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Finding Sci-Fi Wonder: Q&A with Filmmaker Colin Levy

Science fiction that moves us must have some element of imaginative wonder to it, an awe-inducing ride that draws the audience in and captivates us. That element is easy to spot in SKYWATCH, a sci-fi short film with a burst of celebrity star power and solid storytelling to balance out the appealing VFX. The film’s creator, Colin Levy, spent years in the making of his film, which serves as a proof of concept for an intriguing story we’d love to see in longer form. 

Levy chatted with Recursor recently about the making of SKYWATCH—including how to land a well-known actor in your indie flick.

RECURSOR: How did you first become interested in the sci-fi genre?

COLIN LEVY: Initially, I was drawn to the magic of it—the spectacle and the crazy technology, the imaginative worlds, the escapist fantasy. I just loved the feeling of awe which comes with the territory of good fantasy and sci-fi. Getting to believe in something that isn’t real, if only for an hour or two, is such a wonderful escape. 

But over time, I came to realize that sci-fi can access some of humanity’s deepest questions and existential dilemmas in a way that few other genres can. In the course of your normal day-to-day routine, it’s so easy to stop asking the big questions, to lose sight of where we are in history, to forget our place in the universe. But sci-fi stories help bring out in me a feeling of perspective. We really are specks of stardust. There’s so much to wonder about, and sci-fi is such a great way to both experience and express that wonder!

What films and books have particularly influenced you?

Early on, I fell in love with Spielberg, Zemeckis, Brad Bird. They’re not exclusively sci-fi filmmakers, but their sensibilities shaped mine in huge ways and E.T., Back to the Future, and The Iron Giant are my favorite films of all time.

Philip K. Dick is unsurprisingly responsible for some of my favorite sci-fi stories, even if I tend to experience them on film. Minority Report was a huge inspiration for me — I’m still bowled over by its tight plotting and masterfully executed twists.

Book-wise, Ender’s Game probably influenced me more than any other. So intensely engrossing and again, that twist! I remember reading The Giver in school and being utterly gutted by it. I guess I’ve always been drawn to dystopian sci-fi.

What drew you to filmmaking? 

I fell into filmmaking organically. But it wasn’t as if I saw a movie one day and then decided to become a filmmaker. I was drawn to the craft, the fun and challenge of the creative process.

Growing up, I definitely loved making stuff, whether it was Legos or drawings or written stories. For my 10th birthday, my grandma gave me her old film SLR camera – and I fell in love with photography. I was fortunate to be coming of age at the very moment that digital technology made the tools accessible. At 13, my most prized possession was a Sony TRV530 Digital8 camcorder, which recorded to tape that I could then edit on my family’s first-gen iMac. From that point on, I was always making movies.

Tell us about SKYWATCH. What inspired the story?

I began working on SKYWATCH in 2013. At the time, I was working long hours at Pixar and feeling frustrated with how little free time I could find to work on my own projects. Such a big chunk of my weekends was taken up by chores and errands. I found myself fantasizing about a future where I no longer had to waste time at the grocery—where my fridge could basically restock itself.

I just started doodling, sketching out ideas for an ideal system. Initially I explored far-out ideas like underground conveyor belts and pneumatic tubes. A friend suggested drones. This was before drones had fully arrived in the national consciousness, well before drone delivery.

The more I began to envision the near-future world of SKYWATCH, the more I wanted to live there. But I started wondering if this tech really existed, how would it impact the world? I became sort of obsessed by the thought experiment. It naturally raised issues we’re already having global conversations about—automation, surveillance, regulation of Big Tech, and the sacrifices we make for convenience.

In addition, I’ve been wanting to make a sci-fi action thriller, and I felt like this near-future world was rich with narrative potential for a story in that genre. The story about a teenage hacker who exposes the dark side of the system came after the world was fairly fleshed out. But that teenage-focused story felt like a lot of my favorite movies mixed into one—and I knew I had to make it!

What was it like to work with Jude Law? How did he become connected with your project?

As you can imagine, it was an absolute dream come true to get to work with Jude Law for his brief cameo. He did it as a complete favor, as a way to help elevate an aspiring filmmaker, and I could not be more grateful!

We got connected through a “friend of a friend of a friend,” at the very end of the process. I was able to pass along a private link of the completed film—everything was done except the cameo moment. And to our complete surprise, he not only took the time to watch it, but wrote me the nicest email ever and was down to help us out!

He’s been the definition of generous. For someone like me, still trying to break into the film world, it means so much to have his support. To your question, these sorts of attachments and associations seem to mean a lot in Hollywood, and the air of legitimacy can make the difference between a project seeing the light of day, or withering away into obscurity.

For those curious to hear more about the saga of getting in touch with Jude and shooting that cameo bit, I made a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video that pokes fun at the process, step by step.

SKYWATCH took 6 years to make. What was it like to work on a film over the course of such a lengthy period?

Yeah, it took forever! It’s crazy to finally be on the other side of it. I had no idea it would ultimately take as long as it did, which honestly was a good thing, since otherwise I would have given up. I’ve been making ambitious shorts for a while now, so I am a bit familiar with this rhythm, and knew that eventually I’d get to the finish line. 

But of course, motivation and productivity can wane. Generally, my fellow collaborators kept me focused and motivated. My VFX Supervisor Sandro Blattner and producer Andre Danylevich were in the trenches with me throughout the years on SKYWATCH, and we kept each other going. Ultimately, we all had faith in the caliber and value of the finished product, and that helped us justify the enormous effort.

How did you adapt your filmmaking process to fit your budget?

SKYWATCH was a low-budget short, all things considered, but we still needed many tens of thousands of dollars to get it done. We took an incremental approach—first raising money for production from external financiers, then pouring my own savings into the project, and finally doing a crowdfunding campaign to get us through post-production. 

This was the first project I’ve put together for which we found financing. Meaning, we had a handful of investors who saw this, in part, as a financial opportunity. To this end, my producer Andre and I had to present a compelling business plan. Most short films don’t make money, but this one was designed to sell. It was designed as a proof of concept for a larger project, and there are precedents we could point to that gave us hope that SKYWATCH could lead to a deal. The idea is that our investors will participate in whatever profit we make on this—if we get to that point.

We’re not there yet, but we have in fact made a deal that could lead to a good outcome for everybody. So I feel really fortunate that the plan is so far working out. It’s a very exciting moment! 

Colin Levy is an award-winning independent filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Previously he worked at Pixar Animation Studios, where he contributed to seven projects including INSIDE OUT and FINDING DORY. He directed two animated shorts for the Blender Animation Studio in Amsterdam, which have accumulated over 10M views online. His personal short MY GRANDFATHER’S MEMORY BOOK was published as an Op-Doc by the New York Times in 2018.