In this interview with co-director and editor Collin Davis we get taken on set, into the idea process, as well as post-production and finishing of a short film that I featured in our most recent Weekend Watching. If you haven’t already watched Telescope, it is embedded below. Then settle in with your favourite beverage to read my interview with Mr. Davis.
What was the motivation for making Telescope?
Speaking for myself, I made Telescope because I loved Eric’s original concept. When you look up into the stars at night, you’re looking at old light, essentially looking back in time. That light has traveled so far, it has taken years to reach you, sometimes millions of years. What if we could flip that around, reverse our perspective and use it to look back in time on Earth? Go out into deep space and see what Earth’s past was all about? We were feeling ambitious and wanted to make something big and conceptual, really go for it with a style and feel. Telescope was just the perfect project to do that.
Co-director Matt Litwiller: As soon as I read Telescope, I knew it was a story I wanted to help tell. There are so many rich themes buried in just the premise, and I knew it would be an amazing process to bring those themes out through the visuals, sound design, and music. The universe was in the vein of some of our favorite films and digging into that material was super rewarding. All around it is a project about pushing boundaries and going after big ideas, and I think it was our sense of wonder that helped guide us through that.
Writer Eric Bodge: The concept and world of Telescope became a box for a lot of things I’m fascinated by – world history, science fiction and new age psychedelic and electronic music from the 70s and 80s, to name a few. It was really exciting to incorporate big ideas and themes that I found compelling into a single film. I knew producing the movie would hold its challenges and the difficulty was probably a motivating factor for taking it on. Telescope was a chance to make a film that fit among other movies, music, and stories I love.
DP Travis LaBella: For me, Telescope was a great project on many levels. It was actually the inciting reason for me to move to Los Angeles – I had wrapped up working on a reality show in South America when I heard via email that the project was moving forward, and could not have been more excited for the change of pace, and a chance to collaborate with the rest of the team. The concept fascinated me, and the sci-fi genre was not something I’d had a lot of experience shooting before, so I was eager to jump in and be part of the creative process.
How long did it take from idea to finished film on Telescope?
Eric and I first talked about the seed of the idea in 2010. It kicked around conceptually for a year or so and then we began to develop. We ended up with our final version early summer of 2013.
How did you develop an interest in science fiction? Was there a single movie–or a set of films–that inspired you?
There’s a particular kind of science fiction that is really inspiring to me and the guys. It’s “slow” science fiction. A lot of it in a particular style got made in the 70s and 80s. These films are less about the action of a story than they are about the ideas, the psychology, the feel of a world. In particular Tarkovsky’s Solaris has been a huge inspiration to me. It deals with these super unspecific concepts like “communication” and forces the viewer to interpret and create a perspective. Whereas a lot of science fiction films are fast and modern, Telescope came from a love of these films that are quieter, slower, with big ideas and undefined conclusions. We also deeply love the more popcorn science fiction films like Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, and more recently Moon, Beyond the Black Rainbow and The Tree of Life, were big for us.
I want to talk a little about ship and set design: There was a time when ships blasting through space looked like they had no real heft to them—even when they were large enough to take forever to enter and exit a scene. What were the tools you employed to make your vessel seem so real?
We talked a lot about what our ship was going to look like and why it would look like that. At first we considered building scale models for the exteriors. There’s something about that look that makes you believe what you’re seeing, because it is real, just small. We decided the most practical approach would be to mimic as best we could the look and feel of those models, but to do it in CG. We got in touch with the very talented Wes Ball to do CG modeling and animation and he utterly floored us with what he could do. A lot of the reality came from the texture, rust and damage on ship. It was important for it to look used, like a piece of scientific equipment that had really been put through its paces.
We also shot and used practical elements in combination with the CG. Some of the light streaks come from shots we took of headlights at night on the 101 freeway in LA. For some of the more fluid stuff we built a cloud tank in my garage out of an old fish tank we got for free on Craigslist and had a fun weekend shooting really beautiful “nebulas” with milk and water. The cloudy vibrant background you see in the faster-than-light travel comes from those cloud tank shots. For the interior, the reality came from using practical elements across the board. The only bit of computer generated work on the ship interiors is the hexagonal monitor our main character, played by Sébastien B. Lubin, interacts with. We decided to use rear-projection instead of green screen for the big viewport he’s looking out of, which gave us some amazing movement and color in the light.
Given the chance to do something like this again in the future I’d love to continue using practical elements, it just lends the weight of reality to things.
Was the film made on a soundstage?
We shot our ship interiors on a small stage with a beautiful set built by our production designer Molly Burgess. A few shots were entirely CG. We also shot some things in the hills north of LA and a few macro pickups at our apartments.
We had a particularly tough time trying to get one of the final shots in the film. Our earth man at his telescope, played by Harwood Gordon, needed to be looking directly up into the camera. We needed to be high above him to get our angle. After driving around for days in the hills looking naively for some cliff we could shoot down from, we decided to just go on the 6th story roof of a building, throw a green screen on the parking lot below, shoot down on that and replace the ground later.
It worked out pretty well!
How did you achieve that time jump shudder that seems to affect the entire ship?
That shaking effect is a combination of Travis shaking the camera, a few practical lighting tricks with flashlights and a projector, and then some additional shake and motion blur added in post.
How did you achieve that effect of the ship’s lights streaking past your actor in the latter part of the film?
These shots were some of the most fun to shoot. We were super lucky to have access to a Phantom Flex slow motion camera. One issue when you shoot at high frame rates is that you need a ton of light to compensate. We didn’t have enough lighting equipment to make that happen, so we decided to shoot outside in the mid day sun against a green screen. Bello, our lead, was an absolute champion that day. We had a leaf blower blowing into his face just off camera to create the g-force pull look. Compositor Pete Sidorak then took the footage and composited Bello’s face with our ship background and created the “time-stretch” effect we wanted by streaking elements of that background.
What did you shoot this film on?
We were amazingly fortunate to have some great hook ups in the camera department. The majority of the film was shot on the Sony F65, with some addition footage on the Red Epic and the slow motion stuff on the Phantom Flex.
What was your post production process?
Post was a trial and error process largely because we were working in 4K and wanted ACES to be a part of our workflow. 4K is a relatively new resolution to finish in, and ACES is only just now being implemented in a lot of finishing software. As a result we had to figure out exactly how that math was working for each camera type and CG shot as we moved from one piece of software to the next and combined elements. All in all we used a ton of different solutions to get exactly what we wanted, but most of our work was done with After Effects, Avid, Modo, Nuke, and DaVinci Resolve.
Could you take us through your 4K workflow?
4K is definitely coming in a big way. We were a small operation ourselves and it’s clear to us that 4K is just within reach of indie filmmakers. What we found was that we are really riding the edge of it, just at the tipping point. I did a lot of my VFX shots on a laptop, but for some of the more demanding tasks we had to find more computing power. I won’t sugar coat it, 4K definitely made everything more difficult. More time on the renders (sometimes a full day or more!), an enormous (for us) amount of hard drive space and difficulty getting real-time playback in certain situations. But all said, it is very possible to work in 4K all the way, and becoming more possible everyday, even for an indie-level filmmaker.
Because it would be long and boring to read, I’ve got this chart that explains the workflow a bit instead.
Can you spend a minute explaining the new standardized Academy Encoding Specification? Is this the format future filmmakers submitting to major film festivals will need to complete their films in?
ACES (Academy Color Encoding Specification) is a new color pipeline that is suppose to help with color management through standardization. Right now with so many digital cameras, displays, and softwares, it’s hard to maintain a consistent look without some technical expertise. ACES is mostly meant to make a post production pipeline easier to manage. Its hard to say what role it will play in the future, but already filmmakers can find ACES today in a lot of software they already use.
Would it be possible for you to share sketches of ship/set/interface design?
Totally, here are some sketches by our concept artist Courtland Lomax:
You also edited this film; how long was your initial cut of the film, and how long did it take to get it to your final length.
I make my living right now as an editor in Los Angeles and it was a real privilege to both direct and cut one of my own projects. But it did make things a little more personal when I needed to cut shots out. We left a lot of footage on the cutting room floor over the course of the edit but even at that I think the first rough cut came in at about 17 minutes. We’re just under 10 minutes now. That took a good three months to do, all together, with a lot of debate about exactly what served the goals of the film in the best way. We ended up right where we wanted to be, so no regrets on some of the stuff we left behind.
Was there a shot you were really proud of that you had cut out of the final film?
Yes! Several shots. We all like one particular shot of our astronaut’s eye reflecting what he sees as he stares out into the universe. I’ve got a screenshot of an early version you can check out. And I particularly miss one beautifully composed shot that shows off the rear of the ship a little more, something we don’t get so much in the final cut.
How has life changed as a result of the attention Telescope has been getting? Any fun and unexpected opportunities turn up (that you can talk about)?
We’re overjoyed that people are watching it! We’ve been really lucky to get a lot of positive feedback and we’ve been doing a lot of communicating about what’s next. There’s been some interest from some people in LA in particular but it’s still very early on so we’ll just be keeping our fingers crossed. One great aspect of our recent visibility is that maybe a couple of doors are open a little wider to keep making things like Telescope in the future. It’s exciting. And we’ve also found that many people outside of the US are connecting with it. That’s really meaningful to us.
What’s next for you? What projects are in the pipeline? Are there feature filmmaking aspirations?
Matt, Eric, Travis and I have got some great stuff in the works. We are working especially hard on a feature length adaptation of the concepts of Telescope and hope to have some good news about that in the future. Outside of Telescope we’re also developing a couple of other feature films and have a few short form projects in the editorial phase. I’m also editing an indie feature called Bad Exorcists that should be out in the first half of 2014. Lots of fun stuff to come.