Visual effects artists Tran Ma and Miguel Ortega’s fantasy film ‘The Ningyo’ is a cinematic feat of digital and practical effects imagination.
The Ningyo poster. Images courtesy of the artists.
With a compelling or entertaining story, as well as the requisite set design and visual effects skills, it is now truly possible to make a fantasy or science fiction film from the comfort of one's own home. This is exactly what VFX artist couple Tran Ma and Miguel Ortega have done with their Lovecraftian supernatural fantasy film, The Ningyo, which follows a man's search for a beast from Japanese mythology. It was shot almost entirely in their Los Angeles home on a budget of $60,000. A successful Kickstarter project, The Ningyo is currently being seen in limited screenings, though Ma and Ortega are working to turn it into a television series.
Apart from cryptozoological beings, The Ningyo also features shades of adventure fiction, westerns, and H.P. Lovecraft's supernatural horror. 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe's Faust, a name shared by the film's main character, also inspired the project, as well as history's most notorious hunters, who killed animals for museums in New York, Chicago, and beyond. In The Ningyo, Marlowe has forsaken hunting to prove the existence of the real creatures behind the folklore and then protect them. But to do so, he might have to make a Faustian bargain with a man named H. Prestor Sealous.
Ma and Ortega, who have made monsters for a living as visual effects artists on Avatar, Thor, 300, and other films, decided to make this film about cryptozoology, the pseudoscientific pursuit of beings from mythology and folklore. They desired to find a lesser-known creature for the project, however, which led them to the Japanese myth of the ningyo, a mermaid that is more fish than human.
In this fable, a young girl eats the flesh of a ningyo, and ends up living for 800 years, endlessly enduring the deaths of loved ones as she lives on. Unable to bear this curse, she kills herself. Ma and Ortega thought this story wasn't typical cryptozoological folklore, so they built the film around this myth, setting it in 19th century California and connecting it to the folktale's original girl.
As Ortega tells it, the film took three years to make, requiring all of their time, creative skills, resources, and help from film industry friends. As noted above, the majority of the interior shots were created inside Ma and Ortega's home, using a combination of practical effects and set design, which they extended using computer-generated animation.
"We would built sets section by section in the house, so our bedroom was Marlowe's office," says Ortega. "The stairs in our living room became the cavern, and the living room became Jealous' office and it also became the corridor with all of the crazy creatures."
"We would build one set, tear it down, build another," he adds. "It wasn't all green screen—we built a lot of stuff physically, because we believe in having as much physical stuff as possible, but we extend it or make it look like a billion dollars with [digital] extensions."
To create the antique books seen in Marlowe's office and Sealous's library, Ma and Ortega bought $1 books, soaked them in coffee, stuck them in the oven, then drew on them to make the props look like old manuscripts. They also raided Craigslist for items like a Victorian-era sofa, which they purchased for around $100, to create the proper appearance for the time period.
Ultimately, Ma and Ortega created 90% of the physical and digital effects seen in the film, with the help of one animator for creature movement. It almost beggars belief that the gorgeous final product could be made on a $60,000 budget.
"We had 15 computers running 24 hours a day," says Ortega of the rendering power required for the film's digital effects. "It sounded like an aircraft carrier in our house, and the heat they would emit was just insane... The two of us did the equivalent of what a visual effects company would handle with 20, 30 or maybe more employees."
"We had to do the catering, the driving," he adds. "Everything was us… We had to do all of this stuff that we hopefully never have to do again. It was tough."