Adam Stern's Indie Sci-Fi Film 'FTL' Captures the Wonder of Spaceflight

Friday, 23 June 2017 - 4:40PM
Friday, 23 June 2017 - 4:40PM
Adam Stern's Indie Sci-Fi Film 'FTL' Captures the Wonder of Spaceflight
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Image credit: Adam Stern, Artifex Productions

If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that no amount of VFX can make a lackluster film great—World of Warcraft and Transformers are living proof of that. However, in the right hands, it can take a simple story and turn it into something amazing. FTL, directed by Adam Stern, is short enough to feel like a piece of flash-fiction, but the sheer majesty of its images—viewing the Earth from orbit, looking out at Mars, soaking in every detail of the spaceship as it detaches from its dock—makes the film feel like a ripple on the vast, unexplored ocean of space. You can check out the trailer below:

We sat down with Adam to talk about the film, his inspirations, and space—the final frontier.

Outer Places: Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get into film, and what keeps you going?

Adam Stern: I got into film in a somewhat roundabout way. I studied music from a young age and trained as a pianist—first classically, then at Berklee College of Music...I eventually realized this wasn't the path for me and began to explore other opportunities. While working on Macs in college, I learned what was possible visually using graphics software and loved it. I started a company called Artifex Studios with the intention of taking on visual effects work.

A friend was working on The X-Files around that time, and asked if I was interested in creating some graphics for the show. It happened to be for an episode written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox called "Kill Switch" and I jumped at the chance. After this, Artifex created graphics for many shows, moving into full VFX work within a few years. We've now worked on close to one hundred different film and television projects.

OP: What are some sci-fi films that have inspired you and your work? Are there themes you see yourself coming back to again and again with your film projects?

Adam: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, The Matrix, Inception, Blade Runner, many more. I grew up on Star Trek and am a big fan, from the original series through today. In some ways FTL is my small love-letter to Star Trek, in which I wanted to try and evoke that feeling of wonder I had when I watched the show so many years ago.

However, where Star Trek generally conveys a hopeful message about our place in the universe and the wonders of exploration, I also love sci-fi with darker themes, which I hope to continue to explore. Questions of identity and reality, and whether we truly can distinguish "the real"...Fight Club, Black Mirror, and probably my favorite television show right now, Mr. Robot, are all great examples and inspirations.

OP: How did you come up with the story for FTL?

Adam: I was thinking about ways to explore how a new technology, one that was within the realm of possibility, could introduce us to new understandings... and show us just how much we don't know. At the same time, I love how as mankind, we seem to continue to discover and develop new technologies at breakneck speed, despite our questionable track record in many other ways. Faster-than-light travel is a topic I've read about for years both in fiction and non-fiction, and have been following current theoretical research with fascination.

I wanted to set something in space, which funnily enough would work well practically; we had a limited number of days to shoot and a very small budget to do so. Most of the film takes place in a (virtual) cockpit and mission control, which meant we could use a small green screen stage for a couple of days to get most of our footage, and use our resources in effects and post to create scale.

OP: Faster-than-light travel might be the key to colonizing other worlds and spreading humanity across the galaxy. Fittingly enough, the protagonist quotes Star Trek just before he jumps into FTL space. How do you think interplanetary colonization will change humanity?

Adam: Yes, Kane had to quote Star Trek! It seemed fitting. I think there's an interesting juxtaposition at play with the concept of interplanetary colonization. At odds with the inclusive, hopeful ideals of Star Trek is the somewhat more cynical escapist fantasy; what if you could just leave? What if we could simply walk away from this mess we've made on Earth—walk away from climate change, rampant racism, impossibly frustrating politics, everything? Of course, we'd very likely create the same problems wherever we went, so I'm not sure what would change in the end for us. But the idea of a fresh start somewhere else is very appealing.

OP: From Mass Effect's Normandy to the Millennium Falcon, all kinds of FTL ships have been introduced into the genre. What were the inspirations behind the design of the Longshot?

Adam: Spacecraft design is a lot of fun and I'm a huge fan of the ships you mention. When I wrote FTL, I described the Longshot as mostly prototype tech, with just enough room for a pilot in a small cockpit at the front. We then looked at current ideas about FTL technology, and visually loved the concept of concentric rings, possibly including exotic materials, being used to generate a contained wormhole. I wanted the ship to feel like it had a NASA pedigree, carrying some of the space shuttle livery into the near future. Almost as if a single-seater NASA test craft was bolted onto a warp-field generator. Scary for the pilot, but visually cool.

OP: Tell me about the process behind creating some of the digital effects of the film, such as the opening shot of the Longshot over Earth.

Adam: The opening shot is something I had in my head from the beginning. Seeing Earth from afar, taking the majesty of it in for a moment, and then focusing our story on this comparatively small bit of floating technology above it that contains one man.

To create it, we shot Ty in our "cockpit" set—basically a prop flight chair with some plywood for his control console on green screen. We dollied across the front of Ty as if we were in front of the Longshot. We then built the ship around him in CG, backed up our camera virtually and added a much larger camera move to the beginning, to come in and find him and the ship from space.

A lot of the VFX work in the film revolved around the Longshot, both interior and exterior. It was important to shoot Ty in a way that we could integrate him into the shots—to make it feel like he was there, and we weren't just looking at full CG shots of a ship in space.

OP: FTL is filled with incredible visuals, but while watching I started to see parallels to other famous sci-fi films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Were these purposeful homages?

Adam: Absolutely—some intentional, some only realized in hindsight. As a film and story 2001: A Space Odyssey was so far ahead of its time. This idea that we have all this technology, this hubris that we know "what's what"—and then having that disrupted. Both from the malfunctioning of the tech we're so proud of, and the realization that we might be playing a much smaller role in the Universe than we believe.

It's hard not to be a fan of Spielberg's visual storytelling—there wasn't an intentional homage to Close Encounters, but that film (and those moments) are etched in my brain.

OP: What was the toughest part of creating the movie? What was the most enjoyable for you? Any behind-the-scenes stories or trivia you want to share?

Adam: Creating FTL was very much a labour of love. The toughest part for me was probably prep, everything leading up to shooting...Vancouver is so busy that we would set dates, then find out some of our cast weren't available. Crew committed, then had to drop out. It all came together in the end, and once we were on set with our AD yelling "roll sound", I felt like I could exhale.

I loved directing the film, working with the actors. Ty was a fantastic collaborator, bringing his own ideas to the character and fleshing him out in ways I hadn't thought of. For his day in the cockpit, he had to work with no one else on set, performing most of his role sitting in a chair, looking past camera to a sound stage. I know he enjoyed having a day at a "real" location, working with Aliyah O'Brien and John Torrance, who play Abby and Jack, Kane's wife and son...

Karin Konoval, who plays Flight, had Ronald Patrick Thompson (Nav Com) to work with, as well as extras playing NASA team members (all VFX artists from Artifex!), but otherwise she had to do the same—[look] at a big green screen wall where we would eventually create Mission Control. She was wonderful to work with and brought a great sensibility to the role.

One piece of interesting trivia, both Karin and Ty performed alongside Andy Serkis as apes in the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes. Karin has been in all three films, playing Maurice, one of my favorite characters.

OP: What do you have planned for the future?

Adam: My next film will be a feature. FTL was created as a proof-of-concept—the feature version in development isn't quite the same as the short, but I wanted to show visual capability with the short and use it to help work out the universe of the story.

I've also been working to expand my previous project The Adept into a feature. I've been writing with Adam Reid who starred in the short. Additionally, I'm working on a music-related story based on personal experience, and have several other concepts I'm bouncing around. My plan is to go to camera on a feature by next year, one way or the other.

FTL is currently making the rounds at various film festivals, but you can check out news on the film on its Facebook, IMDb and Twitter pages. You can also follow Adam Stern on Twitter and check out his website to learn more about his projects.

Science Fiction
Sci-Fi Movies