Behind the Scenes Q&A with Dan Sollis 04.03.12 - Zack - permalink

Dan Sollis is the man at the helm of all of the video content for Liminal States. He is currently in the post-production stages of work on the short film based on the novel. I tore him away from rendering bug husks to ask him a few questions.

What is your past experience in film and television?

My background's in VFX. I wanted to be working in that field from a young age. I was a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen's awesome stop-motion creature features when I was a kid, then later I started getting very excited about the then-emerging field of Computer Graphics after seeing Tron and The Last Starfighter.

A big turning point in my life came when my dad brought home an Amiga 500 not long after it was released. It was a fearsomely expensive purchase and I think my parents almost had a divorce over it! But it got me into early computer graphics and I spent hours drawing things in Deluxe Paint and early 3D apps. The Amiga played a big part in nurturing my geek graphic skills, and I bought my own A1200 before I went to college. Most of my projects at College were done on this 14MHz 2MB powerhouse; I wasn't a rich kid, so I couldn't afford a Mac. And Macs then really weren't that great for anything apart from Photoshop!

I've been working in VFX for more than a decade now, initially freelancing then later setting up a business called Digital Distortion in an office in Soho, London. During that time I did post-production on dozens of music videos, TV titles, film idents. Oh - and plenty of corporate stuff too. That's the stuff that keeps the money ticking over - and pays for the rest of the software and hardware needed to do the job!

In terms of filmmaking, I'd been planning to get more into (live action) directing for a while. But it seemed like such a gulf of knowledge to cross - and so damn expensive - that I kept putting it off. The big turning point was meeting the director Gareth Edwards at a talk. I loved his film MONSTERS, but more importantly his example made me realise I'd just been making bad excuses for not doing it sooner. I'd come onboard Zack's project to create some animated films and other graphics, very much as I did for That Insidious Beast, but I realised that this was the ideal opportunity for me to do my first live-action production. Little did I realise quite what I was letting myself in for!

How did you get involved in Liminal States?

I was a big fan of Zack's earlier work. I was first exposed to it through his "Instructions for a thing" series and its companion "The View from Below" which I though was just mindblowingly good, original storytelling. When his series "That Insidious Beast" came out, I quickly became hooked and I tried to think of some way of showing my appreciation to the author, beyond sticking a bunch of twenties in a brown paper envelope. The domain name was available, so I registered it and emailed Zack saying "here's a free web domain if you want it". He saw my website (via my email sig) and asked if I was up for doing some video work on the series finale, I did, and we've been best buds on this video malarkey since then.

What sort of pre-production do you do?

Script, storyboard, animatic. Pretty much in that order too. We had a very different plan for the launch video for Liminal orginally. Well, actually a couple of different ones. But one came very close to happening, which would have been cool but was probably a bit too stupidly ambitious for me at that early stage. One day, I'll stick up the edited animatic so you can see what could have been. Instead of that, we took a simpler approach using the idea of the three different characters doing monologues, from the 3 time periods of the novel.

Zack wrote up an awesome script, which I then embellished a bit with extra storytelling "glue" to hold it all together. I started casting for the three roles in early January, then about halfway though the process I had the fortune of getting a producer on board: a very experienced commercial director called Ben Jones. Having Ben on board has utterly transformed this film. I wouldn't have dared to film it on location without his help and encouragement. Of course, I don't think Ben quite knew what he'd be letting himself in for by being my producer on what has turned out to be a stupidly ambitious first film!

What equipment did you use when shooting?

The UK shoots (for the 1945 and 2006 sections) were shot on Arri Alexa. The Spain shoot (1874) was shot on RED one. Both used a full set of lovely Cooke prime lenses. It looks pretty nice, though that's more down to the brilliant skills of my DP Arturo Vasquez than the particular gear we used. All shoots were done in natural light, and we were generally pretty lucky when it came to the weather!

How did you cast the parts of the three characters from the novel?

The two male leads were cast first. With help from Rosie Andrews, an actress friend, a casting call was put out. We had a lot of applicants, and from them a shortlist was chosen. The casting was done at the private room of my favourite local pub in soho - The Blue Posts on Berwick Street. It was a tough call to make and we saw some really great performances, but from that day's session two names stood out for the two male leads - Joseph Capp as Gideon, and Nathan Nolan as Casper Cord.

After Ben Jones came onboard (and we started doing things properly!) we got a casting director - Emily Tilelli - involved for casting Polly Foster, the female lead. This was a much harder role to cast for as we had a very specific look in mind (a red head) but also needed her to be either a native US speaker or have a flawless US accent. We were exceptionally lucky to find someone who combined those characteristics perfectly and cast Annabel Topham in the role.

All the actors who have worked on this film have been exceptional, but I think I have to say right now that Joseph Capp has gone unbelievably above and beyond the call of duty on this project. He put together his own costume and was incredibly generous with his time working with us. He's an amazing, dedicated actor and I think we were damn lucky to get him onboard. I don't know if we ever will get him again as I suspect big things await him!

What was the biggest practical hurdle to clear in production?

Money - or lack thereof. It really was the biggest constraint on just about everything we did. Well, that and one thing I hadn't really considered the implications of before, which is that recording sound on location is a huge gamble and can often go catastrophically wrong. For example, when shooting the beach shots for the WW2 section we had filming interrupted halfway through by the loud droning from building works taking place about a mile down the beach. Fortunately we got enough material so that we didn't need to ADR it.

What techniques did you use, both in production and post-production, to differentiate the three time periods portrayed in the film?

The gear used to shoot them is largely identical, but we've shot each section with a very different mindset. For the 1874 section, my inspiration was the dirty grizzled westerns of Sergio Leone. For the 1945 WW2 section, I wanted a dreamlike Terrence Malick vibe. Something reminiscent of The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. And for the 2006 section, I wanted something gritty, handheld and "real" and was very much inspired by Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men.

Of course the colour grading, VFX and sound design will play almost as big a role in creating distinct identities for all three sections. I haven't let go of my post-production roots yet, thank god!

Do you think Liminal States could be adapted into a feature length production?

It's a big book, with a lot going on in its pages. But yes, I really think it could. It's a lot like Watchmen - you need to streamline a lot without losing the essential texture of the characters and environments. And you'd probably need to tweak the structure - possibly quite radically - to make it work as a piece of cinema. But I have some pretty strong ideas of exactly how you'd do that and keep the essence of the book in a coherent 2 hour movie. It would be a kick ass movie too!

What has been the worst moment of this process? When you felt like kicking it all off a cliff?

Probably the delays we experienced with the final shoot in Spain. We wanted to shoot this almost immediately after the other two (UK) shoots in early March, but getting the flights, crew and gear organised together was damn impossible. It got pushed back by weeks, which meant that the short simply could not come out in time for the book's launch. Which was, of course, our original plan. The trailer online now was created as a matter of urgency so we'd have something cool ready for the launch. It's not a bad compromise though really. And this buys a little bit more time to work on the post production on the short which will, I hope, be rather awesome!

How do you feel about a short film set in a corporate mega-prison as otherworldly monsters take over?

I feel good about it. Very good. Let's hope Liminal States opens up funding for future clavo ventures together!

Thank you to Rachel Blewitt for the photos. Liminal States, the book, is available now at bookstores and Amazon. The short film will launch April 16th.

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