January 30, 2015
Exclusive Interview

'ATROPA' Is a Low Budget Sci-Fi Short You Can't Afford to Miss

ATROPA Low Budget Sci-Fi Short Film Concept Art

Two years ago, I wrote my first article for No Film School. It was the story of HENRi, an ambitious animated short film that finally saw the light of day after an arduous years-long production process. Eli Sasich, the director of that fantastic short film, is now in the process of pre-producing a feature, an even more ambitious sci-fi flick called ATROPA that takes cues from classics of the genre such as Alien and Blade Runner, but also brings to the table Sasich's unique contemporary aesthetic.

With the feature script written, Sasich and company set out to produce a proof of concept short film -- much like our own Ryan Koo did for his forthcoming feature. Despite their extremely limited budget, Sasich and his talented crew managed to produce a short film that is not only incredibly high in production value, but one that perfectly sets the stage for the feature version with its gripping twist ending. Check out ATROPA below.

https://vimeo.com/77761436

I had the opportunity to chat with Eli earlier this week, and he shared loads of information about how ATROPA came to life and how he and his team managed to achieve such high production value in spite of their limited budget.

ATROPA Low Budget Sci-Fi Short Film Concept Art
A piece of concept art from the sci-fi short film ATROPA

NFS: This short has some fantastic production design work. Did you guys build your own sets and props? How did you achieve such high quality production design with your limited budget?

Eli Sasich: We definitely didn’t have the budget to build our own sets, so we used the standing spaceship set at Laurel Canyon Stages in Arleta, California. It’s a great space, which also means it’s been used in thousands of projects — once you've shot something there, you start to see it everywhere. Our goal was to make it our own, but we couldn’t alter the overall structure of the set, so we utilized lighting and different camera angles to change the look. We embraced the griminess of what existed: it fit our ‘70s and ‘80s design aesthetic perfectly.

ATROPA Low Budget Sci-Fi Short Film Concept Art
We also worked with an incredible production designer, Alec Contestabile, who transformed the space for us with original set pieces and props, and his overall ingenuity. He designed and built the hologram board in Cole’s ship, the cryosleep chambers, and the table in the big character scene — all of which match the look and feel of what already existed. The cryo-tubes were made out of foam core and cardboard attached to a wooden frame – they were extremely light, so one person could move them. The table was fashioned by bolting two plastic pallets together and covering them with scrap pieces of plexiglass. The handheld case file Cole uses is a piece of picture frame glass with a motion-activated LED strip attached to the side – a device usually used to light drawers.

NFS: Were there any things that you guys did with this production to minimize costs without sacrificing production value?

ES: The key to keeping the cost down was meticulous planning. Our Producer, Chris Bryant, called in a million favors, and many of our crew were students or recent graduates. We cut on-set costs by using a bunch of production tricks — for example, we only had the budget to build two of the cryosleep tubes, so we used camera angles and editing to make it seem like there were four. Our DP, Greg Cotten, lit the main table and the hologram board from underneath, which allowed us to use them as practical lighting for the scenes and save time. Many of the digital screens throughout both ships were captured in camera – we borrowed six iPads from the crew and looped tech graphics on them. Thankfully, none were damaged during production!

ATROPA Low Budget Sci-Fi Short Film BTS

Because we were backed into a corner cost and time-wise, we were challenged to shorten scenes, combine shots, and simplify, simplify, simplify. I think working that way keeps you light on your feet and breeds creative solutions. We ended up with exactly what we needed, nothing more.

NFS: You guys had a few complex VFX/CGI shots with the exteriors of the spaceships and the massive collision at the end. How did you pull those off with your limited budget?

ES: Our VFX team, a worldwide network of people under the supervision of VFX guru Ryan Wieber, worked on a ridiculously tight schedule. Tobias Richter and his company ‘The Light Works' (located in Germany) designed and executed all our exterior space shots in record time. They modeled our CG spaceships from original concept art, and animated them based on detailed storyboards. We collaborated over the phone and via email, which ended up being a very organic process.


We'd like to thank Eli for taking the time to share the process of how ATROPA came to be, and wish him and his team luck as they track down funding for the feature version. Do you guys have any questions about the production of this short film? If so, leave them down in the comments!     

Your Comment

25 Comments

Impressive short! I hope they continue with the story.
Disappointing to hear they didn't build their own sets. Just take a bit more time, scrounge some junkyards, and turn your house into a spaceship. That's what I did with Space Trucker Bruce (www.spacetruckerbruce.com). You just need to turn junk into something cool using creativity, paint, and lots of duct tape.

January 30, 2015 at 5:22PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
597

As a big fan of Blade Runner, this felt nostalgic, a good sign in my opinion.

I do have a question, how small was the budget exactly? A specific value would be interesting to know, if only to prove to naysayers that high production value projects are possible with limited means and a lot of perseveration.

Anyway if the creators of Atropa are reading this, congratulations!

Dying to see what comes next.

January 30, 2015 at 7:17PM

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I haven't watched the short yet, but from a quick glance and noticing that the director is represented by CAA, and that they used a commercial spaceship set and CG effects, I'm guessing that the "limited budget" may have been at least in the six figures. Unless they pulled a lot of favors, in which case they may have found a way to pull it off in the five figures. At this level, however, don't expect them to reveal their actual budget.

January 30, 2015 at 8:13PM

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Shen
425

Well, you never know. Guys like Corridor Digital or Rocketjump have taught me not to take anything at face value.

January 31, 2015 at 4:39AM

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Limited budget on what scale? This looks great, and he's getting some nice performances from these actors. But what are we talking about when you say limited budget? Did the VFX guys work for free, or just a reduced rate? Were the actors paid? Was the crew paid? Is this a SAG-AFTRA contract? Cause if they have that kind of budget for set and VFX and they are not paying people then in my mind there is a problem. Cause limited budget is relative to many things, not limited to the creativity of the filmmaker, the needs of the script, the genre, the resources the filmmaker has "in house" or "on hand" so to speak, etc . . .

January 30, 2015 at 8:12PM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
1006

I looked up the set rental fees and it's over $1000 a day for that spaceship. Probably multiple days of filming and set prep.

January 30, 2015 at 8:48PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
597

$1000/ day for a set like that is a steal, even if you needed it for 2 weeks, it would still fall into low budget.

March 8, 2015 at 10:56PM, Edited March 8, 10:56PM

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"Limited Budget" is a relative term. Even with just two days of prep/set building and three days of shooting, that's $14,000 right there just for the set rental. Even with absolute minimum prep and shoot time, you're probably looking at $20k just to get it in the can, and that's with everyone working for free, not including VFX, which I can assume, wasn't free.

I don't know if anyone really cares about the budget of shorts anymore, since almost everyone can make a short now, even on an iPhone. I prefer to gauge a short on the quality of its story, acting, ideas, execution, etc, than on its budget. It used to be if you made a quality short with impressive CGI, on a shoestring budget, you got noticed. Remember Fede Alvarez? He was the guy who did "Panic Attack," for "a few hundred dollars," but also just so happened to own his own VFX company and Production company. His short "Panic Attack" got him noticed by Sam Raimi, and then Fede was hired to write and direct the "Evil Dead" reboot.

http://collider.com/sam-raimis-ghost-house-makes-high-priced-deal-with-f...

January 30, 2015 at 9:17PM, Edited January 30, 9:17PM

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Film Voltage
Director
258

I absolutely love the use of the music here. It sounds orchestral like it was recorded on a sound stage (I haven't done any research, just guessing), and I feel like it added another huge layer of depth and production value.

My question is, with such a small budget, how was that approached? More favors? Grabbing from pre-existing songs?

Beautiful all around. I also love Blade Runner, but I feel more Alien in this piece. Still, very nostalgic. Love it. Would definitely watch the feature.

January 30, 2015 at 9:30PM

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Kyle Culver
Video/VFX Editor
85

Thanks Kyle! It is live orchestra, but not recorded specifically for this project. Our composer, Kevin Riepl, did the score for the game Aliens: Colonial Marines. We had access to all the stems from that recording session, so he rearranged and remixed them, and added some electronic elements to create something new. The music is barely recognizable from the game, and it gave us the big live sound I was looking for. Another example of working within low-budget constraints and still finding ways to get what you want creatively.

February 5, 2015 at 3:19PM

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Eli Sasich
Director
81

It's a challenge guys ...congrats !!! Where are no money there are more hearts and wise minds, but that's work sometimes ... Have a budget next time !!! :)

January 31, 2015 at 3:54AM

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Dan Toader
Production Designer / Art director / Set Decorator
81

I extremely disliked it.

January 31, 2015 at 3:59AM

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Film grain WAAY over done...

January 31, 2015 at 7:26AM

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JoshuaMallett.com
Producer / Director / DP
91

Was very noticeable but I loved the look the grain provided. I'm usually not for adding grain but this short has made me a believer. For my tastes, I think the grain worked perfect in this short.

February 2, 2015 at 10:18PM

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Jorge L. Molinari
Mechanical Engineer / Family Man / Video Producer
146

Right from the opening -- the kid did not see a "knight to G5" gonna give him a check? And he made an officer in whatever space force?

Kiddin, an enjoyable short!

January 31, 2015 at 12:57PM, Edited January 31, 12:57PM

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Alex Zakrividoroga
Director
4141

Well Done! I'm super impressed!!

January 31, 2015 at 1:17PM

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Terrell Lamont
Director, Director of Photography
427

Really enjoyed this one. Always inspires me what people can do on a limited budget.

January 31, 2015 at 5:59PM

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More of a teaser than a short film, but it works -- definitely looking forward to seeing the full feature.

Not sure if it's fair to attach the term "low budget" to this, though, unless you're comparing it to something like Aliens. Maybe "relatively low budget?"

February 1, 2015 at 11:08AM

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Yeah, Low budget is relative I think. I did my movie for $10,000 but it looks like a micro budget film. If you have the money you might as well use it to produce high quality. With this I would've preferred a little more story in this and less of a set up for the future movie.

February 2, 2015 at 1:53PM, Edited February 2, 1:53PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
597

The main actor looks like Mel Gibson, Mad Max era.

February 2, 2015 at 2:14PM, Edited February 2, 2:14PM

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Not bad. Could've been a little shorter and I don't know why anyone would compare the look to Blade Runner . . . unless you're blind.

Event Horizon is the film you're looking for.

The characters are very one dimensional and predictable as well. Which is usually a staple of big budget films, not indies where writers have the time to invest in real life characters.

But, yeah . . . . it LOOKS great.

February 4, 2015 at 11:50PM

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Justin Gladden
Producer
397

"Low budget" could be 20.000$ or 900.000$. Would be nice to know what (budget-) league they played in. Come on, a little hint please ;)

February 5, 2015 at 7:49AM, Edited February 5, 7:49AM

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Lauritz Neu
1st AC
171

Sorry for my delayed response folks! I’m happy to share more information about how we made ATROPA. Anytime I’m asked about the budget of my projects, I always try to place the question into context. The story really isn't about the money you spend, but rather what creativity is born from limitations. That’s the fun (and challenge) of low budget! For ATROPA, we had three weeks of prep, we shot for two days, and we spent just over $10,000 total.

As the article explains, we asked many favors of many people, we worked with a student crew, and we inspired a lot of people to generously donate their time and talent. No surprises here: it took a ton of work, extensive planning, and an awesome team to pull it off.

February 5, 2015 at 2:56PM, Edited February 5, 2:56PM

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Eli Sasich
Director
81

Well how about that! Impressive on all fronts, bravo!

February 5, 2015 at 7:07PM

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When you talk about "low budget", how low is it, exactly? Because the results don't look like sub-10k budget, to me, which is my definition of "low budget".

February 18, 2015 at 6:17AM

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Storm17
Scriptwriter / Director
83