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Wed, Sep 7 2011 20:30:14 UTC

Interview with Portal: No Escape creators

Today we have an interview with Eva Snyder, VFX artist, and Danielle Rayne. Danielle was the star of the recent wonderful short movie Portal: No Escape, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, and Eva was one of the VFX artists behind the post-production. They both agreed to answer a few questions about it.

Could you describe yourself and your background?

Danielle: I'm an actress who's always been athletic--running, riding horses, working out. In NYC, my athleticism rarely played a part in my work. My average day was working on a commercial or All My Children and then performing a role like Hedda Gabler in a theatre at night. When I came to LA, strong and athletic roles started coming my way. I auditioned for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights and got the lead: a Cyberwitch (in a vinyl bikini!) who needs to inhabit the body of a virgin to survive. Bill, it turns out, is a virgin. Hilarity & mayhem ensue. Instead of just learning lines & blocking, I was learning stunts, too. While I didn't become a stuntwoman, it was a good jumping off point for action characters.

Eva: I'm a vfx artists from Chicago currently living and working in LA. I've had experience on all kinds of projects and I love what I do. I composited VFX for some of the shots in Portal: No Escape.

Could you briefly describe Portal: No Escape?

Danielle: It's a high-concept sci-fi action short about an imprisoned woman who has only her ability to reason and her strength and is determined to escape. I may not make it out this time, but next time...

How did you first become involved in the project?

Danielle: I had worked at Universal's Terminator 2: The Battle Across Time with Keith Adams, the first stunt coordinator for Portal: No Escape. I've played Sarah Connor full-time since the show opened in Hollywood. Keith and Dan are huge fans of Portal. When Dan was ready to cast, Keith introduced him to some actresses and stuntwomen he thought could make the part work. We had to run various obstacle courses in character for one part of the audition and we acted out the scenes from the cell for the second part.

Eva: Dan contacted my via email because I'd been in touch over twitter a couple of times. We also have a couple mutual friends. I figured the project had potential and he seemed like a solid guy so I agreed to help out where I could.

Which software programs were used to do the post-production work?

Eva: I think this is an awful question as it's ultimately meaningless. It also drives artists and Supervisors crazy. Software doesn't make a shot, competent artists do. I used Nuke.

What was it like to act in this production?

Danielle: Very physical right from the first scene. I was strung up on a harness in front of a green screen for my first shot. I have a photo--I look like a pinata with a Portal gun. One of the toughest scenes was making my escape and taking out the first guard (Mario Perez) in the hallway. The stunt coordinator (James Logan-Keith got another gig) and one of the crew held me under my legs and behind my back. The timing was tricky because we had no visual cue but they had to hurl me feet first through the wooden green portal frame at the precise moment Mario was coming. If you watch the film you'll see a deep red welt on my left shoulder. That's not makeup--it's one of the many times we missed the timing and I smashed into something I shouldn't have.

Could you tell us about how long this took and how challenging it was?

Danielle: We shot for 3 very long days in March 2010. In spite of the physical aspect and the long hours, I never felt tired. We were creating something so exciting. It was like having a 72 hour-long adrenalin rush. I'm not sure but the production cast & crew might have totaled about 2 dozen. VFX took the next year and a half and I had nothing to do with it. Periodically, Dan would send just a few frames with completed FX. He was either teasing or torturing me with these little glimpses.

Eva: I was involved on the project for about 8 months but as this was a nights and weekend kind of thing the cumulative time was more likely about a month or so of work. That's a lot of work to balance between life and daytime jobs. A large amount of the work was done in the final months. The most challenging aspect was that we had artists from all over the place chipping in so it was sometimes difficult to move quickly on a look, and keeping things organized.

How hard was it to act when so much of the shot will be CGI?

Danielle: Working with green screens/VFX takes willful suspension of disbelief. The actor has to have a vivid imagination because anything the director conceives is possible with great VFX. To be believable, you need a really good director. My very first green screen experience was a commercial I did for Marcus Nispel. In one scene very tight on my face, I had to imagine books were falling down around me. First take, my expression was shocked and concerned (a falling book can do some damage-right?). Marcus changed his direction to ''butterflies were floating down around me'' and on that take my expression matched what he wanted. The Portal FX were described to me in detail by Dan, so while I was looking at a bright green circular wood frame, I was 'seeing' the amber glowing portal. Dan guided my performance the whole way.

Looking back on it, is there anything you would have done differently?

Eva: No project is perfect. I guess looking back I would say I could've tried for more communication among team members, but mostly this went as well as any side project could've gone. Many side projects don't even make it to completion.

How has the user reaction and feedback been so far?

Danielle: Well, Portal: No Escape was the most liked YouTube Video for the month of August, so it seems we found a sweet spot with the audience. I try not to read user comments, because you are bound to read something that hurts your feelings. The web reviews from sites like Slashfilm, Huffington Post, Wired, etc.--they were all overwhelmingly positive. Almost half a million people shared P:NE on Facebook. Personally, I had an amazing show of support from fans on Twitter, my website and my Facebook Fanpage. That meant a lot to me.

Eva: Seems mostly positive. I'm glad people have been enjoying it.

What are your plans for the future, are you working on anything new you can talk about?

Danielle: I have another short film in post-production by director Trevor White and writer/actor Miles Warner. I love my character, Mary, but I can't say anything without giving it away. Everything else is in talking stages and I've got several meetings scheduled this week. I'm really hoping there's another great role like my part in Portal: No Escape in my near future.

Eva: I work full time as a vfx artist in LA on features so I plan to continue working, and hopefully have an opportunity to work other places in the world. I can't say what I'm currently working on publicly, but that's pretty standard practice these days. You can see my imdb page for a list of past projects though.

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