Rakka: a guide to Neill Blomkamp’s brand new sci-fi short

It’s dark, it’s intense, it’s Rakka - the new short from Neill Blomkamp’s Oats Studio. The director gives us an in-depth guide..

We’re used to seeing textured, gritty future worlds in the films of director Neill Blomkamp: his Oscar-nominated debut District 9, Elysium and Chappie. Rakka, meanwhile, is perhaps his darkest piece yet: a 20-minute tour of an Earth ravaged by aliens. Called the Klum, these lizard-like beings aren’t content with subjugating the human race; they’re actively committed to doing the most grotesque, twisted things imaginable to us.

Rakka is the first short film from Oats Studios, part of an opening salvo of 20-minute shorts and brief, off-the-wall sketches  that are all united by Blomkamp’s taste for the futuristic, rough-edged and bio-mechanical, and collectively titled Oats Volume One.

All being well, we’ll be seeing more volumes of short films and strange sci-fi worlds in the future – and, depending on audience response, one or more of those shorts could be explored further, either in feature films or more 20-minute chapters. It’s an experimental new direction for Blomkamp, albeit rooted in the immediately recognisable filmmaking style he’s built up over more than a decade.

If you’ve seen Rakka – and we’d urge you to give it a watch – then you may have a few lingering questions. What do these horrible invaders want? What was that mysterious, angelic being that appeared to a panic-stricken soldier in the first third? Where might the story go next?

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Here’s Neill Blomkamp to give us an exclusive guided tour…

Alien occupation

Rakka shows humans in a bitter guerilla struggle with a seemingly unstoppable alien force – a species that not only has superior technology, but weird powers of mind control and telekinesis. According to Blomkamp, the story sprang from his interest in making a film about the aftermath of an invasion – the occupation, and how it’s resisted – rather than the initial attack:

“For a long time, I’ve wanted to do a really unrelenting alien invasion story that would feel like it was punishing to the audience. And then I had this other thing in the back of my mind which was a science fiction, inverted version of an occupying force in a country. Like, the Germans in France, or the way, say an Iraqi family would view Americans in the streets in 2006. I wanted a sci-fi version of that, where it sort of flips the viewer’s point of view.”

So what was that angelic being?

In one of the short film’s most surreal moments, a shimmering being appears in front of a soldier (played by Studio ADI special effects maestro Alec Gillis, who worked on the practical effects). Not only is there an explanation for the creature’s appearance, but it also provides the key to understanding the motivations behind the Klum – the name of those lizard-like invaders:

“There’s a species of non-physical aliens, which you see at the end of the first third. That swarm of nano-cloud pieces of metal isn’t really the creature, or its intelligence. The intelligence is tethered to the physical presence, but it’s somewhere else. That entity, that species that is somewhere else, that is witnessing this lower species arrive on Earth and decimate humanity.”

The Klum, and what they want

Rakka brings with it a broad streak of body horror, as we’re shown how the alien invaders like to experiment and generally tinker with the human race. So what are the invaders up to? According to Blomkamp, there’s method in their madness.

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“So what I wanted to do was play with the idea that there’s something immensely lacking within the Klum, and what they’re trying to do… the reason they’re terraforming Earth is because they just happen to be staying there for a long time, but Earth isn’t the goal. The goal is to rip humans apart and understand what makes them be able to communicate with this higher species. It’s almost like the higher species, to them, is God, and they’ve been rejected by their God, and humans haven’t.”

How to blow up aliens

Rakka doesn’t exactly skimp on the gore, and one of the bloodiest sequences involves a bomb, a pair of aliens and a tormented politician under their control. So what’s the best way of blowing up an alien? Incredibly, these effects are all digital:

“There is nothing there that is happening there except computer graphics. At Oats there’s two really awesome effects guys, and they’re doing the particle and fluid simulations in Houdini. That’s a complete simulated computer graphics event. So when we detonated the real explosion, we just had a bunch of dust. The merging of that would be putting the digital politician over the second he explodes, and putting the two digital aliens in the second they go off.”

The pulsating head is a mixture of practical and digital FX

Aside from Sigourney Weaver’s freedom fighter, the most intriguing figure in Rakka is surely Amir, the haunted-looking test subject whose head full of strange tech has given him supernatural powers approaching that of the Klum. According to Blomkamp, the grim-looking experimental hardware sprouting from Amir’s skull – which recalls the body horror classic, Tetsuo: The Body Hammer – is an amalgam of practical effects and CGI.

Rakka was one of the first pieces that we did, and it was before Oats had its own mini prosthetic and practical division. So the props in Rakka were made predominantly by Amalgamated Dynamics. They were either augmented by computer graphics, which is our Oats VFX team, or they’re entirely computer graphics. A cool example of those worlds crossing over would be the alien tech that’s inside Amir’s head. That’s a build, it’s a skull cap from ADI, with all this tech in there. And then it’s Oats VFX’s simulation of the black fluid inside his head moving around. And that’s a satisfying mixture.”

The higher alien species could help save humanity in a future film

Blomkamp has a complete world and script for Rakka, which could become a feature film, or alternatively, the story could be continued in additional shorts in the future.

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“In a further story, the way I want to go, [the higher alien power] begins to offer humans a way out of the situation they’re in, but the top species will not take on the Klum aliens – not because they can’t beat them, but because they’re almost too evolved for that. So what I wanted to do was play with the idea that there’s something immensely lacking within the Klum, and what they’re trying to do… the reason they’re terraforming Earth is because they just happen to be staying there for a long time, but Earth isn’t the goal. The goal is to rip humans apart and understand what makes them be able to communicate with this higher species.

“It’s almost like the higher species, to them, is God, and they’ve been rejected by their God, and humans haven’t. So there’s something in humanity that gives them the right to this higher species, and so the whole point of the body horror in this scenario is because they don’t understand what makes us [who we are], and why we have the ability to do that. Why are we different from them? So that’s what leads to experimentation, and everything that happens to the character of Amir so far.”

Rakka’s part of a darker, more serious direction for Blomkamp

“I’m definitely interested in going down the road of serious, dead straight filmmaking. It’s definitely a big part of what’s interesting me at the moment. I think Oats in general is a place where I have the ability to go from comedy to fantasy to science fiction to horror. I can basically just skip around wherever I want to go. The creative forward momentum right now is, I want to make films that are serious. I’ve never really done that before – everything I’ve done has always been a little bit askew, a little bit weird. When I was in film school, I wanted to make films that were dead serious – obviously, films like Alien made me want to become a filmmaker, and if you look at war films like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, those films are also incredibly appealing to me.”

What happens next is also up to audiences

While Blomkamp has a roadmap for where Rakka and his other short films will go, he’s doing something quite unique in filmmaking: throwing the field open to his audience, and budding filmmakers, to help shape what they see next.

“With Rakka, it’s a good example: there could be some kid sitting in Utah who has an idea based on what he’s seen in those 20 minutes that is something we or I am really interested in. Maybe 99 percent of the stuff we get is not, but there’s probably something where it’s an amazing idea. You’re sort of crowd-sourcing, in a way, where some of the stories can go, mixed with how I feel about them. Like, if it’s something I want to direct and go down the road of. So I just want to get the company to the point where everyone understands this open sandbox idea. And if they’re down with it, I’d love to make a Rakka feature film [as soon as possible]. We also have a lot of other ideas. as well, that we want to put out there.

“…It’s ‘Here’s an example of something we’d love to make. If you guys feel like it’s something you want to see more of, we can make tonnes of this.’ That’s the message I really want to get across, you know?”

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There are three more 20-minute shorts still to come…

…and they’re all set to be very different from Rakka.

“There’s three other pieces that we’ve made that are the same scale as Rakka and each of those show a different possible world we could go down into. And then there’s a host of these other, smaller, weirder pieces that are almost like comedy vignettes or skits. Those are just things I wanted to do just for fun, and they kind of like flavour out the whole crazy umbrella of Oats. The bigger pieces, like Rakka, and Saigon and Zygote and Lima, those pieces are designed to very explicitly show worlds that I’m interested in that I’ve created that I want to make more of.”

Those next shorts will be coming out between now and mid-July

If you’re after more sci-fi shorts from Blomkamp, you won’t have long to wait; there’ll be more 20-minute pieces and sketches coming out over the next month.

“Between the date that this comes out and the final film before we get to the end of Volume One, is from June 14th until about July 12th. So essentially, that month, every week or so we’ll just put the next one on line, then the next one and the next one. Then the weird comedic pieces will be dropped in between those. At the end of that, in July, that’ll be the end of Volume One – and whatever happens, happens.”

Volume Two and beyond could happen – with your help

Like Rakka, all of Oats Studios’ pieces will be available online for free, with revenue generated through clicks and donations. Oats may also raise financing by putting assets like 3D models and sound files on Steam.

“The main goal would be to source the audience directly to be able to feel the pieces that we make. That would be the primary way to do it. Whether they’re paying for the experiences through Steam or they’re paying us through our website, that’s the main goal. If that doesn’t work, then I think that we’ll just raise capital and make the film. And bring that film to the same online venue that the other pieces were released in, with a price attached to it. Or put it in theatres. Or both. Hopefully, it grows organically, where there’s another clicks and people giving us cash that it can grow. Even though everything is free – because I think it should be free so people understand what the hell is going and don’t feel ripped off. If they’ve seen everything and then they feel like giving us some cash, then they can. That may be enough to pay for volume two, which may have a whole bunch of other ideas in it that are potentially able to launch into films.”

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“I just want it to be as open and honest a discussion. We’re not charging you money, you don’t have to pay for it if you don’t want to. We don’t want you to feel ripped off. If there’s value in some of the stuff we’re making, help us out.”

You can keep up to date with Oats Studios’ progress at its website, and we’ll bring you more of their short films as they emerge.