Interview with Jeremy Kelly-Bakker – Part 1

This week we are in the airship’s theatre, talking with Jeremy Kelly-Bakker, one of the scriptwriters of the short steampunk film, Aurora, from Urtext Film Productions and Rough Cut Productions, both in Australia.

Airship Ambassador: Welcome Jeremy, thanks for joining us from Australia for this screening.

Jeremy Kelly-Bakker: No, thank you! We’re just stoked people have questions about the film.

AA: Aurora was an enjoyable film and I must have watched it five times that first day. For those who haven’t seen it yet, what is about?

JKB: Wow 5 times! I worked on it literally start to finish and I think I’ve only sat down and watched the whole thing through about 6 times, that’s very flattering. Its the story of Emerson Marks, captain of the airship ‘Aurora’ whose wife is kidnapped by slave traders. He then goes on an uncompromising journey with his crew to get her back.

AA: What was the motivation for creating Aurora? How did the idea first come about?

JKB: Chris Kellett, the director, and I, being nerdy film makers, had just made a lightsaber fight and we were looking for something new to do that really pushed our VFX skills. I then came to Chris with a few sketches of an airship and the character of Captain Emerson Marks, who at that stage was just a rather generic swashbuckling hero. We discussed it for a short while and decided that instead of focusing on just a VFX film we should focus our efforts on making a ‘proper movie’ and just sort the visual effects out as we went.

AA: Aurora was written by Chris, Jim Hogevonder and you. What was the writing/revision process and how long did it take? Was it storyboarded, or something more casual?

JKB: Writing was a blast! We were all 20 when we started and it was the first script any of us had ever written. We all took to it with a lot of enthusiasm, but it also took a very long time to get to the final story you saw on screen. I think we were writing and revising for over 6 months. We wrote huge amounts of story and world building stuff, and we would often get carried away then have to sit down and go “Ok how can we cut down this story and make it more manageable”. So lots of different episodes, adventures and plots were written and then put aside in favor of a more self contained story. There was a lot of fun character building stuff for the crew that had to be cut out for the sake of time, we realized with such a short film to get the point across we had to create the crew as rather two dimensional caricatures so each one was instantly recognizable. So you’d know straight away that’s the grumpy guy, that’s the noble one, that’s the funny one etc.

Director Chris Kellet

AA: Caricatures or not, each character is memorable in their own way. Is there a particular message that you wanted to convey, or a specific story that you wanted to tell? Was it planned to be a metaphor for today’s issues, a morality play of timeless ideals, or a ripping enjoyable adventure?

JKB: Ripping enjoyable adventure definitely. First and foremost we wanted to entertain with the story and characters and create a world people could get lost in and get excited about. I always feel the best worlds are the ones that leave you with room to explore your own ideas and adventures and I think we succeeded. We’ve had lots of feedback with people enthusiastically saying “Oh what about this!?” or “Have you thought about doing this with the characters?” which is so great. I love those responses. But what you saw is a severely edited down version of a much wider world.

AA: The finished movie is enjoyable and certainly left me wanting more. In it, slavery was used as a central theme motivating the characters into action. What was the reasoning to use this as opposed to some other plot device?

JKB: We cycled through a number of different threats and antagonists before settling on Slavers. We had bad guys with various complex relationships with Emerson and complicated back stories to go with it. We realised after a while that we couldn’t make such relationships work in such a small amount of time so we had to settle for an enemy more impartial. By this point Emerson as a character was very uncompromising when it came to his family and crew, Slavers became a wonderful option for demonstrating the lawless and dangerous world while also threatening those he held dearest.

Jim Hogevonder

AA: When I get my young nieces and nephews to watch Aurora, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?

JKB: That’s a really good question; there aren’t really any good role models in Aurora when you look at the facts. Emerson is uncompromising and puts his friends in danger, Dex just wants to keep his head down, Raegon is completely apathetic and James is a bit of a thief. Really, the character of Imogen is the only one with a clear moral compass, but the crew as a whole shows each other a lot of dysfunctional love, or at least I hope people got that impression.

AA: Since there was so much effort and discussion up front about the world and stories, what kind of back story is there for Aurora which didn’t make it into the final cut?

JKB: Lots and lots…  I could quite easily talk for hours about various facets of the world. We all caught up recently to discuss what our individual thoughts and ambitions for the world were now the film was out. We all unanimously agreed we’d love to make a series of it. So we talked and collated together past stories and ideas so we now have a much more dynamic arc plotted out. It’s pretty exciting; it has a lot of scope but also has a very focused through line and an ending in sight.

Jeremy Kelly-Bakker

AA: Aurora – The Series would be great! What kind of research, and then balance, went into creating the Aurora world?

JKB: I think most of our real world research went into weapons, particularly how they looked when they fired. So we watched a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Patriot for our gun references. Replicating the effect of a musket proved to be a very rewarding challenge as every shot in the film is entirely composited VFX.

AA: Authors and artists often talk about how elements of their own lives make their way into their work. With all of the early discussions of what you’d like to do artistically, creatively and professionally, how did this play into Aurora

JKB: Well, the rough initial designs and ideas in their very early stages came from me. I used to surf a lot in my hometown before I left for university, and between waves I’d look at the cliffs (very beautiful coastline where I grew up) and I’d think “That’s cool… but it’d look cooler with some old houses built into it” Which lead onto many day dreams of airships, docks suspended above water and bustling ports. Chris came at it with a lot of understanding and passion for characters, adventure and romance in film, which gave my sprawling aesthetic and world a lot more focus and direction. Jim is also a superb writer who really kept the two of us on task and gave it structure.

AA: Jessie Mills is the designer. How did it start? What were her guiding inspirations, ideals, and vision, aside from budget, to create the visual tone and impact?

JKB: Jessie Mills is a champ, she did a wonderful job! Jim, Chris and I knew very early on we’d need LOTS of maritime type stuff for the film. So for months and months leading up to the shoot we were collecting all the wood, bottles, barrels, crates we could get our hands on. We managed to fill up my entire garage full of junk. It was quite incredible really. But there was a huge variety of stuff. So when it came to each set we gave Jessie free reign of anything in the shed and she’d pick and chose the stuff she wanted for each scene.

AA: Steampunk lent a great aesthetic to the film. What benefits and limitations did that choice present in creating the film? Was it integral to the story?

JKB: We felt the frontier steampunk setting is what would really catch people’s imaginations. We had a moment when we realised we could alter the VFX, place them on a boat instead and badge it a period film. But honestly where was the fun in that. Take Star Wars, its really just a fantasy tale and hero’s journey, but give them laser swords and space ships and you have yourself something special.

AA: Using steampunk as a setting certainly created extra interest for me, and I’d agree that if it had been done as a period piece, I might have passed it by. Aside from the Aurora, itself, what other steampunk elements were specifically included, either for setting or for ‘feel’?

JKB: Not as many as we wanted I’m afraid. We always wanted to keep it grounded in some kind of reality, so we didn’t want big steampunk mechs, or dudes with mechanical arms or anything like that. But we had designed some nifty bits and pieces that we just didn’t have the time or money to create. In earlier drafts the antagonist had his own airship called the Minotaur which was pretty cool. The written description was it had a battering ram at the front in the shape of bull for crushing other ships, and on the forward deck were two steam powered harpoon guns for reeling ships in. But really we would have loved to have had some extra steam gadgets and machinery. Not far removed from our own real world age of steam, we wanted everything to have a practical application rather than simply fantastical decoration.

AA: With all those ideas being tossed about, how did the film’s steampunk design evolve over time?

JKB: It became a lot more practical. At first we designed quite freely in terms of the ship and towns, and things turned out ok but not great. It was a tad more ‘fantasy’ and something was missing. So we started referencing as much existing designs as possible, in terms of docks, cranes, mechanisms on ships etc. The more we drew from real life materials and engineering principles the more grounded and believable things became. That was a really important lesson for me to learn as a designer and visual effects guy

AA: How did set design influence costume design? Where did the costumes come from, especially Emerson’s vest?

JKB: The costumes were all sourced from 2nd hand clothing stores, and the odd garment or two from our own wardrobes we were comfortable sacrificing to being dunked in a bucket full of coffee and shoe polish for staining, being torn up with hack saws and rough files and the being repaired with string and leather. Many costumes were used, mixed up and then re-used for different scenes. We’d often assemble costumes, and if they looked too contemporary we’d just shove more belts, string and weapons to them. The amount of costumes we had by the end of production was pretty crazy. We still have loads of stuff floating around our houses. We also ran with the idea that with the advent of air travel so early, continental borders began to vanish, so cultures really intermingled quite heavily. That’s why you’ll see men in English waistcoats with samurai swords and women in Indian saris.

We’ll take a break here in chatting with Jeremy Kelly-Bakker. Join us next time when we talk about visual effects, actors and location shooting.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go see the complete film ofAurora, join the Aurora Facebook page  and stay up to date on upcoming work from Urtext Film Productions.


Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 2

Part 3


Published in: on September 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Victoria Steam Exposition II

Happy Birthday H.G. Wells!

To celebrate Wells’ work and his influence on steampunk, let’s celebrate with a free ticket to the Victoria Steam Exposition, happening this weekend, September 24 and 25, in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

This year’s Victoria Steam Exposition will be held in the magnificent 1890 edifice of Craigdarroch Castle, a monument to the exuberance of the Victorian age. While there, you’ll get to see artists and writers Kaja and Phil Foglio, San Francisco’s glam-noir siren Jill Tracy, and featured artist, Kyle Miller.

To get this ticket, leave a (moderated) brief comment below telling me why going to VSE II is important to you. Time is running out so leave your comment by 6pm, PST,  Thursday night, Sept 22. Good luck!

Published in: on September 21, 2011 at 8:28 pm  Comments (1)  

Interview with Scott Westerfeld

This week we are talking with Scott Westerfeld, author of Leviathan, Behemoth, and releasing September 20, Goliath.

Airship Ambassador: Hi Scott! With the release of Goliath, you are about to be very busy with a book tour, so, thank you for making the time to join us for this interview.

Scott Westerfeld: Thanks, it’s nice to join you.

AA: As the conclusion to the Leviathan trilogy, or really a trilogy + 1, with the added, large format, all-color book providing a more in-depth view of the world, what is Goliath about?

SW: His Majesty’s Airship Leviathan has left the newly formed Ottoman Republic behind, and is headed across Siberia. Goliath is a bit of a travelogue, spanning the Far East, the stormy Pacific, revolutionary Mexico, and both coasts of the US. On the way, Deryn still has secrets to keep, both the fact that she’s a girl passing as a midshipman and that she’s in love with Aleksander, son of the late Archduke Ferdinand. A new character is added to the airship’s passengers, Nikola Tesla, who has just proven a technology that may end the war. There are also lots of real historical figures, moreso than the previous books.

AA: You’ve previously mentioned that your Uglies trilogy was focused on today’s obsession with plastic surgery, and EXTRAS is all about our obsession with fame. What is the central idea or focus of the Leviathan trilogy?

SW: It’s about how technologies shape our view of the world. Alek is a Clanker, and sees the world as a machine. He’s convinced that he’s predestined to end the war. Deryn, a Darwinist, has an instinctive appreciation to the messiness of life, both in the sense of biology and of a person’s life, and even the chaos of history itself. As a love story, a related theme is that of learning to see things from someone else’s cultural point of view.

AA: Leviathan started as a recreation of “boys’ own adventures” but with female characters. Aside from the obvious adventure and female parts, what other elements are used in creating Goliath?

SW: Having a double alternate history is very key. The Clankers have a fully worked out walking machine culture, complete with clockwork information technologies, and the Darwinists, of course, have Edwardian bio-technology. These two cultures have grown technologically estranged from each other, and are at war now in 1914, and this is reflected in the art. The Clanker illustrations are very boxy and squared off, even a bit clumsy, like a Great War tank, while the Darwinist images have more flowing lines, with their furniture and other design elements drawing from spiral shells and Art Noveau. And, of course, the Ottomans had their own style, a sort of Levantine Clankerism. When we get to Japan, Mexico, and the US, we have whole new sets of style to create.

So it’s really about communicating culture through image. (Goliath has 57 illustrations in it.)

Goliath artwork - Exclusive to Airship Ambassador

AA: There are multiple levels of contrast working in the stories – class, gender, skill sets, technologies – How much of the story’s structure was intentionally planned and what elements emerged as the story developed?

SW: I’m not a huge outliner, but I did realize that class and gender were going to be huge components. Alek’s parents being assassinated not only destroys his personal world, but also the European order of kings and alliances. As such, he finds himself in a post-royalty world at the same time as he befriends Deryn, who’s the first commoner he’s ever really known. And, of course, he’s only just dealt with that when it turns out she’s a girl. But most of this emerges fairly naturally. My protagonists are teenagers, after all, and questioning the way the world is put together is fairly natural for people of that age, even if they aren’t living in “interesting times.”

AA: What kind of back story is there for Goliath which didn’t make it into the final book?

SW: In the world of Leviathan, the United States is Clanker in the north and Darwinist in the south, a division left over from the Civil War. Remember, the Civil War ended only 49 years before 1914, and so was only a decade more distant than Vietnam is to the present day. I was going to make that a bit part of the book, with George Washington Carver being the south’s great biotechnologist, but the story wound up spending more time in revolutionary Mexico (which is more or less Darwinist as well). It was fun having Pancho Villa onscreen, but I was sorry to lose the whole divided US theme.

AA: Are there any plans for further sequels or a spinoff in the same universe?

SW: Just the art book, which is a large-format, full-cover technical manual, with deck plans and stuff. People have approached me about movies and manga, but nothing’s certain yet. And I can’t see myself writing more novels.

AA: When young adults, including my nieces and nephews, read Goliath, what would you like for them to take away from the story and from Alek and Deryn that they could apply to their own lives?

SW: We construct our lives around technologies so much in our culture that it’s easy to forget they aren’t something given to us by nature. The way we use tech and view the world through it is something we create as a society. Hopefully, having two competing and radically different branches of technology in the Leviathan world makes that contingency a bit more obvious.

AA: What kind of research, and then balance, went into creating the world of Goliath?

SW: Keith (Thompson, my illustrator) is a better researcher that me. He probably understands more of the technical side of everything. My research was more about the stories people of that era were telling. The science fiction, the teen adventure tales, and contemporary accounts like Churchill’s My Early Life. It was important for me to understand how people saw the world they lived in, the power arrangements and the changes going on around them.

AA: What have book tours and conventions been like, and the fan reaction?

SW: I’ve always had great experiences with my fans. Teens these days are avid readers and networkers, so bookstore events have been great. But what’s interesting about Leviathan is the reaction in school visits. Even captive audiences react positively once you show them Keith’s work, and it’s a lot more compelling to show a walking WWI tank than to drone on about what neo-Victorian science fiction is. The best-prepared schools have been amazing, with kids dressing in Edwardian clothes and even building cardboard walkers (one eight feet high!).

AA: Steampunk expressions have practically exploded in the last few years – more books, movies, music, fashions, blogs, conventions, — what do you see in it today, and how has your participation and involvement in the steampunk community changed or developed?

SW: I haven’t had enough time to dip into the Steampunk con world, which is too bad. It’s been great to see steampunk’s presence grow at various Comic Cons and Dragon*con, of course, and across the culture in general. I think that without steampunk culture, I never would have thought to make the Leviathan and illustrated series. But the subculture is so relentlessly visual, it made perfect sense.

AA: How will steampunk influence aspects of the world now? Design, perception, expression, individual involvement, etc? What kind of effect might your trilogy have?

SW: I think the big idea that steampunk is fostering is that technology has a history. Consumerism is all about throwing out the old, and expunging it from our memories as quickly as possibly, so having a subculture that values older technologies is really important. It makes people aware of how life is affected by tech, and how certain choices in tech change the shape of human life. That’s a lot better than just wallowing in the latest gadgets.

AA: Every author I’ve talked with has a different journey to seeing their works in print. What was your publishing experience like? How was it having to explain what steampunk actually was for Leviathan?

SW: I went to my publisher with Keith’s illustrations in hand (indeed, printed out in giant format) so that made everything much easier. Luckily, The Dangerous Book for Boys was selling millions of copies at the time, so I pitched Leviathan as half that and half His Dark Materials. One does what one has to.

AA: For the aspiring writer, what lessons have you learned about having an agent and editor, their feedback, and your writing?

SW: Having an agent is key.

AA: If you weren’t writing novels, what else would you be doing now?

SW: Designing games. In fact, that’s what I am doing as I think about what novels to write.

AA: What do you do to keep a balance between writing, tours, and the rest of your life?

SW: At the moment, I’m taking a year off from writing. So that’s one answer. The other is, mostly I don’t achieve much balance. This has led to various health meltdowns, including shingles.

AA: You are married to the Hugo-nominated writer Justine Larbalestier. When the two of you, with or without other writers, compare notes, have constructive critique reviews, and brainstorm new ideas, how do you challenge each other to make riskier choices?

SW: I read my work aloud to Justine as I write, which is a great way to check your sentences and to get early feedback. (No one can complain about your semi-colons if you’re reading to them out loud, so they have to give you general notes.) She likes to predict what’s going to happen next (as readers do) and quite often has more interesting and challenging predictions than what I had planned. So I steal them.

AA: How is New York City, US and Sydney, Australia, for writing? Does location, and traveling between the two, matter for resources, access, publicity, etc

SW: The most important result of traveling is simply being dislocated; seeing the world set up in different ways reminds you of all the choices you can make in world-building. Sydney is a much more Victorian city than New York, from its Hyde park down to the serifs on the street signs (New York is aggressively Helvetica, of course). The Botanical Gardens in Sydney feel (to me) like a British colony on Venus in 1899, full of giant, unfamiliar ferns and Victorian fountains. That’s all been very helpful in creating Leviathan.

AA: Do people outside the regular reading, steampunk, and convention communities recognize you for Goliath? What kind of reactions have you received?

SW: I’ve been loving all the cosplay. In fact, the YA Best of Show at Dragon*Con this week was won by a Dr. Barlow costume, which featured a very detailed bee theme. (Nora Barlow is Darwin’s grand-daughter, and she quotes his writing on bees in the books.) And having an illustrated book has increased the amount and quality of my fan art by several orders of magnitude.

AA: Looking beyond steampunk, writing and working, what other interests fill your time?

SW: Food, which is the one technology that almost all societies possess at a high level, and women’s pro basketball, which is a relatively new sporting culture, and is both global and under the radar for most people. I also like cricket, which is still working out the conflicts and tensions of the British Empire.

AA: It has been great chatting with you today. Are there any final thoughts to share with our readers?

SW: The illustrated novel died out in the 1920s, but before then almost all prose, whether for children or adults, used pictures for storytelling. A Jane Austen or H.G. Wells novel, a Sherlock Holmes or Mark Twain story in a magazine, all of these were illustrated until a century ago. But then the advent of the camera destroyed the illustration industry, putting the people who drew for newspapers and catalogs out of work, and thus depriving publishing of a valuable resource. This changed the way we tell stories, a technological shift that has barely been noted in literary studies. So it’s been fascinating for me to travel an alternate timeline, one in which novels are still illustrated. (Indeed, one in which novels have 50-plus images instead of the handful in the olden days.) I hope that part of the experience is one that transfers to the readers of the Leviathan series.

Thanks, Scott!

Goliath will be released September 20, and several lucky cities will be visited by Scott on his book tour. His schedule is here and the dates are also listed on the Airship Ambassador Events page.

In the meantime, follow Scott and his news on his website.

There are also trailers, talks and videos which can be seen on AATV, The Steampunk Channel

Leviathan trailer

Scott talks about being on an airship

Scott talks with Alan Cumming about the Behemoth audio book

SFBC interview with Diana Pho


Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 8:01 am  Comments (3)  
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