9 Filmmaking Insights from VFX Producer Hasraf Dulull

Hasraf ‘Haz’ Dulull has been working in the entertainment industry for two decades. Starting off in video-games and transitioning into the role of compositor, then VFX Supervisor and Producer, Haz eventually took the leap into becoming an indie filmmaker. His features, The Beyond, and 2036 Origin Unknown are both on Netflix and he also has directing credits on the TV series Fast Layne.

He recently sat down with The Filmmaker’s Podcast to talk about his long and winding career in Visual FX (VFX) and indie-filmmaking.

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Here are the highlights.

1. On making career compromises…

After Haz saw Bladerunner at the age of 12, he instantly knew he wanted to be involved in “creating something as cool as that”. But coming from a strict family, Haz also knew he’d have to do something that would appease his parents while enabling him to follow his creative passions. Ergo, finding a compromise by studying programming and technology at a university in London. The latter of which involving graphics, which would eventually translate into his career in VFX. 

Post-college, Haz quickly landed a job at a video game studio creating cut scenes, i.e., game cinematics. 

“You’re doing the whole sequence, so I was essentially making mini-movies for video games…. You’re very restricted with your textures, graphics and technicalities, but that was great because later on when I became an indie filmmaker, I had the same ethos of working in a contained environment.”

2. On learning from rejection…

After working for so many years in video games, Haz finally made the leap into actual filmmaking. He put a show-reel comprised of game cinematics together and sent it out thinking the VFX jobs would fall into his lap… they didn’t. What rejection did get Haz was the wherewithal to focus on a specific aspect of VFX: compositing.

“Every single studio rejected me… I was like I don’t get it. So, I remember ringing up MPC and saying I sent my reel in and I’d like to get some feedback… A lead artist at the time was like I really love the energy in your work and clearly, you love movies, but what do you want to do in VFX… it’s separated; you have 3-D, animation, shading, compositing… I’m like wow, I did all of that, and he goes, you kind of don’t do that in movies… So, I picked compositing…because I love the idea of smoke and mirrors… taking CGI elements and taking live-action and putting them together.”

Haz refocused his show-reel to demonstrate his ability to combine computer graphics and live action together and landed the job at the studio. His first gig: volunteering for the night shift on the film 10,000 B.C..

“[10,000 B.C.] wasn’t going to get released at one point because the shots weren’t getting signed off, hence the night shift. So, I then quickly shot up to become the lead compositor (because I volunteered) and it was a good experience for me because I really got to work under pressure.”

3. On the best film school in the world… 

Proving himself to be hard-working, hungry to tell stories and most importantly talented, Haz soon found himself contending for a spot on a project operating under the working title of Rory’s First Kiss. The caveat: he had to use a custom version of the compositing software Shake for the job. The catch: Rory’s First Kiss was actually Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. 

“I was willing to make tea just to be on that movie… I was on that movie for six or seven months and I learned so much. I got to understand the pressures of working on a Nolan movie… the sequences that I worked on were all of the sonar sequences… I had to come up with the look…  But here’s the big challenge: Shake is designed for 2K resolution; The Dark Knight was all IMAX… I had to figure out a way to bring IMAX plates (the footage) into Shake… There was no software in the office that could process it… luckily, I came from a programming background, so that came in useful…I literally figured out how to create a system where I could bring in a 2K plate, blow it up to 5K and do the work reading the actual plates as proxies, dual the composite in and then dumb it back down to 2k… It was a lot of trial and error and I learned about framing, pacing, shot composition; I learned about virtual cinematography. All the things that made me the filmmaker I am today… it was a challenge, but it was film school for me.”

4. On problem-solving… 

After The Dark Night, Haz continued finding steady work. First, in commercials in VFX before quickly rising to a lead compositor and then VFX supervisor, which gave him a high-level view of production.

“A VFX supervisor is less hands-on on the computer and deals with the day-to-day on-set… you’re the director’s right-hand man, or right-hand woman. It was a really good experience for me because I was now dealing with politics; on-set politics, studio politics, budgets, solving problems… that’s your job as a VFX supervisor… you get the script, you do a script breakdown, you highlight what’s VFX and what isn’t you then go into the studio and you pitch why you should do the job and how you can help bring this director or production company’s vision to the screen… you try not creatively change the shot; you try to offer creative solutions to still maintain the director’s vision, but come up with ways to get it done on time… a lot of the time, time is what’s against you: time and budget… once you get the job, you then work very closely with the director to figure out how to plan the shots.”

From VFX Supervisor to Producer, Haz started working for himself and assembled a team that he has continued to work with throughout his career. His short film Fubar Redux brought him to Cannes. Not long after the short took off, Haz then created a concept trailer for his next vision, which got him on the radar of the top agencies in LA. The agencies, of course, had notes.

5. On taking feedback and criticisms… 

“One of the managers I ended up signing with had some notes and said it’s up to me to take them or leave them… being a VFX supervisor I’ve seen that notes process… they were really good notes… so, I tried them out… a lot of it was killing your darlings… and the trailer got a million views in the first few weeks it came out… then, there was a bidding war.” 

6. On outlining…

“I took a trip to LA and met all of the [studio executives] … they all had Save the Cat on their desk. Every writer has their own way, but I have a big whiteboard and map out the entire movie in a flow chart. If I can tell the whole movie within 10 minutes, I know I have a movie. From there, I start branching out and I think that stems from my computer programming background…”

Haz found more success as a screenwriter taking assignments from studios such as Paramount and FOX. 

7. On collaboration… 

In 2015, one of Haz’s script options got renewed and then passed off to another writer for a polish.

“That was one of my favorite parts of the process where I got to collaborate with other writers. That’s when I realized I’m not really a writer-writer, I’m a director that writes out of necessity, but once another writer comes on to polish it, it’s like oh my god this is exactly what I wanted to do… for me, I thrive on the collaboration.”

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8. On handling pressure and making connections…  

Haz had a yearning to make his own feature film, but without outside funding, Haz dipped into his and his partner’s piggy-bank to make it happen. His partner’s advice? “Don’t fuck it up.”

“That’s probably more pressure than a studio executive; having your Mrs. tell you not to screw it up.”

His tenacity paid off, and with the help of some technology sponsors, Haz was able to make his first feature, The Beyond, based on his short film Project Cronos.

“You want people that believe in the story… but also… the advice I would give to any filmmaker when you’re making a film and don’t have much money is try to get a technology sponsorship. I teamed up with people at Adobe, with people at Blackmagic Camera… and gave something back to them in return: I did a lot of PR for them… and when it came time to do my feature, I reached out to them… and they all came on board. “

9. On setting the tone and staying consistent…

One of the most important aspects of a script is the tone and feel. Is the tone consistent? Is it true to the story?  Once The Beyond was done, Haz and his team sent it out for screen testing. 

“Pick the format and stick with it… at the time we screen tested… it was like what are we watching? It starts off with this amazing shot of earth and these meteorites and we got this alien contact thing in space, it looks gorgeous, then, it cuts to this documentary thing – we’re confused… so, pick the format and stick with it.”

From there, Haz and his team used cached images from The Beyond to promote his next feature 2036 Origin Unknown, which led to him being able to pitch for the VFX-heavy Disney TV series Fast Layne.

Listen to the podcast below.

Andrew Schwartz is a marketing professional and script reader working in the entertainment industry. He has written and read for outlets such as The Blcklst, BlueCat Screenplay, Final Draft and more. Find him on Twitter at @writingshorts or his Instagram page dedicated to The Sopranos, @sopranosgram.

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