Last month, District 9 director Neill Blomkamp launched his experimental short film project, Oats Studios, releasing an alien invasion film called Rakka, and later, an alternate-history Vietnam War film called Firebase. Now, the director has shared his latest short film, Zygote, which features War of the Worlds and Twilight star Dakota Fanning.
Compared to the other films, Zygote is a comparably straightforward affair. It opens with two people trapped in a mining facility somewhere in the Arctic Circle. They’re fleeing a horrific creature made of body parts from other members of the station.
I spoke with Blomkamp about the genesis of the film’s creature, why corporate skullduggery appeals to him, and what’s next for Oats Studios.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The first thing that came to mind when I watched Zygote is its similarities to classic sci-fi and horror. Is it safe to say that The Thing and Alien have a bit of influence here?
Probably more The Thing for this particular film. Its DNA is a kind of ‘80s leviathan, science fiction horror.
What inspired the story?
I was on a flight from Vancouver to Toronto, and I don’t know what made me think of it, but I wrote down “a monster made out of men.” I had this idea of a creature that was a bunch of stitched-together limbs that someone assembled into some some kind of monstrosity. I was actively looking for a science fiction / horror piece to do, and it grew from there.
So what happens in the days and hours before Zygote kicks off?
So, I came up with the original concept, and I wrote the film with [The Gone World author] Thomas Sweterlitsch, and Terri Tatchell [Blomkamp’s wife and District 9 co-writer]. Thomas came up with the idea that Earth is inundated with asteroids 20 years from now: massive amounts of asteroids fall all over the planet, and there’s a concentration of them in Northern Canada and Russia. They bring with them some really unique semiconductors and materials that we aren’t familiar with on Earth. So these mining corporations become these larger, 21st century versions of Google, where all the venture capital goes into extracting these incredibly precious metals.
In the asteroid, there’s this trap that’s been flying around for who-knows-how-many billions of years. I really liked the idea of a light wave transmitting gigabytes of data into a mind, and that’s what happened in the mining facility: when the miners crack open the rocks, this light bounces into their eyes, it sends them down this spiral. It basically teaches them how to make a biological substrate that it can live in. Essentially, it wants to make them a body. That’s where this monster comes from.
I want to talk a little bit about the monster in Zygote. You noted that your original concept was a monster made of men. How did how did you go about developing its visual design?
We have this really awesome organic designer here at Oats named Ian Spriggs. Basically any organic character, whether it’s a monster or a human, he’ll build it.
I posed the idea of a creature that would be made out of many humans, and that it’s specifically stitched together — it’s not an organic growth thing — so the circulatory and respiratory systems and everything had to be combined into this sort of horrific Frankenstein job.
Doug Williams, a two-dimensional illustrator, came up with a sequence of different looks and then took it into 3D. We ended up with this bipedal design. I went to him asked how many people it took, and it was actually more than I thought: he needed 46 people to make the creature that you see. That’s how many limbs and eyes and stuff merged into that creature.
How did you go about animating that character?
If you look at something like Chappie or District 9, those would be cases of what the the animation industry terms as rotomation, which means the animators are trying to trace animate what the actor is doing. In the case of Zygote, the creature isn’t anthropomorphic. It’s much heavier, and it can’t really be mimicked by humans. We had a stunt guy on stilts, who was simply a timing and visual reference for the camera operators and the actors.
Once we get the piece together, we give those shots to the visual effects animators, who basically animate what they imagine is a heavier, slower, and stronger creature than what a human would be.
I love the idea of it testing out all of its fingers to see what works on the biometrics pad.
It’s made out of all of the people that work there, so some of them are going to have access to certain areas of the mining facility and it knows that. It also has the cerebral data from everyone that it’s gathered. It’s formidable: it knows everything that anyone who was absorbed into it.
Looking back on District 9, body horror is something that you’ve used before. What about it appeals to you?
I’m not actually sure. I’m pretty grossed out by all things related to our own mortality and how susceptible and fragile the human body is. I think that is, probably on some deeper psychological level, just working its way into this stuff that I make. Science fiction, horror, and fantasy have so much room for psychological analysis of whatever has gone into making whatever work it is.
There’s another subplot here, where Dakota Fanning’s character, Barkley, learns that she’s actually human, not a robot. What’s the backstory here?
I love the idea of these orphans that are auctioned off to companies that are supposed to be using synthetic humans as manual labor. Flesh is cheaper than the robotics, even if they’re organic robotics. I feel like there’s a lot that you could do with the character if we wanted to turn this into a feature film.
Something I’ve noticed about your films is that they almost always seem to contain a large wall with the company name, big numbers, or writing painted on it. What is about that design is appealing to you?
That’s interesting. I don’t know. In the case of Zygote, I definitely wanted it to feel like this suppressive mining operation, where it’s constantly reminding you what your status is, what area you’re in, or what you should be doing. It’s kind of like Big Brother and things like “Please remain still for 30 seconds” written in the airlock makes it feel like this authoritarian, oppressive environment.
That sort of tracks to what the characters are wearing: it designates their status in the company.
Right. If the mine was just operating normally, it would be very distinctly divided between real, organic human and synthetic humans.
That actually reminds me a little bit of Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon where clones, who didn’t realize that they were actually clones, were put to work as miners. Corporate skullduggery is a pretty prevalent feature in most of your work, whether it’s Multinational United, Armadyne, or Tetravaal. What is it about that that appeals to you as a storyteller?
It’s interesting that corporations and an extreme laissez faire capitalistic mindset will put ethics and morality behind profit. That’s kind of how the world works, and there’s something in there that I find pretty fascinating.
You know what’s more like Moon, just thinking it through, is Cooking with Bill.
I think that Bill is in some form a recurring nightmare, where each time something happens to him, another Bill is unfrozen and brought up to the cooking floor.
That may be shot for Volume 2.
Zygote is far more linear than your first Oats film, Rakka. Did you find that you approached writing them differently?
It’s just experimentation: the whole company is meant to be a place of creativity. If you ask a filmmaker to show you 20 minutes of a bigger world, some directors would come back with a presentation of a non-linear landscape like Rakka while others would come back with one like Zygote. It’s just a creative intuition into how you feel like on certain things. You could just as easily do a Rakka version of Zygote, where you show the asteroids falling, how the world economy responded, and the characters that you will be traveling along this journey with. But we’re just playing around: it’s fun to do it this way, and it’s fun to do it that way.
Everything is destined to be a feature or a TV show or something. It’s all meant to be something bigger. In Rakka, we show 20 minutes inside of that world. That’s an incredibly non-linear story: it’s truly what the goal was: to show people what the world feels like. Firebase is somewhere between the two, where it’s a snapshot, but has a slightly more linear line to it. Zygote is almost like a segment lifted out of a film. All three do the exact same thing: there’s no person that would watch any of theses films and come out of it not knowing what the world is about. That’s the goal.
Now that Oats has kicked off, have you found that your creative juices are flowing a bit more?
No. Let’s assume that all the finances and the economic ecosystem of the company was figured out: I think the answer would be yes. But because we’re still trying to figure out the smartest way to go forward financially, I’m unfortunately focusing on that. The company needs to be stable and up on its feet in order for me to think about what Volume 2 would consist of. That’s an incredibly complex problem to solve.
I must say, though, that we initially came up with and wrote way more scripts than we are making, mostly because some of the ideas I wrote down were simply too expensive. That’s the frame of mind that I’m usually in. I’m really excited by some of the older ideas that we couldn’t make in Volume 1, and if we get the economics figured out, there’s a range of stuff that I’m pretty excited to go off and make.
How does production for Oats work, shooting multiple short films?
There were several shoots, but there’s an economy of scale — an efficiency of shooting more stuff together. We did shoot a certain number of the bigger pieces together in one continuous shoot, where the crew was mobile, but over all of the minutes of footage we shot, there were three to four separate shoots.
What happens when you’re done with the shoots? Did you guys work on Rakka, Firebase, and Zygote one at a time this spring, or all at once?
It’s really amazing trying manage the amount of projects inside a small company like this. In the beginning, we were a little bit more scattered, and not quite as focused on working 100 percent on one piece and getting it done, and then moving onto the next one. Within departments like composing or animation or fluid simulation, I think we found a really efficient way to work on several projects at once. In the beginning it was sort of weird for everyone to be working so many pieces, even though were smaller, as opposed to working on one big piece. It took us several months for us to find our feet.
As you are working on each film, did you find that you were learning things on one film that you applied to another?
Yes. That’s part of the efficiency of how we’re doing stuff inside of Oats. We’re probably being far more efficient than typically how things would be done in Hollywood, because there is a sharing and cross-pollination that happen.
Are there any specific examples of these improvements? Was there something in a story that was really originally in another one?
Not exactly now, but in Volume 2, there’s “if you kind learn from the first piece, take what you want and leave the rest.” It’s like you could have a sequel to Firebase, but you could have a total spinoff that has nothing to do with it and doesn’t even reference the original idea, which turns it into a whole new film. That’s what happened.
In terms of specific, technological things, I’d have to chat with the effects guys, but I don’t know, I have to go and see the effects guys. I know we do it a lot though.
You’ve got one more film coming up in Volume 1.
Yes, Lima. That’s a bit more like a current-day thriller. I don’t know yet when it will be released.