Archives: Lo Fi Sci Fi

Lo Fi Sci Fi – a name derived from “Low Fidelity” and “Science Fiction”, meant to convey the impression of filmed science fiction created by amateurs or on a very limited budget. I don’t know who first coined the term, but I first encountered it in the ad campaign for the Toronto based independent film Infest Wisely, and thought it described a movement I’ve been seeing quite a bit of lately. Science Fiction as a literary genre has always been composed of enthusiastic amateurs writing primarily for themselves and each other as an audience. Science fiction cinema has always suffered in thematic substance as it has generally been made by commercial interested non-fans targeting a mass audience. In general this has meant employing a heavy coat of science fictional eye-candy to recycled western, war and horror movie plots. Actual thematic as opposed to visual science fiction in film has been rare, but the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement, now that the tools to make convincing amateur science fiction films are widely available, is starting to change all that. In posts of this category I’ll be reviewing films or filmmakers I feel fit into the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement.

Something new this time – I’ve got an interview for you.

A few days ago the popular blog Boing Boing linked to a YouTube video by someone going by the name The Faking Hoaxer. The video showed the orbiting debris of a space shuttle, and was made only from photographs manipulated in Photoshop and animated in Premier. Despite these rudimentary elements, the verisimilitude was astounding. It was some of the best pure lo fi effects work I’d ever seen. His videos aren’t full stories. He seems to be taking still NASA photos, old Apollo and Space Shuttle footage, and manipulating them in photoshop and then mixing them in After Effects. There seems to be very little, if any 3D work in any of these, just incredibly skillfully manipulated and mixed found-photos and found footage. The results he is getting are astonishing. He shows an inspired understanding of how to use sound and staged videographic errors to impart plausibility to simple tricks. I’d argue what he’s doing is closer to a form of stage magic than it is to the contemporary sfx industry. He is more Méliès than Weta Workshop. His videos stand as a great proof of the notion that intelligence, subtlety and creativity combined can produce high quality out of simple, inexpensive tools.

I contacted him via YouTube to find out more about how he got started doing what he does, how he developed his techniques, and what he was looking to accomplish.

OB: What is your background with relation to digital art? Are you a professional in some form, or a pure amateur? What are the tools you use most often and how long have you been using them?

TFH: I really have no background in digital art apart from the creations I have made for my youtube channel. I am a pure amateur who has many ideas floating around in my head and have found a way to create them using consumer tools. Mainly the Adobe products, digital stills camera and camcorders.

OB: Watching your “making of” videos, it struck me that someone could do essentially the same sorts of things using free software as well (Gimp for Photoshop, Blender for 3D, as well as some aspects of After Effects and Premiere). Many people, hobbyists especially, get hung up on thinking they need the latest of the best to get good work done. Clearly you show that this is not true. Was there a moment you realized what you could pull off with the tools you had at hand? What was the thinking that led to you devising your techniques?

TFH: The moment I made and released the ‘Midlands UFO’ Hoax video and people believed it was real was the start of TheFakingHoaxer. I used to post hoaxes on several websites under various names (some I have not to this day owned up to) and gauge the reactions to them via peoples comments. The more amateur the videos looked the more people believed them. This lead me to devising the really shaky, out of focus look that makes a video look real. After all a professional cameraman with a tripod never captures ufo’s.

OB: How long does it generally take you, from idea to YouTube posting, to create these pieces? Can you talk a little about your process?

TFH: Anything from 1 hour to a few days. It usually starts with listening to music, film soundtracks mostly and classical. I daydream out of the window as the music plays and then when an idea hits I start with the background image or video footage and then build it up from there. Its really difficult to give you the exact process as it can vary depending on the idea but music for me is a first key element.

OB: Have you deliberately looked outside the digital world for tips on technique? Can you talk about any technical influences you might have outside of the usual blockbuster suspects?

TFH: Having watched the ‘making of’ to every film that I have seen it strikes me that a lot of unnecessary effort is put into visual effects. I admire the days before CGI where everything was done ‘in camera’ and using models. These techniques made the old Star Wars Trilogy fantastic but CGI has ruined the new trilogy and to some degree the old ones. George Lucas said “you can ruin these things” and he has. I really have not looked outside the digital world, its just easier for me to use a PC than make models etc.

OB: Why did you decide on UFO encounters and imaginary NASA expeditions?

TFH: I’ve always had an interest in UFO’s and Spaceflight and I think anything that’s paranormal is kind of cool. That’s it, its all just kind of cool.

OB: Can you tell me more about how sound plays into your illusions?

TFH: Sound adds to the believability and gives a little more to the story. With hoax videos you have to be careful that it doesn’t sound like bad actors reading a script, that’s why I tend not to use actual people in my videos. I will use more sound effects as I move from hoaxes into more cinematic videos.

OB: Were you doing these before you found YouTube? When did you start circulating your work and how was it received?

TFH: No I started all this because of Youtube. I started in July 2008 and on the whole people like my work but I have many haters too and have been banned from several forums.

OB: Despite such obvious giveaways as the “making of” videos you’ve posted, and actually calling yourself “TheFakingHoaxer”, the comments on your videos still attract some credulity. Certainly some of it is from people trying to get a rise out of other commenters, but some of it I suspect is sincere. What is your relationship to that desire to believe in occult occurrences, regardless of the evidence?

TFH: I’m always suspicious of people that’s claim to have seen a ghost or aliens and then are perfectly happy to get on with a normal life. If I ever saw anything like that it would change my life and I would never be the same again. I have no desire to believe in this sort of thing and I will only trust my own eyes but there are people out there that do believe and nothing will convince them otherwise. People see what they want to see, not what they are actually seeing, they see with their heart.

OB: Now let’s talk about some of the videos themselves…

Midlands UFO

OB: This one was really convincing, I was actually surprised to see that every element was digital. I thought it was a real tree and real houses in the foreground, and that your only trickery was in the lights. But it was all CGI! Did you sculpt your own 3D elements (houses, tree), or did you use premade ones?

TFH: This being my first hoax I had to use pre-made objects, I hadn’t got the skills to model in 3d until a while later.

OB: It seems to me getting the excited camera motion to seem authentic is a real art, especially as there is no camera. Did you have to practice this a lot? How long does it take you to get just right, and has it gotten easier to pull off?

TFH: I first used ‘Wriggler’ which is an Adobe After Effects tool. This looked terrible and fake so I got a piece of white paper, drew two small dots an inch apart in the middle then filmed the paper with a camcorder making the movements and the zooms. Then importing this paper footage into After Effects, I tracked the dots then applying that movement data to the cgi scene made it look so much better. I do record new dots for every video and its become quite easy for me now.

Wind Turbine UFOs

OB: The sky ballet of these lights is really quite affecting. What do you think the role of gracefulness is in something like UFO fakery?

TFH: I think the music made it graceful, watch it without music and its just lights moving in the sky.

Crossing a Star

OB: Clearly this one was inspired by that brilliant photograph of the space shuttle silhouetted against the disk of the sun:

STS-125 Atlantis Solar Transit

OB: So many of your pieces suggest a deep familiarity with NASA and general space exploration picture archives. Those are a wonderful treasure for all of us. Do you follow current developments in the various global space programs closely? Have you always been a NASA fan?

TFH: Not closely but always watch launches on the TV and view the latest photographs from Hubble or Mars etc.. and yes, always been a NASA fan.

OB: I love that you link back to an Amazon MP3 of the Adaggio you’ve used as a soundtrack… do you put those ads up yourself? Do you have any thoughts about the nature of shared culture, of mixing, or of the creative commons movement? Do you have any kind of a plan for turning your own creative work into a source of some income? It’s a hard problem everyone is still trying to figure out.

TFH: No the adds just appeared. If I could find a composer to work with that would be great but for the moment I have to use music that’s already out there. I give the composers name in the end credits to my videos and that’s all I can give really. I don’t make money from these videos so I feel its okay to use other peoples work as long as I give them credit. I have made a few £’s from creating works for people. The next step for me is a website where I can sell my cgi creations/elements.

Space Shuttle Destroyed

OB: This is the one that seems to have made a wider splash. This seems like one of your most layered and complex pieces, and was actually rather tragic. I’ve noticed commenters on other blogs that have linked to this saying that they had difficulty watching it, even knowing it wasn’t real, because of the distress the imagery caused them. Did you imagine as you made this one that you’d get that kind of a reaction out of people?

TFH: Yes, its the music that makes people emotional. Without that brilliant James Horner score it would just be a video of a damaged shuttle.

OB: How did you so convincingly destroy pieces of the shuttle?

TFH: By searching on the internet for real photographs of the space shuttle and of plane crashes, then in photoshop cut, cloned and pasted it all together. The whole video only took a few hours to create but has become the most popular.

OB: Does this story get any more elaborate in your mind? Any plans to expand this one out?

TFH: I can see a film like Apollo13 coming from this video. But I have no plans to expand on what caused it, I will leave that a mystery for people to talk about.

OB: Did you script and perform any of the audio in this one, or was it all found audio? The radio chatter is very authentic sounding, yet seems to apply better to the images than I’d expect for found sound.

TFH: No, all the audio is from real NASA footage.

Into Mars Orbit 1973/74

OB: A trip to Mars in the 1970s! I had a smile on my face through this whole piece. Mixing in the Apollo astrounaut footage was a very nice choice, and points to a path I wonder if you are considering pursuing further – by constructing fuller stories using found or stock footage, skillfully mixed with your effects work. I’m reminded that legendary B movie director Ed Wood attempted at times to pad out his ultra low budget films with voice-over enhanced stock footage. The practice has had the feel of cheapness in the past, but I think that was largely due to its poor execution and that the culture was not at all familiar with the idea of sampling and mixing as an art form in and of itself. In the post hip-hop world, mixing has gained significant respectability, though I haven’t seen it explored in any kind of full way in video. Though we’re starting to see that now, with remixed movie trailers like that “The Shining” romantic comedy parody, or in the Disney/Pixar film mashups of DJ Pogo. Have you considered trying to produce a found footage mashup natrrative film? Can you think a bit in writing here about how something like that might work if you were to attempt it?

TFH: I have made several works like this for contemporary artists and they have been exhibited in several galleries in London but they will never appear on my channel. I have a mind full of ideas for short films but I’m sorry to say I’m keeping them to myself at the moment.

Returned to Sender

OB: So you’ve got a trailer up for a film you’d like to make. In a way it’s reminiscent of the big reveal at the end of the first Star Trek motion picture – a certain Voyager has returned home, and not unaccompanied. It’s a great jumping off point, and I’m really intrigued at what you may be thinking of doing with it. Can you say anymore about this project without giving too much away?

TFH: I’m not a StarTrek fan (and I detest Doctor Who by the way) and have never watched any of the films so its a pure coincidence that its similar to that. The film/s I have in my head is of a Gigantic Cinematic Trilogy, has touches of the book ‘War of the Worlds ‘ but with a very different ending. Geeks, like me, would be able to buy and build model kits of the cool ships and vehicles from the film something so lacking in present times…. If I say any more I would spoil it.. so I will stop myself there.

OB: You describe Returned to Sender as a film you’d like to make if only you had the money. To what degree have you thought about giving it a go with your current resources, and bootstrapping your film into being? You already have found ways to wring surprising quality visuals out of some fairly basic imagery and tools. Can you think of ways you could approach your larger film idea with the same ingenuity, applied to all aspects of the filmmaking process, not just the visuals?

TFH: True, I could make it independent of Hollywood cash. But I need to start making short low budget films first and then, after I have some knowledge and experience, I can tackle ‘Returned to Sender’. I would hate to jump into it now and have some cheap crappy actors spoil my vision.

OB: Can you summarize in a handful of items what are the things you need to think about to devise and execute your visual hoaxes?

TFH: A hoax must worship believability. Could it happen and could it be captured on film.

OB: Last question – do you have friends who do strange, creative things as well? Would you see yourself as part of a community of creativity, or more of a lone operator? Which do you think you’d like better?

TFH: I suppose I’m a loner, always thinking outside the box because I know there is no box. It would be great to work with creative people but on the other hand I like to be in control of what I do.

I’ll be keeping on eye on The Faking Hoaxer’s YouTube Channel, and will certainly be keeping his techniques in mind as I look at my own projects.

Lo Fi Sci Fi – a name derived from “Low Fidelity” and “Science Fiction”, meant to convey the impression of filmed science fiction created by amateurs or on a very limited budget. I don’t know who first coined the term, but I first encountered it in the ad campaign for the Toronto based independent film Infest Wisely, and thought it described a movement I’ve been seeing quite a bit of lately. Science Fiction as a literary genre has always been composed of enthusiastic amateurs writing primarily for themselves and each other as an audience. Science fiction cinema has always suffered in thematic substance as it has generally been made by commercial interested non-fans targeting a mass audience. In general this has meant employing a heavy coat of science fictional eye-candy to recycled western, war and horror movie plots. Actual thematic as opposed to visual science fiction in film has been rare, but the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement, now that the tools to make convincing amateur science fiction films are widely available, is starting to change all that. In posts of this category I’ll be reviewing films or filmmakers I feel fit into the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement.

For our second installment of Lo Fi Sci Fi, we’ll turn 180 degrees from the high production value of Neill Blomkamp’s shorts to a piece that is almost pure ideas, with fairly amateur execution (and was also the film that got me thinking about Lo Fi Sci Fi as a movement in the first place); Infest Wisely:

I first read about this project in a couple of posts on the blog of science fiction author Peter Watts.

The background here seems to be that science fiction author Jim Monroe, after having a novel published by HarperCollins and being unhappy with the experience, walked away from his publisher and plunged into self publishing his work. He has quite a substantial body of work now.

Among the things he made was Novel Amusements – an annual DVDzine (A compilation of short videos on CD-ROM and DVD-R) anthologizing low budget, inventive films. In the course of this project he met six directors who he decided to collaborate with in the making of a very low budget science fiction feature. He wrote the whole film himself, but in seven segments, one targeted to each director’s particular talents:

“It was awesome,” Munroe enthused. “Jon made a fake ATM machine from scratch. Kirby shot a sex scene the rest of us were too nervous to. Craig crafted a bunch of amazing special effects. Chris staged a punk rock show. Rose got us a tiny city to rampage through. And Benny did some chase scene stunts with his crazy art-bikes.”

You can sense his enthusiasm, and when you watch the seven segments that comprise the film, you can see that the filmmakers were really creatively and intellectually engaged in the spirit of this project. They cobbled it together with materials ready to hand, and wrote it to their resources, which basically means it is a science fiction film about ideas primarily, and not about set piece effects sequences or dizzying action.

And great ideas it definitely has. What it’s missing is good, or often even just watchable, acting. It’s a shame really, as you will often have to look past some really atrocious performances to see the brilliance of some of the ideas at play. I hesitate to hold this against the project, as it was very, very low budget and was cast with enthusiastic amateurs. I still think it is worth your time to watch it. I just want to prepare you honestly for what is ahead, so you don’t throw in the towel before the end.

There are some great things in here. There is scary math, nanobot chewing gum, bicycle flash mobs with duct taped mouths, gene swiping assaults in public restrooms, alien art patrons and a floppy diskette that might just save humanity. It’s the stories of multiple protagonists woven together, and though at times it seems the plot threads are only vaguely related, have patience, it all weaves together in the end.

Some of the more poorly performed scenes seem to have been written on the verge of farce, which might have been a misstep as the actors they had are far more passable when just doing regular life – and sometimes the farcical elements come off a bit heavy handed. The anti-corporate stuff is pretty clumsily handled, though understandably so given the writer’s outspoken independence. The thing with the cats near the end was, I think, meant to be weird and disturbing, but comes off a little too flip and precious. I can’t go into that any deeper without giving away a big spoiler. I’ll just say that element could have been handled in a more unsettling manner, and would probably have been more effective. Instead, as the global hazard presented by the “infestation” of the title becomes truly dire, the film staggers a bit in tone between weird bio-thriller and 1970′s Disney live action children’s film, only with ugly political implications.

I guess even that sounds interesting.

It’s a hard film to critique – it is what it is, and it’s very much worth your time to view it. The entire film is available online here (including a very interesting to independent filmmakers commentary track), and you can buy a DVD of it here.

Also, and this is an important thing to look at, check out the excellence of their website. This is how you put your best face forward with independently produced work!

So, to sum up, a very low budget, very rich in ideas, problematic in execution but ultimately successful experiment in independent, smart, Twenty First century science fiction. It is often said of mainstream feature Science Fiction that the films lag ten or twenty years behind the literature. I think it’s actually worse, and the films are really mostly mired in tropes right out of the 1930s pulp era. Fun though that might be, it offers little challenge to the brain and offers no valid reflections on possible future paths from the present moment. Infest Wisely does not lag the literature by even a day, it’s right out there on the contemporary edge, looking clearly, and with deep skepticism, at some very troubling ways into tomorrow.

All that, and it’s free-as-in-beer. So go watch it, and tell me what you think!

Lo Fi Sci Fi – a name derived from “Low Fidelity” and “Science Fiction”, meant to convey the impression of filmed science fiction created by amateurs or on a very limited budget. I don’t know who first coined the term, but I first encountered it in the ad campaign for the Toronto based independent film Infest Wisely, and thought it described a movement I’ve been seeing quite a bit of lately. Science Fiction as a literary genre has always been composed of enthusiastic amateurs writing primarily for themselves and each other as an audience. Science fiction cinema has always suffered in thematic substance as it has generally been made by commercial interested non-fans targeting a mass audience. In general this has meant employing a heavy coat of science fictional eye-candy to recycled western, war and horror movie plots. Actual thematic as opposed to visual science fiction in film has been rare, but the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement, now that the tools to make convincing amateur science fiction films are widely available, is starting to change all that. In posts of this category I’ll be reviewing films or filmmakers I feel fit into the Lo Fi Sci Fi movement.

The first Neill Blomkamp short I encountered was Tetra Vaal:

Structured like an industrial advertisement, using a hand held, verite camera style, with what sounds like improvised, completely authentic narration and carefully integrated, subtle and beautiful effects, this short is utterly convincing. In about a minute and forty seconds, it’s more satisfying science fiction than most full features I’ve seen. In it’s short running time it manages to pack in a realistic feeling high concept – a robot police officer, but not a Peter Weller style robocop, rather an ambulatory, semi autonomous gun platform for use in locales that are hostile to police presence. The fact that it seems not designed to mitigate the hostility, but rather, unconcerned with hostility and only designed to decrease the physical hazard to police themselves, regardless of what I can’t help but see as implied increased hazard to the policed, manages also to include a humanistic and political theme, and to raise questions left artfully unanswered. I’ve watched this short repeatedly. It’s perfect.

So, who is Neill Blomkamp? Wikipedia lists him as a South African born, Vancouver, BC-based director of short films and advertisements. IMDB lists several projects he’s involved in.

One of them was at one point a film version of the Halo video game. It looks like that has gone by the wayside, but when it was first announced he was interviewed by Ain’t it Cool and he had this to say about his motivations for making his short films:

I have to be doing something creative all the time, I like just rolling up my sleeves and just making stuff, for the sake of learning, or experimenting, or messing around, shorts can be better than pretty much anything for that. Commercials I was beginning to find uncreative because your end goal is to sell a product, and music videos are really great, but you can’t really have dialogue, so I just defaulted to making my own pieces on the side of doing commercials, and ironically they seem better known then all the commercials, except that one for Adidas which was basically a short.

Which Adidas commercial? This one:

This spot, Yellow, shows a clear influence from cyborg themed anime, especially the classic Ghost in the Shell, which itself was also one of the influences the Wachowski brothers riffed on in the Matrix films. Unlike the Wachowski’s, Blomkamp in this short demonstrates a much deeper understanding of the philosophical substance that underlies that anime subgenre. The Matrix movies play off visuals from the same source, but never seem to comprehend the existential questions that animate those visuals. Blomkamp in Yellow employs both the questions and some of the key visuals with deft economy, and manages to communicate more substance in 4 minutes than the Wachowskis did in over 4 hours.

Two other tools in evidence here that you can see in all of Blomkamp’s shorts:

  1. Naturalistic, extemporaneous sounding narration and dialog that just really pushes the reality of patently fantastic visuals. It’s the way he records human voices and works them into his pieces, more than the visuals, that makes them feel like documentaries, and gives you the sense of watching actual events unfold. Yellow is probably the most structurally dramatic of all of the one’s I’m reviewing here, the one that is most formulaic, but it’s the narration that saves it from cliche.
  2. Skilled use of functional workplace locations and real environments, with telling close ups. There is a shot on what appears to be a meat processing floor where a man cuts a chicken leg off with a knife. It’s quick and serves both the establish a reality grounded setting and point up increasing danger as police are closing in on the Yellow android. It also suggests a grim outlook on the place of flesh in a world where thinking machines are possible. It’s an expertly placed, multivalent visual, and the employment of such visuals is one of Blomkamp’s primary strengths.

To my mind, his definitive piece is the alien refugee/apartheid documentary Alive in Joburg:

This is just beautiful on so many levels. At 6.5 minutes it’s the longest of these shorts, but absolutely every second is packed with layered significance. It really feels like a full story. Every new fact you learn about the situation comes by watching consequences and actions in media res.

Also on full display here is the effectiveness of his choice to make the setting for his science fiction something other than the traditional western world. Much like the written work of Ian McDonald, Blomkamp uses the people and culture of South Africa here to discover new thematic territory in the old story of flying saucers over our cities. His saucers aren’t conquerors, they are desperate refugees. The cities they’ve parked over aren’t in a world power capable of expelling them by force. So everyone now has to deal with a very awkward situation, how to divide resources and maintain social stability among a genuinely volatile mix of need and custom. Africans, Afrikaans and Aliens; how do these three groups reconcile competing imperatives. It’s really quite a stroke of genius, throwing the familiar struggle over equality and power between the African and Dutch descended populations of South Africa into new, uncomfortable shapes. This twist alone makes the film deserve an even fuller treatment.

We are in luck, as it appears that is what it is going to get; IMDB shows an August 14th, 2009 projected release date for District 9. Here is some kid on youtube doing a pretty thorough walkthrough off all the viral advertising that has been accumulating around District 9, which is an expanded version of Alive in Joburg:

Neill Blomkamp in this short and commercial work has already produced a substantial body of quality filmed science fiction, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he can achieve at a full feature length runtime.

I include him in the category of Lo Fi Sci Fi despite his comparatively large budgets and professional connections because his primary output up until now has been experimental shorts released primarily online and making excellent use of techniques available to even very low budget filmmakers. Quality on this order is well within reach of amateurs, and we now also have Neill showing us how to do it. May many follow in his footsteps!