March 2010

Game Changer

Neill Blomkamp’s high-tech, low-budget approach to movies has Hollywood rethinking the blockbuster


neill blomkamp Michael Muller

Imagine this: A 30-year-old filmmaker’s career almost ends before it starts when his first movie collapses five months into production. When he gets another chance at a feature, he takes the insane risk of casting his buddy in the lead and allowing him to improvise throughout. At a time when action movies are dominated by the blunt explosions of Transformers and its ilk, he prefers to think of science fiction as a potent allegorical force for social criticism, and he takes on the legacy of apartheid in his native land.

Amazingly, he pulls it off—the film becomes such a critical and box-office success he could probably stand next to Jessica Alba in a sea of fanboys at Comic-Con and still be more popular. Yet despite his wild road to success, people seem to have one question: How on earth did he make the film so cheaply?

Welcome to Neill Blomkamp’s world. The South African director’s debut film, District 9, may have earned Blomkamp legions of followers and four Oscar nominations, but the sci-fi thriller has garnered as much attention for what happened behind the scenes as it did for the film itself. Blomkamp made District 9 for $30 million—a pittance in the world of Hollywood blockbusters—while grossing more than $100 million domestically.

To put this in perspective, consider that Michael Bay’s second Transformers made about $400 million domestically but cost some $200 million to produce. The return on Blomkamp’s investment is not lost on Hollywood suits. That cognitive dissonance is making the Industry question its cost-benefit analysis.

What’s remarkable about District 9 is it was no emo-indie phenomenon or grassroots spookfest. It was an action flick with special effects that rivaled Hollywood’s most expensive megahits. “What I know how to do,” Blomkamp says, “and what I’ve proven I can do, is make expensive-looking films for less. There’s a formula with big-budget movies in Hollywood. It requires you to play it safe so the studio can make its money back. As a director, if you want to mess with that, you need to drop the budget.”

In years past, this would have relegated an ambitious filmmaker like Blomkamp to the indie world—not good for a man whose milieu is science fiction. But unlike most directors, Blomkamp comes from the world of visual effects and has established himself as the most promising director of the Internet generation by using smarts, creativity and especially technology to keep costs down.

He’s among the first wave of directors to embrace the Red One digital camera, whose picture quality is widely considered equal to 35-millimeter film at a fraction of the cost. “Shooting on 35 used to be considered important because it was so expensive. It meant someone thought enough of your talent to spend a good sum of money on you. But that’s not really a consideration these days.”

Could Blomkamp’s cost-cutting model herald a new age of intelligent, special-effects-driven blockbusters? The director is quick to downplay any larger impact his approach may have: “I’m not so full of myself that I’m going to take credit for inventing a new paradigm.” But Hollywood is starting to hedge its bets that he has.

“I’ve known I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 10,” says Blomkamp, who, after an apartheid-ravaged childhood in South Africa, moved to Canada at 18 to study at the Vancouver Film School. He landed work as an effects artist, and in his spare time, he shot a series of low-budget short films—most notably Tempbot and Alive in Joburg. The latter became the inspiration for District 9.

The shorts, with stunning visual effects, went viral after a friend posted them online. They eventually landed in the hands of Peter Jackson, who loved what he saw and was able to place Blomkamp at the helm of the big-budget remake of the popular videogame Halo. “My initial idea was to do my own stuff,” says Blomkamp, “not work as a director for hire. I wanted the creative freedom. But because it was Peter Jackson and Halo, I broke my own rule.”

After five months of work, however, Halo collapsed in a morass of big-studio politics. Fox and Universal battled for increased control, with Blomkamp caught in the crossfire. After it imploded, the director feared his career was over. But Jackson continued to support him and eventually helped push a feature-length expansion of Alive in Joburg—where an alien race of proletariat workers becomes stranded on Earth and is forced to live in the slums of Johannesburg. It became District 9. Poised with a rare second chance, Blomkamp was determined to avoid the creative constraints of a blockbuster budget.

The cornerstone of his strategy would be a reliance on narrative and character development—which is really what sets District 9 apart from other science-fiction films of the day. Unlike the special-effects porn of Michael Bay’s Transformers, Blomkamp didn’t have the money to use visual effects as a stopgap for narrative holes—not that he would have wanted to. “You can’t have things exploding for the sake of exploding,” says Blomkamp. “The visual effects need to serve as a storytelling mechanism. There needs to be an emotional reason for why everything is happening.”

To keep costs down, Blomkamp had to take big risks. He cast his friend Sharlto Copley in the lead , but who knew if he could carry a film? The other risk factor? Shooting the entire movie with the largely unknown Red One camera.

The Red One, the world’s first low-cost, cinema-quality digital camera, shoots directly into RAW format, eliminating the time-consuming and expensive digitizing process and making it possible to insert digital effects into the “negative.” The brainchild of Oakley sunglasses billionaire and avid photographer and cinephile Jim Jannard, the Red One attempted to bring the quality of still-camera digital photography to the world of cinema. The Red One has roughly four times the number of pixels as its closest HD competitors, giving it a resolution virtually on par with 35mm film.

Since its rollout in 2007, the camera has had such advocates as Steven Soderbergh, who shot his epic biopic Che on the Red One. But it was untested as a tool in a special-effects-driven project. Questions remained about whether visual effects could be integrated seamlessly with Red’s high-resolution images.

Despite the risk, Blomkamp says the decision to shoot with the Red One was a no-brainer. “That’s the future of filmmaking. Everything is going digital. Red lets you get the shots needed, you can shoot longer takes, and it’s cheaper over time.”

The longer takes allowed Blomkamp the freedom to let his actors improvise—a major contributor to the vérité feel of the film. That, says Red spokesman Ted Schilowitz, was exactly the point: “This camera was built as a tool to empower filmmakers creatively. It used to be if you had a small budget you couldn’t afford to shoot on 35mm. Now you can shoot on Red.”

Thanks to District 9, any lingering doubts about the efficacy of the technology have since been dispelled, and filmmakers have latched on. “We’ve always had a good inside reputation,” says Schilowitz, “but District 9 put us on the map in terms of the popular consciousness.”

Hollywood isn’t waiting around to see how these ventures fare. Only a few months after the release of District 9, the process of harvesting talent that can handle Blomkamp’s lowcost, high-tech model has begun.

In December, Spider-Man director Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures signed unknown Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Alvarez to direct a $30 million movie after seeing a five-minute video on YouTube. Titled “Panic Attack,” it was about the destruction of the director’s native Montevideo by an army of giant robots. The special effects were so realistic that when clips were shown on the local news in Montevideo, Alvarez says it caused a War of the Worlds–style freakout.

Cost to make the film: 300 bucks.

Alvarez posted it to YouTube on a Thursday. Of course it went viral—and within a week, he had a movie deal. “It was crazy,” he says. “One minute I’m in Montevideo doing my thing, the next I’m in Hollywood with offers coming in from all over the place.”

Alvarez says he posted a trailer for “Panic Attack” on YouTube in 2006, before the success of District 9, “but absolutely nothing happened.”

“I have to thank Neill Blomkamp,” he says. “This is happening for me because of his success. My timing is perfect.”

Blomkamp says it’s natural, and probably inevitable, that Hollywood would start to mine the talents of directors most familiar with the emerging technology of cinema. “If you know how to do special effects, you can easily save money. Before you even start shooting, you know what looks good and what will work in CGI and what won’t. You can practically eliminate the expense of the research and development phase.”

Of course, time will tell if District 9 was the first to capitalize on an inevitable new technological paradigm in film or was simply the beneficiary of a universe of colliding good fortune—not everyone is lucky enough to have Peter Jackson in his corner. And who knows whether Blomkamp is capable of re-creating a universe as compelling as that of District 9—one that doesn’t require special-effects steroids to keep the audience’s interest.

We’ll find out soon enough. Blomkamp is currently working on the script for his next film, another sci-fi thriller, this time set on a distant planet. He says the budget for the film will be slightly higher than he had for District 9, but he has been promised the same level of creative freedom he enjoyed while making his debut.

“You’re only as good as your last film,” says Blomkamp. “The pressure is on me to make a commercial film that will make its money back.” And it’s in this capacity that Blomkamp and those following in his footsteps have remained largely untried. Michael Bay and his effects-driven storytelling may be a target of ire for cinephiles, but his films make money—lots of it.

“Expensive movies are always going to be around,” Bay tells me via email. “Just because you have District 9—a very fine picture in my opinion—made cheap with a first-time director and first-time actors, these anomalies can happen and will again. But you could never do a Transformers or Avatar on the cheap if you wanted that look and detail.”

Blomkamp’s clever use of technology may not reinvent the blockbuster, but it has opened doors for digitally savvy filmmakers around the world to dream bigger. Cinema, after all, is still a medium of ideas.

“Ultimately, having a good idea is the most important thing,” says Blomkamp. “It’s all about the idea. Kids would rather watch something on YouTube that makes them laugh than sit through two hours of beautiful rubbish in a theater.”

MATTHEW FLEISCHER is a blogger and freelance writer based in Los Angeles.