In the web serial ATROPA: The Series, off-world detective Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) and the crew of a drifting spaceship face a cosmic mystery that not only redefines their perception of time and space, but also threatens to send them spinning to their doom. A nostalgic throwback to sci-fi films of old, ATROPA: The Series sends its cast of spacefaring characters down grimy ship corridors and confronts them with the dangers of deep space in their perilous quest for universal truth.
ATROPA: The Series began life in 2015, when filmmaker Eli Sasich made a short film — called simply ATROPA — as a pitch for a feature script. Having released the short online, Sasich went through a long development process aimed at bringing the story to the big screen, before ultimately realizing the project as a seven-episode series backed by Vimeo and released through Vivendi’s STUDIO+ platform.
Watch the trailer for ATROPA: The Series:
Cinefex talked to Sasich about the original short in a Q&A on this blog — you can read the article here. Following the release of ATROPA: The Series, we caught up with the writer-director again — joined this time by visual effects supervisor Ryan Wieber — to discuss the project in its finished form.
CINEFEX — Last time we spoke, Eli, you were trying to get ATROPA off the ground as a feature. How far down the road did you get?
ELI SASICH — We got really far. We had Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop involved — I even went out to New Zealand and looked at stage space — but for numerous reasons it didn’t end up going. But, I always remembered that we’d had a great response to the pitch film online, and I’d had such a great experience with the team that made it. So I thought maybe we could cut this feature script into episodes and make it as a web series.
CINEFEX — How did you go about doing that?
ELI SASICH — I wanted to keep the original pilot intact, so I truncated the feature script, made three characters into one, all the things you have to do to simplify. It worked really well — there were natural cliffhangers every 10-15 minutes. We were going to crowdfund it on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Then I got connected with Vimeo, and they said, “No, we’ll just pay for it!” We were thrilled!
CINEFEX — You said that your intention was to leave the original short unchanged. Is that how it turned out?
ELI SASICH — It’s the exact same edit. We just added a planet in the background of the space shots. That was always in the feature script as a big story point, but in the original pitch film we didn’t need it. Our composer Kevin Riepl did an all-new score as well.
CINEFEX — The score throughout the series has an epic feel. Was that something you deliberately set out to achieve?
ELI SASICH — It was. Kevin and I really wanted to have a classic, romanticized orchestral score, because we felt the visuals could handle a really big sound. For the pitch film, we used a lot of Kevin’s score for the game Aliens: Colonial Marines. Obviously, when we turned it into the series, we couldn’t use that. But the gauntlet was already thrown down, so we made the decision to record with a live orchestra.
CINEFEX — You shot the original short at Laurel Canyon Stages in Los Angeles. Did you go back there to make the series?
ELI SASICH — We did and it hadn’t changed, which was really bizarre and kind of exciting. There was a point while we were shooting episode two, Doppelganger, when we re-created a shot of everyone looking out through the spaceship window. It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. It was two years later, and all the same actors were back and most of the same crew, and we were all just kind of looking at each other. It was surreal and wonderful. My assistant director got a little annoyed because we had to stop and take a picture!
CINEFEX — Laurel Canyon has a standing set comprising two spaceship corridors set perpendicular to each other. Did you expand that with additional sets?
ELI SASICH — Yes, but we just kitbashed everything we could find at Laurel Canyon. We took flats and different things they had built for other productions, reconfigured them and set dressed them to make new spaces.
CINEFEX — How did you structure the visual effects department?
RYAN WIEBER — The department was basically me! I had a handful of folks doing a half-dozen shots here, one shot there, just to help fill in the gaps — I was calling in any favors that I had to help get our 333 visual effects shots done. The main CG vendor was The Light Works, led by Tobias Richter — they were responsible for the all-CG exterior shots of the spaceships and they built the Core, our virtual location. I composited the Core shots but they did the comps for their space shots, and then we put on a little spit-shine of our own, like lens flares and grain. We also had over 100 shots with motion graphic display screens, which were designed, animated and composited by Ricardo Elliott II. He was creatively supervised by myself and Eli, but I let him take full ownership of that.
ELI SASICH — The Earth-based sequences in episode four were done by BluFire Studios, the company that I worked with on my short film HENRi. They did flying vehicles and set extensions, and also a robot. It was fun to have them come back and do another robot for me!
Watch a breakdown video showcasing some of the key visual effects shots from ATROPA: The Series:
CINEFEX — Let’s take a closer look at the visual effects, episode by episode. Tell me about this planet that you added to the pitch film, which is now episode one of the series, Pilot.
ELI SASICH — I always knew I wanted a gaseous planet, and I wanted it to be blue — I think I probably got that color from LV-426 in Aliens. Because of a particular story point, we talked a lot about whether it’s actually a planet at all — ultimately that’s up to the viewer. For that reason, we really wanted to keep the surface hidden. Also for story reasons, it had to have a ring.
CINEFEX — Since we covered this episode in our earlier interview, let’s skip straight onto episode two, Doppelganger. This is where we first see the Core — the reactor control room of the spaceship ATROPA.
ELI SASICH — We couldn’t build an entire Core room, but we really wanted to have some scope to that environment. So we knew we were getting into a digital set. Our production designer, Alec Contestabile, built an elevated walkway that was maybe 60-70 feet long, with a little control room at the end. The rest was greenscreen.
RYAN WIEBER — I had a concept artist, Ian Galvin, explore the general shape of the space — we wanted it to be warm and steamy, kind of like an engine room, somewhere that wouldn’t be comfortable. It was important to me to have some big structural components, and this big drive shaft coming in overhead. We had some recurring elements to sell the scale, like catwalks and little cage lights. We turned that over to Tobias, and he kitbashed and embellished it.
ELI SASICH — I wanted to make sure there were railings. Unlike Star Wars, no-one’s falling over the edge of this!
CINEFEX — The camera is pretty mobile in some of those Core shots. Was it a big deal tracking your CG environment into the live-action plates?
RYAN WIEBER — I used SynthEyes for all of the 3D tracking that I could do myself, which was everything except the stuff in the Core. Those shots had free moves, with a lot of anamorphic lens distortion and subtle rack focusing, so I outsourced the tracking to Basilic Fly in India. I furnished them with set measurements, and they delivered back a totally rectified world space. I handed that off to Tobias and The Light Works and they built the set around it.
CINEFEX — In Doppelganger, there’s a sequence where Cole crosses on a ‘mag-tether’ cable from the ATROPA to her twin ship — which has just mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. How did you put those shots together?
ELI SASICH — I wanted to get as much of our actor in there as possible, so we built a little airlock door and shot a couple of days with Tony on wires in front of a greenscreen. The rest was CG with a digi-double.
CINEFEX — It’s a little reminiscent of the spacewalk between the Alexei Leonov and the Discovery in 2010, both in terms of the staging and the look of the ships.
ELI SASICH — I always wanted this be a homage to those films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. We tried to keep the CG camera moves very deliberate, to fit in with that style and also have continuity with how the rest of the show was shot. In the past, Tobias has done beautiful models of the Star Trek ships, so he’s really got paneling down! We just pushed it even further to really see every nut and bolt and give it that grungy look.
CINEFEX — The zero-gee action continues when Cole is inside the ATROPA’s sister ship, where the artificial gravity has failed. How did you float your actor through the set?
ELI SASICH — We put him on a parallelogram on a dolly. I was nervous, because there was this giant piece of machinery and these two stunt guys pushing it through those corridors. I kept looking at Ryan and saying, “You’re sure you can erase all this stuff?”
CINEFEX — Did you shoot clean plates to help with crew and rig removal?
RYAN WIEBER — Yeah. We cleared everything out and our director of photography, Greg Cotten, did his best to re-create the shot movement and rack focusing. With a little fudging here and time remapping there, we got all the pieces that we needed. We called them ‘dirty clean plates!’
CINEFEX — There are lots of props floating around that spaceship interior. Are those CG or practical?
RYAN WIEBER — Some were CG, but I also borrowed a few props and did an element shoot at home on a little turntable, trying to match lighting as best I could. Then, for the shot where Cole grabs the cup, we wanted it to be a real thing there and not have a CG handoff. I built a little multi-axis rotation rig with a magnet on the inside of the cup, and a motor and a stick with a magnet on the end.
CINEFEX — In episode three, Time, a holographic display on the bridge explains some of the mysteries behind what’s happened to the ATROPA and its crew. How long did it take to put that sequence together?
RYAN WIEBER — I did it all myself in a week! That was a big piece of trust on Eli’s part, because that scene was laying down some answers to the questions that were set up in the first episode, and also setting up the current predicament. So it was important that it made visual sense. I had ideas in my head but they were very difficult to articulate, so it was just like, “Let me do this, and trust me!”
CINEFEX — How did you create the holograms?
RYAN WIEBER — I did everything in that sequence in After Effects, because I wanted to use a plugin called Plexus which enabled me to do some nice triangulation stuff, with all these dots connecting together.
CINEFEX — Was it then just a case of comping the holograms into the live-action plates?
RYAN WIEBER — Well, the original intention was to build the whole projector box on set and just put the holograms in. Then we realized we needed to throw a lot of light onto the actors, so it ended up essentially just being a big white softbox, which we replaced. I built a CG projector out of prefabricated stuff using Element 3D in After Effects. There are two hero shots with full-frame hologram stuff, and it’s all completely CG — there’s nothing left from the original footage.
CINEFEX — Time also includes a blink-and-you-miss-it twinning shot. There’s a camera move that begins with Sanders, played by Chris Voss, lying sedated on a gurney, and ends on his doppelganger on the other side of the medbay. Are you going to reveal where the join is?
ELI SASICH — Maybe! To begin with, we really needed a shot to sell the two of them together. Originally we were going to do a boom up and over to the other bed, but just in terms of the geography of the set it couldn’t work that way. So we worked out a new version that was a much more complicated move, with an old-fashioned wipe in the middle of it.
RYAN WIEBER — Due credit to our actress playing Moira, Jeannie Bolét, who walks by in the shot. She was like a human motion control — she performed that perfectly every time. But she’s a misdirection as far as where you’d think the wipe would be, because when she exits the frame Chris is still over on the right. The seam is actually fully visible in the middle of the frame for a lot of the shot — we just tried to put it where you’re not really looking.
CINEFEX — Episode four is called Choices. It’s a bit of a change of pace, with nested flashbacks filling in Cole Freeman’s backstory on Earth, and also on a space station called Valley Forge — a little Silent Running reference that sci-fi fans are sure to pick up on.
ELI SASICH — That’s right. It was really important emotionally, and in terms of location, to get out of the ATROPA for a while and learn more about our characters. Having the flashbacks in the dead center of the series seemed like a nice little reprieve. I also got to work with legendary actor Michael Ironside, playing a one-off character for this episode name Captain Schreiber, who runs the space station.
CINEFEX — The space station looks like quite a big CG build.
ELI SASICH — That was a kitbash that Tobias did. I gave him reference of a ring-shape, and that’s what he came back with. For the hangar, I purchased a model from a guy on one of those online concept art forums, and Tobias tweaked it and put it into his Valley Forge model. That happened a lot — we’d find stuff and I’d contact the artist, because we just didn’t have time to build everything from scratch.
CINEFEX — Where did you shoot the Earth scenes?
ELI SASICH — Those were all shot in downtown Los Angeles, a few months after the main shoot. The diner was the Nickel Diner — they were very gracious to let us shoot in there for one day. BluFire added flying cars, and did a shot where we tilt down from all the overhead stuff to street level. The idea was to have a bit of a Blade Runner feel, but in broad daylight. We didn’t want to be too over the top. It’s like, “Okay, there’s flying traffic, let’s move on.”
CINEFEX — At one point, we see Cole interrogating a robot.
ELI SASICH — Actually, I rewrote the episode to add the robot sequence. Everyone thought I was crazy, because we were already deep into our effects stuff, but I really felt strongly that we needed it for world-building. BluFire stepped in with an off-the-shelf robot model that they tweaked a little bit. We had an actor do all the lines and movements, and BluFire matched that performance and added their robot to clean plates.
CINEFEX — Episode five, Ring, ends with a dramatic reveal that kind of tips the story on its head.
ELI SASICH — Yeah. Really, the entire story was originally developed around that reveal. When I came up with it I knew that this was one of those ‘Oh, shit!’ moments. We were really excited to try to pull that off.
CINEFEX — Without giving too much away, it revolves around a discovery made by Jensen, played by Ben Kliewer, during a trip in an escape pod. Did you build a practical pod exterior?
ELI SASICH — Yes, Alec Contestabile and his team built a little escape pod. We did a really big pull-back with a boom arm on a dolly, and then at some point there’s a handoff to a CG pod that Tobias built. We went back and forth a few times on that camera move — we wanted to go far enough to where you understand what you’re seeing, but still have the planetary ring disappear on both sides, as if it’s so big that you can’t get it in the frame.
CINEFEX — Episode six, Fate, is largely confined to the interior of the ATROPA. Was it tough making that small Laurel Canyon set look like multiple locations within the ship?
ELI SASICH — It was, and I’m super proud that the guys pulled it off — although, if you’re really savvy, you can spot where we are at all times. We really had just two corridors, so making that look like a whole spaceship was all about lighting, and changing up paint and colors. We also did a couple of hallway extensions using greenscreens to fool the audience and make them believe it’s a bigger space.
RYAN WIEBER — The giveaway is any time the hallway goes back farther than 30 feet. One example is a shot that opens on Moira in a CG hallway, and then you come around and you land into the physical set. It’s effective because you start thinking that you’re somewhere real, and then you actually end up somewhere real, and you didn’t spot where it changed. Seth Donald did those shots — he took photography of the set and built it out in 3D space in After Effects.
CINEFEX — ATROPA: The Series concludes with episode seven, Checkmate, which includes some grandiose explosions that play out in slow motion — another shift in tone and pace.
ELI SASICH — We really wanted the ending to have a poetic feel. Going with slow motion and using the song was an important part of that. Instead of being violent, it’s beautiful and sad.
CINEFEX — There’s also a dynamic shot of Cole’s ship, Morinda, where the camera starts close on the cockpit, then pulls back and around. It echoes a similar shot seen in the first episode — was that deliberate?
ELI SASICH — When we did that first pullback for the original short, we didn’t have the room to do it on the stage because of the way things were configured. So Tobias faked the move by putting Cole on a card and comping him into the cockpit. I said, “If we ever go back, I’m going to actually move that damn camera!” This time, we were able to dolly the camera away. All the perspective worked and I was really happy about that — it really sells that handoff to the full CG ship.
CINEFEX — How would you sum up the role of visual effects in the series as a whole? Does spectacle or subtlety win the day, or is it all about balance?
ELI SASICH — If you call too much attention to the visual effects, it has the opposite effect of what you want. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There were moments where we could blow it open a little bit, and there were moments where we definitely wanted to keep it within the overall scale and scope of the project. It’s all about restraint.
Watch a montage of motion graphics shots created by Ricardo Elliott II for ATROPA: The Series:
CINEFEX — Now that ATROPA: The Series is finished, does the end result match your original ambitions for the project?
ELI SASICH — It does. It’s been an amazing journey. It was fun to tell a short-form story that’s really no different than the cliffhanger serials from the ‘30s, taking what was originally going to be a feature and then finally telling it as a web series — which is kind of like being in the Wild West. Of course, there’s always things you would do differently, but we’re really proud of what we were able to do, and I’m happy to have finally told this story. I’m very excited to have it out there.
CINEFEX — Eli and Ryan, thanks for talking to us!
“ATROPA: The Series” photographs and video copyright © Corridor Productions 2018.