Sunday 7 October 2012

Red Sand (2012)

Director: Caleb Evans
Stars: Ayman Samman, Amy Searcy, Greg Bronson and Mark Meer
A one year project with more effects work than you're ever going to believe, Red Sand has been described as the 'most ambitious' film attempted thus far at UAT. I'd say 'ever' and be truthful, but they keep out-doing themselves with each project, so it may well end up merely being the most ambitious until the next one. I was impressed by the effects work in Fallout but this shows just how far professor Paul DeNigris has taken his classes in a mere two years. This one is also the most important film made thus far at UAT because it's going to be by far the most obvious. Whereas most of the UAT student films are good enough to make it to film festivals and even to win awards, this one is also a fan film that serves as a prequel to BioWare's Mass Effect game franchise and how successfully it premieres on YouTube today at 4pm will direct how far and wide it'll end up being seen. We'll find out by tomorrow whether it'll go viral. It deserves to.

I saw Red Sand without any prior knowledge of Mass Effect and it made complete sense to me, so you don't have to be a fanboy to watch. From what I can gather, writer/director Caleb Evans successfully walked a fine line to ensure that newcomers like myself don't need to have played the game to understand the film but also that the die hards aren't going to complain about any perceived inaccuracy or liberties taken. Evans went back to the beginning of the franchise's chronology, which is scantily documented, and linked two events together with a story. Players of the game will recognise the one character taken from the series and the depth of how far the ending is really a beginning, but the rest of us will get almost as much without back knowledge. It's not the most complex plot, but dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's to avoid a backlash from gamers, who may be the most anal naysayers anywhere, was a meticulous task done well.

We begin on Mars, as the SSV Phoenix lands to deliver a couple of scientists to a new discovery: ancient alien ruins. Mars looks good, with red sky, red sand, red everything, and the dirt from the vacant lot next to UAT that became their set looks surprisingly close to the pictures Curiosity has sent back. Dr Ayman Averroes is in charge of investigating the alien technology found in these ruins, but within a year local bandits are refining one example, a miracle energy source named Element Zero, into a drug called Red Sand that boosts telekinetic powers; and of course they'll fight for continued access to the source material. The battle that ensues is the setpiece of the film, with a horde of bandits emerging from a frickin' awesome red Martian sand storm veined with lightning bolts to hurl telekinetic fireballs at the Alliance soldiers tasked with defending the ruins with traditional, albeit futuristic, weaponry. It's a glorious thing to behold.
I've talked a lot at Apocalypse Later about what has been described as the 'democratisation of filmmaking', the way in which the cost of equipment and software has dropped so far that any budding filmmaker can theoretically match what big Hollywood studios can do. The theory may be sound but the practice doesn't come close, especially with special effects. Filmmakers like Travis Mills are proving time and time again that feature length dramas can be made for under ten grand and still look great on the big screen, but science fiction films that rely on effects are still stuck in amateur hour. Iron Sky may well be the first widespread exception but, on a smaller scale, UAT has been leading the way to demonstrate what can be done on that front without a large investment and this is easily the pinnacle of what they've achieved thus far. Red Sand felt to me like a fourteen minute Hollywood blockbuster, only with a plot.

Needless to say, the crew is made up primarily of effects folk. Like duh. Even Evans has trouble describing what some of them do but he does grok it all and he got exactly what he wanted out of them. Almost all the effects are digital, with perhaps Nola Yergen's excellent costumes being the only exception. One special shout out should go to Mattia Cupelli, whose deep but sweeping orchestral music fit the epic sci-fi action perfectly. Perhaps underlining that 'democratisation of filmmaking' comment, Evans found his fan soundtracks for Mass Effect games online and hired him to compose the score. Yet Cupelli lives in Rome where he turned eighteen during the film's production. You'd never have guessed it from the quality of his work. Everyone who worked on this film obviously has a future in the industry, and many UAT students have already gone on to work on major TV shows or Hollywood films, but Cupelli's future may arrive sooner than most.

On the acting front, there's one obvious coup. Col Grissom, the one canon character, is played by Mark Meer, who has voiced Cmdr Shepherd in the Mass Effect games from the outset. Flying him out and paying his salary probably amounted to over half the budget, but that investment will surely pay major dividends on the publicity front. He does a fine job and looks the part. Amy Searcy, who I've only seen thus far in the horror movie Closets, is an able sidekick, kicking just as much ass on behalf of the fairer sex. I need to seek out more of her work. Shane Dean and Cavin Gray only have fleeting roles, making me wonder if there are contractual obligations that force them to appear in the same films. It's Gray's co-star from Parallax who has the other main role though: Ayman Samman, as his namesake, Dr Ayman Averroes. He's just as stoic here but with a stubborn drive that leads him to be irritable and frustrating. He's excellent again.

Holding all this together is Caleb Evans, a musician who has obviously found his calling as a filmmaker. He hasn't even graduated UAT yet but he has this under his belt nonetheless. There are people in Hollywood with their faces on tabloid magazines who haven't turned out anything of this quality. His filmography is a skimpy thing, showing that he wielded a camera on Parallax and assisted DeNigris in directing Covet, on which he also did the sound editing. That's not a heck of a lot of experience to bring to a project like this, but it doesn't show. Red Sand was his idea, his script and his direction. Whatever other successes it might contain, the overall one is going to fall to him to achieve and he nails it. Within twelve minutes, he gifts us grandeur, adds in explanation of back story, then hurls us into battle, where we win out and reach for the stars. I'm eagerly awaiting the launch on YouTube at 4pm today so I can experience it again. Bravo!

The film has a web site and a Facebook page. It's also now live on YouTube.

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