By Ryan McPherson
It’s easy to accept your limitations as an independent filmmaker. No one would blame you. It’s understood most independent productions are cash-strapped and aren’t afforded the luxuries of big Hollywood studios. The lack of super polished special effects is an expectation of low-budget independent films and no one questions it. Except Johnny Sachon.
Sachon and the rest of the team behind Shadows, a short science fiction film, were unwilling to accept the expectations and limitations. They knew they had a talented team capable of pulling off something exceptional. They wanted to tell a cautionary tale about the increasing role of government surveillance, set in the future, with effects rarely seen in films with minuscule budgets.
It would be easy to call it a gamble, but as Sachon describes, the team assembled for Shadows was more than prepared to make a film you don’t regularly see. It’s as polished as multi-million dollar films and packs just as much of a punch. The only thing disappointing about Shadows is it wasn’t a feature, but hopefully the future will bring that.
You starred, produced, and wrote for Shadows. It’s a really visually stunning short film that appears to be made in a major studio. What type of vision did it take to create a film that relies primarily on special effects to tell the story?
Writer/Director Luke Armstrong and I decided we wanted to work together on a film and once we had found our story we collaborated on most aspects of Shadows. The main ideas and concepts behind Shadows were literally ripped from headlines that were in the news at the time about the privacy debate and the Edward Snowden case. Shadows is really just a dramatic extrapolation of what is already happening now into what might happen. Luke follows the news closely and also happens to be a Hollywood movie VFX artist – having worked on films like Spectre, Skyfall, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man 3. So when discussing ambitious ideas he was able to explain how it would work, if it was even possible with VFX and how we could make it actually happen on-screen. Until working with Luke I had a limited knowledge of VFX and none with CGI. So, I had to trust in Luke’s vision as a Director and of course, his knowledge of how the end product would look. There were times, as an actor, when I was having to interact with a flying robot that wasn’t there or react to gunshots or explosions that would be put in during post. I gained and learned a lot as an Actor and Producer going through the process in detail from pre-produciton, shooting for VFX on filming days, all the way through to the final stages of post production on Shadows.
In terms of the story, most short film makers write ideas with minimal cast, crew, locations etc as it all costs money and the budget is usually very limited on short films. However, we made the decision not to let this affect the story we wanted to tell and we’d figure it all out later – at times it was a struggle, particularly as it was essentially my responsibility as the Producer to make it all happen, but we managed it all with scenes including CGI drones, train journeys, a police shoot out and a nightclub full of people. We raised just over £5000 via a crowd funding campaign but of course a large chunk of that had to go toward things like the cost of festival entries. In total the film runs at 14 minutes and 19 seconds (including credits) and there are 110 VFX shots. I think Shadows is a testament to what we are able to achieve on such a modest budget.
Speaking of the special effects, how did your team pull off a polished Hollywood looking film, full of spectacular special effects, on a low-budget?
We were very lucky that Luke’s background in Hollywood VFX meant he could complete a substantial portion of the VFX shots in the film himself. We also had a team of very talented, generous work colleagues of Luke’s who gave up many of their evenings to work on various shots and aspects of the VFX. The VFX work actually began 6 months before we started filming. During pre-production we began modelling the Mothership drone and when we finally had something we filmed some test footage of me looking around a corner at an approaching Mothership drone on Blackmagic to see if it worked. We filmed Shadows over two weekends – 4 days in total and then it was a further 5 months in post production before we held a screening for cast, crew and friends at Bafta 195 Piccadilly.
Is it challenging for an actor to perform in a scenario where most of the things we see on-screen are added in post and not there during filming?
Yes, extremely. I always find myself wanting to be challenged in one way or another. Generally if a project scares me, it’s a good sign – and Shadows did just that. I had no experience as an actor of a VFX driven film and wanted to experience it. Reacting to an imaginary bullet hitting you is one thing but reacting to flying drones that were moving all over the place, firing huge guns or following me as I tried to escape was a whole different story. Luke would talk me through what was going to happen in the scene in detail, markers were sometimes placed for me to focus on (or not if in the air), during the scenes I might have to react to what Luke was calling out or a sound and then the rest was up to my imagination really – it was a lot fun.
We’ve briefly spoke with Holly Georgia previously, what can you tell us about working with her, and what can you tell us about the rest of the team behind Shadows?
It was an absolute pleasure working with Holly Georgia as my partner in crime “Jessica” in Shadows. We’d worked together previously several times on an American horror film and a few shorts so we knew each other well. It was a fantastic experience working with Katie Goldfinch for the first time, as my sister Scarlett in Shadows. We’ve also gone on to work together since and we’re currently collaborating on another project. During the casting process we worked with Casting Director and Talent Agent Chloe Rose Mitchell who was, at the time, also working as casting assistant on 24 and Homeland. We were also very fortunate to have Scott Sandford on board as DOP, who brought with him a wealth of experience and his own equipment. We were able to shoot on red epic, red MX and the use of steady cam and dolly’s really helped boost the quality of the film. Luke and I have both gone on to work with Scott again several times since, most recently on Spy Thriller, The Service, that Luke and I recently collaborated on. Our sound design was created by James Wichall, who’s credits include Steve Jobs, Da Vinci’s Demons and Dorian Gray. Shadows was scored by two extremely talented composers Vince Cox and Simon Slater who’s music really brought the film to life. I could go on about our cast and crew but in short, we were incredibly lucky with everyone we worked with and most of then, I’m very pleased to say, we’ve had the opportunity to work with again.
This appears to be a short dying to be a feature. Is there an intention to turn this into a full-length production? If so has any progress been made toward this goal?
When deciding to work together, Luke and I both wanted to make quite a large-scale short film – a sort of mini feature. We are continuing to hone our skills as film makers but now with our slate of previous work, the success of Shadows so far and The Service being released publicly soon, we now feel ready to take on a feature-length film. While Shadows was in production we had a lot of positive feedback regarding the concept and the general consensus was that it would make a great full-length film. We took the heart of the short, it’s concepts and several of the characters to develop a full-length feature film script that we are currently pitching to studios and investors. I believe that the subject matter of surveillance is particularly relevant right now globally and definitely in the most watched city in the world – London. The UK in particular needs a film like Shadows, that has a message and has the potential to be commercially successful.
You had small budget, but lots of talent to work with. Were there things you envisioned during development you simply couldn’t pull off in reality?
I think on every film there is a certain amount of compromising. You can have a specific idea or image in your head as much as you like but when you’re faced with the reality of the location I think there is usually some sort of compromise, but it can sometimes work out for the better – perhaps I’ve been lucky but in my experience that’s what I’ve found. I don’t think we had any situations where we couldn’t pull something off while filming Shadows. Although what we wanted to achieve was incredibly challenging on all fronts, we were also realistic about certain aspects. For example, in an ideal world we might have had a huge gun battle in the middle of central London, but that was simply not realistic on our budget. So we found a large yard in East London that looked like a street, was privately owned and closed off at both ends. Although it might not have been our original idea it ended up being a great solution to a lot of problems and actually looked wonderfully cinematic. The challenge that I’m sure most film makers face is the time factor. We would have loved to have spent a few more days ( at least ) filming but everyone did their absolute best with the time we had and I believe we’ve produced a really high quality, entertaining film that also conveys a message.
Lastly, there always seems to be an audience for films about “Big Brother” and they’ve been a part of the science fiction genre for decades, so why do you think the general public rarely heed the messages they convey?
Personally I think people have always been interested in people and the idea of “Big Brother’s always watching” is a part of that. Voyeurism is now far more in the public eye with programs on TV that are literally people watching tv shows for example. Perhaps in the past, the idea of Big Brother was more removed from society but now, with the way technology is moving and films such as Citizen Four ( a documentary about Edward Snowden as he blows the whistle on the NSA ) the privacy debate is becoming nearly impossible for the average person to ignore. The subject of Big Brother is even finding it’s way into commercial films like the new James Bond Spectre, which was seen by millions of viewers. I believe that, with more being revealed all the time about the way in which authority bodies are using surveillance, the debate being more out in the open and it becoming closer to everyones reality, the public will eventually heed the message that Shadows, and all films of this genre convey. I have faith!
We’d like to thank Johnny Sachon for his time and the behind the scenes photos he provided. We’d encourage you to follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and his website. You can also find out more about Shadows here: www.ShadowsUK.com.