Film-makers doing a sci-fi space flick - without using any computer-generated effects


December 19, 2011

Film-makers Derek Van Gorder (pictured) and Otto Stockmeier are in the process of making a science fiction film about space travel, without using any computer generated imagery

Film-makers Derek Van Gorder (pictured) and Otto Stockmeier are in the process of making a science fiction film about space travel, without using any computer generated imagery

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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."

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Finally! I am so over CGI... I can\'t wait to see this!

Anthony Rice

brilliant idea! I wish them all the best with this. CGI in films has become so numbing, to the point that we are not impressed anymore, however spectacular the effect may be.


CGI always looks like... CGI. At least with live shots, there\'s a chance it\'ll be believable. :)


Fantastic! Sometimes, older ways ARE better!


How do you think it was done before computers, This is not new but great fun to do, They will find it very rewarding. Id Derek and Otto read this get a copy of the documentary that goes with the DVD box of Blade Runner, that\'ll inspire you or any of Gerry Andersons Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet TV shows from the 60s

Richard Unger

Reminds me a bit of John Carpenter\'s Dark Star, in the execution....

Bob Ehresman

Great idea. Hate to say this but.... they are making one of the biggest mistakes in stop action. The models need to be at least 5 feet long. They are also using a neutral lens (like a 50mm... They should be using something like a 24mm stopped down to mimic the hyperfocal distance you get on big landscapes.

I love the impulse and idea. Unfortunately, they\'ll need to do some significant work in post (CGI) to get over those hurdles or it will look like a toy (which in the trailer it kind of does).

Timothy Rohde

The special effects will be more like Dark Star than 2001 A Space Odyssey. That\'s okay, I liked Dark Star better :)


That is the awesomest most inspirational thing I\'ve seen in awhile. It gets you wanting to do a YouTube thing that\'s higher quality than just noobs falling off skateboards.

Todd Dunning

It is very cool in the same way stop motion can still be cool. But seriously, you guys sound just like those people that prefer the crackling and popping music from a vinyl record.

Paul van Dinther

The premise sounds a bit like what Douglas Trumbull originally planned for \"Silent Running.\"


CGI or Stop Action who cares what makes a movie worth watching is the script and acting.


It doesn\'t look bad... Every shot has the model in shadow though, which is a way of cheating to avoid having to make a truly detailed model. I\'ve seen some of those old models which were used in hollywood movies and they have some immense amount of details on them. I\'ve also done a fair amount of modeling myself and know how detailed it can get to make something look realistic. From the pics of the model they made, it looks pretty simple and they might want to spend a bit more time on their ship to make it look up to par with even star wars era models. (I\'m sure they must know that)

Samuel Arbizo

In movies: #1. Story #2. Direction #3. Acting #4. Editing. Everything else could be bad and it would just be a minor distraction in a great movie.

I could have put \"Story (script)\" as 1, 2, & 3. It\'s that important.


\"a new approach to studio shooting with unique, low-light set-ups\" In other words you\'ll have to crank up the brightness to see anything, just like so many TV shows these days.

The plot sounds a bit like it\'s inspired by Larry Niven\'s \"Madness Has Its Place\".

Gregg Eshelman

nice idea,... nice ideals

Pablo Mendez
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