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Posted 23.04.20

Technicians collaborate to create sci-fi film in isolation

By Sarah Packer

Film still from SOMNUS: Episode 1

Armed with their phones, DIY hacks, remote voice actors, free software and a lot of virtual meetings, our Multimedia Lab tech team have been working on their creativity during the lockdown to create an episodic sci-fi film entitled SOMNUS.

Taking place on the industrial space vessel ‘Wayfarer’, three crew members are in cryogenic pods on their journey home when an unexpected incident onboard looks to extend their isolation. The crews only means of communication whilst in stasis is through telepathy. With two crew members in a deep sleep, one crew member, Gellan, begins communicating directly with the ship’s computer, Synthia. Will they discover what is wrong with the ship before it’s too late?

Watch SOMNUS: Episode 1 on Facebook and Instagram now. 

We caught up with our Multimedia Lab technicians, Rusty Cleave, Aaron Prout, Jo Dorothea-Smith, Oli Curtis, Neil Jones and Dajain Daley to find out more about the process and some of their techniques...

So why did you choose to make a Sci-Fi? Surely that has to be one of the most challenging sets to create for film.

Dajain: When the idea was suggested that we create something from home I thought that the best way to show how creative we can still be while isolated is to really push the boat out and aim for the moon! Sci-Fi generally needs a lot of props and looking at the world from a different perspective and trying to work out how we can use the items around us to change our homes into outer space. Sci-Fi is constantly asking the makers to use everyday things in new ways, so it was the perfect challenge. 

Film still from SOMNUS: Episode 1

How did you develop the script together?  

Jo: We came up with the idea collaboratively and I asked a sci-fi writer I know to make something to introduce or set the scene. After describing the basic outline he made a description that helped us create a storyboard and possible visual ideas to start working from.

Neil: After we came up with the initial concept, which was people isolated in space, I just thought about how these people would deal with it. Being in the situation we are in now with Covid-19 I could just draw on that and the feeling of being isolated from my friends and family. How does it feel? What is most important to you when you have all the distractions taken away? These are the same questions any human would face when under isolation whether it be in space or in your one-bedroom flat!

The characters are based on a combination of people I’ve known and characters which have influenced me from other mediums. With it being a short, we can’t get to know them in too much depth but hopefully there is enough there to form a human connection.

"I wanted the red glowing fusion core reactor to be created completely from items found around the home to show our students that creativity can come from anywhere." — Aaron Prout, Technical Demonstrator

Why did you use Unreal Engine 4 & how was it used with the storyboard?

Oli: Unreal Engine 4 has fast become a powerhouse in virtual production within the media industry, it’s being used in productions like The Mandalorian for creating all their set pieces and allows sets to be quickly altered in real-time to allow us greater flexibility when making any changes. This also allowed myself & the others to use our current skill sets and apply them to the engine to create the virtual scenes you see, camera angles, lighting etc were all collaborative choices by the team and executed inside Unreal Engine in seconds.

The storyboard was used to understand set construction and camera placement, from there the team would speak online with me and discuss additions and changes to each design as I worked on it in Google Meet.

The process in Unreal Engine 4

Did you use any other practical elements alongside the software?

Rusty: Yes I think the key to making moving image with CG is a good dose of practical elements. Adding ourselves into the pods Oli had built in Unreal Engine needed to be believable, so we researched into Sci-Fi imagery and it became apparent that there are a lot of reflections on visors and glass surfaces so we started there. Using a plastic sheet from a poster frame propped up on whatever is at hand i.e books, drawers, boxes, enabled us to slide in under the sheet and using a tablet/ipad/anything with a screen to reflect onto the glass we were able to create an image that was really convincing. 

Aaron: I wanted the red glowing fusion core reactor to be created completely from items found around the home to show our students that creativity can come from anywhere.

So I had a look around my house for ideas and found a transparent packaging tube for a window blind in the recycling. The idea came together by spotting some red hand wash next to the kitchen sink. I realised that by directing a light source through the hand wash and into the transparent tube would illuminate the inside with a bright red glow. 

I also used a saucepan to create the look of space. The ceramic pattern in the pan just popped out at me as being similar to hundreds of stars on a black backdrop. I placed my phone camera to the floor of the saucepan and there it was. Outer space. 

Rusty: It’s a useful skill to look at objects laterally. If you can see forms out of context then it opens up endless opportunities.  

A behind-the-scenes photo of Rusty creating the cryogenic pod effect.

How easy was it to work collaboratively whilst in lockdown? 

Jo: Pretty easy actually! We have had great communication and a free and open exchange of ideas which we discussed and then made decisions based on agreements and what skills and kit we had access to. It has been a great process.

Rusty: Sending little how-to videos to each other on how we created images was a great way to work. Also working with Oli on lighting amendments with Unreal Engine has been an eye-opener. Regular video calls on how to create certain scenes, presenting to each other on our laptops and phones has been like a big virtual scrapbook for the project. 

Why did you use voice actors and how did you direct them? 

Rusty: It was purely down to our limited options and a solution to the fact that none of us are actors, but we are the only people we have access to in order to shoot the scenes in the stylised way that we wanted. Because of the situation we are in right now, it means that everyone is at home so we have a pool of actors with nothing to do due to film shoots being cancelled.

We decided to write into the script that our characters would communicate telepathically due to our own limited acting skills! We sent actors Paul Chanter (Gellan) and Chelsea Marie (Synthia) the script for the first episode and asked them to record the lines on their phones with multiple expressions in their voices so we have a few takes to choose from with varied performances, all we had to do was choose the take that fits and edit it into the film.

A film still showing the space effect created by using a saucepan.

Why is the behind-the-scenes/making of so important for this project?

Dajain: The behind-the-scenes was always the part that interested me the most because I felt it was important to show how everything came together and all the hard work that the team put in. We’ve also found that it has been great to have something to focus on, mental wellbeing is really important and this project has been keeping me positive. A behind-the-scenes will give others, who are similarly struggling, something they can give a go themselves. 

The whole reason we started this project is because we wanted to show that there are ways to continue creating from home by using things around your house or flat. How many people look at a bag of flour and see a desert? Well hopefully after watching Episode 1 of Somnus a lot more people will be seeing all the possibilities right at your fingertips.

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