The hot new director of District 9 chats exclusively about his feature debut, VFX, sci-fi and Peter Jackson.
You've seen the District 9 trailers and posters and have been exposed to the brilliant viral marketing campaign. Finally, the potential sleeper hit of the summer arrives today (through TriStar Pictures). A thinking man's sci-fi that's both thrilling and humorous about a clash of races between wandering aliens (a cross between an insect exo-skeleton and a crustacean) and a government bureaucrat -- in Johannesburg, of all places! At the helm is Neill Blomkamp, the former vfx artist/3D animator (Smallville, Dark Angel) and director of commercials and shorts (Landfall: the Halo trilogy of shorts) as well as original founding partner of The Embassy Visual Effects in Vancouver. In fact, after his Halo feature with Peter Jackson fell apart, the South African native and Vancouver resident immediately turned to District 9 at the behest of Jackson, which is based on another of his shorts: Alive in Joburg. In this VFXWorld exclusive, Blomkamp tells us about all of this and more.
Bill Desowitz: So let's jump right into the visual effects. What's CG and who was responsible for them?
Neill Blomkamp: The visual effects were broken down into categories that we saw onscreen, like the aliens were done by Image Engine in Vancouver, the mother ship was done predominantly done by Weta Digital, and the drop ship was Weta Digital and then the exo-suit and the little fighting creatures -- the little pets -- were all done by The Embassy. Zoic also did a few minor shots (overflow 2D work). So it was kind of cool for me because each company had its very own thing that it was responsible for doing. But the bulk of the visual effects work went into the aliens. Image Engine worked on the film for quite a while and did really good work.
BD: How did you discover Image Engine?
NB: Well, originally, I thought Weta would do everything, but Avatar had taken over and absolutely crushed Weta. So Weta said no, we can't do the film. What I wanted to do then was take advantage of Vancouver: I live there for one and in the future I'm going to do more films there, and, two, the British Columbia tax credit thing for post-production. We would be able to get more shots for it. So I know a lot of the effects houses in Vancouver, and I had a bunch of meetings with Image Engine and they actually flew down to New Zealand. They hadn't done anything that was on this scale before, but based on the guys who were in charge of running the company and making District 9 happen, Shawn Walsh [visual effects exec producer] and Pete Muyzers [on-set visual effects plate supervisor & digital production manager], I felt like they were going to do whatever it took to make this work, so I had faith in them, as opposed to the reel of the company, and they totally stepped up to the plate and just hired all the right people, and I'm exceptionally happy with the way it turned out. I guess in a way, it was a bit of a gamble, but it won't be from now on because they have clearly established that they can do A-grade creature work. And it's going to be different for them from now on.
BD: What was it like for you directing a feature after Halo collapsed, but with Peter Jackson still very much behind you?
NB: I mean, look, I had worked with Weta Workshop for five months doing Halo, so when that collapsed, Peter told me that he had been through this process before with a few projects that collapsed. I'll help you get another one going and Fran Walsh suggested the idea of taking the short and turning that into a feature, which sounded like a great idea, so I did that.
BD: So it hadn't occurred to you before to turn Alive in Joburg into a feature?
NB: Not then. Before Halo, it had occurred to me. For some reason, when he said, "Go and do another film and we'll set it up and you can just keep going," my mind started going in the direction of some other science fiction film. So I went straight into District 9 almost without thinking about Halo. And I've been directing that film for two-and-a-half years and now I'm at the end.
BD: What was the experience like?
NB: It's grueling: You've gotta have a lot of stamina, but it's rewarding: it's like climbing a mountain. Once you get to the top, you can see over it.
BD: Crew members say it's always nice to have a visual effects expert at the helm who not only speaks the same language but can also clearly convey story and character. Was this your experience?
NB: Yeah, it's probably easier to get the end result that you want because you speak the same language so you can get in there and provide a description of what you're looking for with greater accuracy.
BD: What were some of your movie influences that helped inform District 9?
NB: Well, there is no one film that I can say influenced District 9 on a conscious, surface level. It's a case of all of my favorite science fiction films blending together. You know, even videogames. And it was that nugget of science fiction that I placed in Johannesburg. I guess at the top of the list would be the first two Aliens, the Terminators, Predator and Robocop -- all the '80s hardcore, sci-fi/action films. And I don't know whether the film has that feeling or not for the audience, but I wanted it to have that harsh 1980s kind of vibe -- I didn't want it to feel glossy and slick.
BD: Cronenberg's The Fly must've been an influence too.
NB: I think subconsciously.
BD: What about Children of Men?
NB: I love Children of Men. It's the future presented realistically and that's what it gives it that cool, grounding sensation.
BD: Talk about the challenge of adapting the short into a feature.
NB: Well, I wanted to make sure it was constantly moving forward. And also at its core it's the story about two races colliding, so first we had to figure out the world of District 9, which was taken from Alive in Joburg and then fleshed out. Once you have that basis, then within that world you can start picking the characters that seem interesting: a pencil pushing bureaucrat inside MNU was interesting to me and someone to follow around. So Terry and I just picked all of those characters and moments and concepts that were interesting and just fleshed them out.
BD: And fleshing out the alien culture?
NB: We did quite a lot. Unfortunately, we don't go much into it in the film because there wasn't time. A lot needed to be figured out and to me there's this kind of ant hive that's had a queen that's died and they're these directionless drones walking around, so it kind of explains how all this technology could've been built and manufactured and thought up. But they don't have it together enough to use that weaponry on humans and turn their situation on its head. So they just keep getting stomped on for 30 years.
BD: Not like Planet of the Apes, where they revolted.
NB: No, they're still just wallowing around in squalor.
BD: What have you learned from Peter Jackson?
NB: I think the biggest influence from him has been to help me just really free my thinking and think bigger. That's one thing I noticed sitting with him a lot: my process tends to be about parameters and about operating within these cubes and his whole approach is 180 degrees away from that: it's all about thinking big and forgetting every possible wall or reason why something can't be done and overcoming it.
BD: Is that partly because of your visual effects background and need to problem solve?
NB: It may be: I do tend to work on a logical, problem-solving basis. But his mind is very free so, out of everything, that's probably the biggest thing I'll walk away with the most -- just aim for whatever I want and then…
BD: …figuring out how to solve it. What do you think of the Avatar footage they showed at Comic-Con?
NB: It was awesome. You know, when you're at Weta as a client, they're not going to show you another client's work. I would speak to some of the artists and I know Joe Letteri [the visual effects supervisor] quite well, so I would always bug them because I'm such a Cameron fan. I mean half the time I was joking just to get them to show me stuff.
BD: What impressed and surprised you about the footage?
NB: It's definitely different from what I was expecting because, again, we didn't get to see a lot of the human stuff and the human military aspect, so I was expecting something more like Aliens. But I think all of that was there: it just isn't in the 25 minutes that we saw. What was cooler than I was expecting is the world of Pandora -- and I think that's the essence of the film, so it was pretty mind blowing.
BD: What about stereoscopic?
NB: I think it's generally intriguing. It's definitely the preferable way to go, for sure. It's a question of whether your budget can sustain it. I think if everything shifts that way, then your budget will automatically sustain it because that's how films will be made. I have an issue in an incorrectly set up theater with the luminosity of the projector sometimes. You've got to seriously jack a lot of light in there, so that annoys me. Under the right circumstances, it's great. Also, it's not going to happen anytime soon, but if we can raise the frame rate, it would be great motion because 24 is still kind of an issue for me.
BD: What are you working on next?
NB: I've got a new science fiction idea. It's really only come about in the last month or two.
BD: Can you tell us about it?
NB: No, it's my secret.
BD: Not even what kind of sci-fi?
NB: It's a similar genre to this -- sci-fi/action/drama, but it's set on another planet and the emphasis is more on action than this one.
BD: And your approach?
NB: Storytelling's a little different. It's something I've never seen before, and, actually, what I've seen in my mind I have to do some tests. But, hopefully, I can pull off what I have in my head and it's a very different style from District 9. But, of course, all of this is up on the air and it has to be greenlit and nailed down and tests need to happen.
BD: And you've potentially got Weta at your disposal.
NB: Yeah, totally, if they're available that would be awesome. But my primary guys for the next one will be Image Engine, just for how much they did for this film.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.