The cinematography world calls Billy Dickson, ASC, one of its own, but over the past decade he has been busy adding writer, executive producer, director, editor, colorist and visual-effects artist to his skill set between shooting projects. He has been doing this for a project called IQ-Supremacy, also known as The Palmer Supremacy in some markets. It’s a long-running labor of love that is now a feature film slated for U.S. release by Green Apple Entertainment (and overseas release by Artist View Entertainment).
Back in 2001, Billy started the project as a Web series, before such a thing really caught on. He also envisioned it as a proof-of-concept for the idea that with careful planning and smart filmmaking, a television series could be shot entirely against greenscreen.
The storyline concerns an inventor who develops a microchip and implants it in his son’s brain, partly to hide it from the government. Billy produced, directed, shot and edited a dozen five-day episodes on his own dime.
The Web series generated a following. “It never really hit like I thought it would, but it proved the point that I could do this,” Billy says. “At one point, I went out with another group of producers to try to sell the idea of making these types of shows on a budget, all greenscreen, for television. I shopped it around for a while. We had good interest, but it never quite gelled, and I was very impatient. I wanted to at least get back the money I put into it, so I just released it on DVD.”
Eventually, Billy realized he wanted to take the project to the next level. He took some of the existing footage, got a few more names in the cast, and shot a week’s worth of new scenes. The result was the feature film and the distribution deals.
Both phases of the project were shot with Sony HDW-F900 cameras and Primo lenses provided by Panavision. Billy shot the first segment in Wilmington, N.C., at Screen Gems Studios, where he had just finished working on the series One Tree Hill. He shot the second half at Santa Clarita Studios in Valencia, Calif.
The greenscreen was roughly 100’ long, made up of mobile 20’ x 20’ sections. “I got it down to a science,” says Billy. “I was always thinking about television, always thinking about ways to cut corners or to save money — how to maintain quality but be fast and efficient at the same time. I planned my budget accordingly.”
Billy had always dabbled in visual effects. Around the time he shot the Babylon 5 pilot, he bought an Amiga computer, a tool effects artists were using at the time. For the IQ project, he had his own render farm of five computers grinding away. Some complicated shots required weeks to render. Because every shot is a composite, the total was more than 2,500 shots.
“I originally partnered up with an effects house, but then realized I was spending too much money on them,” he says. “I had always wanted to add effects to TV movies when I was shooting those. But this sparked me, and I starting learning more. I really became pretty proficient in doing greenscreen maps and CGI work in [Adobe] After Effects. I combined CG sets with photo-real backgrounds. For example, I would build a CG office set, and outside the window were plates I shot of Chicago.
“I kept it simple, never did anything too fancy,” he continues. “There aren’t a lot of tracking shots, and the camera can be a little static. But it took me to a whole different level, especially since I was directing and shooting. I worked in shorthand. I never previsualized anything, but I had an idea of what the sets were going to look like. I was able to block the scenes accordingly, shoot them, do quick turnarounds and shoot the coverage without doing too much to the lighting. It saved a lot of time in production.”
In a making-of featurette about the project, actor Marc Singer calls Billy “a new kind of auteur.”
“Working with actors in the greenscreen environment was interesting, because I think it gave them a little more freedom,” Billy says. “Acting in that environment, they had to use their imagination a bit more. In a way, acting became more important. I really enjoyed that aspect of it.”
In keeping with the DIY aesthetic, Billy learned the basics of the Da Vinci and color-corrected the images himself. He edited in Final Cut Pro. “Those are skills that help me every day as a cinematographer,” he says. “This experience has given me a broader imagination as a director and as a director of photography. As the digital world has come on, I think it’s changed us photographers immensely.”
Billy hopes that the filmmaking world will recognize his efforts, and perhaps adopt some of his techniques. “I don’t think I’m finished with this concept,” he notes. “I hope the lessons can be applied. The idea is not so far out there: You can use your imagination and tell a story in a feature film on a television budget. It just depends on how much work you want to put into it. I can’t say IQ will be a blockbuster, but I think you’ll be pretty amazed.”