Far Out Meets: Bruce Branit, the director behind sci-fi short film ‘World Builder’
At Far Out Magazine we believe in cinema’s ability to heal.
At a time when millions of people remain locked inside amid strict social distancing measures and cinemas around the world continue to keep their doors closed, we want to shine a light on filmmakers on a personal level.
Turning our attention to the work created by independent artists, we have launched our new weekly series ‘The Far Out Film Club’. The project will focus on one filmmaker during each episode and will premiere on both of Far Out Magazine’s Facebook page and YouTube channel every Wednesday.
Offering a platform for filmmakers around the world, promoting their work to millions of cinephiles while also connecting them to other creatives, our second edition of the series welcomes director Bruce Branit and his brilliant science-fiction film World Builder.
Branit, the American filmmaker whose creative history was born in the world of computer graphics and visual effects, has risen to prominence in recent years with numerous different and brilliantly advanced short films. While his stock as a director continues to grow, Branit has also seen his special effects work praised on the highest level and has been nominated for Primetime Emmy Award a remarkable seven times.
A prolific creative with a thirst for cinema and alternative modes of expression through the art of storytelling, Branit has managed to combine his short film work with that of projects on a major budget scale. While his own side projects have allowed him to explore new forms of technology, Branit has also expressed himself on more high profile positions with his work exhibited on supremely popular shows such as Lost, Star Trek, Breaking Bad and Westworld.
Here, as part of the Far Out Film Club, we are premiering a screening of Granit’s quite brilliant short film World Builder which is available through our Facebook and YouTube channels. See the film and a full conversation with it’s creator, below.
FO: Given the current circumstances, and the struggles that the film industry is facing, how difficult is it to be an independent director right now?
“It’s always been hard to make a living at it. You might dream of playing in the NBA or the Premier League, but very few get to do play at that level and it’s a long road. Due to corona, Hollywood, and film, in general, has shut down so thoroughly that we are all still looking for our bearings and trying to figure out what comes next.
“I do think that smaller indie films will actually be the first to bounce back, and that could spell an opportunity for people wanting to get into the business. It always comes down to raising money for a film project and I’m afraid all things money are about to become harder to come by. When we do get started it will likely be smaller crews and tighter budgets, so people who know their way around multiple parts of a film set may have an advantage.”
Similarly, on a personal level as both a film viewer and creator, how important is cinema as a form of release at the moment?
“Entertainment is recession/depression proof. People need an escape. We are watching film now, but no one is making it. So when we can again, I am hoping there is a mad rush to produce content.
“We need stories to take us away, and to show us new ways of thinking about the world. The hard question today is what is the world going to look like after this, and what sort of stories will we want to see.”
We’re focusing on your project ‘World Builder’ could you explain where this idea came from?
“I’d had this idea of a guy using digital tools to create an average city street for years. The idea springs from the CGI tools I use: 3D modelling, texturing, lighting and animation. When you build something in the computer, you do become a little world builder, sweating over details, making something real. Bringing it into existence.”
How the scenario of this project was formed, how did you develop your ideas and did the end product match your initial expectations?
“Like a lot of concepts I work on, they tend to spring forth very quickly in a raw form—the germ of an idea—and then sit around for a long time, sometimes years. World Builder was no different. It was going to be about builders building a mundane street for reality, and then time would start and some average guy would walk past, not paying much attention at all to the artistry around him and that was it.
“The house lights would come on and a voice would congratulate the workers on a job well done and instruct them to begin working on a new setting for this guy’s job interview the next day. The idea was sort of a joke about the amount of time put in on something that most people never take the time to stop and appreciate. But the project really didn’t get serious until I figured out it was a love story about two people. Suddenly there was emotion there and not only a cool visual. I think it exceeded my expectation. A lot of that is thanks to the casting of the two leads.”
Did your creative vision change when you began to understand more about your process?
“I think the realisation of how important an emotional response has changed a lot of my thinking. I am a very technical writer and often get caught up in the logic of a story.
“Science fiction is all about setting the rules of your world and sticking to them. But I’m still learning that as long as the audience connects, they might fill in the logic blanks. You cant contradict your own logic, but you don’t necessarily need to explain it. With World Builder I’ve enjoyed fans coming up with explanations and story motives that I never thought of. Sometimes ambiguous makes for good storytelling.”
Did you encounter any unexpected difficulties in its creation?
“It was a one day shoot and over a year finishing the post. So the enormous amount of time invested was the big difficulty. During the process, my wife became pregnant and I set the due date as the end date for the project because I knew I’d be busy once the baby came. But I didn’t make it and it took another 4-6 months to get everything good enough to release it.
“Sometimes you have to take a step back and look at what you are doing and ask yourself if you are not deluded. You work on something day after day, for months, for no pay and it starts to look a lot like an obsession. You have to remind yourself you believe in what you are making constantly, otherwise, it does look a little nuts.”
What, in your opinion, is the most important quality in a film director?
“I’ve been lucky lately to work under a lot of incredible television directors and the best quality I observe is always knowing what they want and how to move all the chess pieces of the crew and the talent around to get it. They have to be decisive and clear.
“The best ones also realise that they will never get exactly what they see in their heads and they are able to take what is happening (or not happening) on the day and mould that into something that still tells the story, often in a better way than conceived.
We’ve reached a point in cinema, much like that of the music industry, when the phrase “we’ve seen it all before” becomes a topical debate.
How do you stay original? How do you find ways to produce something unique in a market that has so many creatives? Or is being unique even that important?
“They’ve been saying all the stories have been told for 500 years. Some of that is true, but our world changes and we change, so stories that are not necessarily original can always feel new if told by a competent voice of the time.
“The technology around filmmaking is always changing too. From silent, black and white, colour, 3D to CGI the medium changes too. What comes after found-films and desktop-screen-films is probably just around the corner. Please, no Zoom meeting films though. We’ve had enough of that in real life.”
Could you run us through your process? What distinctive themes are you looking to create, if any?
“I didn’t know I had a consistent theme in my work for a long time but I’ve found that I tend to write stories about people dealing with technology and its isolating and alienating tenancies. I guess it’s about trying to hold on to the simpler, authentic human connections. Certainly ‘World Builder’ is about that.
“I have another feature project in development called ‘Low Earth’ that has gone through many iterations, but at heart is a very similar story to ‘World Builder’. It is about two people longing to be together but separated through technology — in this case, one is on a planet and the other is in an orbiting spacecraft.”
Generally speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?
“For me there has to be an immediate gut reaction to the material. A visceral ‘whoa’ when the idea hits or the script is read. If you feel it, then you know you can make an audience feel that.
The challenge is to be able take that idea, or scene or line that you reacted to, and take it through the collaborative film-making process with many other artists involved — take it from the page to the finished film and still have it hold on to that original thing that made you react to it initially.”
Moving on to the subject of independent cinema, I’m keen to know your thoughts on its current standing.
How important is independent film today, what does it mean to you?
“Independent film has always been a tricky, wild-west world. I’ve never been good at the financing part of it myself. If I want to make something, and that is all I focus on, constructing it, not the salesmanship side of getting a film made. So I’ve had a difficult run with making features. It feels like as indie filmmaking matures, it becomes less wild-west.
“There are more gate-keepers and king-makers in the system. The audience has the illusion of more access to films, but unless you are actively seeking out a true indie film, the reality is that the industry is more controlled and curated. And the more that the art form matures, the more it starts to look like the old studio systems. Then something changes and a new tier of untamed filmmakers emerge under this top-heavy system and rewrites the rules and the whole thing starts over. I think (and hope) we are on the eve of one of those times. I’d like to be a part of it.”
Short films are often closely affiliated with independent film and filmmakers, do you think the landscape of this medium has changed over time?
“I think it has changed. I think today the shorts need to be much better than they did just five years ago to get attention. The quality and competition is so high now. I could say that only the most highly polished shorts get noticed today, but it still boils down to story.
“An ok made film with an incredible story will still find a way to get noticed and move a career forward. But it will get noticed faster if it looks like it has a one million dollar budget.”
I look at streaming services and the impact companies such as Netflix are enjoying in the world of mainstream cinema, do you think this platform could provide an alternative route for independent filmmakers and shorts?
“Definitely. I think a lot of what we thought of as low to mid-budget indie film has begun being absorbed into Netflix and other streaming services. There is no other market like DVD’s so if you want your film seen it has to go through on-demand or streaming or PPV at some point. But budgets are going to get strained as we come out of the Coronavirus crisis. And for shorts, we were all waiting to see what Quibi would do.
Quibi positioned itself as short-form film and story, something a lot of us know a lot about. But it feels like they didn’t focus on the content or story as much as the celebrity behind each project. So most of the filmmakers I know who tried to approach them didn’t find an open door. It’s hard to make money through short films, so Quibi was a hard sell from the start.”
Finally, do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of cinema you may be exploring next?
“I have done a couple of 360 surround VR projects. I have to say I did not love the process. Film is an art form, where the director and editor can guide the audience on a very specific path in a very specific way to have a certain emotional experience. My issue with immersive 360 entertainment is that things like cuts and leading the viewer’s eye don’t necessarily work the same way.
“Everyone will have a slightly different experience. Some might miss a crucial look. A certain cut can tell a wealth of information story-wise, but if the audience can choose their perspective it changes things. While I think that this technology is fascinating for exploring locations and feeling present or being witness to an event, I just don’t think it fits into my understanding of narrative entertainment.
“Currently, I am working in Unreal Engine and exploring what it has to offer in the game world and as it applies to filmmaking tools using LED walls instead of greenscreens. It’s been used on Mandalorian and we used it on this season of Westworld, and it was extremely intriguing as a new film tool. I think there is a quantum shift with that sort of technology on the horizon.
“I have two feature projects that have been getting attention and hope to find a way to shoot one of them on a modest budget in the next two years.”