Film-makers doing a sci-fi space flick - without using any computer-generated effects
By Ben Coxworth
December 19, 2011
When you think about the best-loved movies depicting space travel, what names come to mind? Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek - The Motion Picture, Silent Running, Battlestar Galactica? Interestingly enough, all of those enduring films were made decades ago, and utilized hand-built model spaceships for their space-flight sequences. Today, even low-budget productions usually use CGI (computer-generated imagery) for the same purpose - it's logistically much easier to create and "film" a virtual spaceship on a computer, than it is to build, light and shoot an actual model. Nonetheless, that second approach is exactly what New York film-makers Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier are taking with their short film, C.
Taking its name from the symbol for the speed of light, C is the story of "an idealistic flight officer" who hijacks a spaceship in the midst of an interplanetary cold war, and tries to leave our solar system in search of other habitable planets. Perhaps more like a previous generation of science fiction films, it isn't about the evils of technology, but instead looks at it as a way of creating a better future. It's a timeless concept, so it only makes sense that the film should have a timeless look.
"I just love the old sci-fi films from the 60s, 70s and 80s, there's an enthusiasm for exploration and outer space that I want to try and tap into with this film" Van Gorder told us. "So I hope that this manner of effects photography will remind audiences of these earlier films and bring that same feeling of excitement."
The model of the film's main spaceship was assembled from a mishmash of pieces of toys and store-bought model kits. It's a practice known as kit-bashing, which was even used by the "big boys" in films like Battlestar Galactica. The exterior of the ship was then spray-painted, while battery-powered LED bulbs were wired in to represent running lights and engine glow.
In at least one case, extra points of light were added by aiming off-camera laser pointers at the model. The lights were made to blink simply by waving a card in front of the pointers, intermittently blocking their beams. Utilizing another old school trick, the illusion of the ship traveling past the camera was then created by mounting the camera on a dolly, and moving it past the model.
Star fields in the film are actually just sheets of black cloth with holes poked in them, that are lit from behind, while a very convincing-looking asteroid was simulated using a piece of lava rock filmed in slow motion while spinning on a turntable. Additionally, walls of what look like LED control panels seen behind the human actors are in fact out-of-focus pegboard, backlit with multi-colored gels over the lights.
However, while Van Gorder and Stockmeier may be going for a classic look for their film, they are by no means eschewing modern film-making technology.
"We're not throwing out all the new tools for the old ones," said Derek. "The film is being shot and edited digitally, and today's light-sensitive digital cameras have allowed us to take a new approach to studio shooting with unique, low-light set-ups. So we're trying to combine the best of the old and the new techniques, using advances in digital camera technology to enhance classic miniature photography and in-camera special effects. Digital and analogue tools both have an important place in film-making today, the trick is to achieve the right balance between them, and for this film, imagery generated exclusively in a computer didn't make sense for the story we wanted to tell."
So far, the duo have recorded a number of test shots, which have been incorporated into a trailer that can be watched below. They set out to raise US$18,000 to fund the production of C via Kickstarter, and have already exceeded that amount in donations - interested parties can still make pledges up until Boxing Day, however.
"The reaction so far has been phenomenal, so many people have written with words of encouragement and support" said Van Gorder. "It's kind of staggering, since the film isn't even made yet - so I feel like I have a large responsibility to make this film as good as I possibly can. I'm putting everything I have into it."