While recent planet-wide dust storms raged on Mars, a small sci-fi movie unspooled 33.9 million miles away, in a handful of theatres across the United States. 2036 Origin Unknown, released by Gravitas Ventures June 6, is an indie sci-fi thriller set mostly in an underground bunker on the Red Planet where a lone U.S. Planetary Corp operative Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson (Katee Sackhoff) and her artificial intelligence system, ARTi (Steven Cree), probe the mysteries of a giant cube unearthed in a Martian dune sea.
The film marked the sophomore feature from young British filmmaker and former visual effects artist, Hasraf Dulull, whose directorial debut The Beyond featured in an earlier Cinefex Blog a scant six months ago. Cinefex caught up with the prolific Dulull, who we learned one addresses as HaZ.
CINEFEX: Good evening, HaZ. We previously spoke with you about your early career in visual effects. We’re curious, where did you come from before that, and what were the influences that led you to become such a prolific filmmaker?
HAZ: I was born and raised, and went to school and university in London. I am the eldest of three boys, raised by my lovely parents who are from Mauritius. My dad loved renting VHS sci-fi and horror films from the library and video store, so he is to blame for all my early age film binges – I remember watching Silent Running, Blade Runner and Alien and being just mesmerized by the world of sci-fi. At the time, I had no idea what my career path would be, I just knew I wanted to do make stuff like that, where I could let my imagination run wild.
I got into visual effects and CGI at an early age, as a teenager, and I was self-trained. Instead of going out to play with my friends, I would hack away on my Atari ST, creating Basic-coded graphics, and then I got enough money to buy a PC and learnt 3D Max R4 and Lightwave. I’ve wanted to make films since the age of 12, but I didn’t go to film school. Instead, around 1998 I started working in video games creating cinematics, or ‘FMV’s, full motion videos, as they used to be called. I then moved into VFX and rode that career for over 10 years, starting as a compositor and then working my way up to becoming VFX supervisor and then VFX producing.
CINEFEX: What gave you the idea for Origin Unknown?
HAZ: Around 2014, I was in a supermarket queuing up to pay for my groceries. I remember thinking, where are all the cashiers? I missed having small-talk with the cashiers as I was scanning and packing my groceries – instead, we now have self-service systems, with only one or two staff on stand-by. That’s when I thought, ‘Wow! What if this was the future of space exploration, a way to afford more missions by minimizing cost and human error?
I wrote the idea as a treatment, and a lot of people told me not to set the film on Mars, as many Mars films were flopping at the box office – but I wrote it the way I wanted, just to get it out of my system and shelved it. A year and a bit later, I was working as a VFX producer on various TV shows, a colleague introduced me to Anis Shlewet and James T. Ryan, producers at Parkgate Entertainment, and I was pitching them various projects and then this came up during our ‘what if?’ conversation. They were both heavily into grounded sci-fi, and it was a great meeting outcome, which got the ball rolling. It also helped that Ridley Scott’s film The Martian, had just come out around that time and it was a hit, so Mars was back in!
Anis and James hired a writer Gary Hall to develop the Pathfinder script further. It was great to collaborate with another writer as we are both self-proclaimed nerds who love space exploration while keeping the story grounded.
CINEFEX: How did you manage to create Origin Unknown just six months after the release of The Beyond?
HAZ: Both Origin Unknown and The Beyond happened pretty close to each other, but not simultaneously. For example, we shot tons of second unit for Origin before I started shooting Beyond, and then there was a break on Origin while we went through casting and financing, and in that time, I shot The Beyond. By the time I finished Beyond, we were already moving into prep to shoot Origin. It was interesting, I spent years making short films and trying to get a feature film made, and then the two projects happened back to back. Either I am every lucky, or I am cursed. I prefer to think I was very lucky, and I was also grateful to be doing what I love, even if it meant lots of caffeine and late nights.
CINEFEX: How did your experience with visual effects disciplines influence story development and production plans?
HAZ: During script development, I generated tons of previz and visual material to help Gary Hall see what I had in my mind as he was writing. Sometimes, I created visuals to test what we could achieve on our budget. If our ideas were too ambitious, I’d tell Gary to modify scenes to help our approach production-wise. So, it was great to be involved in the script stage to help shape production as opposed to writing a script and then having to make sacrifices later, due to budget and schedule constraints.
While doing previz, I worked closely with production designer Jon Bunker and cinematographer Adam Sculthorp to discuss mood and tone, and types of lens we wanted to capture certain moments. Jon Bunker provided me with FBX – Autodesk Filmbox – files of the set he designed. I moved those around in Maya to figure out my shots. It was a very tight collaboration to ensure we were all on the same page, spending the budget correctly and not building stuff which wouldn’t get seen. Before we cast the film, I used our second unit material of Martian landscapes and space scenes and cut together a sizzle reel which the producers used to raise more financing.
CINEFEX: How did you cast Katee Sackhoff – who, of course, is a sci-fi genre star after playing Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica?
HAZ: From what I know, our producers and sales company sent Katee’s agent the script. She loved the complexity and layering of the story, but she had a million questions. I spent months getting to know her on Skype, discussing plot and character and coming up with more ideas. We ended up reshaping the script in a very collaborative way, and Katee influenced so much about Mack’s character, pushing us to take it further, both during script development and shooting.
Katee shares my love for improv. That was a challenge for my lovely script supervisor, Hannah Kenneally Muir, tracking all the changes on set, but it was important for the shoot that we all worked in synchronicity in a creative fun process, finding special golden moments, which you find in the moment and feel it on the day.
The idea of Mack using a stress ball – shaped like planet Earth – was something Katee came up with during blocking, and if you watch the film closely you will realize the ball actually has a strong metaphor with the main plot of the film.
CINEFEX: Mack spends most of her screen-time in one room, USPC HQ on Mars – how did Jon Bunker design that set?
HAZ: Jon is a very humble and experienced guy, who has been doing this since the 1980s, but also worked as a concept artist on films such as Gravity.
I created a look-book containing lots of images of NASA mission control rooms; Jon contributed ideas on how to take that technology into the future, while keeping it grounded. Jon was very invested in my pitch that the location should feel like a character in the film, and he made the set as spacious as possible, with just the right amount of tech to make it feel functional, while ensuring all the panels lit up as light sources for cinematography.
We had a very tight shooting schedule of 11 days, so that contributed to the idea of building a full 360-degree set, with functional buttons and controllers. It was important for Mack to be able to interact with objects in the room to keep it feeling natural. We also created a lot of screen graphics in preproduction. Jon and his team had those printed onto the screen surfaces, which we animated later animated with blinking lights and graphics, so it all felt authentic to Katee while she was on set, rather than asking her to stare at blank screens.
CINEFEX: Mack’s robotic co-star, ARTi, is an ornery but very non-athropomorphic fellow –a ball on a stick – how did you create his interactions with Katee on set?
HAZ: I wanted ARTi’s design to be simple, with the slickness of Apple products, but I also wanted to him to have enough articulation in his movements to create a character, like the robot Max in Flight of the Navigator.
We had a real-scale ARTi head built for the close-ups where Mack would be interacting with ARTi physically. But for the main bulk of his scenes, ARTi was created digitally by the talented team at Territory Studio. Visual effects supervisor Paddy Eason worked with us on set and at Territory, designing and animating the character. And Territory animator Ashley Pay did an incredible one-man job of blocking, animating, shading, lighting and rendering ARTi shots. Compositing supervisor Caroline Pires then led the Territory team to integrate ARTi into footage in Nuke. Paddy Eason was also very hands-on with shot creation, too. When we needed additional closeups of ARTi, Paddy and his team generated new back-plates by projecting Canon 5D stills of the set onto simple geometry, and then they animated ARTi with little camera moves. All the time we were shooting, Paddy and his on-set VFX assistant Tizzy Gregory were snapping away with the 5D and they placed GoPros in hidden locations to grab witness camera footage to help with animation.
CINEFEX: How did you work with ARTi’s voice artist, Steven Cree, in creating the dynamic between Mack and ARTi?
HAZ: ARTi’s voice was one of hardest things to get right. On set, a stand-in actor, Jud Charlton, provided Katee with voice interactions. Jud’s voice also helped the animators, and I worked with editor Jeremy Gibbs to sometimes come up with more ARTi moments to help make the robot/human relationship feel more intimate.
We cast Steven Cree during postproduction. He never got to work with Katee directly. He worked with the animated shots – often works in progress – and he fell in love with ARTi. Steven approached the character the same as he would approach a human character, and I think that allowed the audience to empathize with ARTi. Like Katee, Steven sometimes came up with additional lines on the spur of the moment, which also helped ARTi feel relatable and real. Our sound designers, Richard Lewis and Steven Parker at Pindrop in London, then added subtle effects to make ARTi’s voice feel a little processed but not computerized. The idea was, when ARTi speaks, the room is speaking. And so, the guys at Pindrop carefully mixed the voice to resonate with the room acoustically.
CINEFEX: What went into your spaceship designs, and how did you decide on creating miniature elements?
HAZ: I knew I didn’t want to go the route of building CG spaceships, mainly because I had done that in most of my VFX career. Instead, I wanted to go back to how films like 2001 and Alien were made – using practical models where you can feel the texture as light bounced off the ships.
We brought on the amazing team from The Model Unit at Ealing Studios, in London. Mike Tucker and his team built the orbiter ship, the lander probe, the rover, the cube and the Mars landscapes. I began by creating CG geometry versions of those objects and then sent the Maya files to Mike and his team to work from, both as reference and for 3D printing components. The amount of craftsmanship, attention to detail and passion that went into building those objects was so inspiring and helped the shots look real.
During our second unit shoot, the Model Unit team added more textures to the spacecraft as Adam Sculthorp and his team lit the scenes against a black backdrop. We wanted to emulate the lighting of NASA footage. Adam mounted lights to a motion control arm and moved those to create the sense that the spaceship was moving as shadows slid across the surface. We later added stars to create depth, as well as the planet Mars and effects of rocket boosters igniting.
CINEFEX: How did you create your Martian surface scenes?
HAZ: Mars was a hybrid of landscape model work created by the Model Unit, taken further in VFX using digital set extensions. For most of our rover shots, we used Model Unit’s practical rover, built and operated via remote control, filmed on the real landscape. We extended into the distance stuff. We used a CG rover for the aerial shots and wide vistas of it entering the dust storm. During second unit, we also shot elements of dirt, smoke and atmosphere at various speeds on black for use later in compositing. We used imagery from NASA’s Curiosity rover to help with the digital set extensions.
The Martian storms were mainly digital, rendered out of Houdini by effects artist Aleksandr Uusmees. I then took those into After Effects for compositing and I integrated lighting strikes, stock footage of retimed clouds and additional Houdini simulations along with some keyframe warping effects.
CINEFEX: How did you divide the work among your visual effects team?
HAZ: Territory Studios and Paddy Eason handled all the scenes involving ARTi, our hologram scene and our big end sequence. Andrew Popplestone and his team at Territory also created our opening titles, and visuals for ARTi’s points of view.
Filmmore VFX and visual effects supervisor Hans Van Helden, in Amsterdam, handled wireframe animated renders of the rover in action and a few full CG shots involving the rover and parachute lander.
Squint VFX and visual effects supervisor Jonathan Harris handled a few shots involving the CG cube on a terrestrial ice shelf, as well the Martian One crash footage.
I supervised a small team at my own company, HaZ VFX, handling all the heads-up displays and screen graphics for playback, previs, the launch of the probe, the orbiter space station, all the Mars storm scenes, the Cube scenes and several key sequences. A ton of shots cropped up during editorial that we didn’t have additional budget to award to a facility, so we handled a lot of those shots ourselves.
CINEFEX: Without giving too much away, your third act gets into some narrative pyrotechnics as Mack confronts the mystery of the cube on Mars – how did you design and execute those sequences? There are some pretty big ideas there, quite ambitious for an indie sci-fi film.
HAZ: We always knew the film needed a big twist, ramping up in scale and cranking up the imaginative sci-fi content toward the end. I was inspired by films like 2001, Jacob’s Ladder and Contact, where the last act blows your mind – we knew that was what was going to make the film more memorable, and this meant that sequence needed to be less exposition-based and more visual-narrative based.
We didn’t have the budget to execute the sequence the typical CG way, so we relied on the amazing compositing team at Territory who had pushed Nuke to its extremes with particle systems and high dynamic range lighting on some epic shots, to make them feel grand in scale and concept. The design of those scenes took shape during postproduction. As we were editing, I was working closely with Andrew Popplestone on our title sequence. Andrew and his team and his team tend to work in a very design + story approach, and they had developed so much high resolution imagery for the titles, we decided to incorporate some of that into our special ending scene. This wasn’t in the script – so, again, this was one of our many ‘think out of the box’ approaches that we used in the making of this film.
I built a sequence that involved 3D renders of the cube and cosmic imagery, using assets generated from the title sequence. Andrew supplied me with large 6K textures. Visual effects artist Lee Medcalf, a frequent collaborator of mine, then built the cube using planes textured with those renders, and then animated the camera and lit it all in After Effects. He supplied me with the After Effects file and I added additional animation and effects. We used cosmic visual treatments seen in the opening title sequence, so the film opened and ended with this style.
There were really no rules when it came to the last act of the film. I felt the more mind-bending it became visually, and the more depth and layers we had in those shots the better, to make those scenes feel complex and large. This would not have been possible, or affordable, on a typical indie-scale film. And it was all result of the collaboration between myself, Andrew Popplestone, Paddy Eason and their teams.
- Haz Film
- Territory Studio
- The Model Unit
- Filmmore VFX
- Squint VFX
- 2036 Origin Unknown iTunes
- The Beyond Cinefex Blog
2036 Origin Unknown is currently on limited theatrical release in the U.S., and is now available on digital streaming platforms. The film will have its U.K. release, on digital, Blu-ray, and DVD formats, August 13.
Images copyright 2018 © by HaZFilm.