Monday, April 25, 2016

Short Film Spotlight: ATROPA Review & Exclusive Interview With Director Eli Sasich

Welcome to a special installment of SHORT FILM SPOTLIGHT.  This week, we take a look at the amazing sci-fi film...ATROPA.  We also had the honor of talking with the film's writer/director, Eli Sasich, about the making of and future of Atropa.
Atropa tells the tale of an Off-World Detective who investigates the missing research vessel ATROPA.  Upon finding the and it's crew, something very unexpected takes place, causing them to question what's going on.  This proof-of-concept short was inspired by '70s and '80s sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner.  Check it out below:

From the very first scene with the holo-chess board, I knew this was going to be something special.  I have always had a soft spot for dark, gritty sci-fi (Blade Runner being one of my favorites), and this film was exactly that.  It had the feel of a feature film, from the pacing, to the music, and especially the visual effects.  I was completely engaged in this film from the very beginning until the credits rolled, and if the future of this project is anywhere near as good (which I'm sure it will be and more), then I know it'll be something I talk about for years after.  It opened up so many questions that need to be answered, and that is what makes the upcoming project more exciting.

Not only did I watch this amazing short film, but I also had the honor of talking with the mind behind Atropa, director Eli Sasich.  Check out what he had to say about the film and its future:

Merc With A Movie Blog:  Where did the story concept for ATROPA originate?

Eli Sasich:  The original seed of the idea actually came from a conversation I had with my cousin, who is a writer himself. He had this vague idea about a ship running into itself in space – how would that occur and what would it mean for the crew? I was immediately interested in the concept, and he was gracious enough to let me run with it. Clay Tolbert and I then spent a year developing the initial idea into the full feature script.   

Merc:  How will the short film connect to the feature?  Will it act as a prequel, or be part of the feature film?

Eli:  The short is intended to be an introduction to the story, characters, and world. It's essentially a condensed version of the first 15 pages of the feature script, setting everything up and ending with the inciting incident. Our goal was to give a sense of the look and feel we were going for, knowing that it would all be reshot for a feature.  

Merc:  What budget and timescale did you work with for the short film, and what are you aiming for with the feature?

Eli:  We made the short for almost no money. We had two weeks of prep, and shot for only two days. In the end we spent right around $10,000 – which is insanely low for something this vfx-heavy. We were aiming for a modest budget for the feature – something very comparable to Moon. 

Merc:  What were your main inspirations while making this short, and the upcoming feature?

Eli:  I'm a huge fan of the sci-fi films from the 70s and 80s. Growing up with two older brothers in a family that loved movies really indoctrinated me to the genre. As a teenager, I read everything sci-fi that I could – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury – and just immersed myself in these other worlds. My tastes, style, and interests were informed by all of the above. ATROPA is an extension of that, and certainly an homage to the movies and books that I love, but I also wanted to make sure that we were offering something new with the story. 

Merc:  How much of your original concept art stayed in the film, and how much, if any, was changed or modified?

Eli:  Most of the concept art is represented in the final film. Elements were modified in the translation from 2D to 3D, but we remained pretty faithful to what the artists came up with. I'm especially proud of the design of Cole's ship, the Morinda. 

Merc:  Did you build your own sets and props?  What went into achieving such high quality production design, including the complex VFX/CGI shots of the spaceships and the events of the final scene?

Eli:  We couldn't afford to build our sets, so we shot the short in a standing spaceship set called Laurel Canyon Stages in LA. It's been around since the 90s, so it already has the visual aesthetic that I love – gritty and lived-in. It's been used thousands of times in movies, TV, and music videos – so the challenge was to light and shoot it in a way that made it our own. Our DP Greg Cotten and I talked a lot about keeping things dark and mysterious; the audience can fill in more with their imagination than we could ever afford to build, and it keeps things moody. We also had an amazing production designer, Alec Contestabile – Alec was able to create set pieces and props for next to no money, which really enhanced the world and added immense production value. 

Our VFX and CGI were handled by Ryan Wieber and The Light Works. My mantra with visual effects is always "less is more." What elements can we shoot practically? How can you ground each shot in reality, even if it's 100% computer generated? The best visual effects are the ones that don't call attention to themselves, and simply serve as a function to tell the story. It's easy to get carried away when the computer can literally create anything – restraint actually helps sell the effects in my opinion, and is much more effective overall.  

Merc:  What stage are you at with the feature development?

Eli:  We pitched the feature around Hollywood for months, and met with many studios and producers – we were really close to having something set up. Unfortunately, it didn't end up coming together for a number of reasons that had little to do with the project itself. 

So after everything had slowed down, I was faced with either shelving the project and moving on, or trying to get it produced outside of the system. I just couldn't let the story go, and I kept coming back to the amazing response we had to the proof of concept. We had clearly found an audience at that level. Long story short, we've repackaged the feature as a webseries – same cast, same crew. We're going to continue right where we left off, treating the original short as the pilot, and release six new episodes sometime in the next year. I can't mention where it will premiere, since it hasn't been officially announced yet, but we've already shot and are currently in post production! Very excited to be back and to complete the story for the fans. 

                                   Exclusive behind-the-scenes set photo

Merc:  How long did it take to complete the scripts for all six episodes?

Eli:  It didn't take too long to finish the scripts for the six new episodes – maybe two or three weeks. We had the feature to work from, which already had little built-in cliffhangers every ten pages or so. We definitely had to tweak a few things for the web format and adapt everything to fit within a much lower budget. It was a pretty organic process though, because we had the advantage of already making the short – we knew what sets and other elements we had to work with. 

Merc:  Are you planning to do more episodes, or is this a self-contained miniseries?

Eli:  It was really important to me that the series have a definitive ending, and I think we've created something that will leave people satisfied – but with a lot to think about. We definitely have a map of where the story will go if we're lucky enough to be able to do another season. One of the things we changed from the feature was the introduction of a much larger world outside the confines of the main story. Any future seasons would build upon this larger world. 

Merc:  What can fans expect from the web series?

Eli:  Fans can expect answers to the questions we raised in the short. It's very important to me that we care about the characters and keep the drama grounded in the relationships. Without giving too much away, the story is about fate, and the repercussions of choices. We have a lot of surprises and some big, bold sci-fi ideas that I'm really excited to share with the audience. 

Merc:  Do you have any other projects in development?

Eli:  I'm working on several other projects at the moment, some in the sci-fi genre and some that aren't. There are the big "dream jobs" out there, and then there are the smaller, more personal projects. I'm really excited to share more ATROPA with the fans!

If you have a short film or know of one you'd like to see featured on SHORT FILM SPOTLIGHT, please EMAIL me and don't forget to like and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!!

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