Neill Blomkamp interview: sci-fi shorts and Oats Studios

District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is back with Oats Studios. He explains what we can expect, and how you can get involved...

From the earliest stages of his career, director Neill Blomkamp has used short films as a means of testing his ideas. The most famous example, arguably, is Alive In Joburg, a fake documentary about shunned alien visitors – a premise which formed the debut for Blomkamp’s stunning feature debut, District 9.

The success of that film led to the movies Elysium and Chappie, yet Blomkamp hasn’t stopped making short films and commercials in between; there was the curious snippet of found-footage released by Wired Magazine in 2010, which depicted the discovery of a strange, porcine creature lying dead in a puddle. There was The Hire, one instalment of a series of shorts for the German car firm BMW. And now there’s Oats Studios: a new venture dedicated to creating experimental short films.

Varying in length from brief, surreal comic sketches to 20-minute long stories, Oats Studios’ films will be released for free on YouTube and Steam in hour-long collections. The first collection, simply titled Volume One, takes in an alternate universe Vietnam war, lizard-like aliens, weird experiments, dangerous-looking kitchen appliances and much more besides. A pair of promos, released in late May and early June, gave us a taste of the strange things we can expect – including some surprise cameos from Dakota Fanning and Sigourney Weaver.

“It’s essentially like, how do I create these smaller vignettes of ideas that I just feel like expressing,” Blomkamp tells us down the line from Vancouver; “that are unconnected and untethered to discussions that I find really uncreative, about audience testing and sitting in theatres in Southern California waiting to getting your score card back. I’m just not interested in that.” 

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Formed in 2015, Oats Studios is therefore intended as a proving ground for new ideas, well away from the test screenings and studio politics of Hollywood. But while some of the short films produced by Oats may be developed into feature films, much like Alive In Joburg and District 9 or Tetra Vaal and Chappie, the studio’s output will also have another, more leftfield element: the potential collaboration between audience and creator.

“I  want to see online if there’s a way to interact with people who like the stuff,” Blomkamp explains. “If there’s anyone who really likes it, is there a way we can interact with them? Can they give us designs for where they think some of the weird alien vehicles could go? Do they have ideas of were a sequel may go? And if there’s anything in there that I like, we can incorporate that into what we’re doing.”

To this end, the studio will, the director says, be making assets like 3D models, sound files and raw footage available so that audiences can make short films of their own. As Blomkamp admits himself, there’s much about Oats Studios that is still being worked out – not least how its output can fund itself so that further volumes of shorts can be made. But based on what we’ve seen so far, Oats’ output will certainly be fascinating to watch: futuristic, grotesque, fast-moving and thought-provoking. 

As the studio starts lifting the covers on Volume One, here’s what Blomkamp has to say about what we can expect and his plans to the future. And as a bonus, he also explains the mystery behind the dead creature in the puddle from 2010.

I love what I’ve seen so far of Oats Volume One. Looks great.

Yeah, thank you. It’s a good little teaser for the weird stuff we’re working on here.

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How long has it been in the pipeline before you announced it?

I guess we’ve been working for it for over two years. We’re in this weird warehouse that used to belong to a company that sold kitchen appliances. So we moved here in February of 2015 I think to start building things, and most of the crew came on around June, July. So almost exactly two years.

So did you start on this straight after Chappie?

Yeah, exactly.

It’s an interesting way to go. You started on short films and commercials, but it’s interesting for a director to go to making short films at what appears to be this budget level.

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It is. There’s definitely no formula or precedent, really, for it. But it doesn’t come from a place of wanting to go back to short films. It comes from a place of wanting to be able to do what I want to do and express what I want to express without having to have brain-numbing discussions about the political studio point of view of what they think the right move is. And obviously, you can’t spend tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars on large-scale feature films with an approach like this. Definitely not at the beginning. So the short film result is simply like a function of the financial pressure – it’s not that that’s the goal. 

That must be tricky – especially with studios becoming more and more cautious about what they greenlight.

Yeah. Think of it like this: one way that I’ve described Oats before is, if you look at musicians, or you look at writers and novelists, I kind of envy them massively, because they have this ability to generate this emotional work that is very close to them in a way that doesn’t cost everybody tens of millions of dollars. So you can sit at a typewriter and express yourself as much as you want, and you can grab a guitar and you can come up with an album.

I’ve kind of described as Oats Volume One, or maybe Oats Volume One and Two as an album. It’s essentially like, how do I create these smaller vignettes of ideas that I just feel like expressing, that are unconnected and untethered to discussions that I find really uncreative, about audience testing and sitting in theatres in Southern California waiting to getting your score card back. I’m just not interested in that.

I am interested in the overall audience liking the piece, but I’m hoping they like the piece because I like it. You see what I mean? There’s a massive difference. So the best way of thinking about it is going down the road of trying to create. I mean, we haven’t done that many pieces at the moment. We’re essentially releasing three big pieces that are around the 20 minute mark, and that’s 60 minutes of pretty cool content. And then there’s a host of more weird, comedy, borderline strange stuff that makes up another 40 or 60 minutes. But it’s just expression. A bunch of weird stuff.

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And then I want to see online if there’s a way to interact with people who like the stuff. If there’s anyone who really likes it, is there a way we can interact with them? Can they give us designs for where they think some of the weird alien vehicles could go? Do they have ideas of were a sequel may go? And if there’s anything in there that I like, we can incorporate that into what we’re doing.

So there’s this open collaborative thing, so long as I’m ultimately the curator and in control of where I think all of the creative stuff should go.

Right. So putting assets on Steam – that’s where all that’s going to come in?

Yeah. Well, it isn’t quite as defined as that. One way to think of it would be, if you take something like Spider-Man, right, the studio’s going to view Spider-Man as IP. But there’s millions of Spider-Man fans out there. And if film school students or someone online makes a short film with Spider-Man, then there’s a possibility that they’re going to get a call to pull that down, because it’s not their IP, it’s not their material.

Our approach is the exact opposite of that. We’re kind of opening it up as much as possible, so that if there’s anyone who’s interested in it, they’re free to do what they want with it, and we’ll also give them the assets and tools we used to make it. Just so that it doesn’t feel like it’s locked up in a vault somewhere.

Is it not limited to film, either. It could be a videogame, I’m guessing?

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It could be. Everything is untested, so we’re not sure if Steam is the right approach. Like, there’s many layers of the discussion. One layer is the monetisation of the work that we’ve done in order to bring money into the company so we can make a second round of these films, and hopefully a third and a fourth and a fifth and a sixth round. So one element is, how do you capitalise on the effort that we’ve put in so far?

One way to do that feels like, on the platform of Steam, at least there’s a payment structure to allow people to pay for things beyond just the film itself. So on iTunes you can only get the film. On Steam, maybe the film is free, but you can pay for some of these other ancillary elements we have if the audience feels like paying. So I think what we’re going to do right now is put everything on our YouTube page for free. Like, all of the contact will be 100 percent for free. Then we’ll test on Steam whether there’s any interest in some of the weirder ancillary things.

Maybe people may want, maybe they don’t want them. We’ll just sort of test that and see how that goes. And that whole approach is designed to see if we can make the eco-system of these shorter stranger pieces pay for themselves, if that’s possible. If that isn’t possible, then I want to take one of the pieces and turn it into a proper feature film, where the audience pays to see that in theatres. That film pays for this crazy studio to continue to make more ideas that can be turned into more big features. So it’s kind of like an incubator for my ideas, but it can become an incubator for lots of people’s ideas as long as they know that I’m the person who’s curating what stuff we want to make. That we can figure out a business model where, if I do take someone’s idea that it’s like, getting some form of revenue share that works… we haven’t even worked out revenue share for us. We’re not even sure how we’re going to monetise stuff yet. 

It’s a transition for filmmakers in general. There are loads of tools available for young filmmakers, but how do you monetise it, how do you pay the bills with it.

There’s a very established place at the moment, which is probably going to begin to dissolve I guess at some point, but the structure is understandable at the moment. You buy a movie ticket, or you click, for $5.99 or whatever, on iTunes. You ingest two hours of material. So the audience at the moment is very familiar with that process. But there’s something else that is simultaneously happening, which is that there’s this ridiculous amount of data coming at the audience. There’s just gigabytes, terabytes of data put out daily, of incoming content across all spectrums.

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There’s so much data that I think audiences around the globe are beginning to treat a $200m feature film with the same sort of attention as they would give to a funny cat video on YouTube. They’re becoming one and the same. And that’s going to force the film industry, at some point, to have to figure out a different way of doing things. It’s already happening in the sense that you can see not only box office decline but people going out to movie theatres.

There’s a lot more people watching mobile, cellphone-based stuff. All of that sounds incredibly strategic and business and financially oriented, what I’m saying there, but the whole place is built out of pure, 100 percent creativity.

The proof of that is that we’ve basically burnt millions of dollars doing this with no way of recouping it. But it’s my belief that if you’re striving to be creative, and you’re striving to put new stuff into culture, then someone out there is going to like it. You’re going to figure it out, and it’s going to come back to you in a way that you can make more. But you have to do that taking in the parameters of where the industry is at.

I think you’ve hit on something as well, which is that at one end of the movie-making spectrum you’ve got studios making bigger and bigger films for smaller and smaller profit margins, and so the question becomes, how can you make films more cheaply. It seems to me that what you’re doing could be a new way of doing things. Like District 9: a good-looking film for a relatively small amount of money.

Mm-hmm. District 9 was pretty cost-effective. I mean, District 9 price range is where you want to be. A lot of ideas we have inside of Oats – it’s like I was saying, we have three primary pieces that are inside this 20-minute realm. And then we have a fourth that we’re going to try to release later – that’s going to take a bit more work. Then we’re going to run out of money, and either we’re going to solve the monetisation problem, or we’ll go down a different road of refinancing and figuring out how to put out another batch.

The point is, with volume two, volume three, volume four, by the time we have a good amount of these ideas that we’ve really developed, we’ll pick one that we feel is a clear winner, that I’d love to make as a feature. And I kind of feel that way about all the pieces we’ve made so far, but also the response from the audience would also help decide which one that would be.

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I think that when we go down the road of making that into a feature film, you want to be in the District 9 kind of zone – the $20m to $40m zone is where you can be very creative and you still have enough money that you have an impact. You can take the audience to a different world.

I think, in the kind of $10-15m realm, you can’t, and when you’re in the $60-80m, you’re risking too much. So I think a lot of the ideas we have are naturally, inherently designed that way. One of my favourite ideas that is not in volume one, it would theoretically be in volume two, is theoretically a $180m film or $200m film. There’s one that sits outside that quite distinctly. But everything else is in there. 

I like the idea you seem to have in Volume One that appears to be an alternate Vietnam history.

Yeah, that piece is called Saigon. That piece is probably the most surreal piece of the ones that’s coming out. I wanted to do something that mixes surrealist cinema with science fiction with Apocalypse Now.

So it’s experimental in terms of storytelling as well as the way you’re delivering the content, then.

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Yeah. Saigon would be quite a difficult sell with a traditional studio. Even the nature of Saigon is quite experimental. I think the other two pieces are a little bit more quantifiable, like, within a studio system I think you could get them made pretty easily. I don’t know if they’re told unconventionally. Definitely the first one could be considered quite experimental in the way it’s portrayed, because I just kind of paint the picture of a world.

So yeah, some of the content itself is experimental, and in other instances, the way the content is explained, even if it’s kind of commercial, is explained in a strange way. And then there’s other pieces – a bunch of smaller pieces, that are just weird. Harder to define. They’re almost comedy, actually.

Have you looked at some of the reactions to what you’ve released so far?

I have. The whole project is the 35 of us in this warehouse in Vancouver. We are the company. Every element that people associate with a normal studio is just us. Which means reading every comment, having an understanding of where we feel the audience is understanding what we’re doing or not, or we’re positioning ourselves incorrectly… all that data.

All we want to do is build enough of an understanding that we are both successful in the sense that we can keep the company alive, so that we can put out more stuff, and then for me personally, it’s a mixture of I want audiences to do what I’m doing, but I only want them to like what I’m doing if I like it as well. Like, the primary thing is that I love what I’m doing.

So if I have two ideas and I love both of them, but the audience really turns away from that one, it doesn’t make sense to make that one if the audience likes another one just as much. That’s the solid data that I want. I don’t want them to dictate what I’m doing, but I want them to choose between options of what I’m doing. 

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There seems to be some inspiration from Aliens in there, which I liked.

I think there’s inspiration from Aliens if you met me in 2008. Aliens is mixed in with 2001, which is mixed with Dr Strangelove. Films that have had an effect on me. What I’m trying to say is, there’s no conscious connection to Alien. That piece was written prior to getting involved with Fox to make Alien 5, or the defunct Alien 5. Aliens and creatures and conflict are just things that interest me, and interest a lot of fantasy and science fiction filmmakers. So it predates Alien.

You’ve got a great cast in here that flies by almost casually. Sigourney Weaver, Dakota Fanning.

Yeah.

Can you say which pieces they’re in?

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I’m going to steer away from that, because the way I think of it as a whole strange studio is that it’s an umbrella that is covering a whole bunch of crazy creativity. So if I start getting specific about each piece too early, I feel like it starts becoming more like a normal studio, where you start talking about just the film, as opposed to the thing that is unique about Oats, which is that it is this kind nucleus of creativity and ideas. The smoothing of images you see that, I want to keep it like this, where you’re not exactly sure which is which.

Speaking of short films, a few years ago now, you made a little film for Wired, and it was a found-footage piece of a creature being discovered in a puzzle. What was that?

Wired has a thing where they have a guest artist to do a page of art for each issue. And the artist has to incorporate the number of each issue into the artwork. And so they came to me and typically, until that date, it was pre- iPad publication. It was only physical Wired magazine. On that date, the art featuring the publication number would also have the ability to be a video, because for the first time ever it was available as an iPad, readable digital version. So they asked did I want to do a video as well as a still. So if you look in Wired magazine, the still image is that creature in the puddle, and the beef stamp, the USDA approved stamp on the side of him, is the issue number of that Wired magazine.

But because I had the ability to make a video for the first time, we shot something that had the same tonal feel that the still image did. Which was random discovery of something very strange. That was part of a bigger idea. I have two other props inside Oats that are from that idea, from the bigger extrapolated storyline that we haven’t done anything with. So that actually has a place to go, but not at the moment.

I remember poring over it at the time, thinking is this a clue? What is this pointing towards? So I’m glad you solved the mystery! Neill Blomkamp, thank you very much.

More from Neill Blomkamp at Den Of Geek shortly…