Act of Valor: Making a First Person Shooter Movie

By Rob Enderle February 27, 2012

I went to one of the premiers for Act of Valor last Friday and got to listen to the folks who created the movie after watching it.   While eventually the discussion out-geeked even me, the technology was impressive, and if you are into weapons, the movie is actually worth seeing.   Let’s talk about all of that this week.

Act of Valor: Bad and Good

I spent a number of years as an actor and agree with Woody Allen’s advice for creating an award-winning movie: get the best actors and get out of their way.   In this case, the producers used actual Seals for the major parts and let’s just say acting wasn’t their strength. However, having said that, the wives and children (who evidently were real as well) did surprisingly well and they also had professional actors.    There were two very painful moments that I think should have been reedited.   The opening dialog, which felt like the Seals were reading their lines, and the interrogation of the terrorist/smuggler, which had him folding after they threatened him with a nice prison cell and embarrassing him in front of his wife and children (this was after a scene of a female CIA operative being interrogated by the smuggler’s crew with a drill leaving an impressive hole in her hand); she, on the other hand, didn’t break.  

However, the battle scenes were rather impressive and they gave you a first person shooter perspective that was remarkable.    Granted, I had a little difficulty with the Seal sniper who could single head shot folks at great distance but had trouble hitting a truck that was chasing him a few car lengths back.   Still, it was fun to watch and there is one truly spectacular scene where navy river assault boats pull up and both open up with twin Vulcan cannons.   I had serious gun envy.   

There were several halo high altitude assaults and one naval assault on a yacht with one of the new seagoing fast attack ships (they actually ran down a twin outboard high performance boat).    Really cool stuff.    The terrorist attack was using exploding vests with ceramic (won’t set off metal detectors) ball bearings.   That’ll keep you up at night. 

Overall Impression

The movie was kind of like the old and very popular Green Berets film but without a John Wayne and that made it lack a central character you cared about (Wayne wasn’t a great actor either, but he had a huge fan base that includes me).   But having played military games, it had the feel of a lot of cool cut scenes and I think gamers and ex-military would get a big kick out of it.   It isn’t a chick flick and I’d leave the girlfriend or wife at home.   

Impressive Technology

HP, Adobe, and NVIDIA have been aggressively moving to own the next generation of movies.   It was fascinating to listen to the movie technical team praise the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR that they used to shoot over 75 percent of the movie and share how Canon patched the cameras during the filming making the now third generation product that was released after the movie stopped filming ideal for this kind of work.   The cost to buy these cameras was a little more than the cost to rent a typical Panavision film camera for a day.  

The result was pictures that were so clear and noise free so they didn’t look real.   They then used HP Z800 workstations running NVIDIA QUADRO professional graphics systems to remove defects and stabilize the images and then reapply film grain (with a really cool product called Dark Energy by Cinnafilm) so when you watch the movie you can’t tell it wasn’t created with film.   The image quality is some of the best I’ve ever seen and they did the movie for a fraction of the cost of a typical war movie because much of the cost that typically would be in the cameras, film developing, and post processing have been eliminated by moving to digital media and an all-digital workflow.   One of HP’s biggest secrets is they almost own the film industry now and their workstations and servers appear to be universally favored largely because HP has tuned them for this segment.   NVIDIA and Intel power most of them and NVIDIA’s expansion into the post production phase of filming has been impressive over the last few years.  

There was one really interesting discussion regarding Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premier; the filmmakers indicated they couldn’t have done the movie without Premier’s new capabilities and pretty much came out and said that the current generation of Final Cut Pro sucked.   I’ve heard rumbling that Apple’s increased focus on consumers with their offering was alienating pros and this clearly supported that view.  

Wrapping Up: Almost Semi-Pro

If you look at this movie quality, acting and script aside, the quality was incredibly high and it was done with technology that is actually affordable to high end hobbyists.    I think, with this movie, we are seeing quality of a level we’ll be able to do at home in five years and we are just at the tip of the iceberg with regard to cost cutting at a professional level.   This will likely mean movies that folks couldn’t have afforded to make before getting made, granted many will be crap, but some great ones wouldn’t have existed otherwise.   Finally, this showcases a blending of reality TV-like technology with gaming filming techniques and technology that can increasingly blur what is real with what is electronically created.  

This all should eventually have a massive impact on the video, games, and other entertainment we consume on TVs, PCs, tablets, and smartphones.   I foresee a coming wave of high quality entertainment that will make what we see now seem like a trickle in comparison.  I’m still wrapping my mind around the idea that I could afford this camera, run the software on workstations I already have, and make a pretty cool movie.   I see another hobby being born.   Don’t tell my wife. 

Edited by Rich Steeves

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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