In DitoGear™ Spotlight #7 we are showing a unique project directed by Derek Van Gorder. “C 299,792 km/s” is a Kickstarter success campaign. Learn how to create a science fiction film despite 40,000 USD budget!
And what’s your latest project? Share your interesting stories in the next spotlight.
“C 299,792 km/s” was written by Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier. It is a story of Lieutenant Commander Malleck, and her radical act of mutiny aboard the KESTROS IV. With the help of her co-conspirators, she attempts to harness this weapon of mass destruction for a grand new purpose.
The project consists of three shooting environments: interior and exterior of the ship, as well as fictional science documentary. Everything was created without CGI or greenscreen. All sets and props were built by hand and filmed in-camera. The team integrated some developments in digital camera technology with conventional special effects.
Patryk Kizny: Derek, could you tell us the reason for making the science fiction production?
Derek Van Gorder: I’ve always had a passion for science fiction and space opera, but to make a film in this genre requires an incredible amount of resources – it’s typically way outside the scope of a low-budget indie film. But one day I realized that
I didn’t have to hire an army of CGI artists, I could tackle the special effects with the tools I was already familiar with: cameras, lenses, and lighting, like they used to do it in the 70s and 80s.
The concept went through many different forms. I originally made it as a student film in college, which became a 2 minute trailer. With that footage I was able to garner enough interest and resources to launch a successful Kickstarter campaign with
my friend and producer Otto Stockmeier, and this allowed
us to complete it as a short film.
PK: What makes your project a unique piece compared with other science fiction productions?
DVG: I strongly believe that science fiction should be about science. Most popular sci-fi of Hollywood today is really fantasy
in disguise; this motivated me to make a genre film that would entertain but would also communicate important ideas based
in real-life scientific observations of the natural universe.
The film is unique in a lot of ways. Among other things, it was an experiment to see if I could begin a story at its conclusion, and have the viewer figure out the backstory and the motivation for the action over the course of the film. The form is also highly unusual, in that the story on the spaceship is juxtaposed with excerpts from a fictional science documentary. By themselves, “C” or “Beyond the Infinite” are not complete ideas, only when they’re blended together does the full story reveal itself.
PK: Is there any particular reason for avoiding CGI or greenscreen in that production?
DVG: The decision to avoid CGI and greenscreen evolved naturally from my experience as a photographer, my 1980s influences, my lack of resources, and my general beliefs about film. I enjoy special effects not as tricks intended to fool the viewer, but as visual art, and as expressions of a theme. As an artist and a photographer, it was very important to me that all elements of the movie passed through the camera, since that is the medium I’m familiar with. Getting something right on the set is challenging, but it forces a certain level of attention and care, and it’s a style I want to keep developing.
PK: Could you tell us more about visual effects and shooting techniques used in this film?
DVG: One reviewer called the visuals “strangely innovative.”
It combines elements of B movies, propaganda films, and 1980s anime. Avoiding CGI or greenscreen wasn’t just a decision to go for a “retro” look, it was a conscious choice to approach the film entirely as visual art, to unify the content with the medium.
The lighting and effects of the film were extremely unorthodox. We bought dozens of fluorescent light fixtures from Home Depot, which were gelled different colors and installed in the set. We often simply switched the colors of the lights to make the same sets look like different spaces. Animated patterns were projected through wax paper and pegboard to create moving backgrounds. For the weapon effects, we simply stopped the action and shined flashlights into the lens, then edited out the pauses in-between.
In outer space, there is typically only one source of light, the sun. Our sun was a 1000-watt tungsten hot light; if this is your only lighting source, you lose a lot of detail on the miniature, but I didn’t want to “cheat” by adding an additional, unmotivated fill light. We got around this problem by simply adding more believable sources of light: LED spotlights built into the ship itself, a hazy orange glow from the surface of Jupiter, and the bright red “beacon lights” on the ship’s ring structure, whose effect was exaggerated with external lighting.
The spaceship itself was filmed using a 4-foot miniature constructed and detailed by model builder Charles Adams. To make a small model look big on-camera, you have to shoot on a wide lens, stopped all the way down to keep everything in focus as much as possible. The best way to accomplish this is to shoot time-lapse style, taking hundreds of still frames while the camera slowly moves past the spaceship.
PK: How did you manage to create such phenomenal spaceship?
DVG: The ship went through many stages. Originally I went to Toys R Us and bought random toys with interesting shapes, took them apart, and glued them back together. This gave us are basic design. From there, our ship & set designer Wolfgang Stockmeier rebuilt this basic shape in 3D on the computer, which was in turn redesigned later by our model builder Charles Adams. He used this final 3D blueprint to create the final model, through a combination of custom laser-printed parts and kit-bashing (re-using bits and pieces of old model kits to add detailing).
PK: What role played the DitoGear equipment in your production?
DVG: All of our miniature photography was filmed using the 2 meter DitoGear OmniSlider. The repeatable motion allowed us to get multiple passes for each shot, meaning we could expose for different elements separately to create various lighting effects. The “continuous” motion setting enabled us to shoot high resolution stills for each frame while maintaining correct-looking motion blur – this is completely essential to make the ship look like it’s really moving. Explosions and other lighting effects were created stop motion style, by wiggling flashlights at different speeds and angles while each frame was exposed.
For shots of the ship in orbit of Jupiter, we projected Jupiter behind the ship, and animated the image to move opposite to the direction of the camera’s movement on the OmniSlider; this resulted in the appropriate sense of motion in-camera.
PK: How was the project time-consuming and how many people were involved in the production?
DVG: We worked on the production off and on for about a year and a half. It took so long mostly because of the many distinct phases involved in production: the ship sets, reshoots, inserts, the “Beyond the Infinite” location shoot in Maine, and the miniature photography.
There were up to 12 people helping on set during the principal shoot in addition to the actors. Many key collaborators we worked with exclusively online.
PK: From the perspective – are there any things that you would do differently today?
DVG: This was the most ambitious project I’ve ever attempted. Every day brought new technical challenges, but at the same time I was trying to discover myself as an artist and a filmmaker. In retrospect, my biggest personal failure was not spending more time with the script before pre-production; once you have a kickstarter campaign that you’re responsible for, there’s no more time to have second thoughts about the script, you’re forced to move forward.
PK: What do you consider as the greatest achievement in this production?
DVG: This was my first movie, and it was a huge learning experience for me. But I am most proud of its successful use of an unusual form (intercutting two separate movies to tell one story), and also its extremeness; it doesn’t hold anything back, it goes for broke.
PK: Have you been working on anything interesting recently? Could you tell us something about your plans for the future?
DVG: Otto & I are currently working on an idea for a military space opera miniseries, and I definitely plan to keep writing a feature-length version of C. I’m also currently writing a short film about the internet.
My goal for the future is to make one more short project to solidify the lessons I learned on C, and then – if I can raise the funds – tackle a feature film or series. But before that I just plan to take some time off and write, write, write.
PK: Derek, Thank you very much for finding time to share your work with us. I look forward to seeing your future projects!
Follow Derek and the video:
C 299,792 km/s
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