Neill Blomkamp is renowned for pushing the boundaries of blending science fiction with modern day storytelling through the lens of cutting edge technology. Having directed some cracking films with District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, Blomkamp’s latest feature, Demonic turns to volumetric capture to tell the narrative is an example of the creative license that he is willing to experiment with.
Our resident Surgeon, Saul Muerte was fortunate enough to catch up with the visionary director to discuss his latest film and how technology has played an important part in molding his storytelling technique for film.
Thanks for taking the time out to talk with us for Surgeons of Horror.
I really, really enjoyed the movie and the creative approach that you’ve taken with this one. I just wanted to ask you, um, I mean, I’ve been following your film career for a little while and I’ve noticed that there is this kind of feeling that runs through your movies that’s almost like this infused psychosis, whether it’s alien or humanitarian or mechanoid. And in this case, it’s obviously coming through demonic possession.
What is it in your mind that fascinates you about this kind of external manipulation of the human mind in your films?
One of the things that is becoming more interesting to me is the idea that there’s like a lying on a psychiatrist’s couch element to directing.
I think that these themes, and these ideas become evident to you as the filmmaker over time. So I’m kind of equally curious to try to figure out what that is about.
I don’t actually think that I have a conscious onset. I think there’s a bunch of subconscious stuff, maybe.
Demonic feels very different to the first two films of mine, and to a lesser degree different to Chappie. It was meant to be something that was much more intimate and smaller scale and kind of living in very close proximity to Carly’s character. And then just going through the process with her. So I think maybe the common theme is some kind of level of redemption, or a sort of cleansing of the soul towards the end of the third act. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what the similarities are.
I do want to touch on the technology aspect that you use with Demonic, because it’s quite a fundamental component. And you’ve been incredibly experimental with your approach to technology over the years. So when you worked with the volumetric capture system in order to realise your vision, what was the greatest challenge that you found using this technology? And what was your biggest learning coming out of it?
Well, I mean, this movie is very, very unusual to the way that films are normally made in the sense that there was this gap in time. And there was this thing that I wanted to do, like Paranormal Activity, which was a kind of small self created horror film.
And so when you talk about normal films, and the use of technology, it’s usually a case of what would we now use in order to solve this problem?
And then you kind of look at it, whatever your options are.
This was a case of, I wanted to build something around the idea of using volumetric capture.
So the idea of using volumetric capture came before the movie, I also want to do something with these weird Vatican guides that buy up tech companies.
So is there a story that can be conjured up so that we can shoot something during the pandemic.
I think that if it was a higher budget film, it would have been more difficult to use something as experimental as volumetric capture, because it still looks so glitchy. But if you go forward five years, or definitely 10 years, when that resolution increases to the point that you’re rivalling, you know, traditional film cameras, digital phone cameras, it’ll be omnipresent. There’ll be just every single person who will be using it.
It was initially financed by us, I can just do whatever I want and instead of doing another YouTube video, it was like let’s make a longer format piece. And let’s use some of this weird technology and just see how it looks.
So I knew pretty much exactly what it would look like because of the resolution constraints which actually came in a bit lower simply because in order to get the resolution higher there would have to be so many cameras close to the action, that it would basically be impossible to really move in any convincing way.
So the resolution dies off in a squared fashion exponentially when you move them away, we got the ability to move around and it still has this awesome kind of video game quality to it but resolution dies off is quite quick. So it’s a weird answer, but it’s like the film exists because I felt like using volumetric capture.
I think in a way it adds to the character of the piece, so I know you were talking about that kind of glitchy kind of element, but I feel like this adds to the surreal nature that the character of Carly goes through when she’s experiencing that kind of other world factor. Everything kind of ties in really nicely.
I just want to also just go back to District 9 if I may, which was your first feature production. Based on the experience that you’ve picked up over the years, is there anything that you would change with that film? Like, we’re talking about advancements in technology in particular, and stuff that you’ve done along the way. Would you revisit the special effects or the story component and which one of those two weighs heavy in your mind as a creative?
What do you think takes precedence? Technology or storytelling?
I mean, if you’re doing a high budget film, yeah, well, I mean, pretty much any film it really really should be story first, but it’s kind of like a Venn diagram, it’s like, you’d have to have you have to have a story. And then you also because it’s a visual medium, you also have to have some kind of interesting visual components to it.. And when you overlap, good story with good visuals, you get this kind of matrix sweet spot.
Yeah. So that’s kind of how I think of it. But I definitely wouldn’t have arrived at this film, if I was at a higher standard budget level, because it’s just such a different, almost incomparable thing. But I think your question in terms of District 9 is pretty interesting, because I don’t actually think I would change anything. And the other thing that’s interesting is, if I were to shoot another District 9 today, there isn’t any other technological way of doing things that would be radically different, which is super fascinating.
So when we shot it, there was this debate where the first way that we were thinking of shooting it was a lot more like how Planet of the Apes did this. And it was kind of revolutionary, where they put motion capture cameras outside of the studio, and they put them in the wild, I think it was actually also in British Columbia. They put them in trees and stuff in the wild, and then they motion captured whoever was playing the apes, and then you know, add the VFX later.
So with District 9, we couldn’t afford that approach. And so we ended up doing something that I actually prefer infinitely more, which is a process of growth automation, where you just film your actor, there’s no motion capture dots. There’s like there’s no motion capture cameras, because we couldn’t really afford them. But you just film your actor in a grey lycra outfit. And the benefit is that you get to knock things over in real life and interact with stuff. And then hand animation is done.
Almost like classical rotoscope animation, except with a three dimensional rig on top of your character, your human character, your human performer. And then once that skeleton is animated, you put your digital alien on top, and then you have to actually go through this other process which is a cost addition, which is background restoration. So you have to paint out your grey suit guy who’s lying under the alien that now has his, you know, rota mated information embedded within it.
Yes, fascinating. I absolutely loved that film. I’ve been kind of following your career since District 9, because I feel like you have this way of cutting through the storyline with this creative, technological aspect that you bring to your films.
If we can come back to Demonic, one thing that I found was that the story seems to centre around this idea of trust, and our preconceived ideas of people due to our own kind of misgivings. Is there a message here about going into or letting go of control in order to find ourselves?
Yeah, I think one of the concepts that I was interested in was the idea of, like, objective truth. And people coming at topics from different points of view that can sort of be almost equally truthful, depending on the point of view. But there is only one form of truth ultimately.
And so I think there’s a sort of subconscious element maybe of those themes kind of bubbling to the surface in the sense that Carla’s sort of overcoming something.
I wanted her to be triumphant in a way that she’d overcome the paradigm that was put in place for her, I definitely have some issues with objective truths.,
Yeah, that’s kind of my take on it as well. And that’s what I really liked about her journey. And the way there’s obviously this investigative nature, as she’s trying to uncover the truth behind what lay in the past, particularly with her mother.
I found it really quite fascinating about Demonic when you come into it, knowing the components that build the film, it kind of makes it a really fascinating journey to watch and see that kind of those elements come into play. And I’m really excited about it. I’m really hoping that it does well for you, Neil. So thank you so much for your time. and talking with us at Surgeons of Horror.
Demonic will be available to stream across all key digital channels from September 15 and on DVD/Blu-ray from 22 September.