantasy, it did horribly.
Ruairi: That set back animation 20 years. You could only do comedy animation like South Park, but serious animation had been dead for 20 years.
[33:08] Allan: I look at it like iPhone 1.0. You need that first generation. I think you need those staple things to happen. Then you can start doing more ambitious things. At the same time, it’s an anime film. It’s a bit different. The same thing with Alita: Battle Angel. I watched that with my wife. I had to remind her that the film had anime origins.
Ruairi: I entirely dispute that! Akira is such a good story, you can just tell the story of the characters without mentioning any of the super powers or special effects shit. It’s about a broken relationship between two friends. You can tell it like Mean Streets. It’s a fucking amazing character drama! The original Akira was inspired by Five Easy Pieces and Bonnie and Clyde. It’s seeded with these damaged characters. There is some obtuse storytelling; but underneath, it has these solid characters and this cool dynamic. The version we were going to do, we were shut down by the writers’ strike. We got the draft 85 percent good. It wasn’t perfect yet. We didn’t have time to decompress and review it.
[36:33] Allan: I remember everyone was hurting at that time. There was a lot of bad stuff coming out. That’s why visual effects will never get a union! It should’ve been done back then, not now.
Ruairi: People are so crushed financially right now.
[37:44] Allan: This is exactly why I brought up Akira! I agree with you. Do you think people are too afraid to steer away from the original? Because the Japanese anime may not resonate in Hollywood?
Ruairi: There is a reason Akira resonated with people all over the world. I watched that movie when I was 13! I’ve never seen anything like that before! All those extremes, but also an exploration of characters who were dealing with their pain in a way that created frustrations and anxiety. But it’s about friendships. There is much stranger anime out there. But there is a reason why Akira resonated.
[39:26] Allan: To jump around a bit, with Corporate Monster, where did the concept come from? It screams John Carpenter.
Ruairi: I hired Steve Moore to do the music and he does Carpenter inspired stuff! It’s great! It’s like Carpenter infused with modern sounds.
[40:07] Allan: I feel like you captured something a lot of us miss! People’s pacing and attention span is different from the 80s. But your film is nostalgic but has an ode to the original stuff. You created an original, and I’m sure you have thousands of these. But what inspired you to green light this yourself?
Ruairi: I shot it a little while ago and I had to put it aside. It’s better for me to keep the momentum, so I had to find a spare year. As for the inception, I loved They Live but the sunglasses idea didn’t work for me. It’s a great visual but it’s hard to convince someone. But you can take a pill; and then it creates an interesting idea of a hero who’s just as bad as the monsters themselves. I really love movies that test if you’re dealing with reality. We don’t quite know; and playing with the conceit helped me create that ambiguity.
[42:14] Allan: I completely agree with They Live!
Ruairi: I love the movie but there is a logical problem there for me. And because I’m and anal retentive, painfully pedantic asshole…
[42:45] Allan: Is that on your business card?
Ruairi: It’s became: If I’m going to tell that story, I have to do it in a way that makes sense to me — and in [the right] tone. It’s a 70s paranoia thriller. No one is making that in film these days.
[43:28] Allan: I remember seeing the first cut, it’s more plausible to take the pill. With They Live, I love it because it reminds me of being 9 years old when I first discovered it. I keep brining up Rodriguez. He got to film an interview with Carpenter. That’s what I loved! With that, how did you decide to green light the film?
Ruairi: Screen Ireland, the financier, funded the film. There weren’t any exteriors in Ireland I could shoot that would feel like a dying American city. It doesn’t exist. We shot the interior stuff in Ireland, but got the outdoor stuff in Detroit, for 4-5 days. It’s sad that they got rid of the tax incentive for film, in Detroit. The city and the people are amazing! It’s the biggest back lot. There was a point when we were on the rooftops and it didn’t look that great. I saw the next one over, and 10 minutes later, we were shooting on that next rooftop — with permission to shoot there!
[46:24] Allan: I interviewed Ryan Connolly who shot his film BALLiSTIC in California (www.allanmckay.com/153). I thought that in California, they don’t make it easy for anyone. In other cities, people bend over backward. One of my buddies is Neill’s right hand man. We’ve worked together since 2003. I remember his wife would call up and he would reassure her he was safe. But then she’d watch the making of something like District 9 and get so angry. But there were instances a couple of locals would hustle them for money, too.
Ruairi: That’s part of the process. You have to roll with the punches. I don’t think there is a production that doesn’t go through that, unless it’s a sitcom on a sound stage!
[48:30] Allan: How many VFX shots were there? How many did you do yourself?
Ruairi: Obviously, you helped on some of it! I wanted to thank you for your help. It was a very difficult shot with a skin simulation effect. I could do the rest in Phoenix but the flesh. But then I saw your exploding head shot on Instagram and I reached out. Basically, every film has that one shot. Everything you throw out fails, and I’ve tried everything to do it! Every piece of software. You did exactly what I needed. It took 2 months of pissing around. Allan recorded a shot for me, figuring out how to do it in Thinking Particles. So that got me over that hurdle. You also created an interface that made it easy for me understand. TyFlow has come out since I finished the film. All that stuff that was hard — it’s easy now!
[51:10] Allan: I went through that too! In the back of my mind, I wanted to do Scanners. It’s such a cool film. I got that shot done in 3 hours. It sounds like you went though the same thing. I had 90% of it figured out. The only thing was that the model wasn’t animated. I ended up contacting Weta. And they told me to stay away from Houdini. I went through every solution and went back to TP in the end. I got some repurposing some. It’s piggybacking on all these things. I didn’t want to do a static shot. I’m terrible at asking for help. That’s my biggest weakness. I’d seen what you’d done already, but adding those pieces together [is the last part of it].
Ruairi: You’d asked me who helped me on the project. The model was built by Ilya Astrakham. It was rigged by Paul Hormis. And John Ikera helped with a bunch of shots, like the crowd scene.
[54:05] Allan: John is such a great guy! He flew to Australia. I remember meeting him at a bar and bringing a friend along. Within 30 seconds of sitting down with him, I loved that guy! He’s always so busy. And you two go back way back. What’s your relationship with him?
Ruairi: I got him drunk the first time he got drunk. I’m a bad influence. He’s helping out on another thing right now. He’s a good dude! He’s working at ILM, in Vancouver now.
[55:39] Allan: Man! That’s a 6 hour drive from Portland. I’ve been looking for an excuse to go up there. I used to live there and the second I left, they made it the capital of the world.
Ruairi: I printed this creature from my film. It’s that shot! Twenty inches tall, this mother fucker is! It’s printed with 2 different printers. I’m using these printers to print props for a project I’m working on now.
[57:07] Allan: What are your thoughts on that? The fact that you can now print the gear and the props yourself?
Ruairi: It’s a either a really good idea because I can do more stuff myself. Or a really bad idea — because I can do more stuff myself. It allows me to test out stuff on a budget. I don’t have an art department. Did you see I am Mother and the robot they built for that?
[58:26] Allan: I know this and trying to remember what that was.
Ruairi: It was beautiful work. I want that 3D printed work!
[59:16] Allan: With filmmaking there is a traditional way, which you have way more experience with. But it felt permission based before!
Ruairi: I tell you what it is. When I was 7 years old, I saw this photo of George Lucas surrounded by all the creatures from Star Wars. I thought, “I want that!” I admit I’m going irrational about that. This is like the first time in my life where I’m able to build my own library.
[1:00:08] Allan: You can just print your own ILM props department! In this day and age, you can crowd fund a film. You can print your own props. You don’t need a studio, you just need a desktop computer. The point is that we’re at a shifting point. There is that potential to do it yourself.
Ruairi: The entry point it much easier. The distribution point is much harder.
[1:00:51] Allan: In terms of promoting, getting it online means having that visibility.
Ruairi: They changed the algorithm on YouTube and a lot of the filmmakers are bitter. If there is some social disaster, there is a process that corporations clamp down on people’s ability to distribute their stuff. My YouTube account got de-monetized for lack of posts. It pushes through their bigger channels. It creates an anxiety to produce more stuff, quicker. It’s unnerving! With Leviathan, I just dropped it online and emailed it to 5 people. A day later, a million people watched. The reaction [to Corporate Monster] has been great.
[1:03:27] Allan: What have been some of the challenges [on this film]? From VFX perspective, what are those from a technical aspect?
Ruairi: It was only that one shot. The rest of it was about the volume of work. Getting the tentacles to work, that was easy. I’m using that on the next project. I’m doing the next thing: a 60 second segment episode for a project called One Minute Worlds. The printer is for the props for that. I already printed some stuff. Next thing I have to test is printing a flexible blade, for the fight choreography.
[1:05:25] Allan: That’s so cool! For people who want to find out more about your short film, where can they go?
Ruairi: They can go to my Twitter (https://twitter.com/RuairiRobinson).
[1:06:02] Allan: This has been amazing and the short is incredible (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O9OO5TWY2c)!
Ruairi: It’s also antagonistic and it has shots that might irritate some people. If you like movies with evil, shape shifting lizard monsters who eat human babies at a restaurant, as snacks — this is your type of movie!
[1:06:41] Allan: Thanks, Ruairi! We’ll wrap it up there.
I hope you like this Episode. The interview is all over the place but a lot of fun. It sheds light into his process and history as a filmmaker. Check out his film Corporate Monster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3O9OO5TWY2c. I hope this film gets the success it deserves.
- I will be back next week with a new Episode on How to Win the Day.
- I’m also interviewing Dan Katcher, the Father of Dragons, on Game of Thrones.
I will be back next week.
Until then —
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