Mass Effect fan film builds on gap in series lore

By John Keefer, Jun 13, 2012 11:00am PDT

The Mass Effect games have provided quite a bit of entertainment--and drama--for fans since 2007 when the first title launched, following the exploits of Commander Shepard and his team. The series has also spawned four books and several comics, as well as a number of mobile spin-offs. Now, it has inspired a fan film entitled Red Sand, starring the actor who voiced male Shepard in the series.

Shacknews had the chance to talk with producer Paul DeNigris, director Caleb Evans and the film's star, Mark Meer, about the project.

Currently in production at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, AZ, Red Sand goes 30-35 years before the events of the original Mass Effect and focuses on the Prothean ruins discovered on Mars and the powerful Element Zero that can refined into "red sand," an addictive drug that enhances a biotic's powers. Instead of Commander Shepard, the hero is Col. Jon Grissom, the first person to travel through the Charon Relay, which expanded the known universe for humanity.

The film started as a class project with the fan film Portal: No Escape serving as its impetus, said DeNigris, who is also the project's faculty adviser. Although he is not an avid gamer, he said the university "is so saturated with gamer culture" that it is hard not to know about pivotal video games in our current culture. "Mass Effect is certainly one of those."

Evans, a student at the university, penned the story, but had to be careful not to infringe on the existing lore for the game. "The games cover so much information there is little room for interpretation, and the books cover a heavy amount of back story," he said. "So I did some digging and realized the discovery of the Prothean ruins on Mars was largely unexplained with little to no details surrounding it. I knew I had found the part in the timeline I needed."

Grissom became the focal point for the film because he was already a known personality in the lore, Evans said. "The books explain his journey [through the Charon Relay], but they do not explain his time before that, so I felt it's perfect to explain a little more about him." None of the other characters in the film, however, have any basis in the Mass Effect canon, although DeNigris said he feels Evans drew inspiration from some of Shepard's teammates in creating the film's other primary characters.

Perhaps the biggest coup for the project was having Meer agree to play the role of Grissom. DeNigris sent a copy of the script to Meer, and he eagerly agreed to do the film. "I was happy to help the cause of education, and the chance to run around in the Arizona desert in space armor sounded too good to pass up," Meer said. "Paul and his students were willing to delay shooting for a couple of months until I could find a hole in my schedule."

Meer said his experience as Shepard, playing the games, and reading the Mass Effect comics from Dark Horse have helped him in his portrayal of Grissom. "One of the concepts behind the film was to contrast a Paragon-type (Grissom's team member Col. Sandhurst) with a Renegade-type (Grissom), so I'd say that had more of an influence on how I portray the version of Grissom in Red Sand. It did amuse me to realize that I was playing a character that Shepard would have learned about as a kid."

DeNigris said that doing a prequel allowed the team to take some creative license with the lore. "I felt that doing an earlier time in the Mass Effect universe would give us some leeway in terms of art direction, props, costumes, etc., in that we would not have to slavishly match Bioware's vision of that future, but could just be inspired by it." For example, the movie could not feature a lot of the weapons and armor from the game since the events were much earlier, so the props were created to give them a similar look, but different enough that they could be viewed as early versions of the gear in the games.

"For the guns, we used Nerf guns and Super Soakers, added PVC parts or custom-printed elements, used Bondo to cover over logos and fill in cracks, and then did a paint job that would not only be reminiscent of the weapons in the games but would also make the guns feel like they had seen a rough tour of duty on Mars," he said. "For the costumes, we worked with an amazing costume designer here in Arizona named Nola Yergen-Jennings. She turned some BMX armor, biohazard face shields, black turtlenecks, and miscellaneous hoses, tubes, and gauges into armored spacesuits that would feel like a precursor to Shepard's N7 armor from the games."

As for the visual effects, everything is being handled on campus and done from scratch. The university offers a visual effects major, with graduates having worked on such films as Avatar, The Avengers and Game of Thrones. "Almost every element, other than the actors and the dirt they're walking on, has to be added in post-production," DeNigris said. There are even nods to the games being added to the film. A close examination of the trailer shows the UI from the original Mass Effect game, and DeNigris hinted that other "Easter eggs" will be throughout the film for fans of the games as well.

Evans said a good number of the crew have played through the Mass Effect trilogy, himself included, while others picked them up after the project started. And DeNigris said a day does not go by without discussions of the lore and conversations on the appropriateness of certain scenes or script elements related to Mass Effect canon.

"The issue of when the Systems Alliance was formed is a big one because it happens around the time our movie is set in, but there seems to be a lot of debate about whether it happened before or after Grissom went through the Charon Relay," DeNigris said. "Another issue we've wrestled with is the terraforming of Mars. Obviously we couldn't shoot in low gravity, and it would look silly if we shot everything in slow-motion to convey low gravity. We also didn't want everyone to be wearing helmets through the film, so one of our design principles was that Mars is in the process of being terraformed. Gravity is going up and the atmosphere is starting to become oxygenated. Our soldiers and scientists that don't live on Mars full time need helmets to survive. But our miners and the villains -- the criminals known as 'The Red Sand' -- live on Mars and are becoming acclimated to the environment. Lastly, the emergence of biotic powers among humans is an issue that's been debated, but there again our 'Red Sand' bad guys are living on Mars and their bodies have become saturated with the narcotic that would later bear their name, and thus have developed biotic powers far beyond those other humans would have for decades."

DeNigris said the film is going to be released on YouTube in August, but he doesn't want to pin down a specific date until more of the visual special effects are complete. However, a trailer has already been posted to build excitement:

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