DVD release of sci-fi film Radius shows indie ingenuity

Helmut Kobler, director of the 33-minute science-fiction film "Radius," is an example of a growing trend in independent filmmaking: Like many of his peers, he's handled every aspect of the project from planning to shooting and editing. Kobler's Macintosh has been center-stage the whole time.

"I like how Apple controls the hardware and the software," Kobler told MacCentral. "I started with a Mac II in 1987 and moved to PC when I began working on video games, but I got back into Mac in 2000. I needed something portable for working on 'Radius' footage as we shot it, and the G3 PowerBook was the right fit."

Since then he's upgraded to a 1.2GHz PowerBook G4, which, like its predecessor, runs Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects and the other applications necessary for massaging digital video. He used DVD Studio Pro 2 on the PowerBook to author the two-disc DVD release of "Radius," which features over three hours of behind-the-scenes and making-of clips as well as two audio commentaries. Work on the DVD set started in 2002, after the film was completed, and quickly evolved into what he calls "Guerilla film school on a disc."

"I was going to do a documentary that touched on the basic aspects of making the film, but then I realized there was way too much information," he recalled. "The documentaries on mainstream Hollywood DVDs really aren't applicable to aspiring filmmakers, and I realized that people really liked the behind-the-scenes material we posted on the Web site as we made the film. They were hungry for it."

Kobler made sure that someone was on set at all times to capture as much raw video of the production as possible, ending up with 18 to 20 hours of on-set footage as well as eight hours from pre-production and another six grabbed during post-production. Disc one offers a picture-in-a-picture option that pops up at certain times in the film and allows you to view a few minutes of behind-the-scenes video, which he said "gives people a sense of what it was like to be on the crew."

Some of the most dramatic behind-the-scenes footage shows the intense difficulty shooting in California's Death Valley, which stands in for the desolate planet depicted in the film. Temperatures routinely reached 120 degrees, even in the shade, and much of the behind-the-scenes footage addresses the daily difficulties faced by the cast and crew in such an environment.

Some of the behind-the-scenes videos hint at the topics covered in more depth on disc two, where you'll find 26 tutorials that run over two hours total and delve into every aspect of "Radius," from story development to casting to on-set friction to scrounging up the US$60,000 needed to make it. There's even a chapter that explains why Kobler chose a PowerBook over a PC notebook. You'll learn how to make simple props from ordinary items -- like the convincing hand grenade created from an empty Red Bull can -- or how to best shoot live action footage so that visual effects can be laid over it later, among other indie-oriented topics. While "Radius" may not look like a Hollywood production with millions of dollars behind it, the director and his crew still achieved a feel that belied its shoestring budget.

Kobler tackled disc two by creating a chapter list and culling the relevant footage as he started work on a particular segment. He then edited that footage down to a manageable chunk with Final Cut Pro and wrote a script for the voice-over narration. After recording a rough voice-over with the microphone in his PowerBook and making the necessary tweaks, he then pulled out a good microphone, recorded an audio track and assembled his final edit. Pro Tools helped him achieve the proper mix of narration, on-set discussions and incidental music.

Repeating that workflow 26 times took months, but Kobler was finally able to release the DVD set earlier this year. He says reaction has been positive, with around 400 copies in sales directly from his Web site, and he hopes to build enough buzz that he can get "Radius" picked up for wider distribution. While the digital revolution has made it easier to make films, the ever-increasing number of indie productions means Kobler needs to find a way to stand out. He achieved that by appealing to other struggling filmmakers with the content he offers.

"The 'Radius' DVD set was made with people like me in mind," he said. "The people who have to beg and borrow to get deals on equipment and services as they try to make a good movie with few resources. Those are the people making movies on Macs."

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