Lone off-world detective Cole Freeman stumbles on a giant vessel adrift in the depths of space. It’s the ATROPA, the very ship he’s been pursuing, but something is wrong. He shouldn’t have caught up with it for another 98 days. Waking the vessel’s crew from cryosleep only deepens the mystery, and when the ATROPA collides with something unimaginably strange, confusion turns to disbelief … and the real adventure begins.
This cliffhanger note marks the end of ATROPA, a sci-fi short directed by Eli Sasich. The suspenseful climax is deliberate, because the film is in fact merely a proof-of-concept for a feature film currently being pitched to studios.
In this Q&A for Cinefex, Sasich discusses the making of ATROPA, his first film project since festival favourite HENRi, in which a robot discovers there may be more to life than mere artificial intelligence.
The story really came out of a thought experiment: what would happen if you (literally) crashed into yourself in space? How might something like that be possible, and how would you deal with it? What would be the physical and emotional toll? It’s like a Twilight Zone episode – one of those classic sci-fi genre tropes – but the writer, Clay Tolbert, and I found a unique way into it.
Taking that as a jumping-off point, we then formed the story around our main characters, Cole and Moira. Strip everything else away, and it’s a love story: how two people rekindle a dying relationship under the most extreme circumstances – kind of like The Abyss. We have these big sweeping ideas about time and fate, but it’s the character story that really excites me.
You made the short film as a way of advancing the feature-length project. Why go to all that trouble?
As a director without a feature credit, I felt like I needed something to show I could effectively work with actors and small budgets. HENRi was like a master’s program for me – I learned a ton, and it took two years to complete – but it was a very different type of film. We only had a few actors, and I was dealing mostly with miniatures and effects. It was more precision craft and less spontaneous problem-solving. It’s all the same process, but the challenges were different. I really wanted to get back and shoot something more conventional again.
It’s risky – you have to make it look and feel like a professional feature film, but you have a fraction of the time and money. Being able to show an executive or financier what you are talking about is a huge advantage, as long as it lives up to expectations. Luckily, we had an awesome crew who stepped up to the challenge, and we were able to make something that portrayed the tone and mood I was going for.
Can you tell us anything more about the feature?
I can say that the film explores the ideas of fate and free will, actions and consequences. That’s one of the things I love about science fiction – the ability to explore big philosophical ideas in an organic way.
What stage are you at with the feature development?
We are actively pitching the feature right now – I’m really excited to say that we are in discussions with Pukeko Pictures to develop and produce it. Pukeko Pictures is a sister company to Weta Workshop; it was founded in 2008 by Sir Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger, and Martin Baynton. I couldn’t be more excited by the possibility of collaborating with such an amazingly talented and creative team.
What budget and timescale did you work to for the short film?
There was very little money for the short. We had three weeks of pre-production, we shot it in two days, and finished the entire film for right around $10,000. Most of that money came from HENRi sales, which I’m very thankful for.
During the production of the ATROPA short, did you apply any lessons you’d learned while making HENRi?
You learn from every project – sometimes the hard way. Keeping calm, trusting my intuition, and adapting to unexpected problems were important lessons from HENRi that will stick with me for the rest of my career. In a more technical realm, the post-production effects workflow was something I really got a good handle on with HENRi, and that helped immensely when it came time to finish ATROPA quickly.
Let’s talk about the design of the film. Who did the concept art?
We had eight or nine pieces of concept art done by artists from around the world. Ioan Dumitrescu worked mostly on the designs for the ATROPA and Cole’s ship, the Morinda. Mike Sebalj and Roger Adams did some really nice character and environment designs for us. We also had storyboards done for all our exterior space sequences – artist Jean Claude De La Ronde provided those.
Did you use any specific design cues for the two spaceships?
For the Morinda, I had a vague idea of the shape I was after. The articulated dual engines or nacelles were a concept I had for a different type of propulsion/steering mechanism. I thought it would be a unique and intuitive way to depict roll and pitch. That was really born out of the idea that there is no “up” or “down” in space. When the Morinda approaches the ATROPA, it’s not on the same plane, meaning Cole has to reorient his ship to the proper course. I really wanted to depict that, because it seems that every time I see an approach sequence in sci-fi, the two vessels are always perfectly aligned with each other.
The ATROPA was more difficult. We explored many different shapes and sizes – some were pretty out there in terms of design. Ultimately, it came down to finding something that fit within our world. We needed the ATROPA to quickly read as a large industrial ship to the audience. Obviously we took some design cues from the Sulaco from Aliens – but that bold, elongated shape seemed to read the best in the short amount of screen time.
You shot the film on the standing spaceship set at Laurel Canyon Stages in LA. Why did you choose that particular location?
I had visited the Laurel Canyon stages years earlier as a possible location for HENRi, long before we decided to use quarter-scale miniatures. I had always wanted to shoot there – it has that wonderfully gritty and grimy look that I love. It also perfectly invokes ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi, which was the ideal world for ATROPA.
Did you adapt the Laurel Canyon set to give it your own personal stamp?
That set has been used in thousands of projects, so it’s pretty easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. Since we couldn’t change the set in any way, other than some rearranging of props, it was really important to use lighting and shot composition to make the space our own. Our director of photography, Greg Cotten, did an amazing job of capturing the set in a different way than it’s usually shot.
For example, we made the conscious choice not to light from the ceiling grates, which creates amazing texture and patterns, but it’s also how everyone seems to light that set. We weren’t afraid of letting things fall off into darkness either – it created mystery and tension and hid some of the less camera-friendly elements of the space.
In terms of shot composition, we tried to keep things wide and cinematic wherever possible, and we motivated camera moves when we could, to keep things interesting. Specific original set pieces were also built and utilised to give us our own unique identity.
Tell us about some of the set pieces you brought in.
Our production designer, Alec Contestabile, designed and built the hologram board in Cole’s ship, the cryosleep pods, and the table in the mess hall, matching the look and feel of what already existed at Laurel Canyon. The hologram board was a wooden box with a glossy tabletop, and practical LED lights hidden in the inner lip. The LEDs helped sell the effect of the chessboard by providing interactive lighting on Cole’s face.
The cryosleep pods were made out of foam-core board, cardboard, and various pieces of junk – tubes and wiring – all attached to a wooden frame. They only weighed about 15 pounds, so one crewmember could move them. The table in the mess hall was fashioned by bolting two plastic pallets together and covering them with scrap pieces of Plexiglass.
We lit the table practically from the inside. Alec carefully placed six iPads on a shot-by-shot basis, which we used to loop tech graphics. It was nice to get some in-camera data screens, and it gave the actors something to look at and interact with. Alec worked wonders with the production design, all with essentially no money. He used junk and whatever odds and ends we could find lying around to create a completely believable world.
The performances are uniformly calm and measured. Did the cast get to read the whole feature script before working on the short, to help them build their characters?
It was important to me that everything seemed fairly routine to these characters, until the big reveal at the end – which is certainly not routine. Because the short had to set so many things up, it’s a heavily truncated version of the actual first act of the script. The dialogue had to get more information across, and things certainly happen faster. I did speak with each actor about the journey their character takes in the feature, but they never read the full script. The cast was fantastic, and they were great to work with. We had to shoot fast, down and dirty, and they were always prepared and willing to do so.
What was the workflow for the visual effects?
Tobias Richter and his team at The Light Works did all the exterior spaceship effects. After working with Jean Claude to storyboard the space sequences, we handed those boards off to Tobias and his team. They would return with low-resolution animatics of each shot, which I would then give notes on. The Light Works is located in Germany, so all of post was coordinated via email and Skype. It was a truly seamless process, and they did an amazing job for us.
For the few shots that included live action elements – like the pull-back from Cole’s ship – we coordinated ahead of time, providing photo reference and measurements. In terms of direction, I provided examples of various shots I liked. I would reference lighting and compositing elements from different films, and we would work off of those ideas. Interestingly enough, the finished shots wouldn’t feel right until we added imperfections – slight camera shake, lens distortion, grain and tasteful flares.
That pull-back shot from the Morinda is quite complex. How did you put it together?
It was a difficult shot for several reasons. First and foremost, we didn’t have the space to dolly back from the cockpit set, let alone make the turn around the side. So we shot the plate of Cole in the cockpit as a wide lock-off. Tobias and his team then projected that live action footage onto a 2D card within a low-poly CG cockpit set which they had modelled.
The pull-back was done in the computer, but since we didn’t have a perspective shift on our live-action footage, wrapping around the side of the ship posed many challenges. We ended up doing a hand-off to a CG double of Cole, using the cockpit window strut as a natural wipe once we reached about a 45-degree angle. The effect works fairly seamlessly, and was a really crafty way to fake a very complicated move.
How did you track the 3D chessboard graphics into the live-action plate?
Our VFX supervisor, Ryan Wieber, did the 3D chessboard and proximity alert display, as well as all of our compositing. He was able to track and create these completely believable shots without greenscreen – because there wasn’t enough room to light the screen – and usually without any tracking markers.
The chessboard hologram was an incredible effect. We had a set piece with built-in practical lighting, but the LEDs were visible in many shots, and quite distracting. Ryan ended up replacing the top of the chessboard in every shot, so the lights were covered. He then built the hologram projection in Adobe AfterEffects, utilising Element 3D for the chess pieces, together with layer upon layer of compositing tricks. The opening shot, where we pull out of the holographic chess piece, was a completely digital camera move up until the tilt-up to Cole.
For the cockpit shots, Ryan rotoscoped Cole and added in glass and stars. He has an incredible eye, and an amazing design sense – he also created all of our display graphics and screens. Ryan was instrumental in helping create a believable sci-fi world – I call him the magician!
The music has an grand, epic quality. Was that a deliberate creative choice?
I love film music – especially big orchestral scores. I think we’ve lost a bit of the art of film scoring today. Music has become filler noise, and the use of strong themes has strangely gone out of style. Our composer, Kevin Riepl – who also scored HENRi – feels the same way. Kevin and I share a passion for the same types of film scores, as well as the philosophy that themes should develop just like characters over the course of a story.
We certainly didn’t have the budget to record a live orchestra for ATROPA, but I really wanted that epic feel. Fortunately (and somewhat ironically), Kevin did the score for the videogame Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was live orchestra. We had access to all the stems from that recording session, so he rearranged and remixed them, and added some electronic elements to create something new. The music is barely recognisable from the game, and it gave us the big, live, cinematic sound I was looking for. It’s another example of working within low-budget constraints and still finding ways to get what you want creatively. A bit of Aliens obviously snuck through, which is fine with me – it’s one of my favourite movies, and certainly an inspiration.
The film contains a reference to the Valley Forge, a cap that might have been worn by a member of the Nostromo’s crew … what other sci-fi in-jokes did you put in there?
Good eyes catching those Easter eggs! I like adding little in-jokes wherever possible. It’s a fun way to both acknowledge the projects that inspired you, and add little hidden elements for yourself and your friends. Most will never be seen, but there are a few more. For example, the hand-held case-file used by Cole displays “VL-426”, which is a reference to the planet “LV-426” from Alien and Aliens. In fact, all the crew ID numbers on the case-file bio pages are the original ID numbers of the Nostromo crew from Alien.
You mentioned Valley Forge – Cole’s last name, Freeman, also comes from Silent Running, in reference to the main character, Freeman Lowell, played by Bruce Dern. The logo for the ATROPA is actually the same logo for the Pythagoras ship from HENRi, only turned upside down with different colours. The sound of the Morinda’s engines was inspired by the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Our sound designer, Michael Ault, created his own take on that classic sound by pitch-shifting elephant trumpets.
As well as opening the film, the chess game also appears during the end credits. Is that significant?
Chess is a battle of wits and a game of strategy; I liked the symbolism. I also wanted to foreshadow the ending in a subtle visual way: the chessboard is an exact mirror image of itself with the two sets of opposing pieces. The idea that Cole will be squaring off against himself becomes literal by the end of the short.
How do you feel about the short, now that you’re pitching the feature?
ATROPA was made possible by a very passionate and hardworking crew. The end result has definitely opened doors for us, and the response to the release online was overwhelming. We hope we can make the feature – the story goes to some really thought-provoking and unexpected places.
Do you have any other projects in development?
I have a few other projects at varying stages. I’m working with another writer on a really fun action/adventure film, which follows the oddball friendship of a couple of historical figures. It has the tone of Ghostbusters and Sherlock Holmes, with some steampunk design sense thrown in for good measure. It would be an absolute blast. I’ve also written a smaller indie film that deals with another historical figure, and a little-known fact about his death. It’s a passion-project for me, and something I’ve been kicking around for years. I’m interested in strong character stories, regardless of genre, time period, or setting.
ATROPA photographs and video copyright © Corridor Productions 2015.