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.
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.
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.
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.
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