July 14, 2017
Neill Blomkamp on Short Films, Oats Studios, and Why He Would Never Borrow From ‘Halo’
We discuss the idea behind Blomkamp’s new studio and why the filmmaker is always striving to create new worlds.
It’s tempting to describe Zygote as the short film where Dakota Fanning gets chased by hands. That was my gut reaction to Neill Blomkamp’s latest Oats Studio short film, which borrows a bit from John Carpenter and expensive ’90s horror films to create a disturbing horror story about a futuristic mining company gone terribly wrong. Zygote is the latest in Blomkamp’s ongoing effort to revolutionize the way established filmmakers use short films, joining a blend of science fiction, horror, and comedy shorts on his company’s YouTube channel that has been steadily released over the past few weeks. And after writing about the possible directions that Oats Studio could take in the future, I sat down with Neill Blomkamp this week to further discuss his new studio and the creative decisions behind some of his signature shorts.
To hear Blomkamp describe it, the main impetus behind Oats Studio was to let his potential audience — not a focus group or individual Hollywood producer — dictate which of his company’s projects deserve to be adapted into feature films. “If the problem that Hollywood poses is that many ideas are shut down before they see the light of day — out of the fact that the studio guesses that the audience may not like it,” Blomkamp explains, “this whole company is kinda of like, let’s just make it anyway and see what the audience says.” This is an expensive way to crowdsource ideas for your next feature, but one that understandably allows Blomkamp and Oats Studio a great deal of creative freedom for each of his small projects. That also means that the majority of Oat Studios’s shorts are walking a unique line between telling original short stories and testing the waters on feature concepts. “Some of them are designed only ever to be short films and not features,” Blomkamp says, “but the bigger concept is to see which pieces work and make those into larger-scale features.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the short films released by Oats Studios are not so dissimilar from the feature films that Blomkamp has already released. Blomkamp has never shied away from his love of making futuristic films where technology — and the occasional gaggle of alien invaders or refugees — run amok on Earth. It shouldn’t come as a shock, then, that Blomkamp’s longest shorts seem to operate at the same intersection of futurism and techno-horror that we’ve seen in films like District 9 and Elysium. When prompted to speak about his inspirations for the stories in each Oats Studio film, Blomkamp readily admits what he knows we already know: his career has been influenced very heavily by a handful of seminal science-fiction films. “I want to make films that feel like Blade Runner or Aliens because I love those films,” Blomkamp explains, “but I also want to make movies that feel like District 9, which hopefully don’t feel like many other films that come before it.” That means a lot of high-tech soldiers at war with a variety of monsters, but each with Blomkamp’s signature style and story elements.
But if you’re thinking that this blend of the familiar and the original makes Oats Studio little more than a repository for some sci-fi set pieces discarded from stalled or failed projects, think again. Blomkamp specifically points a movie like Halo — his big-budget adaptation of the popular video game series that never quite came to be — as a project he would never hope to consciously lift from. “There’s story elements, there’s design elements,” Blomkamp says, “we built physical costume pieces, we built vehicles, there’s action sequences we came up with.” That being said, every storyboard and sketch was designed for that movie and that movie alone; while some might think that makes Halo or Alien 5 the perfect sources of inspiration for Blomkamp, the director is quick to note that any design work he did would never apply to the new worlds he is trying to create. “Consciously taking elements from that endeavor would be insane,” Blomkamp admits. “You want to make sure that anything you come up with feels like it’s new and somewhat fresh and is designed to be part of this new entity going forward.”
Blomkamp puts it another way. “If Quentin Tarantino had his version of Oats — if he hadn’t made a certain western but he ended up making a piece inside Oats — would you attribute it to the western that he didn’t make? Or would it be that he’s generally into Sergio Leone and this wave of filmmakers?” It’s a fun question for any filmmaker, but one that helps explain why Blomkamp’s work at Oats Studio can feel both simultaneously so familiar — so Blomkamp-ian, if the director has earned his own signature adjective — and so aggressively different from anything else we’ve seen from him thus far. Blomkamp’s background as a visual effects artist and the crew he’s assembled at his studio means Oats Studio can give most major studios a run for their money in terms of quality, but it turns out that Blomkamp untethered from commercial considerations isn’t that dissimilar from Blomkamp the blockbuster movie director. “I’m generally interested in science-fiction and horror and fantasy,” Blomkamp admits, “and that interest will weave its way into anything that I’m working on.”
Of the three, it’s Blomkamp’s interest in horror that stands out the most among his short films. Blomkamp has always woven a little Cronenberg into his use of biotechnology, but watching the Oats Studio productions is seeing the director lean further into his horror influences than he ever has before. The last two lengthy Oats Studios shorts are particularly graphic: Firebase offers a hellish version of The Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan filling the fields of Vietnam with blood and viscera, while Zygote features a monster fused from the collection of the bodies of dead Arctic miners. When asked if Blomkamp views Oats as an opportunity to push the boundaries on his work without fear of studio or ratings reprisal, the director says yes… and no. “That has factored in,” Blomkamp admits, noting that these considerations were more prevalent in Oats’s earliest days when the studio’s films were only intended to be released on Steam. According to Blomkamp, “There were discussions about, how far can we actually push this?” with the Oats team still holding out hope that they’ll someday be able to go all-out on a Steam short. That being said, the director estimates that maybe “five percent” of the team’s collective brainpower went into the maturity of his work. In other words, it’s present, but not necessarily the tail that’s wagging the dog.
Of course, the big question is, will it work? Can Blomkamp create a self-sustaining system of short films that also work as a pipeline for his feature film projects? When asked how the short film market has changed since the beginning of his career, Blomkamp points to the “scale of the distribution” as a major element of how far the internet has come. “This is really, I suppose, where the success or failure of this weird studio lies,” Blomkamp admits. “If we can figure out what digital screens to send our stuff [to], where some if it is charged for and some of it isn’t, that’s the key to solving this puzzle.” And while it’s probably too early to say for sure whether Oats Studio will revolutionize the industry, Blomkamp is encouraged by the way fans have reacted to his shorts thus far. “The thing that I’m really noticing that surprises me is the idea that a lot of people seem to understand what I’m actually trying to do,” Blomkamp says. “It never occurred to me that right out of the gate with Volume 1, there would be a sentiment that this really is a weird, fresh, independent studio, and we should try to support them.”