How to build a Time Machine
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When producing online content it’s not uncommon for an organisation or institution to approach a creative company, ask them to make something daring, exciting or with ‘viral potential’, only to then do everything in their power to strip the resulting concept of all of the ingredients necessary to make it work. People get timid. They second-guess themselves. Too many voices enter the already overcrowded mix and by the time it’s finished the final piece isn’t daring, or exciting, or brimming with viral potential – it’s just confused.
To their immense and enduring credit however, over the four or so years we’ve been providing them with content this isn’t something that has ever been an issue at The University of Huddersfield. Their marketing department is a pleasure to pitch for and remains consistently committed to taking risks and providing open briefs that allow room for flexibility, interpretation and imagination. The results of this approach are visible in work like ‘Aliens in the Hud’ (an alien invasion drama from 2013), The Conversation (a series of elaborate comedy-drama shorts around application and enrolment), and most recently, the Time-travel action-
spectacular: Step into your future. Which was a big one.
In terms of personal interests and aesthetic leanings it would be fair to say that a significant percentage of Mocha’s creative team have more than a passing interest in science fiction, and this particular brief seemed like the perfect opportunity to scratch that itch and outdo our alien invasion effort of three years ago. The possibility of a cameo from University Chancellor Patrick Stewart also sweetened the prospect considerably.
As a genre, overblown sci-fi comedy with its tongue in its cheek is a risk – especially when budgets and time are tight. Mistakes around tone, misjudged performances or less than overwhelming visual effects can leave a bad taste in an audiences’ mouth – especially if the tone you were driving at was ‘confident and epic’. In this context, one of the worst things an audience can say about a piece of work is:
“Well, I can see what they were trying to do …”
This kind of sentiment in your audience means that your reach has exceeded your grasp and everyone can see it. The yawning chasm between ambition and execution is all too evident on screen. The mechanics of your failed engine are flopping and spluttering around very publicly and will soon be painfully savaged in the comments section – which is why the only sensible course of action before embarking on a shoot like Step into your future is to:
a) Make sure your script is solid, and …
b) Plan, plan and then plan some more.
Before even a frame of Step into your future got shot we’d already spent many happy hours at the University creating a rough version of the film (with a long suffering member of the team playing all the parts), to give us a more accurate idea of how the final version was going to play. This was valuable in terms of figuring out any potential issues around pacing, blocking, eye-lines and exactly which moments had the potential to fall flat and why.
Then there was casting – time well spent holed up with coffee and cake in the University marketing department as hordes of students did their best with lines like:
“Resolving problems with quantum effects within general relativity and using unique data from friction ridges on skin to facilitate the disruption of temporal boundaries.”
They did remarkably well considering.
There was commissioning and overseeing the score – “Can we have it close enough to a Back to the Future vibe that it raises a chuckle but far enough away so we don’t get sued”- returning to Huddersfield for rehearsals with the principle cast and providing the art department with a detailed brief for construction of a full-scale time machine.
Put together in the back garden of a member of the art department, the construction of the machine was an adventure involving negotiations with local metal merchants over aesthetically pleasing spare parts, angry junk yard dogs and crash courses in polishing metalwork from helpful, curious neighbours. The impressive final piece was transported in several sections and assembled on set in front of an appreciative, excited crew while someone played the Back to the Future theme through their laptop speakers. It was quite a moment.
In terms of the shoot it would be fair to say that Step into your future took the idea of a tight schedule to whole new, brain-popping levels. There were endless green screen shots, a rotating gaggle of extras, characters who had to be filmed talking to their identical doubles, actors battling semi-nonsensical, tech-heavy dialogue – even a modest little stunt – and all of this being attempted in a timeframe that could best be described as ‘challenging’.
Indeed without a supremely focussed, committed and supportive crew, confident, word-perfect actors who’d benefitted from the luxury of rehearsal and our months of careful planning, it’s almost impossible to imagine how we could have pulled it off.
After a brief and heated debate as to whether or not the time machine should live in our office on a permanent basis – decision still pending at time of writing – we handed the footage over to our animators and sound designers for a lengthy, sanity-sapping period of portal creation and technical wizardry. Many days and many nights past as the team stared forlornly at screens muttering things like:
“Are there any shots in this film that don’t have a portal in?”
… before finally emerging, blinking and groggy into the daylight with the finished effects work. Plasma pulsed and hummed, students vanished in and out of shimmering, wobbly bubbles and the time machine sparked and growled like the real piece of machinery it had suddenly become. And with that, Step into your future was finally sent sailing over the finish line bound for Huddersfield’s marketing department – all tied up with a pretty bow and in time for Christmas.
Time To Stop
Lots of things involved in the process of creating Step into your future will stick in my head for a while; trying to energize a listless extra by miming an explosion – loudly, and a bit too close to his face – like a Director properly losing the plot, waiting for Patrick Stewart to arrive on set as I paced a sizeable groove in the studio floor, the moment when the office gathered around to watch the complete 4K export for the first time and lengthy discussions about how chunky a comedy turtleneck needs to be before it’s funny.
So here’s to Huddersfield for leaving things open, trusting us to run with it and giving us the space to get it right. Here’s to planning and planning and planning – and then planning a little bit more. Here’s to actors knowing their lines and hitting their marks and an animation department that may as well be populated entirely by wizards as far as I’m concerned.
And here’s to the happy full stop at the office Christmas party when – amidst paper hats, novelty alcohol and a groaning, food-laden table – we received the e-mail from Huddersfield saying Patrick Stewart had given it the thumbs up.
Not a bad first Christmas present that.
‘How to build a Time Machine‘ – Behind the scenes
‘Step into Your Future‘ – Full film