If you buy into the expression “a jack of all trades is a master of none,” you haven’t met Mark Toia.
He’s directed and shot the highest-end commercials and image pieces for clients including Apple, Coca-Cola, Toshiba, Yamaha, and many of the major auto manufacturers. His work encompasses everything from action to sports to beauty to aerials, and has taken him to every continent except Antarctica (so far).
But today we’re talking about his first feature, Monsters of Man, available on VoD on December 8. It’s an action-packed VFX extravaganza made on an indie budget and, in true Mark Toia fashion, he serves as the original concept writer and screenplay co-writer (with Jeff Hand), director, producer, DP, editor, VFX supervisor, and more.
A film that has over 2000 VFX shots—600 of which featuring highly articulated CG robots—is no small undertaking to begin with. But the fact that Mark’s total budget was under $2 million definitely qualifies him as a master filmmaker.
How does he do it? In this installment of Made in Frame, Mark shares his workflow and wisdom.
A mastermind of moviemaking
Anybody who’s ever made a movie of any size knows this much: it’s some combination of challenging, expensive, and labor-intensive. But it doesn’t have to be, according to Mark.
The kernel for this project struck him when he was driving through the jungle on another job in Vietnam.
He and a local producer colleague had an idea to produce a film together, sort of a treasure hunt set in the Golden Triangle. That never materialized, but Mark was inspired by the setting.
When he found himself with the time to make a film he decided to plunge in. “Honestly, I approached it as a hobby, out of curiosity,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, if I’m ever going to do a film, I might as well do it now.”
No one ever sets out to spend more money than necessary, but when you’re self-financed it makes you even more conscious of where every dollar is going. And there are few (if any) recent filmmakers who have put more on the screen than Mark has for less than $2M.
It’s why experience matters. Only someone who has spent tens of thousands of hours shooting around the world while mastering their craft knows how to squeeze the most out of a budget—where you need to spend the big bucks and where you can cut corners.
“By shooting in Cambodia instead of Australia, we probably saved ourselves two or three million dollars,” Mark says. “The cost of living is so much lower in Cambodia that everything from hotels to food reflects that. A meal that would cost $30 in Australia is under $5 in Cambodia. Fifty-cent beers made for a lot of fun!”
Beyond that, he’d explored Cambodia and knew that it had everything to give him the look he was after, which meant he wouldn’t have to recreate it in Australia.
The small villages, the temples, the lush vegetation was all right there and he could point the camera in any direction. He also relied on creating CG backgrounds to save considerable set construction costs. “It was just easier to track in backgrounds for half a dozen shots, saving hundreds of thousands in set construction.”
Because Mark had frequently worked in southeast Asia, he also knew that he could hire much of the crew locally. “The crew that was closest to the camera, we brought in with us. But for things like transportation, wardrobe, local camera assistants, boom ops—probably about 80 percent of the crew was local,” he says.
In total, they spent two months in Cambodia, with 45 days of principal photography. But they invested several days in NYC filming actors throughout the city, including a helicopter shoot for the visually arresting opening that serves as much more than exposition.
A master of technology
They also invested in high-quality cameras, shooting on four REDs at both 6K and 8K. And Mark’s NLE of choice? Final Cut Pro X.
“Final Cut is a very quick and powerful editing program,” he says. “I know that Avid is considered industry standard, but Final Cut is just way too fast to ignore. I was able to work on planes, trains, and automobiles, everywhere and anywhere, as well as finish and master the whole project without leaving it.”
Not that he’d originally intended to cut the film himself, but a skiing accident kept him indoors that winter and he found himself with some unexpected downtime.
“Since I couldn’t ski, I figured that I might as well start dabbling. The first couple of scenes went together really quickly,” he says. Working with ProRes 422 proxies, he “put together all the good bits and it started trickling down to the timeline. It felt as if it was almost cutting itself.”
On the first pass, he ended up with a hefty five-hour cut.
“The screenplay was 157 pages, long for a feature,” he says. “But being an action film, pages get chewed up quickly. And I didn’t want a padded-out film. So while we were there, I figured I’d shoot it all anyway, and I’m so glad we did! The film was ten times better for it, because at the end there may have been something that wasn’t originally in the cut but was the perfect tiny little section to add in.”
Next was the process of cutting it down to a two-hour movie. Which, for a director who’s used to condensing whole stories into 30 or 60 seconds, wasn’t that daunting a task.
In all, Mark estimates that he spent (in between other jobs) a month editing, about half what he would have if he had worked within Avid. It’s another example of how he chooses the right tools for the project rather than basing a project around what’s considered to be the proper—or only—way of working.
That said, he also believes creatives need to use what they are comfortable with.
When you read the plot summary and learn that “weaponized prototype robots” are targeting doctors on a humanitarian mission, you have to expect that the creatures are going to be aggressive death machines—and they don’t disappoint.
Although Mark contemplated designing the robot himself (of course), he actually turned to Russia-based 3D artist-designer Eduard Proin to help him. And it’s especially with the CG and VFX pipelines that Frame.io became an essential part of the workflow.
“We worked hand-in-hand for about six to eight months to perfect the design,” Mark says. But what he means by “hand in hand” is that from Mark’s home in Brisbane, he was communicating with Eduard in Russia through Frame.io.
What made Frame.io even more critical to the exchanges was that he didn’t speak English and Mark doesn’t speak Russian. Using Google Translate, Mark was able to share specific comments and annotations far more easily than if they’d tried to communicate verbally.
The same held true for the international VFX team. Mark employed special effects supervisor Raoul Teague to manage the artists from Vietnam, India, Sweden, Prague, Australia, and Indonesia.
Some of the artists handled roto/paint, removed logos from T-shirts or visible gear in the frame, and created muzzle flashes or other effects animation. Others handled camera tracking the plates with the live robot stand-in actor for the animators to use, while CYCLO in Vietnam were actually matchmoving and animating the robots in Maya.
They exchanged all assets through Frame.io. Almost 10,000 files were shared back and forth. “What we decided is that all the VFX artists got either 32-bit EXRs or ProRes 444 (or 422hq) 4K plates that were already color balanced,” Mark says.
“We told them not to change the color gammas—just paint the background out or do whatever and we’d do the rest.” And by “we” he literally means himself and Raoul, who handled all the CG lighting and final compositing from Australia.
“We just took the files back and dropped them into our Final Cut timeline and if there was a grade or something that needed to be applied, we’d copy/paste that onto the new plate,” he says.
In the case of the CG robot shots, either Mark or the VFX supervisor received the clean background plates with the actor removed, and then they comped the robot into that plate using mainly After Effects. “Once the robots were completely finished—rigged, animated, textured—the lighting became very easy,” he says.
“The 3D models were so good that they held up for 4K full-frame closeups. We only needed one, maybe two lights. We were working in HDRs, so we could just dial in a little light to match the jungle, or add a key light for the sun coming through the trees. It worked out so well that some of the comps only took a couple of minutes to do—unless the robots were somersaulting in between trees and leaves, and then it took a little longer.”
Frame.io also played a major role in workflow organization. “We’d used Frame.io in the past for commercials, but had never done a long-form project in it,” Mark says.
“But it literally saved us tens of thousands of dollars. Efficient filing, quick and easy communications, quick uploads and downloads—all make for a lot of time saved—and time in post translates to money. Delayed feedback or slow file delivery means that artists are sitting around billing you for their time while they’re waiting. It’s up to us to keep the machine working.”
The more accurate the communications, the less back and forth. These little things add up, day by day, month by month. Frame.io kept things streamlined, maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste.
The team set up a pyramid-like folder structure that allowed them to control exactly what went to Mark and at what point in the workflow.
“Each company or artist or designer had their own folders. We’d make clips for them in Final Cut and give each shot its own unique name. And then we’d upload that to each person’s folder. Then, when each one was finished with their work, and their supervisor had approved the work, they’d load it into a new folder for me to see. I’d get the email notification, look at the shots, and either approve them or use the annotation tools and comments to communicate back with them.”
Working this way also kept them organized across the 2000+ VFX shots. As the files moved up the hierarchy of folders, they knew which ones were the most recent iteration. “And then, as soon as I’d hit the green ‘approved’ button, the artists knew that’s when they’d get paid. I loved hitting it, but they really loved seeing it,” Mark says.
Speaking of paying…
When Mark originally bid out the job to VFX vendors, the quotes for just the robot shots alone came back in the $1 million to $3 million range which, as you’ll recall, is more than the entire movie cost to produce.
When you then factor in how much more expensive it would have been to shoot in Australia versus Cambodia, you start to get a clearer picture of the magnitude of the savings across the entire production.
Mark estimates that he’s made this movie for potentially a tenth of what it could have cost—had he not gone in with the depth of experience and hands-on approach that he did.
Mastery for art’s sake
Some filmmakers strive for fame. Some strive for awards. Mark strives for mastery of his art and the opportunity to keep working and innovating.
Making this film was, for him, the next step in his evolution as a creator. He cites the case of cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who shot the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mark recounts asking him what happened after he won the Oscar. “People stopped calling him,” he says. “They just figured he was too expensive.”
It’s part of why Mark took a very different approach. Now that he’s made Monsters of Man, he’s proven that he can deliver the kind of quality that should cost exponentially more—but doesn’t.
“It’s my calling card to Hollywood now, you know? It’s great. I’ve got producers ringing me now to offer me big movies. I wasn’t after an award. I just wanted bums in seats.”
As an artist, he’s traveled all over the world in search of unique stories and incredible images. And as a master of his craft, he’s always seeking new technologies and techniques to streamline his process.
Starting as a still photographer, he learned all about cameras and film stocks, lighting and lenses.
When he moved into commercials, he experimented with gear and developed techniques to create groundbreaking moving pictures. He embraced the transition from film to digital cameras, and when NLEs became available, he taught himself to cut on them, from Final Cut to Avid to DaVinci Resolve.
Mark credits his advertising background with his ability to do this film as efficiently as he has. “I learned all the tools,” he says. “I learned how to do matte paintings, how to do 3D and compositing. I learned the whole post process so I know how difficult it is to do something or how long it should take an artist to do.”
It’s what also has allowed Mark to both finance his own film and to keep full artistic control of it. By becoming as hands-on as he is, he was able to keep more of the budgets from his jobs for himself. “If you don’t have to pay someone else to do the work, it really adds up over the long term,” he says.
From the time Mark was very young, he was able to create intricate drawings and oil paintings. But he’s very clear that getting paid for making art has been his goal, and he’s worked tirelessly to achieve it.
If you’d like to learn more about his journey and see the kinds of canvasses he now creates, he’s showcased it in this stunning short film he produced for Frame.io.
There are no shortcuts to a career like Mark’s. And yet, he makes it all sound so easy—a word he used thirteen times during our interview. The hardest part of making Monsters of Man was the sales process, he claims.
The rest? “Making the movie was really quite easy. Yeah, I didn’t really have any issues there,” he says, with a nonchalance born of deep expertise.
“I’ve had producers’ mouths drop when I tell them what I spent,” he says. Because when it comes to putting every dollar on the screen, there’s no question that he’s done that several times over.
Mark’s images are always arresting and his process is inspirational. And it’s customers like Mark who inspire us to continually make Frame.io a product that masters of their craft want to use.