The debut director talks us through the art of achieving lo-fi sci-fi.
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29 Aug 2012 - 12:03 PM  UPDATED 29 Aug 2012 - 12:03 PM

Every aspiring filmmaker with ambitions towards space-based science fiction should view US writer-director William Eubank's debut feature, Love. Not so much for its mysterious story about an astronaut stuck in Earth orbit, which even Eubank admits during a promotional visit to Australia gets “confusing”, but for demonstrating the visual sophistication now possible with a mixture of lo-fi effects and production design, minimal CGI, and large dollops of ingenuity and determination.

Like Duncan Jones' Moon, the story focuses on a single character that has left Earth and has to figure out a weird situation all by himself. In this case, the lonely protagonist is an astronaut (Gunnar Wright) on an international space station in the year 2045 whose support systems begin to shut down after he gets a weird message from mission control about “strange shit” going on down below.

Curiously mixed into this is a sub-plot about a US Civil War soldier sent on a mission to investigate a strange object found in a canyon – a story strand set up in the opening minutes that later reappears. Lots of weird stuff happens that's never explained. Clearly Eubank is trying to emulate the sense of mystery central to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, along with a possible sprinkling of Donnie Darko's hole-in-the-time-space continuum.

[Read SBS Film review of Love]

But though the film's meaning is elusive, visually it is extraordinarily impressive. The space station looks wholly believable, the visual ingenuity with which Eubanks films both it and its inhabitant reflecting a young person's delight in the possibilities of the medium and displaying a sophisticated grasp of visual film language.

Amazingly, Love was made for well under $1 million on a homemade set built out the back of Eubank's parents' ranch house in California's Santa Ynez Valley with a crew of only five people. It's hard to think of many other films that demonstrate what an independent production can achieve in this genre with such limited resources.

Science fiction may be the most popular genre in today's cinema, but it's usually associated with mega-budget spectacle produced by Hollywood studios. Independent productions have tended to stay well away from, not so much the genre itself, as outer space.

Most independent filmmakers seem to view it as just too expensive to pull off convincingly, despite the successful early example of John Carpenter's 1970s low budget classic, Dark Star (a key influence on that more expensive and famous production, Alien). More recently, Moon opened a lot of people's eyes as to what can now be achieved with a relatively low budget, but its production budget of $5 million was way ahead of what Eubanks had to spend on Love.

The story of how Eubank, now 29, overcame the disadvantage of being a film school reject by finding an alternative way of reaching his goals is almost a textbook example of the importance of perseverance and determination. After being knocked back by the UCLA film department, Eubank got a job at the camera corporation, Panavision. During six years of employment as a camera technician and digital effects technician, he set about learning everything he could, not only about cameras and lenses, but filmmaking in general, bolstered by classes at Santa Barbara's Brooks Institute of Photography. All the while he was expanding his contacts file, learning from veterans or gaining their advice.

Unlike a lot of his colleagues, who he says wanted typically to become assistant cameramen, Eubank spent a lot of his spare time making short films. Colleagues loaned him cameras on weekends and gave him instruction and advice.

HD was just starting, he explains, and where many of his colleagues seemed to shy away from it, he saw an opportunity to create a niche for himself and set put to specialise in the new technology. This led to being sent out onto the productions of major movies Collateral and Superman Returns. “Early on I was exposed to softer sources of light. I tried to mimic things I'd seen in The Godfather. So Panavision turned into my film school.”

The leap to his first feature came when he entered a competition to make a video clip for U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He didn't win, but his entry got him noticed. Tom DeLonge, from the bands Angels and Airwaves and Blink-182, liked what he'd done “and suddenly someone was offering me money to make stuff”. Angel and Airwaves became the producers of Love and provided the ethereal music score.

Asked how he managed to pull off the film on such a small budget, Eubank says, “I think it's just time” – a reference to the four years it took to make the film, two of which were spent building the space station set (at a total cost of $15,000). Clearly his passion and skills extend to production design, not just cinematography and direction.

“I always make stuff,” he says, “I love building stuff.” The set, he explains, was built on skateboard ramps that were flipped over, and used a lot of MDF, a manufactured wood product that's denser than plywood. The padding on the station walls “is just insulation screwed in with spacey looking white paper that's really shiny”. Pizza bags, Velcro, and Christmas lights also played prominent roles. Eubank then mounted the whole structure on rollers so he could shift it in different directions at will.

But how did he create such impressive digital effects – the glowing, blue and white shots seen through the space station's portholes? The answer is surprising. Though the film did use some CGI, every time viewers glimpse Earth, they're really looking at images from another film screening on a TV placed outside the set. This may sound cheesy, but it looks amazingly convincing. “I'm sure there are copyright issues any time you see the Earth,” he laughs. Let's hope the owner of the copyrighted material – wisely he doesn't mention the name – isn't reading this.