Published on: 09 February 2015 in Longform
Pulsar: directing a sci-fi short
Reading time: 13 minutes and 15 seconds
Directors UK member Aurora Fearnley is currently in post-production on her latest film Pulsar, a sci-fi short starring Interstellar’s David Gyasi. Aurora writes for us about the technical challenges of making a film heavily reliant on visual effects:
“I could see it in my head, I could talk confidently about my characters and story world, but could I make this epic sci-fi space story on the budget I had? Only one way to find out”
For the fourth year in a row I was a finalist pitching for a pot of £25,000 to make my short film Pulsar, a futuristic adaption of the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. The Pitch asks filmmakers to use any character, theme or story from the Bible as original source material to tell a modern story - much like adapting Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew into 10 Things I Hate About You.
I’d been a runner-up in previous years but despite this I wasn't confident. This attempt, I had decided, would be my last. The Pitch is the X Factor of funding competitions: the first round is a video pitch with online voting which slashes hundreds of entries down to 20; following that there's a private judging panel. The top ten are invited to a story development boot camp in the Lake District before the big Pinewood Pitch a month later.
At Pinewood Studios I spent two agonising days pitching inside a mahogany boardroom with five incredible industry peers. The ten are knocked down to three and these finalists battle it out on the second day. It’s gruelling and exhausting, so I went in with nothing to prove and no expectations. On this final attempt I decided I was going to pitch the project I wanted to make the most, but knew no one would go for. It was just too ambitious.
To my shock and amazement I won.
While I was being congratulated for winning I was already contemplating the enormity of this project. Relief and elation were accompanied by a shiver of nerves. Finally I get to make the film I pitched! I could see it in my head, I could talk confidently about my characters and story world, but could I make this epic sci-fi space story on the budget I had? Only one way to find out.
There were three specific challenges I faced with Pulsar:
Story: Our story focus was on tolerance, racism and second chances; themes just as current and relatable today. I would be working with co-writer Neville Pierce and The Pitch producers at Reel Issues Films on adapting the core Biblical themes of this well-known fable into short form.
Locations: Our shoot dates were moved from summer to winter, which led to an exterior day in late December on the Yorkshire Moors. Producers Luke Walton and Jackie Sheppard secured two weeks of studio space at North Light Film Studios in Huddersfield, and here we built a complex spaceship that incorporated my ideas of deep sea/deep space, mining rigs and prison.
VFX and SFX: I wanted to capture our action sequences ‘in camera’, looking for these elements to be enhanced and built on with VFX. Balancing our budget between on-set design and post production would be a big challenge.
Making a film that relied so heavily on VFX took more planning than any of my previous dramatic shorts. I found that the freedom of creating environments in a computer added huge restrictions to what I intended to shoot on-set. I was moving into new territory and knew I needed a top tier consultant to help me realise such a visually ambitious story. Luckily Directors UK had offered tickets for members to attend the Creative Week conferences and it was there that I met Paddy Eason from Nvisible.
Paddy is a VFX Supervisor with 20 years’ experience and a credit list of over 70 titles - and he was open and encouraging to fresh filmmakers to boot. I was incredibly lucky that Paddy took an interest in the project and he generously gave detailed advice on potential pitfalls after reading the script. This meant that I was able to make adjustments to the script before shooting that would cut the length of many VFX shots and save us money in post without compromising dramatic scenes.
Paddy pointed out a common nightmare scenario for many freelance artists about getting involved with something because it might be fun, only to see the number of shots, their complexity, and the number of notes spiral because there's no normal financial or commercial discipline on the job. We were going to need not just artists but a VFX edit producer.
“At times it was the opposite of saying let’s fix it in post“At times it was the opposite of saying ‘let’s fix it in post’”
Abigail Scollay, a talented Senior Stereographic Compositor was looking specifically to further her on-set VFX Supervisor experience, and our challenging project was the perfect fit. She brought to the film her experience and confidence having worked on various Marvel films (The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America). Abigail broke the script down into the different components where specialist individuals would be needed. This is where I learnt the major differences between compositors, 3D modellers, particle creators and rotoscope artists. At this point it became clear we were going to need a team.
To manage a team remotely Abigail suggested we use Shotgun, a cloud-based toolset for film, TV and game development pipelines. Once we locked our edit, Abigail could start allocating out the shots to the various artists and track this progress online, allowing us all to review versions and feedback in real time.
Discussions at the early script stage made it evidently clear how closely VFX would need to work with us in order not to overload the department. For the duration of the five-day shoot both VFX Supervisor Abigail and 3D Artist Steve Askey were with us on-set. When we were shooting scenes without any VFX the artists used the ALEXA raw footage to start mocking up designs. Having both dailies and mock-ups to view in the evening was great; the HODs could see the environment coming together and make adaptions to the next days shoot.
At times it was the opposite of saying “let’s fix it in post”, with Abigail and Steve suggesting new shots, taking our visual concepts further as they knew how far their own abilities could be pushed. I was mindful of the cost implications and made notes about ‘wishlist’ shots to be considered only after our priority ones were complete.
“Their feedback helped me realise that import details in my head were not being conveyed through character action”
The first obstacle was creating the projected images from the central control panel on our spaceship. Every time an actor crossed in front or behind this large object I was giving our VFX team a headache. They would have to mask around the actor frame by frame. A process known as ‘roto’, involving hand drawing around actors and objects that pass in front of the effects in order to blend them into the shot.
I wanted to avoid dictating the actors’ movement - giving them freedom to react in the space to one another - but I also needed to get an idea of how many shots we would be creating. The film wasn’t cast at this point but I called on a team of excellent actors who I'd worked with before at Little Northern Light who were available to workshop the scene with me.
At a hired studio, Production Designer Belle Mundi mapped out the exact spaceship interior with floor tape. Joining us was our DOP Phil Wood who wanted to watch the action with a mind on coverage and angles. Having both the HODs present for the day's workshop was invaluable, as we all changed our ideas of the room's size, ceiling height and furniture placement based on the run through. Phil and I later talked through grip equipment, potential angles and lenses.
From a script point of view I was challenged throughout the day with insightful and probing questions from the actors. They were reading the story for the first time and elements that were obvious in previous drafts had since been dropped. Their feedback helped me realise that import details in my head were not being conveyed through character action.
I also changed the script to turn the control panel off at a certain stage of the action, limiting our VFX shots. This gave the actors full freedom of movement for the majority of a very tense scene and gave Phil the option to go handheld. Before this point, blocking was choreographed and the camera head locked off with movement restricted to tracking with background VFX markers. We also had clear instructions for the projected holograms; this was to cue them with lighting changes on set, giving our actors as much as possible to react to.
“You’re a female director making a film where all the crew of your ship are women, what are you trying to say?” My answer was that, “no-one would have asked that question of a male director shooting a film with only male actors”
After this rehearsal I felt confident to start storyboarding and with the expert help of Andrew Lamb we produced some very detailed boards.
I did consider using pre-vis for Pulsar. I tried using a free software demo but I found it time-consuming and frustrating. It felt like another digital (necessity) tying me to my computer - which I hate. It was very solitary and I was really slow at the new program. I’ve heard that some blockbusters aren’t green-lit now until the entire film has been created and signed off in pre-vis. I’ve seen how useful the technology can be for sci-fi films such as The Maze Runner, so before I start my next sci-fi project I will talk to Paddy Eason again about having a look at Nvisble’s software and employing a pre-vis artist.
The film's main action takes place on The ORKA, a deep space asteroid mining vessel crewed by hardened female ex-convicts. There are two types of technology in Pulsar: the mining ship’s older functional tech and The Council’s advanced and weaponised technology. However, both had to feel more advanced than our own while still being recognisable and relatable.
We gave each technology a different colour palette, design shape and wave pattern. This helped to differentiate them from one another and place a level of status on the characters using that technology. I kept everyone on the same visual page with a constant stream of image references, mood videos and Pinterest boards. Sometimes even music playlists too.
I had decided against filming miniature model spacecrafts and instead opted for all our exterior space scenes to be fully computer generated. Steve Askey tackled some of our biggest challenges on Pulsar as the 3D Artist taking the lead on the exterior shots of the ships - modelling the ship in 3D and adding textures and lighting before animating all CG scenes.
Steve worked closely with Belle Mundi on the ships’ design. Surface areas were intricately mapped out before going into production; this was important for on-set lighting and sound as the ship is under increasing duress and we needed the interior rooms to reflect the exterior bombardment. The geography of rooms related to how closely affected the lighting sources and sound design would be for that room. For example, would the actors need to shout over engines in a given part of the ship?
We’d moved the shoot dates back twice as both Belle and Phil, key HODs, kept on getting booked for feature films together. It made sense to wait for them rather than push ahead and replace two such integral members of the team. The huge benefit of using them came from the crew they brought with them; by the time we came to shoot Pulsar, our team had been working together throughout the year on various projects. It was thanks to Line Producer Rob Speranza, who brought everyone together, that we managed to secure such a positive crew of professionals the week before Christmas.
Production pushed me hard to lose the outdoor location that Belle had found, and shoot a green screen alien landscape instead. They had good reason to do so, as our incredible black stone location was up a hill with no vehicle access. I knew it would be cold for the actors and crew, and with the weather being so changeable it was an unpopular and risky decision too. However, I reasoned it would be a short day with light fading at 3pm and by cutting our shot list and taking minimal equipment I could make it as smooth and quick as possible.
“I love being on-set, in the belly of organised chaos”
Part of my role in this process was to listen to good advice and understand our limitations, but underlining that I had to make decisions based on the integrity of the story and keep consistent to my original vision. So up the hill we went. It was bloody freezing but absolutely worth it.
I love being on-set, in the belly of organised chaos. On every shoot day we had a VFX component or a SFX stunt. What made these potentially challenging elements run smoothly was the masterful leadership of 1st AD Abbe Robinson. On this shoot I had to make huge compromises on a daily basis, but that was always counterbalanced by the alchemy of these actors creating completely unimagined moments together.
We also didn’t lose spontaneity, which was something I was afraid of. At one point we had to move an entire scene into a different room from where we’d written it in the script, but the confined shape and space of the alternative room heightened the performances, and that scene is now one of my favourites dramatically.
It felt quite different wrapping on this film to other shorts, knowing that a VFX film is only 50% shot and the rest of the film still needed to be created inside a computer. Pulsar has a June deadline with an LA premiere screening so I’m pacing myself and enjoying the edit with Donny Boocock.
I was inspired to write this article after seeing the figure that 0% of recent sci-fi TV in the UK had been directed by women. This was highlighted on set when a reporter asked me, “You’re a female director making a film where all the crew of your ship are women, what are you trying to say?” My answer was that, “no-one would have asked that question of a male director shooting a film with only male actors”.