Director and cinematographer Mark Toia shoots killer robots on an indie budget, with Monsters of Man.
By Darcy Yuille.
The new Australian shot and produced science fiction epic Monsters of Man starts with shady CIA Agent Major, played by Neal McDonough (Captain America, Minority Report), plotting from his Pentagon office, while a sleek black chopper swoops over the New York City skyline at dusk. A mysterious arms dealer descends from the chopper into his luxurious town car. Not the way most independent films begin. But this is no ordinary independent film.
Pretty soon we are connected to all the elements of the story, a taut thriller about CIA funded killer robots going rogue on an unsolicited military test in the Golden Triangle. In the midst of a massacre, the robots stumble across a group of US Aid Workers, and are directed to leave no survivors.
Sounds expensive! But these and many other high value images were captured on the fly, with a team of dedicated collaborators, according to a well designed plan, all with the end goal of making a calling card for Hollywood.
The brainchild of Mark Toia, who juggled the roles of writer, producer, director, cinematographer and editor, Monsters of Man sets a high bar for independent film production values. It looks like a 40 million dollar film, think the recent Netflix film Extraction (2020) but with CGI robots and produced for under 2 million dollars.
If you’re hearing Toia’s name for the first time, don’t be surprised. The filmmaker has built his craft through more than twenty years of high-end commercial production, much of it overseas, which means he is often less well known in Australia. It’s worth your time to look up his name and check out some of his many videos available online, including those that document his long time collaboration with RED Digital Cinema.
These long term international relationships were integral in producing the film across three continents, but it’s also Toia’s ethos as a filmmaker that drew the team together to make this film on a minimal budget. He’s a somewhat beloved figure with Queensland crew, where he has based his operations for many years, and has a track record for looking after his team and having a good time. All while achieving world class levels of storytelling.
“I started by pulling together a small, multi-talented, commando style crew that were more than happy to shoot in a minimalistic way,” Toia says. “I promised them no overtime, no crazy hours, no late night shoots, and that we would finish on time with a cold beer at the end of the day”.
Principal photography on Monsters of Man took place in Cambodia with smaller shoots in New York City, Vancouver and Brisbane. To avoid the long delays that often come with high-end productions, Toia shot most scenes with four cameras, three RED Dragons and an early prototype of the RED Helium, one of the first available anywhere in the world. The film was acquired in both 6K and 8K, with a simple workflow through Apple Final Cut Pro X for a 4K delivery. This workflow was designed to again ease the load on post-production, working with 4:2:2 proxies.
The Cambodian shoot contained most of the action, including explosions, intense gunplay, bullet wounds and of course those CGI killer robots. Everything in Cambodia was shot on location, using predominantly available light. Yes, you read that right.
This was a clear decision, which enabled Toia to move quickly and use multiple cameras for almost all his set-ups. The multi-camera coverage helped with continuity, and the cast found freedom in the approach, knowing their performance would be captured from multiple angles.
“Traditionally, you might have four hours to get a scene,” explains Toia. “It takes three hours with all the logistics, the lighting and slating and stuffing around, and then you shoot for one hour. I wanted to cut the logistics down to one hour and get the three hours to shoot all I needed.”
Minimal additional lighting was used, either from existing practicals or cheap LEDs bouncing off a surface in the location. The chief reason for this was Toia’s understanding of the capabilities of his RED sensors and a firm belief that he wanted as much of the budget to appear on screen as possible; in the CGI, special effects and cast. With eighteen stops of dynamic range and low noise in the image, he knew he could remove annoying highlights and track the image easily with the high resolution. It also made for a simpler workflow.
“Because we were shooting on REDs, we weren’t worried about colour space on set,” says Toia. “If we were shooting in daylight, we left it at 5600k, left the tint at zero, because with the RED, you can change all your metadata afterwards. When we got back, the editor colour balanced one shot, and the rest of them fell into place.”
The lens package was made up of Canon stills glass, each operator using the F2.8 24mm to 70mm or the F2.8 70mm to 200mm, and some entry level Rokinons for some wider angles. The conditions were such that operators were working in the rain, in the smoke, in the humidity, and Toia knew expensive glass would more than likely become irreparably damaged in the process. The stills lenses held up, and it’s hard to tell the difference.
The REDs were mounted on Miller compass heads and solo tripods, a lightweight sturdy tripod that had excellent versatility and was easily moved by an operator. No need for grips. The Millers also enabled the operator to go from hi-hat height to over two meters, and the articulating legs meant they could mount the tripod safely and effectively anywhere, on rocks, in a river or down the side of a hill.
Toia had a strong idea of the coverage he wanted and there were no storyboards for the film. He created a system for his operators that allowed them to respond to the emotion that the coverage needed. Before each scene, he would brief each operator and go through the coverage he wanted from each camera, which gave him more time to work with the cast.
“We had four styles of photography, and I used to call them out to the operators,” he says. “The first one was locked off, don’t move the head, purely locked. The second was still locked off, but you were allowed to pan and tilt, and the third was hand held, soft hand held or on the shoulder, it had to be fluid and nice. Then the fourth one was ‘fuck it’ you know? When shit was blowing up, you could go nuts but I didn’t want any rocking.”
Toia would call those numbers out, from one to four, in the middle of a scene or tell the operator to change on a specific line, knowing that there were many elements to come in CGI for the cast and the camera to react to.
The operators pulled their own focus, again keeping the production costs and crew down, and slates were made unnecessary by all cameras running jammed timecode from the sound recordist and also recording sound to all cameras. Toia started by operating A-camera, but after seeing Tony O’Loughlin ACS SOC was nailing the dialogue coverage, he quickly gave O’Loughlin the reins.
This collaborative style meant the schedule was always in the can on time, but it also meant they were able to experiment. One of the most arresting scenes revolves around the initially unlikeable character of student doctor Jordan (Paul Haapaniemi). In the scene, Jordan has bravely led a killer robot away from his injured friends. Faced with certain death, he debates on whether to end his own life. The scene was only meant to show the character hiding, but while blocking, the idea came up, and it provides an emotional shift in the film and a platform for the character to evolve. The lo-fi approach gave the team extra time and allowed them to be creative in the field.
Years of experience filming around the world meant Toia had a good handle on the conditions of the light in the different locations. He allowed the natural light in the separate locations to define the look of the contrasting scenes. The ‘equator/asian’ lighting situation had a lower contrast and a greener tinge due to smog, whereas the North American ‘corporate look’ was much cooler and uses higher contrast. His commercial experience in grading and compositing much of his own work enabled him to know that this would work. An early discussion with colourist Warren Eagles also led to them creating a look to emulate 35mm film.
“We graded it to look like 35mm,” says Toia “When I started shooting digital, I started to grade so you could see everything, but then I realised, just because digital is giving you more information, doesn’t mean you need to keep it. I liked 35mm back in those early days, if it was a bit crushed, fine! I wanted the focus of the viewer to be on what I wanted them to look at.”
Eagles ran the initial pass on the grade. As previous collaborators, he and Toia had a shorthand. The end result is a dark film with deep blacks, nothing too bright or colourful and dark corners to direct the eye to the action. Toia continued to fine tune elements in his spare time. His skill with compositing came in handy. In a scene where the group are hiding in a cave from marauding robots, they wake up to early morning light streaming down on them. In an earlier rehearsal, the crew walking around had shifted motes of dust to create rays of light, but when shooting the scene, everyone was still and the light rays disappeared. Rather than go for a digital effect, Toia composited in light rays from a previous shoot, and the result is seamless and a stand out.
Production Design was minimal, relying on existing fixtures and locations, with minimal additions such as a map or a picture. For the Vancouver set, which was used to film the Pentagon offices, Toia hired an existing space and composited in all of the relevant artwork for the carpet and walls. He also gave the CIA agent a RED Hydrogen smartphone. Toia had one in his bag on the day, and was surprised himself when he noticed it on the big screen. The largest element however was the integration of the title characters, the robots.
To manage the workload of over two-thousand visual effects shots, Toia brought on Raoul Teague to supervise the visual effects and keep the standards to the level required. The robots were co-designed by Tioa with Eduard Pronin, a Russian-based concept designer. It then went to a texture technician in Melbourne, followed by a local rigger in Brisbane. Once the initial design was approved, they then had to make twelve different versions of the robot, to chart the different level of destruction and wear brought about by the onscreen action. These then had to be rendered to look photographically real in the environments, the dirt, the fingerprints, all the scratches and reflections. Finishing in 4K meant the textures had to be spot on.
While the original plan was for a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) release, Toia made his own digital cinema package (DCP) and, at a cast and crew screening held at the IMAX Brisbane in late 2020, a projectionist commented that the image and effects were seamless and held up better than many of the action films that had been through the cinema lately.
The end result is a smart, commercial film that has connected with audiences on SVOD platforms, achieving its target of a global audience, and multiple offers from international Producers. People want to work with Toia, but he’s unsure if it’s the right path at this stage. He would definitely want to fill both director and cinematography roles again, unless of course, he says, Greig Frasier ACS ASC was available.
Until then, it’s more commercials and maybe, if the right film comes along, he’ll be up for it.
Mark Toia, a filmmaker and cinematographer based in Brisbane, has become one of the most sought after directors in the advertising world.
Darcy Yuille is experienced in all facets of film production, from loading to directing and everything in between. He runs a production company in Melbourne.