Interview: Beyond Black Mesa Director, Brian Curtin

By Jeff Mattas, Jan 27, 2011 2:30pm PST If you're a Half-Life (or Left 4 Dead) fan, and you haven't yet seen the recently released fan-made short film, Beyond Black Mesa, do yourself a favor.

We reached out to get some more information about how the project came together from Brian Curtin, who directed, produced, wrote, edited, acted, and art-directed the film, among other things. Making a high-quality fan-film on a shoestring budget (while working full-time) isn't an easy task, but Curtin and his cabal of film and Half-Life enthusiasts persevered to pull off one of the better bits of cinematic fan-fiction based on video games that we've seen to date.

Shack: First thing's first. Are you happy with the online reception the film has received so far?

Brian Curtin: Yes, I am. After finishing the last trailer, it was so action packed and it turned out so well, I was worried the full film would not live up to it. There's a lot of people that don't like it, because it's not accurate and there's no headcrabs, but there's a lot more people that think it's awesome.

Shack: Any response from the folks over at Valve?

Brian Curtin: Luckily, we did get a response. We sent them the short film and they enjoyed it. We didn't get sued, so I guess that's a good indication. They were nice enough to put BBM as their first Favorites video on YouTube. Secretly in the back of our heads we imagined they would watch it, instantly send a personal jet to fly us to their offices to test play HL3 and send us home with Gordon's crowbar, but that did not happen. On a more serious note, they were very helpful and responsive.

Shack: How long did the film take to make, and what sort of budget and resources did you have at your disposal?

Brian Curtin: It's painful to think about the time that went into it. It took about 2 years working on it on the weekends and in between full time jobs. So it could have been done a lot quicker if it was our only job. We spent around $1,200 out of our pockets, not including the camera and software we already had. One of our goals was to make something awesome for as little as possible. You'd be surprised what you can do when you get creative and really resourceful!

Shack: How long did the project take to complete? How much of that was spent in post-production?

Brian Curtin: The timeline was 3-4 months preproduction, 4-5 months shooting on weekends and the rest went into post production. Unfortunately, I was the only one editing and completeing all the post, so you could say it took a little while.

Shack: Tell us a bit about the industrial location where Beyond Black Mesa was filmed.

Brian Curtin: We would not have been able to make this if we did not get access to this old factory location. Luckily it was only 15 min from our place and the contact we had was very helpful. He'd let us in and we could pretty much do anything we wanted. The best part was that the factory complex was huge and looked just like a map out of HL.

Shack: There are a ton of cool details in Beyond Black Mesa that really make it feel like a Half-Life experience (like the head-shots, and grenades, for example). What are the key attributes from the game that you wanted to make sure made it into the film?

Brian Curtin: Overall, we really wanted to convey the dystopian environment that HL pulls of so well. We put time into making unique Combine soldiers, with nice little details like the glowing eyes. It was fun showing some of the cool elements from the game like the health pack, pistols, and the grenade. If only we had a little more money, Headcrabs would have been possible, but to be honest, I prefer the fast overtaking Left 4 Dead zombies.

Shack: What was the most challenging aspect of making Beyond Black Mesa? Was there a particular scene or attribute that turned out better than you expected it would?

Brian Curtin: It was all really hard. Shooting it was a lot more fun than crawling into my hole for months on end editing and doing post work. That's where it got ugly. Oh yeah, while having a full time job too. I particularly enjoyed the fight scene. That's where we had some fun. We weren't able to choreograph it like we had with Concrete Hustle, but it turned out surprisingly well. I know it got a little crazy with the breakdance fighting and the ninja sword, but we enjoyed shooting it.

Shack: Was there anything that you initially planned that didn't make it into the film due to time, budgetary, or technological constraints?

Brian Curtin: Way back when we were deciding the flow of the film, I imagined Adrian Shephard running down and escaping on a moving train while soldiers moved in on him. That didn't work out, so we worked with the sacrificial ending...but you don't actually see them blow up...possibly some Gman could have intervened.

Shack: Beyond Black Mesa seems to utilize a pervasive amount of (very good) CG effects. Effects like the strider and (Mat Powell's) holographic display are a couple of the more obvious uses of computer graphics, but what are some of its more subtle implementations in the film?

Brian Curtin: Every shot had quite a bit of effects in it. A lot of extra smoke, color grading and glowing eyes. I hate those eyes, I think they look cool, but I felt like I was rotoscoping a lightsaber movie frame by frame...again. The hologram was my baby, I enjoyed designing it from scratch. Unfortunately, there's so much detail in it that you never see.

Shack: Can you talk a bit about the "grenade explosion" stunt, and how you pulled it all together (no pun intended)?

Brian Curtin: Ha! I'm thankful nobody was killed in the making of this. Basically, I had a harness that was tied to a rope that was fed though a hook 10 ft on a shed (off screen). The end of that rope was attached to a car. It was a homemade ripcord. We put a little slack in the rope, then I'd take 2 running steps and jump. When timed right with the car driving off, it gave a nice little tug. We decided if we were going to do it, we should do it right the first time. Matt Hall was between me and the shed with a pad to catch me. Well, I hit the shed and we used that shot. I would not try this ever again and you should not do it.

Shack: Do you (or the Beyond Black Mesa team) have any projects planned for the future?

Brian Curtin: Yes, we are in the early phases. We hope we'll have more support and resources after this film. It will not be a extension of BBM, but anyone who enjoyed BBM will like what we do next. Join our Beyond Black Mesa Facebook page to stay updated on what's next.

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