From the director of DISTRICT 9 and ELYSIUM, a young woman unleashes terrifying demons when supernatural forces at the root of a decades old rift between mother and daughter are revealed.
A fine mixture of taboo elements and characters on the ride of a lifetime, with a seemingly out-of-reach technological spin, is exactly what you'd expect from filmmaker Neill Blomkamp - and he makes it look so easy. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Neill about his new horror film Demonic and how he utilized volumetric technology as a storytelling device to bring his indie film to life.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the initial inspiration for the story and then including this VR type world and soundscapes?
Neill Blomkamp: Well, the film is so weird, and how it came about, really was the result of the pandemic, slowing everything down. When I was trying to figure out what I was working on, I realized that I'd had this idea for a long time to do a self-finance small horror film, which was inspired by Paranormal Activity, mostly. And so, I started thinking about like, well we've spent all of this time doing our Oats Studios online stuff, which are like YouTube videos, so could we use that same sort of mentality and just do an entire feature, but just keep the budget low, and do it ourselves, since film production is kind of on pause for a moment.
Once I knew I wanted to do that, I started going through elements of story ideas that I already had, that I wanted to use at some point. And then things that I didn't have, like I never written or thought of a film related to demons or demonic possession. But I did have this idea of the Vatican, acting nefariously in the 21st century, and kind of buying up corporations that seem like Silicon Valley tech companies, and using the data nefariously that they're getting from those organizations. Something like Paranormal Activity equals something to do with demonic possession and low budget filmmaking. And then another separate idea that I had, which is wanting to use volumetric capture, which is how the virtual reality sequences were made, and you sort of combine them, you'd sort of get this story. And that's kind of what happened.
Carly was someone I'd worked with at Oats Studios, and I loved her. Her team member kind of mentality mixed with how talented she was, I just thought, well, she should just be the lead and I'll figure out what it is. And then so that's how I kind of made it, just a bunch of elements that were sort of like congealed together. And in terms of music and sound design, l the sound designers were the Oats Studios sound designers that I have a really good relationship with Vince and Joe. And the music, I listen to music all day, which I'm sure all filmmakers do and there's an artist who writes predominantly video game soundtracks, Ola Strandh out of Sweden. And I just love his music, so I was like, “would you do a horror film? I think that your sound would be incredible for this.” And I had a few calls with him and then he just came on board. The music is one of my favorite parts of the movie actually, it's sometimes like sound design, and then over into synth - it's cool.
Sadie: How were you setting up those VR shots in the hospital room and capturing her?
Neill: Yeah, so we had this idea of volumetric capture. It’s extremely early technology that will probably become very mainstream at some point. And more like Oats, more like experimental stuff, I knew that I wanted to use that somehow. But the problem is, because the resolution isn't great yet and it will be, I wasn't sure how to use it in a larger feature narrative where the audience would accept it. But then as soon as I started thinking about this Vatican, buying up property or buying up companies idea, I was thinking that you could explain it like it's kind of prototype technology that some company is developing, and they have test patients that are essentially trying it out. And that would ground it for the audience in a way that the glitchiness that we would get from the technology would be accepted in a story in a greater story narrative. Once that kind of worked, I could write that into the script, then we could go about actually filming it.
The process of volumetric capture is just mind numbingly terrible and bad for the actors as well. They're just caked in two hundred sixty 4k cameras that are like a prison cell of cameras. And then we spent eight months turning that three dimensional video into the stuff that's in the movie. The real life hospital that we got, we were totally lucky - Therapol looks like a real functioning building - the city that's in British Columbia has this university that had just built this brand new medical research wing for their students, and the paint was wet on it, and they gave it to us. No one had been in the building, and it was just immaculate and new. We just got good production value, luckily, which is on a budget, like this is kind of really what you're looking for.
Sadie: Talking about using this technology, I'm curious about your approach to writing. I assume you write to the director, do you think of the story first? Or do you think of how you are going to use this technology that's not quite yet in the mainstream and then use that as a storytelling device?
Neill: Well, this was highly unusual - all elements of this are kind of weird, right? Like for a very low budget film to have 16 minutes of complete computer graphics scenes is weird. It was more unusual than normal. I knew I really wanted to use this at some point. And I really did think it would be more like an Oats Studios thing because it's so experimental. But I started speaking to there's only a handful of studios that do volumetric capture. And one of the leading ones is in LA, it's a company called Metastage. And I started speaking to Metastage long before this film existed because I thought it would be for Oats Studios, and I was like, how does it work? What would it take? What kind of resolution is there? How close to the cameras are the actors? How big is the volume? If you walk from one end to the other, how much can you capture? And Metastage was really cool and really helpful. And then by the time I had this idea where it's like, I can take this nascent technology and then portray it to the audience which is being developed and it worked inside this demonic possession concept. Then, as I figured that out, the border closed, and we couldn't go to LA to use Metastage. We just kept going with the same idea, but we used a Vancouver based company, which is headed up by Tobias Chen called Volumetric Camera Systems. And they built the rig for us and did all of the calculations.
Sadie: How much storage did you end up using?
Neill: It was actually kind of comical, because if you imagine 4k video rolling, and then you imagine 265 cameras recording at 4k, and you're shooting a lot of footage, it equals I think the average was somewhere around 12 to 15 terabytes per day that we would offload. And because no one has really done this amount of volume capture in a movie, which means normally, you're just shooting little segments for like augmented reality apps for an iPhone. It means that Tobias, and VCS didn't realize just what they would be dealing with. And my brother and I had to bring 25 computers of our own to the stage, in order for them to be able to work 24 hours through the night, so that we could start working the next morning at 8am. Otherwise, the cards wouldn't have been cleared. It turned into a continuous day night cycle for four days to just deal with the amount of data.
And the VFX element too is insane to edit it because you're editing it with like witness cameras that are in amongst the other 260 cameras. So, you have a terrible sense of trying to see emotion on the actors faces and one camera and it just looks like this insane thing. But you create in and out points on your edit timeline and then they have to go and pull those exact in and out points from 260 different pieces of video. And then they have to take all of that and calculate it into a three-dimensional object like the computer has to use 260 streams to build your character. And once you have that, then you can give it to the VFX company and then they can do normal VFX.
Sadie: That is a process. Seeing that this is going toward the future of storytelling, especially for cinema, any advice for the next wave or new generation of filmmakers who have this overabundance of technology basically at their fingertips? What would you suggest to them on how to best integrate this type of technology into storytelling?
Neill: Yeah, it's a weird one, because it definitely just feels like the only advice ever that really matters is to try to focus on story and character, and then let the other things fall into place around them. But you need to have interesting ideas or interesting technological elements that you want to use, because if you're focusing on story and character, and it's working, then there's still going to be 10 other films that are working. Then you still need some layer, whether it's world-building or using some kind of unique technology or something to differentiate it. But it's not the primary thing. The primary thing is your characters.
Sadie: Absolutely. Neill, thank you. You're always leading us in a new direction in moviemaking, and I hope whatever you come up with next is just as cool. And I hope you have more computers and storage space available.
Neill: That's hilarious, thank you.
IFC Midnight will release Neill Blomkamp's DEMONIC in Theaters and everywhere you rent movies August 20th.