Local writer Michael Perry helps with digital effects during preproduction of the indie film POP. 450, which is based on Perry's memoir Population: 485. (Production photo provided by JuniperGO.)
We’ve all wondered for years if a movie studio would adapt one of Michael Perry’s books for the big screen, especially now, as the New York Times bestselling author from New Auburn has added a few works of fiction to his catalogue. Well, read on – things appear to happening.
Independent film company JuniperGO obtained the movie rights to Michael Perry’s breakout memoir Population: 485 - Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time in June 2008, produced a script a few years later, and began preproduction early last fall.
The film’s current working title is POP. 450. The script writer, Jens Begemann, is known for penning indie films such as Venison Jerky, Big Sunnies, and Rougher Than a Cob.
However, “the bloom may be off the rose,” as Perry wrote in Population: 485, describing his hometown. After reviewing early test footage of the film, industry insiders have so far criticized the film for straying too far from Perry’s source material, spending most of their reviews lambasting the studio’s over-zealous use of computer generated imagery (CGI).
At best, they call it “pointless” and “embarrassing.” At worst, Daniel Hodges, a film critic with IndieLenz magazine calls the digitally altered footage “a despicable disservice to memoir writing and all other literary genres ever created. Or imagined.”
Amongst the studio’s most baffling uses of CGI is in the portrayal of Population: 485’s main character – the town of New Auburn. We hear the small Wisconsin burg will be almost entirely recreated inside a computer. Using super high-res drone-mounted scanners, the studio has created a completely digital version of New Auburn, allowing the director a 360-degree, utterly fake view of the otherwise easily filmed location – down to the last weed on Main Street and rust-speckled manure spreader.
“Seriously, each udder is rendered to act independently of the others.” – Creative Director Harry Bischoff on the special effects in POP. 450. (Image: A screenshot from a workstation at Harvester FX.)
One can assume that actual filming in Wisconsin has become cost prohibitive for JuniperGO since the state gutted its “Film Wisconsin” incentives program back in 2013.
In an interview with IndieLenz (released April 1), director Jackson Jones describes the drone-scanning process as “...totally changing the game. The heartland game. We’re redefining how the Wisconsin aesthetic manifests on screen. We can do anything we want in New Auburn! We could have an earthquake! We could have dinosaurs!”
“We won’t. But we could,” he added.
JuniperGO farmed out all of the CGI and effects shots in POP. 450 to Los Angeles-based effects house Harvester FX, the animators behind the tractors seen in 2011’s Footloose remake.
One of the film’s more bewildering CGI moments is an extended shot during the opening credits showing fields of digitally reproduced dairy cows – as in, a lot of cows. Way too many cows. Harvester FX Creative Director Harry Bischoff calls the imagery a “sea change in bovine modeling.” He told IndieLenz, “Seriously, each udder is rendered to act independently of the others,” resulting in “the most realistic onscreen portrayal of a Holstein in the history. You know, not counting actual footage of a cow. It’s a phenomenal leap forward.”
EMOTION CAPTURE: To help create POP. 450's main character – Michael Perry himself – the author has spent hours in a special motion capture suit. (Production photo provided by JuniperGO.)
Bischoff also cites his company's groundbreaking work in “digital milk flow dynamics” and “artificial chicken intelligence” as effects by which POP. 450 audiences are sure to be stunned.
And much like New Auburn, Population: 485’s other main character – Michael Perry himself – will also be replaced with an almost entirely CGI presence. Perry’s body will be totally digital while his face and hair will be replaced by quirky actor James Franco. Jones assures IndieLenz that Franco’s facial and follicle performances will “will blow your damn mind.”
However, (perhaps to his credit?) Jones is basing the character’s movements and mannerisms on Perry himself, using somewhat cutting edge motion capture technology to achieve the proper “small town swagger.” Reports indicate that Perry – who did seven months of CrossFit to aid in the process – has already spent over 75 hours in a special motion caption suit as cameras record his every twitch, hunker, and mosey.
We’re skeptical as to how audiences will react to POP. 450, and perhaps the studio is too, as a release date for the film has yet to be announced.
Film critic Jason Richardson of the LA Times, another writer who's berated the film’s early footage, may have summed it up best, saying, "I really can't even believe they're making POP. 450. This movie is a total joke."
Above: Way too many cows. (POP. 450 test footage provided by Harvester FX.)