Art by Jim Murray, creature design by Jordu Schell
This week, Ruairi Robinson’s proof of concept video for The Leviathan tore through the internet like a space whale ripping through an aircraft designed to fly through a planet whose atmosphere is comprised mostly of hydrogen and helium. It isn’t the first time that he’s gotten a viral standing ovation. The first time was for Blinky™, one of the best sci-fi short films of the past decade and a project that scored the Irish filmmaker a well-earned career boost.
His Vimeo profile says that he’s, “part man, part machine, part lizard, all cop, mostly ninja, partially deaf, surprisingly tangy, notoriously average height, genetically designed to kill, make movies,” but I wanted to get to know him better by asking about The Leviathan and what it took to make something gorgeous designed to let him make something 4000% bigger.
What all went into making the proof of concept?
A year of pain. Relentless agonizing pain. 16-hour days with no income and no days off.
I came up with the idea in 2009 and started the ball rolling, worked on it off and on. Then put a pin in it while I worked on other stuff, and came back to it last year to properly push this forward. Weta did some initial concept art for me and Jordu Schell designed an amazing creature. Then I hired a couple of people to build some of the assets for me and do some other technical processes like rigging/cloud/explosion sims etc.
The guts of it was me at a desk putting it all together. Ryan Stafford (who was vfx producer on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) helped me get the mocap stuff done. He’s an awesome and talented guy and did an incredible job on Apes. Also I owe Blur Studios and especially Tim Miller (who is doing Deadpool right now) a big thank you ‐ he was kind enough to let me take a space in his office and use their render farm in downtime, so the second half of making this, I was surrounded by awesome artists whose brains I could pick on some of the more technical aspects.
As a filmmaker with an agent and manager, what’s your goal with putting something like this out into the public sphere?
It’s a big gamble. I think the process of pitching is changing, and showing it to the public first has become a way of getting your toes wet to see if the public responds. If it catches on, it certainly helps. The safer, older route was just to show it privately to buyers, but then if it goes into development and never gets made, you’ve done a load of work that nobody will ever see, and it’s buried forever.
So that’s what I wanted to avoid. I was always keen to have the teaser seen publicly.
Is “Moby Dick in Space” a fair logline for the project?
Yeah, definitely. Although the action doesn’t really take place in space. It’s on another world… a Gas Giant, covered in a layer of toxic plasma clouds.
I’d categorize it as Jaws plus Wages of Fear multiplied by Alien.
How is Jim Uhls involved? Did he write the script for the feature, or just provide material for this proof of concept?
He wrote the script. We’ve both been working on this for quite a while and sharing work in progress back and forth. I’m a massive fan of Fight Club, and it was a huge thrill to work with the guy that wrote that movie.
There have been a few people saying these are the most realistic sci-fi fx they’ve seen ‐ what can you attribute that to?
A year of pain! Or people having not seeing much movies, ever. Or a plague of near-sightedness? I don’t know. I think it looks good, but as a movie I’d obviously want it more finished. I did the best I could with very very limited resources.
What’s special about this story? What makes you need to tell it?
It’s “Moby Dick,” so I don’t think I need to prove that’s a good story! The trick was to find a way to tell the story that feels organic to this new setting and doesn’t feel like it’s a gimmick. It’s a character story first and foremost. Wrapped in big spectacle. The teaser itself just concentrates on world building and design and action. Largely because I was working under fairly severe limitations.
Has the internet response prompted any movement from financing/producers?
That’s in-progress but I’m very hopeful ‐ reaction has been very encouraging indeed.
What’s your background as a filmmaker?
When I was in college (doing graphic design) there was a confluence of events that meant that for the first time hardware and software to do animation became accessible to people of more modest means, which meant people like me who lived thousands of miles from where movies were made and had no connection to the industry could suddenly make short films on their own without a big network of contacts. So I found this as my “in” to be able to tell stories visually. I tried to use this as a stepping stone to make myself into a director, transition to live action, make ads, and ultimately hopefully make some good movies.
Now if you can imagine that rosy sounding account being 100 times more lonely and painful and humiliating, full of defeat after defeat after defeat, the very occasional success somehow makes it all worthwhile. [Laughs]
Will we ever get to see a feature version of Blinky and/or own a Blinky in our homes?
I love that stupid robot. It’s had a lot of false starts that I can’t really talk about in much detail. I had an Oscar-nominated screenwriter lined up to write it and some amazing producers, but it just seemed like every time it was about to get going it crumbled to dust in my hands for one stupid reason or another.
As far as robots in our homes, I’d buy one for sure. Even if it killed me.
What does the world need to know about you?
I am from the future. Come with me if you want to live.