Circling a black hole has never looked this good.
Deep into the pandemic, DUST released the short film Alone, which followed Kaya Torres (Steph Barkley), an engineer with a stubborn spirit, circling a black hole in a pod after barely escaping her research ship that had broken in half. She is alone, surviving off rations and the voice of cartography who is also alone on an isolated planet.
Written by J. Scott Worthington, directed by William Hellmuth, and produced by Julianna Ulrich, Worthington, and Hellmuth, Alone masterfully captures the isolation through its compelling story and rich visual language filmed mostly in one location. The process of creating the limited budget short film was captured through Blackmagic's URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 and an overall feeling of love and appreciation for the project.
Check out the short film below:
A single location
Alone writer J. Scott Worthington, producer Julianna Ulrich, and director and cinematographer William Hellmuth connected with the power of the sci-fi genre to push people into places and scenarios that we would never face in real life while exploring the deeper parts of humanity. Worthington found beauty in stripping down the normalness and getting to the core of who someone is and what their biggest fears are that wouldn’t have been possible in any other genre.
To create the world of Alone with a very limited budget, the filmmakers developed a script that primarily took place in one location.
“One of the hardest things was finding the one location,” producer Julianna Ulrich told No Film School. “Not only finding a team to build the spacecraft, but also a place to film it. Ideal, [a place] where we wouldn’t have to move it. In a lot of ways, it is easier to do a short that is mostly in one location because you can camp out there, plan really well, and there are fewer snags.”
Most of the short film takes place within Kaya’s (Steph Barkley) escape pod, creating a space that provided limited camera angles with one window reminding both Kaya and the audience of the impending doom of the black hole.
“I wanted to keep it from being the same shot over and over again, trying to switch up and get some shot variety in there, but, at the same time, not making it feel like it's going overboard and becoming distracting,” said director and cinematographer William Hellmuth.
He also noted that performance and lighting were two more important details he kept in mind while on set.
“Something I was really concerned about in the beginning was making sure that the performance of Kaya all in one space wasn’t a single note, not the same mood throughout the whole thing. Steph and I did a lot of work there. We did broad strokes stuff but then honed in on certain lines. We literally went through the script and just did arrows, like up on one scene and then down at the top of the other, to signal the energy levels of the scenes and establish the emotional pace.
“The lighting, too, actually was another. Shifting the lighting from the beginning when it's a little bit flatter, but as she sinks closer to the black hole it gets darker and redder until she is basically in hell. That scene is just drenched in red in the escape pod, and it just happens gradually.”
From a writing perspective, Worthington was careful to not bore the audience with a single location.
“You can get bogged down in conversation or letting a scene play out too long, so moving things quickly along and constantly cutting down moments in time. That is why we have a day-by-day progression for [Kaya] so we are constantly moving, getting the sense of momentum and impending doom as she moves closer to the black hole.”
Worthington also noted the budgetary constraints also lent themselves to the storytelling, enhancing his original story to fit inside the single location.
“We did some clever things with how we structured the conversation, the radio talking back and forth, message in the bottle style. Even though there is technically a delay, through the power of editing, we can speed that up to make it feel like an actual conversation playing out.
Shooting the film
Hellmuth decided to shoot the film with both anamorphic and spherical lenses. The anamorphic lens created a stronger sense of isolation while inside the ship for the main character, then switched to a more standard 16:9 aspect ratio on the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 from Blackmagic to make the transition from sets and scenes quick and smooth.
To create the emotional high point in the short when Kaya enters the black hole, Hellmuth decided to distort the footage by putting the anamorphic lens on sideways.
“When you do that with an anamorphic lens, it stretches the image in a really weird way. As I was breaking down the script, I had this idea that gravity is getting dense and reality is stretching.”
To achieve this stretched look, normal perspective footage was stretched in post and distorted footage captured by a tilted camera with anamorphic lenses mounted sideways was mixed in, creating in-frame tension.
“That whole sequence was really fun,” Hellmuth added as he described the process of creating the pinnacle moment of the story. As Kaya is going through the black hole, the conversations between the two isolated characters begin to overlap, tearing apart the theme and building it back together. Originally, that powerful moment of voices overlapping wasn’t planned.
“The sound design in that scene—that was an idea that came to us in post-production when we were nearing the final lock,” Hellmuth said of the black hole sequence. “A director friend of mine thought it would be smart to find a way to remind the audience of the, 'No one should be alone,' line.”
The sound traveling through the wormhole is stuck, bouncing back and forth as time is ripped apart and stitched back together.
Worthington was able to come back to choose what lines would be the focus as Kaya plunged through the black hole with hopes to end her time of isolation.
“The idea came up that we [should] add a line that hasn’t happened yet. So, buried in the mix you actually hear—plot spoilers, everybody—old man Hammer (Thomas WIlson Brown) has a line that comes up briefly. So not only a hint of things to come, foreshadow, but you can hear how time is warping around Kaya as she goes in.”
When reflecting on what kept the filmmakers motivated during the filming and editing process of the short film, Ulrich believed that the love and care that went into the pre-production phase was what helped the film become the breathtaking short it is today.
“It’s a lot about setting that, driving for it, and just figuring it out as you go along," Ulrich said. "It's also knowing that you want to tell this story. It's going to take perseverance, creative logistical problem solving, asking for favors, whatever that looks like, and really pushing towards that production. I think a lot of it is wanting to tell the story, and you figure out what work needs to be put in and putting in that work, making it happen, and also bringing good people alongside you to work with you so it is more enjoyable.”
Hellmuth said, “It's the people and the work that motivates me. Especially throughout 2020, having this project to return to felt like a lifeline because so much of m y other work, creative work, had died down, and it was the case for a lot of other people working with me in post. We were all able to take this energy and channel it into Alone. It was a cathartic experience."
Worthington added, “Getting to see how people make your baby better is eye-opening. This project especially. There is an old saying with writers that you never finish a script. You just get it as good as you can and then you hand it off. That was true with this because everyone from acting to William and Julianna to post, everyone brought something new to the table and made this story better. Then getting to watch that in waves as things just got more and more tight, complex, and beautiful—the final product motivates me because that’s kind of a rush and it's addictive. Knowing that you have good people with you is more than enough to keep you going from project to project.”
Hellmuth, Ulrich, and Worthington are looking forward to creating a feature version of the short, hoping to assemble the same team to create a trip through a wormhole. With a script completed, a director ready to gear up for the experience, and a prepared ready to navigate the windy road that is filmmaking, we can look forward to a beautiful story that transports us into a world unknown yet familiar.
As long as you have good people along your side who share the same appreciation and love for a project, you can create movie magic that speaks volumes in under 20 minutes.