“SOLUS”: A minimal adventure in space, SOLUS is a short story of loneliness, life, and sacrifice.
When I began work on this short about 4 months ago I set out to tell a simple, design-driven story, and create a beautifully minimal universe that people would want to explore with me.
The idea at its core was to tell an adventure story, inspired by classic 2D side-scrollers. I wanted to create a simple character that never spoke, and develop a connection between the audience and the hero. I’m a huge sci-fi fan (Interstellar included!), and wanted to build a beautiful, expansive universe so that people would want to join in on the adventure.
Creating a personal/passion project is challenging for a lot of reasons. “No deadlines” sounds nice in theory, but without a deadline the scope of a project can get out of hand very quickly. I’ve started on a few personal short films in the past and, after finishing a few beautifully detailed scenes, I’d realize the projects would take years to complete.
In the beginning, I had imagined the film taking an even more minimalistic form that what it became. In my mind, it started very similarly to the classic game Asteroids. The spaceship was a simple red triangle, and there were no gradients or shading. Just flat, simple, basic shapes. Learning from my past mistakes, I wanted to keep the project manageable and simple. However, as things often do, it evolved over time into something a bit more complex. I soon realized (with some help from others) that the story needed a hero with more personality than a simple triangle can offer.
The biggest obstacle to finishing a passion project is blocking out the time it takes to make something worthwhile. As a young company, we try as stay as busy as we can with client projects. Like most people, we have bills to pay, so every billable hour is important!
I’d been talking with our team at Identity about my desire to create a short film for a few months, so the team helped carve out a week of free time between projects to get started. Leading up to that week, I spent a considerable amount of nights brainstorming and shot-listing, which made it really easy to get straight to work when the free time finally arrived. By the end of the week I had established the visual feel, and had rough versions of a little more than half of the scenes.
From there, the work continued on nights and weekends, and a few days between client projects when our schedule at Identity allowed. I continued to create, tweak and polish until the film slowly came to life.
Each scene was illustrated and animated entirely in After Effects. I rendered each scene individually and brought them into Premiere for the editing process. The pace of the film was important, too slow and the viewer could get bored, too fast and the audience could miss what was happening. I wanted to give the audience just enough of each scene to draw them in, but no more. I rendered each shot with about 5 seconds extra on the front and back, which allowed for easy adjustment of the pacing in Premiere without the need to re-render.
The most challenging part of the film was the User Interface design. I had two key elements to communicate to the audience: 1) scanning each planet, and 2) a battery/fuel indicator. Each represented something vital to the film, one represents the search for life and a home, while the other is a reminder of our hero’s mortality. I’m always tempted to go way over the top when designing on screen UI elements, but for this short I wanted to communicate each idea as simply as possible. Through the films repetitive nature I hoped to slowly teach the audience the meaning of both UI elements over time. The planet scanning design came together quickly, but the battery life indicator proved to be very difficult. I probably went through a dozen iterations before finding a sweet spot, somewhere between hit-them-over-the-head-obvious and outright confusion.
From the beginning I knew that in order to bring this space adventure to life, we would need fantastic audio, that not only was beautiful, but told a story in itself. The wildly talented producer (and drummer) Niko Xidas was the mastermind behind the sound design in SOLUS. If I had any hope of pulling off the UI elements, and creating environments that drew people in, the sound design needed to tell the story as much as the visuals. Niko instantly understood what I was going for, and crafted some incredibly unique sounds that are essential to film’s emotions and plot.
With such a simple visual style, I knew that the score needed to drive the emotion and life of the piece. I sat down with Cody Fry, who is an incredibly talented artist based here in Nashville. After watching a rough edit, we quickly decided that an orchestral score would be a beautiful contrast to the precise minimalism of the visuals. I gave giving him a few notes (mainly things like “make it sad there”, “scary here”, and “all the loneliness”…) a crudely drawn dynamics chart (X-Axis = Time, Y-Axis = Dynamics) and a Spotify playlist full of inspiration tracks (mostly Michael Giacchino). A few weeks later we met up again and Cody had somehow made sense of it all. He created a true work of art, a score that blew away my wildest expectations!
We tracked strings at Quonset Hut Studios here in Nashville, TN with some fantastic local musicians contracted by Travis Patton. Mike Janas, the lead engineer, was insanely generous and allowed us to use the studio for free. Jeremy Brown stepped in as our Pro Tools operator. There is something really special about having that many people in a room working together to bring a piece of music to life. It was an experience I know I will never forget.
At Identity Visuals we have a strong desire to tell beautiful, meaningful stories. I hope you enjoy SOLUS, because we had blast creating it!
A FEW EXTRA NOTES
I’m planning on writing a follow-up post with some some technical behind-the-scenes info on the creation of the visuals in SOLUS. If there’s anything specific you are curious about, please let me know on Twitter @zacdixon.
I did not consult with Christopher Nolan on this film.