Matthew Warner

The Summer of Eating Two Elephants

My mother once told me that the best way to eat an elephant is “one bite at a time.” It’s an apt metaphor for any long-term project.

Every day when I get up, I take bites out of a couple elephants. One is production of “The Cryonic Pharaoh.” I’m in a steady rhythm of mo-capping a scene, setting up a cinematic sequencer for it in Unreal Engine, rendering it out, and finally dropping it into my film editor. Each scene, which is anywhere from 4 to 30 seconds, takes about a week to produce this way, and I have 133 of them. Each scene might be subdivided into 1 to 6 shots, and each shot is its own sequencer as well. That’s just the way it goes.

Each shot also presents its technical challenges, but I’m slowly working through them. Last week, I faced the challenge of Frankensteining an Unreal Engine version 5.2 (UE5) metahuman head onto an older UE4 body skeleton and correcting animations on that. Before that, I spent a long time creating a dogpile of 30+ dead bodies and converting them all into static meshes so they won’t crash my computer. This week, I’m shooting a scene in which my character is sitting up in bed and spraying an air freshener (to cover up the stench of the decaying bodies). To mocap that this morning, I sat on my piano bench and leaned back against the metal pipe in the center of my office. I had to time my acting, which included dialogue and facial mocap, against the voice of a TV announcer. To get that right, I played the announcer’s dialogue through an Airpod in my ear.

Realistically, I’ll be shooting “The Cryonic Pharaoh” for the remainder of the year. Once it’s in rough cut, I’ll then move into color grading, sound effects, and music design, and who knows how long that’ll take.

My other big elephant to eat this summer is preparation for my brown belt test in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This will be the most voluminous of my tests in terms of number of techniques because the mandate here is to “demonstrate everything you know.” Well, that will be over 11 years of knowledge, which for me is over 170 techniques. My goal is to be ready to regurgitate the entire thing without prompting, performing technique after technique, as if it’s a one-man play. I would also like to be so well prepared that it won’t be a belt “test” but a showcase, at least in my head, so that I won’t be nervous. This showcase will be followed by a 20-minute sparring session in which my fellow students tag-team in on me once per minute.

The only way to get ready for that, again, is to eat the elephant one bite at a time. So each morning, after I’m done with movie production, I spend 15 minutes memorizing my lists of techniques — reciting them and mentally rehearsing them. And then when I can at the school, I grab somebody and run through something.

So that’s how my summer is going. What elephants are you eating?