After premiering at SXSW 2014 in the Narrative Shorts Competition, Directors Chris Caldwell and Zeek Earl have been generating a lot of buzz around this mysterious story and the possibilities for a new series. Following it’s online release on Vimeo yesterday, Prospect has garnered a lot of attention from filmmakers and fans alike and the reaction is near-unanimous: it’s definitely good enough to merit a feature.
Prospect takes concepts from various sci-fi: within you can find some Star Wars, a fistful of Gravity, even a touch of Elysium. While the lush green landscape might seem friendly, the goings-on within are anything but. Prospect imbues the film’s scenic indie beauty with an ominous threat, a mystery. There’s something out there that we can’t touch. This is a new frontier, a place full of mystery and madness.
The 13-minute short, which feels more like a preview of something greater to come, follows a father-daughter combination living on an unidentified foreign planet. They seek a mysterious “Orolack,” a goopy gook that perhaps hides some terrific power. Certainly, it has some greater value, but that isn’t what they’re here for. Something deeper spurs them onwards: a dream of a better life back home, who knows? They’re spatial forager, but bigger monsters are on the hunt.
The story is mysterious and just oblique enough to engender a curious inquisitiveness. Earl and Caldwell have created a short story that’s vividly complex. The truth behind everything is hidden beneath a layer of cosmic dust. It’s got that Jumanji feel to it: you’ve come across a strange story in the attic—your curiosity urges you to open it despite an ominous feeling of imminent danger.
“This is not our world. We are aliens here,” says the father. Prospect aims at humanity’s underlying fear, the hidden: where are we welcomed, if not here? What is our home? It may look friendly, but Prospect‘s visuals instill serene discomfort. Floating dust particles create a sense of rift, like this world was torn apart long ago. Maybe an alien race once lived here. Something terrible happened in this forsaken place: ravaged, all that is left is an element whose power is unknown, and the people who risk their lives to discover it. There is something here we have yet to see that needs salvaging; something in the depths and core of this landscape that tremors, leaving behind a world broken and decomposed.
Complete with a forested space-planet, cool space suits and a Cthulu monster, Prospect is absolutely worth the watch. There is much more than meets the eye with Prospect. So believes Director Zeek Earl, who has great passion for the project and even bigger dreams to achieve: a potential feature that might come of it. Read on to learn more about the local director’s genre exploration, filming on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and the endless possibilities Prospect has to offer.
Q: The main thing about Prospect is the fact that it takes place on this “alien” world that we don’t know too much about. There’s this distance between us and them, there’s this strange existence on this planet. How much do you think it was an exploration of the beyond, and how much do you think it was an exploration of our own planet, of our own humanity and interaction?
ZE: I think you’re going the right places. It’s definitely an exploration of humanity. We’re playing around a lot with genre, in a certain aspect. To me, it’s really a Western… My personal definition of a Western is—or at least Western’s I like—there are environments where the absolute extreme ends of humanity end up, and why they’re there is really interesting to me. You have these really hostile environments that people go to for all sorts of reasons. So, in Prospect we obviously have the “prospectors:” people going there to get rich, who are willing to make that risk. But there are all sorts of people in that environment: they’re there for religious reasons, they’re escaping. That’s something that we’re excited to explore, perhaps with a feature version.
Q: A lot of people see Prospect as a Sci-Fi but I didn’t see it as fiction as much as it was an interpretation of reality.
ZE: Yeah. What we associate with Science Fiction now, or in general, are sort of big concepts. “In the future it’s going to be like this.” But our movie, I wouldn’t even necessarily say it is in the future. It’s in a different kind of world altogether.
Q: What kind of moral or ethical questions do you think that raises?
ZE: [Laughs] I mean it’s a short film, so you only get to do so much! I always feel limited. I feel like we started and let’s just think, it could get a lot more interesting. I think the essential crux is that there’s this girl who’s been dragged to this planet by her father, and at a certain point he’s taken out of the picture. Where we kind of get to in the short film is that she’s put in the driver’s seat. She’s in the position where she’s now making the decisions. She decides to go for the gold, and kill this guy, but where does that get her? We just start to tease at that. Again, hopefully in a larger film we can do a lot more.
Q: Why did you choose a girl, choose to have that father-daughter relationship? Obviously that’s been trending a lot currently, with stories like Divergent and the Hunger Games, just an exploration of the feminine side and their handle of social structure and loss. Why do you think you went that direction?
ZE: For us it goes back to the Western angle of it. It creates some more interesting situations, to have a young girl in this crazy environment. A lot of it is hard… [Laughs] It’s hard because there’s this whole feature thing that we’re trying to make too… I guess in a larger world—we only get to tease at it in the short—she’s an unusual character there. You generally have these rough, violent characters, so when they interact with her you can have these surprising things happen because she’s not the norm in that environment.
Q: You talked about these violent characters. One thing that I really liked is the antagonist in this, the kinda “Cthulu” character that you guys had—
ZE: [Laughs] Interesting that you mention that.
Q: What was the process behind creating the design and who this character was?
ZE: Yeah, his backstory. It’s a short film—[laughs] it’s the third time I said that! I just need to own it, it is what it is! [Laughs] We wanted to create this character that had been on the planet for a really long time. You don’t know why. Perhaps he’s not struck it rich as he hoped to, perhaps he got stranded there, perhaps he lost a partner or something. He’s been there too long and he’s turned to desperation. A lot of where our design nods were coming from is that his suit is less fresh; it’s been slowly eaten away by the environment. He has a much more complicated filter system because he’s had to alter it and do all these other things to it. Again, none of this is explicitly in the movie, it’s kind of queued in the production design. We wanted to create this more desperate character. He has that filter, he has a different air system. He’s sick, he’s not well. He’s trying to get off this planet and trying to get rich like everyone else.
Q: I actually thought he might have been the best acted of the group. He did a really good job with the suit and in general giving off that really ominous feeling.
ZE: [Laughs] It was a big endeavor to make that suit, for sure.
ZE: Yeah! There’s not a huge film industry in Seattle, so we got lucky to run into a guy with some really amazing production design experience. I would say that, [laughs] possibly more production design was put into that suit than everything else combined. It probably wasn’t wise even, but we just got carried away, it kept getting more fun and we had more ideas and we got more of this built-out world. It took months and months. The father and daughter, they have space helmets that we bought off Ebay. They’re high-altitude Chinese flight helmets. But, the prospector’s helmets, and everything else is all custom-made. So, you know, we were making molds for his helmet pieces, he has this one “power arm” as we called it—the arm was like an accordion type apparatus—that was all hand-sewn. It took ridiculous time and effort but the two guys who were making it—Matt Acosta and Nick Van Strander—just went all out.
Q: That’s definitely what I’m most excited about if you guys do get to make a feature, to see all the different space-suits for all the different “Sectors” or atmospheres that come together and make this world a different place. You talked about production. $28,000: was that spent mostly on the costumes, was it spent on cameras?
ZE: Pretty much, it all went into production design and production support when we were actually shooting. My producer Chris and I, we run Shep Films which is a commercial company here in Seattle, so we actually have access to all the technical tools for the most part. Cameras and stuff were things that we already had invested in as part of our commercial business. Really, all of that money went into buying materials to make everything, we had to pay location fees, we were putting up transportation and housing and feeding our crew—which ranged from 18 to 25 people for four-five days. It’s funny, things pop up all the time. For example we only budgeted so much for radios, so we got these cheap radios that you get from REI or something, but then we tested them and they worked terribly in the forest. It was really important that our crew be able to communicate over distances in the forest, so then we had to rent these nice radios. Just little things that you don’t anticipate really add up.
First-time actress Callie Harlow plays a rogue Prospector seeking wealth alongside her father on a far-off planet.
Q: What was the biggest challenge? You said you didn’t have much experience in After Effects, or at least making the dust particle effect we see in the movie. Was that the toughest thing or was it more the production itself?
ZE: When I think through making the film, it’s definitely a matter of what stage you’re in. We had really big challenges with production design: making little things, running out of time, running out of money. But then we completed that, so then we went to production. And that challenge was hugely logistical. Getting all these people organized and getting on set, managing time and everything. The weather was an obstacle, so we had to coordinate with all the weather patterns. We did all natural lighting, so that was challenging. And, as you pointed out in post-production, it was very tough to do this dust stuff. It was a very different type of challenge. It involved me sitting down, weeks on end, by myself, in front of a computer, not freaking out in the forest in a matter of hours. We edited in Premiere, color graded in Resolve and the dust and stuff were made in After Effects.
Q: You shot on Blackmagic Cameras. What did you like about that camera, what didn’t you like?
ZE: I really like the camera. We didn’t have the bones to shoot on Alexa, which is my favorite camera. But the Blackmagic is a good second: it has really great dynamic range, a really great texture. They’re crazy cheap for what they deliver. The cost difference between a Blackmagic and higher end cameras is just incredible. We jumped on them right away. I like the color profile better than the RED cameras, which are extremely more expensive. I prefer to shoot on Blackmagic than on a RED.
The challenge with Blackmagic: it has a pretty tight sensor, which turned out OK in the forest because you can generally just keep backing up as much as you need to. In the tent scenes, which were really tight, I felt like we weren’t in complete control of those. Now they make something called a Speed Booster—which we have, but it didn’t exist back then for this model—that widens the whole angle, makes it more similar to a 35mm perspective. That’s really awesome but we didn’t have that back then.
Q: When did you film this?
ZE: Uhh… [Laughs] April of last year. A long time ago!
Q: Well there you can get a perspective of how long it takes to make even a film this short.
ZE: Yeah, interestingly our first short film that we made actually took like two weeks to make and cost like no money. It’s totally based on the type of film you’re making. It’s interesting seeing the comments on the film. There are a lot of people saying, “Why did you make this film? Why did you take so long to make this film?” and they’re right. You can definitely make cool stuff for less money and less time, and we’re hoping to do that with a feature. But we are really trying to do something original with the production and design.
Q: How tough was it to film on the Peninsula?
ZE: The funny thing about filming in the rain forest was that it was supposed to rain the entire time we were there, and instead ended up being freakishly sunny. We had planned for rain including building custom rain gear for all the equipment. With the crazy weather change we decided to film at dawn and dusk instead… so the challenged turned from escaping the wet to having to get up really early. It was a lot of driving and long days, but it was such an incredibly beautiful place to hang out in we didn’t mind at all.
Q: What do you feel you learned the most from this project, going forward?
ZE: Oh man. For us, this was so much bigger than anything we had ever done. It involved so many more people, so much more planning. I can’t believe how much we burnt on every single facet. Assembling a crew, approaching production, approaching post-production, the whole thing just really showed us new stuff on every single level. I can’t even plant it. It was so across the board, we feel much more confident about making a film now than we did a year ago.
Q: What advice can you give to somebody who may be looking to make a short or a feature, who maybe has some lofty goals but doesn’t have money, or the time, or maybe the ambition? What would you say?
ZE: Well the ambition, I can’t do anything about. [Laughs] You’ve got to have the ambition. When you’re making a film, you have to have a tremendous amount of drive and perseverance. It’s not a casual endeavor. Our first short film, which really launched our career, was made for practically nothing. It’s called In The Pines and it was us just hiking around. We had one actress, and we hiked around in the woods for a couple of days. We built a concept around our limitations. We didn’t have money. We had a camera that could do limited things. We had this idea and it was a simple idea and we were able to execute it with practically nothing.
I’ve never been to film school, but you can’t just “Dream Big.” [Laughs] That might be the antithesis of what your goals should be for the future, but don’t dream big. You’ve got to figure out what you can do, and then do that really well within those limitations. People will admire what you can do with those limitations.
Another little bit of advice, the internet has been hugely important to our career. Our first short being a “Picked By Staff” on Vimeo really opened up a world of opportunities for us. Film festivals have been awesome and great but where we really see things happening now is online. Find your audience, find your niche, and make something for that niche. They’ll buoy you up.
Q: You’ve raised a lot of money on Kickstarter, would you like to stay grassroots, raising money online or are you looking forward to working with a budget maybe more studio-financed?
ZE: Both? We built up with Kickstarter, one of the bigger things that we got from it were the volunteers, the people who offered their services, time and connections that were even more valuable. I don’t think we could, very easily at all, raise the money for a feature on Kickstarter. We actually met with some people from the company down at SXSW. What they suggested to do was raise part of the money online, maybe for one element of production. We want to stay in control of our films, and the types of films that we want to make, we can make them very inexpensively from an industry perspective. We want to make a movie on our own terms, and make it in Washington.
Be sure to check out Prospect and other projects from Zeek Earl at ShepFilms.com, and don’t forget to catch the short online.