CrowdFund This! BIG FUTURE Q&A With Mike Bates On Practical Effects Driven Film

Are you tired of CGI overkill in your sci-fi adventure cinema? Do you like the classic working-class spaceships, flying cars, and other 'distressed' and aged machines and environments? Do you wish that they still made big adventure movies with partial scale models and miniatures?

Director Mike Bates and White Room Artifacts want to realize their own original film in the same spirit: Big Future. They are a team of highly experienced artists and technicians, some of whom comprised the original model shop at ILM in 1975, and collectively have been responsible for practical visual effects for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Back to the Future, and Pirates of the Caribbean.  

I sat down and talked with Bates, who is based out of the practical effects mecca in San Rafeal, California, just minutes north of San Francisco. Below is a condensed, transcribed version of that conversation.


Kurt Halfyard: Tell me about your project.

Mike Bates: Big Future is a short film, essentially, I want to treat it as a film, but if it is really good and we like the characters, it could be long-form TV. To do this I've got some of the guys who have worked on the original Star Wars as well as Indiana Jones films. Mostly it is that we want to create a rich world. Alien, Blade Runner, Star Wars, there is a certain genre, a way movies were made then, that got left behind. 

DUNE, TIME BANDITS ... 

Exactly, you can go on and on. It is darker, grittier, and the medium that was used was models, real world special effects, set pieces and costumes. Really use them for their strengths, as the center of this piece. Just look at how beautiful Alien looks with its lighting in the corridors. I don't want to get nostalgic, but the medium is different. It is rarer to see that nowadays because everything is hyper-designed and pre-viz'd, and it is a different density in the frame. Even in Guardians of the Galaxy, you'll see the characters spread out and far from the walls due to effects constraints. 

Is the word 'tactile'? 

Absolutely, the surfaces are right there. I think the tactility comes into play with the miniatures, though. That is a big difference. CG plays to its strengths, but this other medium the SFX of the late 1970s and early 1980s had other strengths which were: you could see the piping, the grease, the tactility came into play because when you looked at something you understood it to be a used machine. It was a spacecraft you'd see at an automotive shop. Something that you could get in. It is an aesthetic, it might be a tough sell to get people to relate to the differences between that, but that is the point of the project. It's not just one or two spaceship effects, it is a density of models, lit sets physical objects. These ships have surfaces that have the more, for lack of a better word, realistic, texture to them. It all adds up. It is pitched as creating an universe that evokes an immersive quality that those films had, that is kind of not in vogue any more. It's totally rare. 

This is a great choice, but regardless of technique, it still comes down to storytelling. How confident do you feel about about where you are in the story. 

Really confident. We love the script. We cast Bryce Johnson (Pretty Little Liars, Supernatural) based on the strength of the script. The story is a girl who is trying to figure out what to do with her life in the early 1980s, she doesn't fit in, on the early cusp of hacker culture, phone phreaking, etc. and she gets an opportunity in the far future and where she can excel with who she is. She is made for it. She goes through her trials, the whole hero's journey, but she can now apply her skills in an exciting way. 

The story is incredibly important, and it is totally infused with the techniques we are using. The way hacking is usually represented in films is usually with a screen. This really lame UI, I wanted to take it back to the tactility of the original Star Wars trilogy. You understand light-sabers you understand how people can work on the technology. I wanted to take that into hacking, so it is kind of a more physical format of hacking. The technology has got so advanced that everything has become modular and it is more interactive objects than software. The idea is to make it a physical representation of a digital environment that is agreeable in cinematic terms, which these techniques are great at. 

Dovetailing a current vision of the future with the retro-analogue technology of the 1980s? 

Yes! That is this character, she is from another time, just before digital. She's got the soldering iron, she's a phone hacker, which back in the day... 

I was back in that day... 

There was a great book, Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley, I love that stuff.  The way that was done was more pulled from so many sources, a hands on approach. That is the inroad she comes from that world, and goes to the future where everything is more like the internet age where everything is still hard-cabled and physical. The lost pilot who drives the spaceship is like a line-man who sets up this network so that intergalactic ships can fly through space. We take things for granted that we just turn on a screen and it is all there, kinda boring. I wanted to get that visceral adventure of going through information, an allegory for what we can relate to, and have it be character based in a physical visual way. We're NOT aiming to just do the 80s nostalgia thing, but that familiarity will be there. 

Clearly there have been leaps and advances in practical techniques from its heyday. Like the Laika guys use 3D printing to make all their facial expressions for their animation. 

Exactly. It is to use all the good and none of the bad. That is the goal. When they made these things in the 1970s they had optical printers which made everything look awful, and a lot of things had to be done in camera. Now you can make much more beautiful images. 

WHITE ROOM ARTIFACTS, the guys who worked on the original Lucas and Spielberg films through ILM, they must have lots of new ideas to try with practical effects. 

They are on top of it up there, and things are being updated DAILY, particularly with 3D printing. It is amazing the stuff they have developed and it is a crime that it is not used as much as it is. 

So your crowdfunding is mainly looking to raise the money to hire these guys? 

That is it. The majority of the money will go to the effects. Obviously there is sound, lights, actors, post, etc., but the highlight is the effects, and to make a lot of them to create an immersive quality of the universe. 

An original idea with a nostalgic aesthetic is a noble thing, but I bet a challenge to get people to share that vision. What are you looking at beyond crowdfunding?

The wonderful thing about the Kickstarter is that is raising awareness. Many people agree with us, I don't know if they are motivated enough to drop a lot of coin, but it goes back the whole known property thing. That is a challenge. 

Kickstarter is as much an avenue towards awareness of the project as it is a path to 3/4 of a million dollars? 

Yeah, when engaged with Don Bies (former ILM Model Maker) and his team, they're like, 'It's not a lot of money.' We hope we get there, at the very least we are getting feedback on what is responded to really well, and we can see what really appeals to people.
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