Written by Jonathan Wilhelmsson.
Are you thinking of doing a science fiction feature? Here are some helpful tips.
My name is Jonathan and I am a filmmaker from Sweden. My friends and I just released our new short film, Untitled Earth Sim 64, a science fiction comedy about a woman who discovers that our universe is a simulation.
The project grew out of a film that we wanted to shoot in Hong Kong at the beginning of last year. Our bags were literally packed when COVID-19 hit. We had to cancel and decided to develop a new project that we could shoot closer to our homeland – something short and sweet that deals with existentialism in a light-hearted and hopefully calming way.
We didn’t want to be prevented from applying for funding, so we set it up as a tight budget project that we can put into action ourselves. Our small team consisted of friends and filmmakers who regularly help each other on our various projects for free. As a favor from my old job, I was also able to borrow most of the equipment for free.
We shot the film on two hot summer days in Gothenburg with a skeleton crew of three people behind the camera and two actors on set – British actress Karen Olrich-White and Swedish actress and pro wrestler Aya Frick. Australian actor James Fraser came to us virtually as the voice of an alien explorer and pre-recorded his lines so we could play them back on set.
After a few months of post-production and many late evenings working on the film’s extensive visual effects, the film is finally ready.
The following are some of my greatest takeaways from this experience.
Storyboard – new and improved!
In preparation, I decided to take a new approach to the storyboard process. Instead of the rough drawings I usually do, I went for simple composites based on real photos, mostly taken in actual locations.
This enabled me to have very precise ideas about recordings, compositions and lens selection long before the shoot, which was particularly helpful as I juggled a lot of roles on set and wanted to be as prepared as possible.
I’ve put it together into an almost weird comic version of the film, with all the dialogue and necessary descriptions. It also meant that I was essentially doing a first cut of the film before filming even began, as all of the intended cuts were clearly shown.
It was very well received by the team who had a much clearer idea of what I was up to compared to my old hand-drawn storyboards. It actually turned out to be a better representation of the film than the script itself, and as a result, it was the only document we ever referred to on set.
Blue hour – nice but risky
The final scene in the film was a night scene we shot on our teammate Ellen’s lovely balcony (use what you have and all that). I wanted to make a pretty bright and colorful movie, so I decided to shoot it during the blue hour – those lovely 30 minutes just after the sun goes down, when the sky is really alive and the surroundings aren’t yet hidden in the dark is.
I knew that there was no way we could capture the entire scene in this time window. As part of the block, our actress dropped Karen to the ground for part of the scene. We recorded this segment after the light was already gone, which makes it easy to hide the sky and add simple sky spares.
Still, we had a lot of recordings to take in those 30 minutes, and I have to say it was a tight one. We rushed like crazy and when we got the last shot it was very dark.
It was actually quite a challenge to color correct the scene as the light kept shifting and the difference between the first and the last shot was enormous.
We didn’t really have a plan B if we hadn’t done it because Karen had to leave for another city the next day. Fortunately, we got lucky this time, but it’s probably a good idea to have an extra night of backup if you want to shoot longer blue hour scenes!
Time – the secret sauce for low budget filmmaking
I really think that time is an incredibly valuable resource that we have as low budget filmmakers and that is not readily available for larger productions.
When you rent tons of expensive equipment and have hundreds of crew members on the payroll every day, there is massive pressure to get everything done as quickly as possible. This also applies to low-budget films, but not to the same extent.
Adding an extra day of shooting isn’t that big of a deal, and quite often it’s more worth the time to do an extra take, mess around with the scene, and spend more time with the actors than can be imagined from .
But I think we used time the most as a resource in post production.
It’s quite a visual effect-heavy film (67 of its 73 shots are effect shots), so it could have been quite an expensive proposition. I didn’t have the budget to have a VFX crew. I actually didn’t have the budget to afford a post production team, but what I did have was time.
Over a period of about five months, I finished all of the post-production on my laptop alone. It was certainly challenging, especially since I have my day job and mostly had to work nights and weekends, but it was a lot of fun and I think it’s a good example of how approachable filmmaking has become.
More money would have made it possible to finish the film faster, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would have been better. I think this way certain genre films and effects heavy projects that would have been a no-go for low budget in the past become more and more achievable when time is used as a resource.
Behind the scenes content is the key to happiness
Okay, so maybe I overdid it, but I was really impressed with how rewarding it was to do a behind-the-scenes film for this project. For me, a good BTS can be just as enjoyable, if not more, than the actual movie. That’s why we tried to make our own for the first time.
I immediately noticed what a moral booster it was on set because it was so much fun filming silly interviews with each other and doing little comedy pieces. This made for a really nice breather from work and allowed crew members who would otherwise have been hidden to share some of the spotlight with the actors. It generated a lot of positives that the actual film really benefited from.
As I write this, we have just released both films online and we have already noticed how much added value the BTS film adds to the main film. Many people have tried and repeated my thoughts that the BTS is almost more entertaining than the actual short film, and has given them a whole new appreciation for the work.
Filmmaking is difficult, and it’s also the most exciting job there is. I think there is tremendous benefit and joy when more of us demonstrate our craft.
Let us know what you think in the comments!