Aurora Fearnley’s Pulsar is one of the most ambitious and visually impressive short films in recent memory.
As Pulsar releases online, Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Aurora about bringing the story of Jonah from the Bible into space, the lack of female directors behind big budget films, working with Jessie Buckley and David Gyasi, and much more.
Q: ‘Pulsar’ is loosely based on the story of Jonah from the Bible. What interested you about this story and bringing it from sea to space?
A: I won a competition called The Pitch that gave me a 30K budget to make a short film based on a biblical character or narrative. The story of Jonah particularly struck me as it had so many fantasy elements while at the heart it was a hero’s journey of self-sacrifice and redemption. I love the pagan history of the UK and our folk tales, so I’ve concentrated on the mariners who held superstitious beliefs about the sea and curses.
The main character being eaten by a huge whale was a lot of fun to reimagine! Being a diver I find the experience of sinking into the sea like travelling to another realm or dimension. It’s a different world of incredible colour, altered gravity and ancient natural structures. I personally think that deep space and deep-sea hold so many parallels and connections that it wasn’t hard to transpose one environment for the other, it felt like a natural fit.
Q: We don’t tend to see many female directors making high concept, large-scale sci-fi films. What do you feel female voices can bring to the genre?
A: There are very few women directing in the top grossing films of each year, the percentage went down from 11% to 8% last year. Which might surprise people, as there is a lot of media coverage on this topic so the assumption is that things are improving. It’s just not happening quickly.
One of the things I noticed with Wonder Woman was seeing a lead female character who held a sword at the same time as stopping to hold a baby. A women who didn’t have to sacrifice feminine qualities to be a leader and wouldn’t be shamed. I grew up on Terminator and Alien and so often our genre female leads emulate unemotional masculine traits as the hero. Wonder Women showed that empathic ‘emotional’ women are also heroes. Of course not all female directors will bring this aspect to their work, but it is great to see even once.
When you are one of only a handful of female directors making high concept sci-fi film in the UK, it seems to fall to us to speak up for our worth or value. I believe we bring variety. Since so few female directors have made those huge budget genre films, it means you can look forward to new original visions still to come to the screen. A wealth of untapped talent waiting to break old formulas. So that is an exciting place to be, on the precipice of change.
Q: Can you talk about your own interest in the genre?
A: My interest in genre goes way back to childhood horror sleep overs with films like Witchboard, Amittyville, Pet Sematary, IT and The Thing. Heading into teen-hood I was into The Craft, Event Horizon, PI and fantasy films like Legend and Batteries Not Included. I remember watching animations on late night Channel 4 as a teen, maybe younger, that is when I discover the visually stimulating but often gratuitously erotic world of Manga. My sister and I can quote the entire Devil Man film by rote.
As a teenage girl in the 1990’s it was hard to find the cult films but luckily the local library had the most extensive VHS of foreign films. It was a lottery to start with and I saw some weird and obscure titles but eventually I would follow the distributors or the Tartan label for East Asian films that really broadened my film viewing.
Q: I watch a lot of short films, but few have the scale of ‘Pulsar’. How did you approach such a VFX- heavy and visually ambitious project?
A: Honestly, I think it was naive ambition and optimistic tenacity that made the film possible. The best approach to a heavy VFX film is having a brilliant post team. The VFX artists on Pulsar are my heroes – Steve Askey (VFX Supervisor), Abigail Scollay (VFX Producer & Lead Compositor), Adam Blumert, Alek Panfilow and Craig Stiff to name a few who were on board for multiple scenes and many years.
After shooting the film our VFX shot list felt like an insurmountable mountain. We had a great workflow planned with Shotgun and frame.io to work with multiple artists across the globe all remotely. I had prepared with pre-vis on most scenes and had talked with legendary VFX supervisors about the script months before the shoot. We did rehearsals with scale replicas of the main interior ship mapped out in tape long before shooting or casting. Actor friends helped workshop the scenes. This way I could see what parts of the room would cause expensive rotoscoping and where I could give the actors the most freedom.
Q: How do you reflect upon the four years spent making this film? What do you feel was the greatest triumph?
A: I’m proud that we finished the film to the highest standard all the way through. There were so many opportunities to take a short cut, or just settle for something lesser. It was the commitment and hard work of the cast and crew from the start that made it my duty to keep pushing the film onwards, even when we ran out of money, when we lost files and when post crew went abroad for work months at a time.
The most painful part was giving myself a deadline to finish and then feeling disappointed and dejected with each one I missed. That really felt like a personal failure, but it helped me realise that these were all unnecessary expectations that I was putting on the film and on myself. Even when the film was completed and screened I still felt I was deep in the process as I was just starting out with festival submissions.
The triumph for me has been getting Pulsar into thirty film festivals this past year and honouring the work of the artists who gave so much to a project they believed in. Now that DUST will be showcasing our film on their online channel with Gunpowder & Sky as distributors I feel elated that the film will be going to place were it can truly find its audience.
Q: The ambition of this project extends to the incredible cast you had at your disposal. What was it like working with the likes of Jessie Buckley and David Gyasi?
A: Right from the auditions I knew that we had a special team of talent on board our spaceship. When David signed up he had just worked with Christopher Nolan on Interstellar, so I felt pretty validated in the scale and ambition of my own project. David was such a generous and gracious person, which aside from his deeply committed portrayal of such a heightened character in a fantastical story world, really helped to ground and drive the narrative.
Jessie is really exciting to watch, I think working with her is about giving her room to play and trust her choices. She was a fantastic actor to have on board even as a relatively unknown at that time. Jessie read for a different part in the film to start with, but even from that first audition I knew she had to be in Pulsar and had the versatility to take any part.
On a shoot with green screen, SFX and VFX to consider in nearly every scene it was a great feeling to know that the actors were bringing such excellent quality without much input from me. We did most of the character work in group discussions ahead of the shoot. I planned to keep all the female actor together as much as possible, to get their bond formed long before getting to set. I do think that helped add tension to their scenes with David as the stowaway.
Q: I believe you are working on a feature sci-fi film titled ‘Tipping Point’. Can you reveal anything about it yet?
A: What I can say is that I’m working with Jude Goldrei at Lunar Lander Films and we’ve been getting a pretty exciting response. Tipping Point is about an ageing female scientist who discovers a way that the Northern Lights can effect cognitive function in people with changes to their IQ and senses.
Q: What are your hopes for the future? What do you want to achieve with your voice as a filmmaker?
A: My hope for the future is to be given opportunity to keep explore my voice as a director in genre. Right now the focus is the feature, but I’m developing a slate of genre films and TV projects with various producers. However, I’m pushing Tipping Point as my debut feature film, so look out for news as it develops.
Watch Pulsar on YouTube