Alongside contributions to franchises like Fantastic Beasts and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Image Engine works to elevate exciting indie projects with high-end visual effects – case in point, Freddy Chavez Olmos and Shervin Shoghian’s depiction of a dystopian near-future Mexico in the foreboding short Leviticus 24:20.
“Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
Leviticus 24:20 is one of the bible’s best-known verses, suggesting violence will always be repaid with equal aggression. But in the independent short film of the same name, cartel payback in Mexico is delivered to a much greater degree, via killer police drones that operate under a joint agreement from the Mexican and United States governments.
Leviticus 24:20 appeared online in November 2016 as a four-minute faux newscast depicting a horrifying situation: children in a classroom recoil in shock as a cartel is gunned down by towering drones. Blood spatters on the windows, and the teacher does all she can to calm the children by leading them in song above the sounds of staccato gunfire.
It’s a shocking clip with a powerful political message – one supported by the high-end visual effects delivered by Image Engine. Leveraging its experience in cinéma-vérité effects, Image Engine collaborated with directors Freddy Chavez Olmos and Shervin Shoghian, delivering Hollywood-level effects on a shoestring budget.
Chavez Olmos and Shoghian are former Image Engine employees, and Leviticus 24:20 stands as the second project they’ve collaborated on with the studio: the pair co-directed the short film Shhh, which Image Engine also provided visual effects for.
For Leviticus 24:20, Chavez Olmos – who moved from Mexico to Canada nearly 15 years ago – wanted to tell a story that hit a little closer to home. “I wanted to focus on a topic that relates with my home country,” he explains.
Robin Hackl, visual effects supervisor at Image Engine, began discussing ideas with Olmos while work on Shhh was winding down.
“One of the things that’s really fantastic in working with Freddy on smaller indie projects is that we get to work together very directly,” says Hackl. “It enables us to feed off of each other, ultimately resulting in even more stunning visuals on screen.”
Image Engine initially captured a variety of still photography, as if a renegade photographer had set out into a war torn environment to document the short’s events.
These images served a dual purpose: supporting the narrative and promotional side of the film, while also providing reference material for the look development and texturing process.
“We could do a first round of look development on this robot, and then start to make fine adjustments,” he says. “When we got into doing the actual film portion, we were well educated on what we needed to do to get the robots to sit convincingly into the frame.”
Image Engine handled ~10 shots for Leviticus 24:20; all critical scenes that depict the potential horror of unleashing murderous drones into packed city centers. “The effects have to be convincing enough to make people question such a potential reality,” says Chavez Olmos.
The trickiest shots were those that reveal the drone inside the manufacturer’s laboratory, providing an up-close look at the quadrupeds as they rev up for battle. “Those shots get the most scrutiny; there’s nothing to hide,” explains Hackl.
The blend of gritty, documentary-style footage with CG robots recalls the look of Neill Blomkamp’s brilliant District 9, for which Image Engine was nominated an Academy Award. There’s even a shout-out to Blomkamp in Leviticus 24:20 – look closely at the name of the drone engineer in the laboratory scene.
Despite the short’s smaller scale, Leviticus 24:20 benefits from the full skillset of Image Engine’s crew. As Hackl explains, the promise of true creative collaboration drives such side projects.
“We get plenty of opportunity for creative exploration when working on projects such as this,” he explains. “It’s really collaborative, with little to no limitations on where we take our ideas. We also get to support independent filmmakers, which is a really important thing.”
Leviticus 24:20 is envisioned as a feature-length film and written as such, but even in its short film format, Leviticus 24:20 stands as an impressive showcase for the vision and execution of Chavez Olmos and Shoghian.
“I don’t think Leviticus 24:20 would have ever been close to that quality if I had done it myself though,” concludes Chavez Olmos. “Having a company like Image Engine behind the project made a huge difference.”