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How to Build a Sci-Fi Universe Without Breaking the Bank

Award-Winning Independent Filmmaker Paul Plett Shares Lesson Learned in Creating Several films Including Newest, Rama

Making any movie is difficult, but many of the issues you face are compounded when trying to make a science fiction film. From costumes to props to sets and locations, every aspect of your film has to contribute to the world you are trying to build, and this often seems like a daunting task when you are working with little to no money. But if you plan every detail of the film from the start, a fully realized science fiction film is completely within your grasp! Here’s what I’ve learned from recent sci-fi movies I’ve made.

Story

Everything begins with your story, and more importantly, every aspect of your film must stem from your story. Coming up with an idea costs nothing, so the more time you spend thinking about your story, the more money you’ll be able to save down the line.

The question I ask myself when writing any script is, “What makes this film unique?” And there are no wrong answers here: stories give viewers a new look at a situation, explore a certain theme in a unique way, or evoke a particular feeling. What is important is how the story is unique; this is what makes it worthwhile.

Meredith Rose as Lex in the short film Scab

But when writing a science fiction or fantasy film, I also ask myself, “What make this a science fiction story?” If I’m just writing a story that could take place in our world, why not set it in our world? Some element of the science fiction universe needs to play a vital role in the story. For instance, with my short film Scab, the central character is infected with a deadly virus, and that virus plays a central role in the entire story. The virus was responsible for a war in the past, which led to the state of the world that my characters inhabit. By making the science-fiction aspect of the film central to the story, you embed not only the world with an interesting twist, but also the story with a unique characteristic that makes it truly a sci-fi movie.

Characters

Just like the story, every character in your world needs to be completely thought through, not only who they are, but also how they relate to the world, and how they are uniquely science fiction characters. What do they do in the world? What’s their job? How do they self-identify in your science fiction world? Again, this costs nothing but the time it takes in thinking through. So, do yourself a favor and take the time to think deeply. You can keep your costs down, and save a lot of energy by making each character in your story a 3-dimensional human being.

In my short film Pisces, we follow the crew of a spaceship after the engines fail, and the life support systems go offline. So not only is the story locked into the science-fiction universe, but each of the characters has a role within that universe. We have the captain, the mechanic, and the pilot. Each of those characters also has a back story which plays a role in the story, and helps us more fully realize the universe in which the film takes place. By giving my characters jobs and a back story, it grounds them, and gives the actors something to sink their teeth into when they’re on set.

Costumes

Costumes go a long way in helping create an immersive world for your film to take place. What your characters wear says a lot about them, and the world they inhabit. Thinking through every costume helps the audience suspend their disbelief, and travel to the world that you have created. Again, questions I return to are: “Why is this character wearing this costume? What does this costume say about the character, and the world?”

Paul Plett (Director) and Andrew Luczenczyn (Cinematographer) discuss the first shot on the set of the short film Pisces

In my short film Scab, several of the characters are refugees. I wanted to give the audience the sense of a happy life existing in a bygone era, so I dressed many of these characters in colorful clothes, which we dirtied and damaged to give the impression of a long, harrowing journey. The costumes themselves were cheap: we bought practically all of our costumes at thrift stores, and just took the time to pick the clothes that were right for our film. But by giving thought to each costume, we were really able to get the most bang for our buck, and help the audience remain grounded in the world we were creating.

Props and Sets

Props and sets are really like the cherry on top of everything. If you have a story that you’re happy with, and characters dressed in effective costumes, the props and sets are that which make your world a real, livable place. And by giving a lot of thought to each prop and set—including their placement in the story and each frame—you can make a small budget film and look like a million bucks. So give thought to your props: What are they? Where do they come from? How are they used? What makes them unique?

In my short film Pisces, the entire film takes place on a small spacecraft. So we built the ship, basically a 24’x12’ box for the actors to play in. This basically cost the price of the wood that we used. Once the frame was built, we rummaged through local garbage dumps, looking for pipes and set dressing to add to the walls. This cost next to no money, and all we needed to do at that point was add a layer of paint, dirt, and grime over everything to make the set seem like it had its own story to tell. The thought and care you give to props and sets establishes a fictional universe that your viewers can inhabit.

VFX

Poster for Rama

Another way to elevate your film is to add VFX, but my recommendation is to do this sparingly. Bad VFX can pull the audience right out of the film. When possible, try to film everything in camera. And even if you’re going to use VFX, try to film some element of it in camera, to give the viewer a real-world reference point for the effect. For instance, in my short film Scab, we have gunfire happening at several points. All of the blaster shots and explosions were added in post, but I still had the actors react to the blaster shots. This gives the audience the impression that something is really happening, and the actors are really reacting to something. Simple VFX like this costs only time and the price of a program like After Effects. You can find great tutorials online for basically any effect you’re looking for, so it’s really a great tool to have in your belt. Still, as said, it’s best not to rely too heavily on VFX.

Do-ability

Do-ability is probably the most important thing you’ll want to remember when making any film, particularly a science fiction or fantasy film. Every step of the way you need to ask yourself, “Is this doable?” If the answer is “yes,” then great. If the answer is “no,” then you need to rethink it. And if the answer is “maybe,” then you need to come up with a plan for how you’re going to pull it off. It’s all fine and good to imagine a planet blowing up, or a great space battle, but if you don’t know how you’re going to pull it off, what’s the point?

For the past number of years, I’ve been interested in the idea of the post-apocalyptic film. You can really make a great post-apocalyptic film without spending too much money. Chances are your characters are living in the trash—walking past and rifling through it over the course of the film. Trash is cheap, and it’s everywhere. Post-apocalyptic movies are doable. In addition to this, every movie that you make should build upon what you learned in previous projects. We made a post-apocalyptic film called Scab; then we made another film that takes place in the same universe called Pisces. These films built upon one another. The things I learned about costumes, props and sets in Scab, I carried over into Pisces.

Now I’m about to embark on a feature-length film that takes place in the same universe called Rama. It will feature elements from both Scab and Pisces, taking them forward and expanding on them. We plan to build sets, film on location, and introduce a raft of new characters in Rama. And since I’ve already made two short films that take place in this universe, I’ve developed a language and a look that I can draw from. Making a feature-length film set in this universe is doable. You can visit Rama’s Facebook page or check out the Kickstarter campaign.

Paul Plett (Director) and Andrew Luzcenzcyn (Cinematographer) look on the 3 actors (Left to Right: Teela Tomassetti, Walker Rambo, Jennifer Mauws) on the set of the short film Pisces

Failure and Growth

Making movies is hard, and making good movies is harder. It takes time, practice, and experience. You need to make mistakes in order to learn, and you need to learn from your mistakes in order to grow. It’s okay to fail. Failure is how we learn and how we grow. Each time I make a movie, I look back at it and I ask myself, “Why did this fail? What’s holding this movie back?” I look at the movie and I isolate the factors that keep the film from being as good as it can be. Whether the problem is cinematography, sound design, costumes, sets, props, I focus on what’s holding my movie back, and I address these issues when making my next film. Addressing each issue doesn’t cost a lot of money. It just requires reflection and further thought when I’m planning everything. And by taking the time to think everything through, I’m able to eliminate my reasons for failure, one by one. And that’s how I get better.

It’s possible to make a great science fiction film without breaking the bank, if you take the time to plan it all out. So go out and make your movie, make mistakes, and learn from them. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Good luck!

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