Effects

The Making of ATROPA

In March 2015, I conducted a interview for Cinefex with filmmaker Eli Sasich, discussing his sci-fi short film ATROPA. Three years later, we came together again – joined this time by visual effects supervisor Ryan Wieber – to talk about ATROPA: The Series, a seven-episode expansion of the original proof-of-concept backed by Vimeo and released through Vivendi’s STUDIO+ platform. Now, for the first time, I’m delighted to present both interviews back-to-back.

  • Update September 20, 2021: all seven episodes of ATROPA: The Series are now available on the Dust streaming platform. Click here to watch it FREE.
ATROPA by Eli Sasich

Part 1 – ATROPA

Lone off-world detective Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) stumbles on a giant vessel adrift in the depths of space. It’s the ATROPA, the very ship he’s been pursuing, but something is wrong. He shouldn’t have caught up with it for another 98 days. Waking the vessel’s crew from cryosleep only deepens the mystery, and when the ATROPA collides with something unimaginably strange, confusion turns to disbelief … and the real adventure begins.

This cliffhanger note marks the end of ATROPA, a 2015 sci-fi short directed by Eli Sasich. The suspenseful climax is deliberate, because the film is in fact merely a proof-of-concept for a full-length project. In this Q&A for Cinefex, Sasich discusses the making of ATROPA, his first film project since festival favourite HENRi, in which a robot discovers there may be more to life than mere artificial intelligence.


Eli Sasich
Eli Sasich

GRAHAM EDWARDS – Where did the story concept for ATROPA originate?

ELI SASICH – The story really came out of a thought experiment: what would happen if you (literally) crashed into yourself in space? How might something like that be possible, and how would you deal with it? What would be the physical and emotional toll? It’s like a Twilight Zone episode – one of those classic sci-fi genre tropes – but the writer, Clay Tolbert, and I found a unique way into it.

Taking that as a jumping-off point, we then formed the story around our main characters, Cole and Moira. Strip everything else away, and it’s a love story: how two people rekindle a dying relationship under the most extreme circumstances – kind of like The Abyss. We have these big sweeping ideas about time and fate, but it’s the character story that really excites me.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – You made the short film as a way of advancing a feature-length project. Why go to all that trouble?

ELI SASICH – As a director without a feature credit, I felt like I needed something to show I could effectively work with actors and small budgets. HENRi was like a master’s program for me – I learned a ton, and it took two years to complete – but it was a very different type of film. We only had a few actors, and I was dealing mostly with miniatures and effects. It was more precision craft and less spontaneous problem-solving. It’s all the same process, but the challenges were different. I really wanted to get back and shoot something more conventional again.

It’s risky – you have to make it look and feel like a professional feature film, but you have a fraction of the time and money. Being able to show an executive or financier what you are talking about is a huge advantage, as long as it lives up to expectations. Luckily, we had an awesome crew who stepped up to the challenge, and we were able to make something that portrayed the tone and mood I was going for.

Off-world detective Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) docks his shuttle Morinda with a mysterious spaceship called ATROPA.
Off-world detective Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) docks his shuttle Morinda with a mysterious spaceship called ATROPA.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – Can you tell us anything more about the full-length story?

ELI SASICH – I can say that the film explores the ideas of fate and free will, actions and consequences. That’s one of the things I love about science fiction – the ability to explore big philosophical ideas in an organic way.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – What stage are you at with the feature development?

ELI SASICH – We are actively pitching the feature right now – I’m really excited to say that we are in discussions with Pukeko Pictures to develop and produce it. Pukeko Pictures is a sister company to Weta Workshop; it was founded in 2008 by Sir Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger, and Martin Baynton. I couldn’t be more excited by the possibility of collaborating with such an amazingly talented and creative team.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – What budget and timescale did you work to for the short film?

ELI SASICH – There was very little money for the short. We had three weeks of pre-production, we shot it in two days, and finished the entire film for right around $10,000. Most of that money came from HENRi sales, which I’m very thankful for.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – During the production of the ATROPA short, did you apply any lessons you’d learned while making HENRi?

ELI SASICH – You learn from every project – sometimes the hard way. Keeping calm, trusting my intuition, and adapting to unexpected problems were important lessons from HENRi that will stick with me for the rest of my career. In a more technical realm, the post-production effects workflow was something I really got a good handle on with HENRi, and that helped immensely when it came time to finish ATROPA quickly.

ATROPA concept art

GRAHAM EDWARDS – Let’s talk about the design of the film. Who did the concept art?

ELI SASICH – We had eight or nine pieces of concept art done by artists from around the world. Ioan Dumitrescu worked mostly on the designs for the ATROPA and Cole’s ship, the Morinda. Mike Sebalj and Roger Adams did some really nice character and environment designs for us. We also had storyboards done for all our exterior space sequences – artist Jean Claude De La Ronde provided those.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – Did you use any specific design cues for the two spaceships?

ELI SASICH – For the Morinda, I had a vague idea of the shape I was after. The articulated dual engines or nacelles were a concept I had for a different type of propulsion/steering mechanism. I thought it would be a unique and intuitive way to depict roll and pitch. That was really born out of the idea that there is no “up” or “down” in space. When the Morinda approaches the ATROPA, it’s not on the same plane, meaning Cole has to reorient his ship to the proper course. I really wanted to depict that, because it seems that every time I see an approach sequence in sci-fi, the two vessels are always perfectly aligned with each other.

The ATROPA was more difficult. We explored many different shapes and sizes – some were pretty out there in terms of design. Ultimately, it came down to finding something that fit within our world. We needed the ATROPA to quickly read as a large industrial ship to the audience. Obviously we took some design cues from the Sulaco from Aliens – but that bold, elongated shape seemed to read the best in the short amount of screen time.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – You shot the film on the standing spaceship set at Laurel Canyon Stages in LA. Why did you choose that particular location?

ELI SASICH – I had visited the Laurel Canyon stages years earlier as a possible location for HENRi, long before we decided to use quarter-scale miniatures. I had always wanted to shoot there – it has that wonderfully gritty and grimy look that I love. It also perfectly invokes ‘70s and ‘80s sci-fi, which was the ideal world for ATROPA.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – Did you adapt the Laurel Canyon set to give it your own personal stamp?

ELI SASICH – That set has been used in thousands of projects, so it’s pretty easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. Since we couldn’t change the set in any way, other than some rearranging of props, it was really important to use lighting and shot composition to make the space our own. Our director of photography, Greg Cotten, did an amazing job of capturing the set in a different way than it’s usually shot.

For example, we made the conscious choice not to light from the ceiling grates, which creates amazing texture and patterns, but it’s also how everyone seems to light that set. We weren’t afraid of letting things fall off into darkness either – it created mystery and tension and hid some of the less camera-friendly elements of the space.

In terms of shot composition, we tried to keep things wide and cinematic wherever possible, and we motivated camera moves when we could, to keep things interesting. Specific original set pieces were also built and utilised to give us our own unique identity.

ATROPA was shot on the standing spacecraft set at Laurel Canyon Stage in Los Angeles.
ATROPA was shot on the standing spacecraft set at Laurel Canyon Stage in Los Angeles.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – Tell us about some of the set pieces you brought in.

ELI SASICH – Our production designer, Alec Contestabile, designed and built the hologram board in Cole’s ship, the cryosleep pods, and the table in the mess hall, matching the look and feel of what already existed at Laurel Canyon. The hologram board was a wooden box with a glossy tabletop, and practical LED lights hidden in the inner lip. The LEDs helped sell the effect of the chessboard by providing interactive lighting on Cole’s face.

The cryosleep pods were made out of foam-core board, cardboard, and various pieces of junk – tubes and wiring – all attached to a wooden frame. They only weighed about 15 pounds, so one crewmember could move them. The table in the mess hall was fashioned by bolting two plastic pallets together and covering them with scrap pieces of Plexiglass.

We lit the table practically from the inside. Alec carefully placed six iPads on a shot-by-shot basis, which we used to loop tech graphics. It was nice to get some in-camera data screens, and it gave the actors something to look at and interact with. Alec worked wonders with the production design, all with essentially no money. He used junk and whatever odds and ends we could find lying around to create a completely believable world.

Production designer Alec Contestabile created a number of bespoke set pieces to enhance the Laurel Canyon set, including the holographic table in the cockpit of the Morinda.
Production designer Alec Contestabile created a number of bespoke set pieces to enhance the Laurel Canyon set, including the holographic table in the cockpit of the Morinda.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – The performances are uniformly calm and measured. Did the cast get to read the whole feature script before working on the short, to help them build their characters?

ELI SASICH – It was important to me that everything seemed fairly routine to these characters, until the big reveal at the end – which is certainly not routine. Because the short had to set so many things up, it’s a heavily truncated version of the actual first act of the script. The dialogue had to get more information across, and things certainly happen faster. I did speak with each actor about the journey their character takes in the feature, but they never read the full script. The cast was fantastic, and they were great to work with. We had to shoot fast, down and dirty, and they were always prepared and willing to do so.

Eli Sasich and Anthony Bonaventura on the set of ATROPA.
Eli Sasich and Anthony Bonaventura on the set of ATROPA.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – What was the workflow for the visual effects?

ELI SASICH – Tobias Richter and his team at The Light Works did all the exterior spaceship effects. After working with Jean Claude to storyboard the space sequences, we handed those boards off to Tobias and his team. They would return with low-resolution animatics of each shot, which I would then give notes on. The Light Works is located in Germany, so all of post was coordinated via email and Skype. It was a truly seamless process, and they did an amazing job for us.

For the few shots that included live action elements – like the pull-back from Cole’s ship – we coordinated ahead of time, providing photo reference and measurements. In terms of direction, I provided examples of various shots I liked. I would reference lighting and compositing elements from different films, and we would work off of those ideas. Interestingly enough, the finished shots wouldn’t feel right until we added imperfections – slight camera shake, lens distortion, grain and tasteful flares.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – That pull-back shot from the Morinda is quite complex. How did you put it together?

ELI SASICH – It was a difficult shot for several reasons. First and foremost, we didn’t have the space to dolly back from the cockpit set, let alone make the turn around the side. So we shot the plate of Cole in the cockpit as a wide lock-off. Tobias and his team then projected that live action footage onto a 2D card within a low-poly CG cockpit set which they had modelled.

The pull-back was done in the computer, but since we didn’t have a perspective shift on our live-action footage, wrapping around the side of the ship posed many challenges. We ended up doing a hand-off to a CG double of Cole, using the cockpit window strut as a natural wipe once we reached about a 45-degree angle. The effect works fairly seamlessly, and was a really crafty way to fake a very complicated move.

Visual effects for ATROPA were created by The Light Works.
Visual effects for ATROPA were created by The Light Works.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – How did you track the 3D chessboard graphics into the live-action plate?

ELI SASICH – Our VFX supervisor, Ryan Wieber, did the 3D chessboard and proximity alert display, as well as all of our compositing. He was able to track and create these completely believable shots without greenscreen – because there wasn’t enough room to light the screen – and usually without any tracking markers.

The chessboard hologram was an incredible effect. We had a set piece with built-in practical lighting, but the LEDs were visible in many shots, and quite distracting. Ryan ended up replacing the top of the chessboard in every shot, so the lights were covered. He then built the hologram projection in Adobe After Effects, utilising Element 3D for the chess pieces, together with layer upon layer of compositing tricks. The opening shot, where we pull out of the holographic chess piece, was a completely digital camera move up until the tilt-up to Cole.

For the cockpit shots, Ryan rotoscoped Cole and added in glass and stars. He has an incredible eye, and an amazing design sense – he also created all of our display graphics and screens. Ryan was instrumental in helping create a believable sci-fi world – I call him the magician!

GRAHAM EDWARDS – The music has an grand, epic quality. Was that a deliberate creative choice?

ELI SASICH – I love film music – especially big orchestral scores. I think we’ve lost a bit of the art of film scoring today. Music has become filler noise, and the use of strong themes has strangely gone out of style. Our composer, Kevin Riepl – who also scored HENRi – feels the same way. Kevin and I share a passion for the same types of film scores, as well as the philosophy that themes should develop just like characters over the course of a story.

We certainly didn’t have the budget to record a live orchestra for ATROPA, but I really wanted that epic feel. Fortunately (and somewhat ironically), Kevin did the score for the videogame Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was live orchestra. We had access to all the stems from that recording session, so he rearranged and remixed them, and added some electronic elements to create something new. The music is barely recognisable from the game, and it gave us the big, live, cinematic sound I was looking for. It’s another example of working within low-budget constraints and still finding ways to get what you want creatively. A bit of Aliens obviously snuck through, which is fine with me – it’s one of my favourite movies, and certainly an inspiration.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – The film contains a reference to the Valley Forge, there’s a cap that might have been worn by a member of the Nostromo’s crew … what other sci-fi in-jokes did you put in there?

ELI SASICH – Good eyes catching those Easter eggs! I like adding little in-jokes wherever possible. It’s a fun way to both acknowledge the projects that inspired you, and add little hidden elements for yourself and your friends. Most will never be seen, but there are a few more. For example, the hand-held case-file used by Cole displays “VL-426”, which is a reference to the planet “LV-426” from Alien and Aliens. In fact, all the crew ID numbers on the case-file bio pages are the original ID numbers of the Nostromo crew from Alien.

You mentioned Valley Forge – Cole’s last name, Freeman, also comes from Silent Running, in reference to the main character, Freeman Lowell, played by Bruce Dern. The logo for the ATROPA is actually the same logo for the Pythagoras ship from HENRi, only turned upside down with different colours. The sound of the Morinda’s engines was inspired by the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Our sound designer, Michael Ault, created his own take on that classic sound by pitch-shifting elephant trumpets.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – The chess game not only opens the film, but also appears during the end credits. Is this significant?

ELI SASICH – Chess is a battle of wits and a game of strategy; I liked the symbolism. I also wanted to foreshadow the ending in a subtle visual way: the chessboard is an exact mirror image of itself with the two sets of opposing pieces. The idea that Cole will be squaring off against himself becomes literal by the end of the short.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – How do you feel about the short, now that you’re pitching the feature-length project?

ELI SASICH – ATROPA was made possible by a very passionate and hardworking crew. The end result has definitely opened doors for us, and the response to the release online was overwhelming. We hope we can make the feature – the story goes to some really thought-provoking and unexpected places.

GRAHAM EDWARDS – Do you have any other projects in development?

ELI SASICH – I have a few other projects at varying stages. I’m working with another writer on a really fun action/adventure film, which follows the oddball friendship of a couple of historical figures. It has the tone of Ghostbusters and Sherlock Holmes, with some steampunk design sense thrown in for good measure. It would be an absolute blast. I’ve also written a smaller indie film that deals with another historical figure, and a little-known fact about his death. It’s a passion-project for me, and something I’ve been kicking around for years. I’m interested in strong character stories, regardless of genre, time period, or setting.


Part 2 – ATROPA: The Series

In the 2018 web serial ATROPA: The Series, off-world detective Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) and the crew of a drifting spaceship face a cosmic mystery that not only redefines their perception of time and space, but also threatens to send them spinning to their doom. A nostalgic throwback to sci-fi films of old, ATROPA: The Series sends its cast of spacefaring characters down grimy ship corridors and confronts them with the dangers of deep space in their perilous quest for universal truth.

ATROPA: The Series began life in 2015, when filmmaker Eli Sasich made a short film — called simply ATROPA — as a pitch for a feature script. Having released the short online, Sasich went through a long development process aimed at bringing the story to the big screen, before ultimately realizing the project as a seven-episode series backed by Vimeo and released through Vivendi’s STUDIO+ platform.

Following the release of ATROPA: The Series, Cinefex caught up with the writer-director again — joined this time by visual effects supervisor Ryan Wieber — to discuss the project in its finished form.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Last time we spoke, Eli, you were trying to get ATROPA off the ground as a feature. How far down the road did you get?

ELI SASICH — We got really far. We had Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop involved — I even went out to New Zealand and looked at stage space — but for numerous reasons it didn’t end up going. But, I always remembered that we’d had a great response to the pitch film online, and I’d had such a great experience with the team that made it. So I thought maybe we could cut this feature script into episodes and make it as a web series.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — How did you go about doing that?

ELI SASICH — I wanted to keep the original pilot intact, so I truncated the feature script, made three characters into one, all the things you have to do to simplify. It worked really well — there were natural cliffhangers every 10-15 minutes. We were going to crowdfund it on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Then I got connected with Vimeo, and they said, “No, we’ll just pay for it!” We were thrilled!

In ATROPA: The Series, created by Eli Sasich, an interstellar detective boards a missing starship moments before it collides with its doppelganger, sparking a chain of events that will call into question the very laws of space and time.
In ATROPA: The Series, created by Eli Sasich, an interstellar detective boards a missing starship moments before it collides with its doppelganger, sparking a chain of events that will call into question the very laws of space and time.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — You said that your intention was to leave the original short unchanged. Is that how it turned out?

ELI SASICH — It’s the exact same edit. We just added a planet in the background of the space shots. That was always in the feature script as a big story point, but in the original pitch film we didn’t need it. Our composer Kevin Riepl did an all-new score as well.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — The score throughout the series has the same epic feel as the short. Was that deliberate?

ELI SASICH — It was. Kevin and I really wanted to have a classic, romanticized orchestral score, because we felt the visuals could handle a really big sound. For the pitch film, we used a lot of Kevin’s score for the game Aliens: Colonial Marines. Obviously, when we turned it into the series, we couldn’t use that. But the gauntlet was already thrown down, so we made the decision to record with a live orchestra.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — You shot the original short at Laurel Canyon Stages in Los Angeles. Did you go back there to make the series?

ELI SASICH — We did and it hadn’t changed, which was really bizarre and kind of exciting. There was a point while we were shooting episode two, Doppelganger, when we re-created a shot of everyone looking out through the spaceship window. It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. It was two years later, and all the same actors were back and most of the same crew, and we were all just kind of looking at each other. It was surreal and wonderful. My assistant director got a little annoyed because we had to stop and take a picture!

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Laurel Canyon has a standing set comprising two spaceship corridors set perpendicular to each other. Did you expand that with additional sets?

ELI SASICH — Yes, but we just kitbashed everything we could find at Laurel Canyon. We took flats and different things they had built for other productions, reconfigured them and set dressed them to make new spaces.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — How did you structure the visual effects department?

RYAN WIEBER — The department was basically me! I had a handful of folks doing a half-dozen shots here, one shot there, just to help fill in the gaps — I was calling in any favors that I had to help get our 333 visual effects shots done. The main CG vendor was The Light Works, led by Tobias Richter — they were responsible for the all-CG exterior shots of the spaceships and they built the Core, our virtual location. I composited the Core shots but they did the comps for their space shots, and then we put on a little spit-shine of our own, like lens flares and grain. We also had over 100 shots with motion graphic display screens, which were designed, animated and composited by Ricardo Elliott II. He was creatively supervised by myself and Eli, but I let him take full ownership of that.

ELI SASICH — The Earth-based sequences in episode four were done by BluFire Studios, the company that I worked with on my short film HENRi. They did flying vehicles and set extensions, and also a robot. It was fun to have them come back and do another robot for me!

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Let’s take a closer look at the visual effects, episode by episode. Tell me about this planet that you added to the pitch film, which is now episode one of the series, Pilot.

ELI SASICH — I always knew I wanted a gaseous planet, and I wanted it to be blue — I think I probably got that color from LV-426 in Aliens. Because of a particular story point, we talked a lot about whether it’s actually a planet at all — ultimately that’s up to the viewer. For that reason, we really wanted to keep the surface hidden. Also for story reasons, it had to have a ring.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Since we covered this episode in our earlier interview, let’s skip straight onto episode two, Doppelganger. This is where we first see the Core — the reactor control room of the spaceship ATROPA.

ELI SASICH — We couldn’t build an entire Core room, but we really wanted to have some scope to that environment. So we knew we were getting into a digital set. Our production designer, Alec Contestabile, built an elevated walkway that was maybe 60-70 feet long, with a little control room at the end. The rest was greenscreen.

Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) and Moira Freeman (Jeannie Bolét) meet in the Core. Production designer Alec Contestabile built the walkway and control room, which visual effects expanded using CG set extensions.
Cole Freeman (Tony Bonaventura) and Moira Freeman (Jeannie Bolét) meet in the Core. Production designer Alec Contestabile built the walkway and control room, which visual effects expanded using CG set extensions.

RYAN WIEBER — I had a concept artist, Ian Galvin, explore the general shape of the space — we wanted it to be warm and steamy, kind of like an engine room, somewhere that wouldn’t be comfortable. It was important to me to have some big structural components, and this big drive shaft coming in overhead. We had some recurring elements to sell the scale, like catwalks and little cage lights. We turned that over to Tobias, and he kitbashed and embellished it.

ELI SASICH — I wanted to make sure there were railings. Unlike Star Wars, no-one’s falling over the edge of this!

GRAHAM EDWARDS — The camera is pretty mobile in some of those Core shots. Was it a big deal tracking your CG environment into the live-action plates?

RYAN WIEBER — I used SynthEyes for all of the 3D tracking that I could do myself, which was everything except the stuff in the Core. Those shots had free moves, with a lot of anamorphic lens distortion and subtle rack focusing, so I outsourced the tracking to Basilic Fly in India. I furnished them with set measurements, and they delivered back a totally rectified world space. I handed that off to Tobias and The Light Works and they built the set around it.

Freeman crosses between spaceships on a ‘mag-tether’ cable, in this shot created by a team at The Light Works, led by visual effects supervisor Tobias Richter.
Freeman crosses between spaceships on a ‘mag-tether’ cable, in this shot created by a team at The Light Works, led by visual effects supervisor Tobias Richter.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — In Doppelganger, there’s a sequence where Cole crosses on a ‘mag-tether’ cable from the ATROPA to her twin ship — which has just mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. How did you put those shots together?

ELI SASICH — I wanted to get as much of our actor in there as possible, so we built a little airlock door and shot a couple of days with Tony on wires in front of a greenscreen. The rest was CG with a digi-double.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — It’s reminiscent of the spacewalk between the Alexei Leonov and the Discovery in 2010, both in terms of the staging and the look of the ships.

ELI SASICH — I always wanted this be a homage to those films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. We tried to keep the CG camera moves very deliberate, to fit in with that style and also have continuity with how the rest of the show was shot. In the past, Tobias has done beautiful models of the Star Trek ships, so he’s really got paneling down! We just pushed it even further to really see every nut and bolt and give it that grungy look.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — The zero-gee action continues when Cole is inside the ATROPA’s sister ship, where the artificial gravity has failed. How did you float your actor through the set?

ELI SASICH — We put him on a parallelogram on a dolly. I was nervous, because there was this giant piece of machinery and these two stunt guys pushing it through those corridors. I kept looking at Ryan and saying, “You’re sure you can erase all this stuff?”

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Did you shoot clean plates to help with crew and rig removal?

RYAN WIEBER — Yeah. We cleared everything out and our director of photography, Greg Cotten, did his best to re-create the shot movement and rack focusing. With a little fudging here and time remapping there, we got all the pieces that we needed. We called them ‘dirty clean plates!’

GRAHAM EDWARDS — There are lots of props floating around that spaceship interior. Are those CG or practical?

RYAN WIEBER — Some were CG, but I also borrowed a few props and did an element shoot at home on a little turntable, trying to match lighting as best I could. Then, for the shot where Cole grabs the cup, we wanted it to be a real thing there and not have a CG handoff. I built a little multi-axis rotation rig with a magnet on the inside of the cup, and a motor and a stick with a magnet on the end.

Captain McKay (David M. Edelstien), Moira, Cole and Andrew Jensen (Ben Kliewer) study a holographic display that offers clues as to their predicament.
Captain McKay (David M. Edelstien), Moira, Cole and Andrew Jensen (Ben Kliewer) study a holographic display that offers clues as to their predicament.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — In episode three, Time, a holographic display on the bridge explains some of the mysteries behind what’s happened to the ATROPA and its crew. How long did it take to put that sequence together?

RYAN WIEBER — I did it all myself in a week! That was a big piece of trust on Eli’s part, because that scene was laying down some answers to the questions that were set up in the first episode, and also setting up the current predicament. So it was important that it made visual sense. I had ideas in my head but they were very difficult to articulate, so it was just like, “Let me do this, and trust me!”

GRAHAM EDWARDS — How did you create the holograms?

RYAN WIEBER — I did everything in that sequence in After Effects, because I wanted to use a plugin called Plexus which enabled me to do some nice triangulation stuff, with all these dots connecting together.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Was it then just a case of comping the holograms into the live-action plates?

RYAN WIEBER — Well, the original intention was to build the whole projector box on set and just put the holograms in. Then we realized we needed to throw a lot of light onto the actors, so it ended up essentially just being a big white softbox, which we replaced. I built a CG projector out of prefabricated stuff using Element 3D in After Effects. There are two hero shots with full-frame hologram stuff, and it’s all completely CG — there’s nothing left from the original footage.

Ryan Wieber created the hologram using Adobe After Effects, combining motion graphics with CG set elements in order to integrate the display into the live-action plates. Hologram close-ups were fully digital.
Ryan Wieber created the hologram using Adobe After Effects, combining motion graphics with CG set elements in order to integrate the display into the live-action plates. Hologram close-ups were fully digital.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Time also includes a blink-and-you-miss-it twinning shot. There’s a camera move that begins with Sanders, played by Chris Voss, lying sedated on a gurney, and ends on his doppelganger on the other side of the medbay. Are you going to reveal where the join is?

ELI SASICH — Maybe! To begin with, we really needed a shot to sell the two of them together. Originally we were going to do a boom up and over to the other bed, but just in terms of the geography of the set it couldn’t work that way. So we worked out a new version that was a much more complicated move, with an old-fashioned wipe in the middle of it.

RYAN WIEBER — Due credit to our actress playing Moira, Jeannie Bolét, who walks by in the shot. She was like a human motion control — she performed that perfectly every time. But she’s a misdirection as far as where you’d think the wipe would be, because when she exits the frame Chris is still over on the right. The seam is actually fully visible in the middle of the frame for a lot of the shot — we just tried to put it where you’re not really looking.

Cole started his mission on board the space station Valley Forge, as revealed in episode four of ATROPA: The Series. The Light Works fashioned fully digital wide shots of the orbital platform.
Cole started his mission on board the space station Valley Forge, as revealed in episode four of ATROPA: The Series. The Light Works fashioned fully digital wide shots of the orbital platform.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Episode four is called Choices. It’s a bit of a change of pace, with nested flashbacks filling in Cole Freeman’s backstory on Earth, and also on a space station called Valley Forge — a little Silent Running reference that sci-fi fans are sure to pick up on.

ELI SASICH — That’s right. It was really important emotionally, and in terms of location, to get out of the ATROPA for a while and learn more about our characters. Having the flashbacks in the dead center of the series seemed like a nice little reprieve. I also got to work with legendary actor Michael Ironside, playing a one-off character for this episode name Captain Schreiber, who runs the space station.

A Valley Forge officer (Amir Malaklou) informs Captain Schreiber (Michael Ironside) that Cole Freeman has departed on his mission. Alec Contestabile built space station interiors by reconfiguring existing set pieces at Laurel Canyon Stages.
A Valley Forge officer (Amir Malaklou) informs Captain Schreiber (Michael Ironside) that Cole Freeman has departed on his mission. Alec Contestabile built space station interiors by reconfiguring existing set pieces at Laurel Canyon Stages.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — The space station looks like quite a big CG build.

ELI SASICH — That was a kitbash that Tobias did. I gave him reference of a ring-shape, and that’s what he came back with. For the hangar, I purchased a model from a guy on one of those online concept art forums, and Tobias tweaked it and put it into his Valley Forge model. That happened a lot — we’d find stuff and I’d contact the artist, because we just didn’t have time to build everything from scratch.

For shots of Cole undertaking an investigation on Earth, BluFire Studios added CG extensions to live-action plates shot on location in Los Angeles.
For shots of Cole undertaking an investigation on Earth, BluFire Studios added CG extensions to live-action plates shot on location in Los Angeles.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Where did you shoot the Earth scenes?

ELI SASICH — Those were all shot in downtown Los Angeles, a few months after the main shoot. The diner was the Nickel Diner — they were very gracious to let us shoot in there for one day. BluFire added flying cars, and did a shot where we tilt down from all the overhead stuff to street level. The idea was to have a bit of a Blade Runner feel, but in broad daylight. We didn’t want to be too over the top. It’s like, “Okay, there’s flying traffic, let’s move on.”

GRAHAM EDWARDS — At one point, we see Cole interrogating a robot.

ELI SASICH — Actually, I rewrote the episode to add the robot sequence. Everyone thought I was crazy, because we were already deep into our effects stuff, but I really felt strongly that we needed it for world-building. BluFire stepped in with an off-the-shelf robot model that they tweaked a little bit. We had an actor do all the lines and movements, and BluFire matched that performance and added their robot to clean plates.

BluFire Studios animated a CG robot and composited it into plates shot in a Los Angeles diner kitchen.
BluFire Studios animated a CG robot and composited it into plates shot in a Los Angeles diner kitchen.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Episode five, Ring, ends with a dramatic reveal that kind of tips the story on its head.

ELI SASICH — Yeah. Really, the entire story was originally developed around that reveal. When I came up with it I knew that this was one of those “Oh, shit!” moments. We were really excited to try to pull that off.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Without giving too much away, it revolves around a discovery made by Jensen, played by Ben Kliewer, during a trip in an escape pod. Did you build a practical pod exterior?

ELI SASICH — Yes, Alec Contestabile and his team built a little escape pod. We did a really big pull-back with a boom arm on a dolly, and then at some point there’s a handoff to a CG pod that Tobias built. We went back and forth a few times on that camera move — we wanted to go far enough to where you understand what you’re seeing, but still have the planetary ring disappear on both sides, as if it’s so big that you can’t get it in the frame.

The crew of the ATROPA ultimately discover that their fates are inextricably linked to the nearby planet and its mysterious ring system.
The crew of the ATROPA ultimately discover that their fates are inextricably linked to the nearby planet and its mysterious ring system.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Episode six, Fate, is largely confined to the interior of the ATROPA. Was it tough making that small Laurel Canyon set look like multiple locations within the ship?

ELI SASICH — It was, and I’m super proud that the guys pulled it off — although, if you’re really savvy, you can spot where we are at all times. We really had just two corridors, so making that look like a whole spaceship was all about lighting, and changing up paint and colors. We also did a couple of hallway extensions using greenscreens to fool the audience and make them believe it’s a bigger space.

RYAN WIEBER — The giveaway is any time the hallway goes back farther than 30 feet. One example is a shot that opens on Moira in a CG hallway, and then you come around and you land into the physical set. It’s effective because you start thinking that you’re somewhere real, and then you actually end up somewhere real, and you didn’t spot where it changed. Seth Donald did those shots — he took photography of the set and built it out in 3D space in After Effects.

Cole is forced to make an impossible choice in the explosive climax to ATROPA: The Series.
Cole is forced to make an impossible choice in the explosive climax to ATROPA: The Series.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — ATROPA: The Series concludes with episode seven, Checkmate, which includes some grandiose explosions that play out in slow motion — another shift in tone and pace.

ELI SASICH — We really wanted the ending to have a poetic feel. Going with slow motion and using the song was an important part of that. Instead of being violent, it’s beautiful and sad.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — There’s also a dynamic shot of Cole’s ship, Morinda, where the camera starts close on the cockpit, then pulls back and around. It echoes a similar shot seen in the first episode — was that deliberate?

ELI SASICH — When we did that first pullback for the original short, we didn’t have the room to do it on the stage because of the way things were configured. So Tobias faked the move by putting Cole on a card and comping him into the cockpit. I said, “If we ever go back, I’m going to actually move that damn camera!” This time, we were able to dolly the camera away. All the perspective worked and I was really happy about that — it really sells that handoff to the full CG ship.

Visual effects blended live-action of the Morinda’s cockpit with a CG spacecraft exterior, in a sweeping pullback shot.
Visual effects blended live-action of the Morinda’s cockpit with a CG spacecraft exterior, in a sweeping pullback shot.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — How would you sum up the role of visual effects in the series as a whole? Does spectacle or subtlety win the day, or is it all about balance?

ELI SASICH — If you call too much attention to the visual effects, it has the opposite effect of what you want. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There were moments where we could blow it open a little bit, and there were moments where we definitely wanted to keep it within the overall scale and scope of the project. It’s all about restraint.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Now that ATROPA: The Series is finished, does the end result match your original ambitions for the project?

ELI SASICH — It does. It’s been an amazing journey. It was fun to tell a short-form story that’s really no different than the cliffhanger serials from the ‘30s, taking what was originally going to be a feature and then finally telling it as a web series — which is kind of like being in the Wild West. Of course, there’s always things you would do differently, but we’re really proud of what we were able to do, and I’m happy to have finally told this story. I’m very excited to have it out there.

GRAHAM EDWARDS — Eli and Ryan, thanks for talking to us!


This article first appeared in slightly different form on the Cinefex blog. Content copyright © Cinefex 2015-2018. ATROPA and ATROPA: The Series photographs and video copyright © Corridor Productions 2015-2018.

Categories: Effects, Feature

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