Though Bruce Branit completed World Builder — a poignant and visually dazzling short movie about a man who literally creates a new reality for the woman he loves — in 2007, it’s likely that far more people have seen it this March than in the last two years combined, thanks to the viral power of Internet distribution.
In World Builder, a beautiful European town square seems to materialize from thin air and the builder’s glowing user interface; visually it compares favorably to scenes from The Matrix and Minority Report. But like the $400 Escape from City 17, it’s another example of what’s possible with low budgets and a high degree of inventiveness. In an email interview, Branit estimated that he spent just a little more than $2,000 of his own money for the stage, the equipment, and the camera. His brother, a cinematographer, called in favors for the live action elements, which were shot in a single day. (The cast and crew worked for free.) Branit finished the rest in the Lightwave 3-D graphics platform, working on it in between paying gigs over a couple years.
Like most indie filmmakers searching for a career-making breakthrough, Branit, a Kansas-based visual effects artist, sought to get World Builder on the festival circuit, but after sending it out nearly 40 times, it was accepted by just five low-profile festivals. He subsequently won awards at four of those, but nothing came of them. Bitter and drained, Branit finally put Builder on his site as a portfolio sample, and just “in case someone else wanted to see it,” he said. By then, “I had sort of put the film behind me.”
The Internet, however, had other plans.
Some acquaintances posted a link to World Builder on a Lightwave discussion forum, and it quickly went viral from there.
Within a week, the video had half a million views, and today — just 12 days since it was first uploaded to Vimeo — Branit says it’s reached a million views across all sites where it’s hosted.
Word-of-mouth has drawn views from unlikely places — including more than 175,000 views via a weekend link from political blogger Andrew Sullivan, and numerous Second Life bloggers who have promoted it, sensing a thematic affinity. (Branit says he’s not familiar with the user-created virtual world, though; his actual inspiration for the story, he said, is the fanciful concept that construction workers “physically worked to build our world and our reality in the moments before we experience it… one day it occured to me that our new digital tools would be a much better representation of this.”)
In 2000, Branit co-created 405, one of the Net’s first viral videos, and while the effects-laden, SUV-meets-airliner short earned him some attention from the film industry, it ultimately didn’t lead to the feature film deal he was seeking. “We learned a lot about Hollywood after 405,” said Branit. This time, as he sets up a few meetings, “I already have a feature concept for the builder and his love.” While he already has a successful career as a behind-the-scenes effects developer for TV and film, the success of this viral movie may be the thing that builds it up into the big time.