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Here’s How to Shoot a Sci-Fi Film on a Low Budget

Here's How to Shoot a Sci-Fi Film on a Low Budget

Before the introduction of CGI in the early ’90s, robots, aliens, monsters and other inhabitants of science fiction depended on the clever solutions and meticulous work of set designers, prop masters and make-up artists. It’s still where the true artistry lies, for some filmmakers, at least. One of them is Teemu Nikki, the director and co-writer of “Lovemilla,” a Finnish science-fiction-fantasy-comedy-musical. Indiewire spoke to the director in his native Helsinki at the annual Love and Anarchy film festival at the start of the film’s festival path that will continue at the end of this month at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. 

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Adapted for the big screen from the Finnish TV series of the same name, “Lovemilla” is a film that goes all in: “The idea was to combine different genres: horror films, musicals, comedy and silent films, to have aliens, robots, zombies and superheroes. We wanted to make a film that we thought we haven’t seen before,” explained Nikki, whose brainchild manages to deal with an unconventional love story, explore issues of sexuality and self-image, and even tackle dysfunctional families in a fresh and comical way.

Though the premise may sound a bit silly, risk-taking paid off for “Lovemilla”—even if there was single a genre festival, in Poland, that rejected the film for its uncompromising openness. “In Poland, there was a festival that wanted to include the film in its program. It was a genre festival with films in which killing, slicing, and torture are abundant—but ultimately, they wouldn’t admit ours because of the plot with the gay character,” said Nikki.

So how do you shoot sci-fi on a low budget? “First, you have to find people who love science fiction and want to do it. They have to want to create sci-fi from passion, too. We knew that we have a very small budget, but we could make it because we wanted to make it.” But that’s just the basis. “We didn’t want to use cheap CGI with ‘Lovemilla,'” he explained. “There’s a couple of CGI shots, but all of them resemble the genre films of ’70s and ’80s—as as sort of homage to those films—and are not like 3D computer graphics. We couldn’t have spaceships, spectacular wars or anything big like that. In ‘Lovemilla,’ everything is human-sized. The robots are real and not computer generated. They are also not too big to understand. Considering that our resources were limited, we had to plan very carefully. So we took care of finding a very good props master who, for example, made the aliens that are a reference to the sixties B-movies. That was the type of thing we could do.” 

So, the crew got creative—not only with props, but with lighting and other effects as well. “I think it was quite interesting what the props department were using to create their props. There were everyday household items that were just spray-painted, but also a bicycle air pump and things like skiing shoes,” said Nikki.

“A part of a costume was made out of a laptop bag. We improvised. But we also tried to use smoke and light, the old stuff, like when the protagonist’s heart is changed. It’s the magic from the films of the ’40s.” And at times, the shooting almost recalled the strain the 1927 epic science-fiction picture “Metropolis” put on its actors. “The robot armor was the most demanding. We had to build it in a way to allow the actor to wear it for eight hours of shooting,” he said. “It was extremely heavy, so he was sweating a lot. We consulted a physician to construct its limbs, because the exoskeleton had to have the angles set just right to not hurt the actor who was wearing it on and off for two weeks.”

But as it turns out, it was mostly a matter of choice, not just of budgetary concerns. “I have no idea how many times more expensive the same film with CGI would be. The thing is that it wouldn’t be as interesting. Handmade art was the only way to do it,” said Nikki, who has been a sci-fi buff since his childhood. “I’m from the countryside. For me, it was a big thing when the VHS player was introduced in the ’80s,” she explained. “I watched every possible thing I could get my hands on, which was very difficult at the time. But it was the genre films from the period that have influenced me the most, the ’80s Hollywood films—and most of the time, not even the big ones.”

There are references to these films in the outfits, props, music and sound throughout “Lovemilla”: from “Robocop” to “Gremlins” and “Critters,” even “Indiana Jones.” “For me, the old horror and science fiction films are magical precisely because I know they couldn’t be made using CGI,” said Nikki. “There are people inside those puppets. Sometimes there are strings. That kind of art is disappearing. With CGI, you can do anything, so every shot is as big as possible, there are as many extras as there can be, walking, fighting and flying, and the camera is virtually positioned where it could never possibly be in reality. It always throws me off. But looking at handmade art, I know that somebody was manufacturing it. That is where the magic is.”

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