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Monday, 6 April 2015

Aether - A glorious new Steampunk movie + Interview with legendary Film & TV production designer, David L. Snyder (Blade Runner & more)

I've never made it any secret that I don't consider myself as a proper critic type writer person. My intention on this blog has always been to feature 'stuff' that has caught my eye, things that excite me. It all rather fits in well with my general 'me, me, me, it’s all about me' approach to life.

Therefore I have little interest in wasting my precious hours berating or intellectually mocking another person’s piece of work - I take myself far too lightly for that. I will leave it to some (by no means all) bloggers who's sense of self-importance far exceeds what would be regarded as acceptable in polite company. That doesn't mean to say I won't be honest and acknowledge whether the odd element here or there in a piece of work doesn't quite work for me, but here in the old Fifth Dimension, I only talk about what interests and makes me go all "oh yeaaahhhh" and a little gooey inside. 

As a consequence, I've had what seems like an endless amount of projects on here about which I have eulogised about with glowing adoration. I indeed have felt blessed to be but a very small cog in the bigger creative wheel. However, this week I had the opportunity to speak with people who are involved in perhaps the most exciting project yet that I've come across in my time as perhaps the foremost blogger around (well I am on Planet Stuey, anyway). This is not empty hyperbole, I genuinely mean it when I say how exciting this project is, and for a number of reasons - the concept, the themes, the genres and perhaps just as exciting, the who's who of Science Fiction production who are part of the team behind it all. (More about that last point in a short while, but all I will say for now is....cough.....Blade Runner......cough.

Some very nice Aether concept art
You may be wondering (if you’re still with me) just what the heck has got Fifth Dimension towers in all of a giggly kerfuffle? Well let me tell you.

A few days ago I was contacted via my website by Drew Hall, who proceeded to tell me that he is the writer/co-director of a Steampunk inspired science fiction film called Aether and that he and his team are looking for a degree of promotion for the said film. You should know me by now – mention words like ‘Steampunk’ and ‘science fiction’ in the same sentence and I’m interested. Mention them in the same sentence as ‘Helena Bonham-Carter is at the door asking for you and carrying books about........’ and I’m yours forever. Sadly, the future Mrs Anderson isn’t part of this scenario, but one can dream. 

Now I don’t know about you, but I for one think that if there is one sub-genre of sci-fi and fantasy that has been under represented in its own right on a cinematic level, Steampunk is it. Yes there have been a number of related examples – but nothing that as yet has transported this most stylish of genres in the wider public consciousness. So when Drew said a big fat no, that they were not asking for any financial support via a crowd funding campaign, but instead were just looking for as much publicity as possible, well I was doubly interested. It seems that at this stage they want to do something which I and many others have wanted to happen for some time - namely to pressure the bigger studios into acknowledging that people do want original, story driven science fiction – and not simply rely on Tranformers 25: The of the Rip-off of film goers continues or the latest Marvel superhero adaptation as a means of so-called original creative output.

Anyhow, before I tell you about the mouth-watering collection of production staff on this film, I wanted to know more about Aether,  – and this is what I found.

"Aether is a steampunk inspired science fiction film set in a world of flying cities, massive airships, and ghost towns. On the tiny island of Deos, the citizens in the small town of Specter struggle to survive, as the wealthy floating city of Wavelinde looms overhead serving as a constant reminder of oppression. 

Meanwhile, a storm is building in the savage mines held by the Bruewen. War is coming."

We'll I don't know about you, but when I first read that I was more than a little intrigued. This soon turned ever more interesting when I delved further into some of the background information about the film. Potentially, the world within Aether may be is as vast as the Star Wars ( soon to be 're-imagined) universe, as gritty, at times, as the wastelands of Mad Max (Again, soon to be re-imagined) and is charged with political intrigue that would make the characters in Game of Thrones blush (Btw, I love Queen Cersai with an almost illegal passion) ; throughout this though, the aesthetics of Aether simply ooze the ultra-stylised essence of Steampunk. Ok, I'm hooked.

Because Hollywood seems hesitant to put out original content, Drew Hall (writer/director), Horst Sarubin (Co-director/VFX producer) and Scott Robinson (Producer) decided to shoot a short proof of concept film called "Aether: Prologue". It is basically a primer to the style and experience that is the Aether'verse. It seems then that the word got around about this gem of a project and they were somehow able to assemble an incredible creative team - it's kind of a science fiction dream team really.

Erm, lets just look at this picture a little while, eh?
Their Director of Photography is VFX pioneer and 3 time Oscar Winner Alex Funke (Total Recall, LOTRs). The production designer is David L. Snyder who has an amazing resume, though perhaps people like myself would be salivating over a film which saw him Oscar nominated for art direction on Blade Runner. Yes, that's right......only the blooming favourite ever sci-fi film of this here still my beating heart.

If that wasn't enough, they have Kim Bailey as the airship designer. He's responsible for some of the most iconic ships/props in all of science fiction including the FIRST Borg Ship and the original Stargate. There are a plethora of hair and make up effects in the film so when Oscar winner Robin Mathews (Dallas Buyers Club) jumped on board, I'm sure that Drew and the team probably fainted. In addition, to incorporate the fact that Science fiction must have good sound design, so through a series of magical events the team were able to sign Oscar Nominated Chris Ward (The Hobbit) as their sound editor.

If you're not taken in by my enthusiasm for this film then the fact that this who's who of sci-fi creativity have also jumped on board because they love the story and the Aether'verse says everything.  However, Drew has told me that they don't want to give the impression that Aether is simply some superficial all style and no substance production. They've been pushing a hashtag of #WelcomeBackSciFi as a means of reminding themselves, and the world, that sometimes VFX aren't enough - story should always come first. The team have worked hard to make a science fiction film for the audience who cares about story first. Yes, there are some VFX, but Drew assures me - it's a story driven film for sci fi fans. Personally, I think that's bloody important and something that the Transformers et al of this world would do bloody well to remember. 

The Aether team are keen to have the publics feedback on their project. They desperately want to bring the film to life on the big screen or small and want to make sure that they listen to the audience in the process. blimey, democracy in the movies - a frightening prospect.

Here's a short video with some behind the scenes and interviews about Aether. 

You can out more about the film at the teams fan site 

You can also reach the team on the facebook page 

Drew Hall's IMDB page can be located at


DAVID L. SNYDER (Production Designer extraordinaire + Tanqueray & Tonic devotee).

In keeping with the essence of the innate stylisation of Steampunk, it is essential that Aether has a team behind it that can deliver the necessaries in terms of style and appearance. So when it was confirmed that I may be able to get access to some of the most iconic creative production names in science fiction I was immediately like the proverbial kid in a candy store. I simply couldn't decide who to ask to speak to first, until one man's list of impressive film credits caught my eye, and in particular, a certain film featuring a Mr Harrison Ford chasing after Rutger Hauer and his group of misfit replicants. 

It's pretty much safe to say that David L. Snyder has something of an epic resume, so I'll leave it up to IMDB to give you something of a flavour of it........

David on the set of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey
"....,,,,After stumbling through life as a rock 'n' roll drummer, architectural designer, graphic designer and theatrical stage designer he began his Hollywood career as the assistant art director on the 50th Annual Academy Awards. Following a year in 'live' television, David was soon recruited by Universal Studios and spent a year and a half art directing science fiction television series such as "Galactica 1980", "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century", "The Incredible Hulk" and "Captain America".

After designing Taylor Hackford's feature directorial debut, "The Idolmaker" he returned to science fiction as the art director on Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic "Blade Runner". David received an Academy Award nomination he shared with Lawrence G. Paull, the film's production designer. It was also awarded the British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Best Production Design/Art Direction.

Since that time he has designed more than forty feature films including "Untitled", "The Whole Nine Yards", "The One", "Soldier", "Demolition Man", "Super Mario Bros.", "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" and Tim Burton's cult classic feature film directorial debut, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure". In 1996 he designed "Rainbow" the motion picture Industry's first live-action digital to 35mm theatrical feature film starring & directed by Bob Hoskins."

And that only barely touches upon his career. I think I would like to write a book about this guy.......

"Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, David. However before I ask you about your role as Production designer on Aether, I hoped it would be ok to talk about one or two other notable strings to your bow….."

Q) Blimey, your resume isn’t too shabby is it? You worked as Art Director on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica  - For those who don’t know what Art Director is on a movie, can you explain the role in general and how it fitted in specifically for those shows?

Erin Gray, one of the loves of my life...
A) I was on-staff Art Department at MCA Universal 1978-1980. There were 35 shows happening including "1941", "The Blues Brothers" etc. and many TV series e.g. "Buck" and "Galactica". I worked as an all-around 'doctor' on about a dozen TV's. I was assigned to this job by the Art H.O.D. due to my charm and flexibility. (LOL) Don't know why, but I was delighted being out of the grind of one Sci-Fi show every 7-10 days. So, I would jump in and help out the assigned staff art directors who were overwhelmed with impossible deadlines and airdates. 

My experience on "Galactica" was minimal until "Galactica 1980". The word went around that "Galactica" had been cancelled and with the insatiable need for stage space, some of the "BG" sets were 'struck' and thrown into the landfill on the backlot. Then Glen Larson announced that the network had changed it's decision to cancel and "BG" was picked up for another season. What to do? Using existing footage and the remaining sets, Glen came up w/ the brilliant scheme to keep the show on the air by having the cast travel via 'time machine' to 1980 Los Angeles as if on a mission. Ha! It worked. (This will be denied by the studio). re: "Buck Rogers" the brilliant Paul Peters was the supervising art director and a good friend. I was assigned to help out the two art departments (yes two, as there was a revolt by the staff and the studio relented and doubled the overworked team who alternated episodes.) 

"Now then Lou, that's your one and only Hulkout for the day........"
I was given an entire episode (uncredited) about Interplanetary Olympic games. ("Olympiad"- Feb 7, 1980) The studio did not want to spend the money to fill the stadium (on a sound stage) w/ extras, so they had the athletic events in the stage 'as' arena. I installed a series of large stadium speakers and prop video cameras, so the idea was (laughingly) that the audience would view the games at home, or in the pubs and their interactive audio from their homes, pubs, etc. could be heard by the athletes to cheer them on. I have never seen the episode, so I can only confirm what we filmed. As absurd as I thought the idea was, it was brilliant economically. 

My final note on MCA TV is when I was assigned to "The Incredible Hulk" they were well into the series which was a certified 'hit'. When a show was a hit at Universal, the first step is to cut back on all spending. The studio's position was "Fuck it! They'll watch it no matter what the budgets are". So, what did they do? They told us that there was going to be only one 'hulk-out' per show, not two as in all previous episodes. Costs for make-up, floor effects & break-aways, costumes and optical VFX transitions between Bill and Lou would be cut in half. The front office was delighted.

To answer Part 2 of your question, an Art Director is in charge of the 'look' of a film or show. He coordinates with the Set Decorator, the Props-Persons, Costume Designer, Make-Up & Hair and Special Floor (Mechanical) Effects & Visual Effects, in collaboration with the Director of Photography, all under supervision of the Producer(s) and Director(s). In contemporary terms the job title is most likely Production Designer. You are the Architectural Designer of the film.

Q) What did you think of the re-vamped Battlestar series? 

Only saw glimpses of it looking for Eddie Olmos and the 'then' actress / girlfriend of one of my director friends. (A very pert Canadian blond).

Still stunning.....
Q) And then there’s Blade Runner – wow. What are your memories of working on that film? 

More than any film I've worked on, totalling forty +. It was my third feature and I was hired by my mentor, Lawrence G. (Larry) Paull ("Back To The Future") who, at MCA Universal, promoted me from Television to Features. If you view "Dangerous Days - The Making Of Blade Runner" (3 Hrs. -33Min.) on Disc 2 of the DVD / Blu-ray Box Set, you'll get the full story. 

Here's a wee bit My biggest memory was receiving an Academy Award© nomination for Best Art Direction. Can't believe we lost to "Gandhi", but the Production Design took the BAFTA. 

Q) Why do you think it took a hammering on its release from fans and critics alike yet has now become perhaps the seminal Science Fiction film of all time.

Zhora's termination
It was released here in the States at the time of President Ronny Raygun's P.R. infused economic boom. Blade Runner was very political and Americans were horrified of a dystopian future that unfortunately for most has nearly come to pass. I won't go into my political views, but from what I read from my U.K. mates, it's as bad there and the rest of the planet. Time to go Off-World. On top of that we released at the same time as feel good "E.T." and that's what America hungered for. The Shaw Bros. did much better with the film in Asia, the only territory where it was a hit. In addition to all the above, it was just way ahead of it's time in every aspect. It frightened most. I was so stunned, when I first saw the film at The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, that I couldn't believe that I had anything to do with it. For the record and in the opinion of all who were there at the beginning, the 2007 "Final Cut" is the only "Blade Runner". 

All other versions were impaired by the lack of technology that we had envisioned since pre-production in 1980. Once we had the proper digital 'tools' we could finally achieve our vision. The public opinion reversal came about at a screening of an obscure 1981 preview print in 1992 at The NuArt Theater in Santa Monica CA. The studio (WB) realised that there just might be a chance to recover their investment. It wasn't as if they were interested in art for art's sake in spite of the fact that WB had been honoured w/ 5 AA nominations and we won a few BAFTA's. 

 Q) So how and what attracted you to the chance to work on Aether? 

The script was sent to me by my "Crave " producer Scott Robinson. I was keen to work on a steampunk oriented science fiction film due to the genre's focus on design. Needless to say, I liked the story / script very much. When I arrived in Mobile, Alabama and met Drew Hall, I knew I had made a good decision. He is an enthusiastic, talented guy who is without any perceptible ego. He would drop into the Art Department at least once a day, whenever a brainstorm would hit him, and share his ideas with the staff, and take our comments and ideas in a true form of  collaboration. He had a terrific team of art director-set decorator and props-people assembled for me upon my arrival and they did a great job considering we had never worked together prior to "Aether". 

Also of note is Drew had brought 3-time Academy Award© winning director of photography Alex Funke and visual effects guru Horst Sarubin on board. I brought along longtime model-maker Kim Bailey to assist me. It all fit nicely together. Each member of the team had a specific set of skills that magically crossed over by virtue of these artists having knowledge of each others skills even if they did not personally possess them.

Q) What challenges have you faced on Aether so far?

I approached the project with the notion that it was going to be difficult to find enough talent in Mobile with so many productions headed that way from L.A. I am eager to say I was wrong. I found a crew who not only did not resent an outsider coming on board, I was welcomed by young filmmakers who were eager to work with me, learn from me and even have a pint and a meal with me now and then. I was treated with respect and it was mutual. There were some tolerable problems with the weather, cold & windy, and the usual budget considerations but that was about it. I couldn't wait to get to the office / set each and every day. Aesthetically, the show was loaded with so much talent and enthusiasm that the only challenge was to decide which props, settings, costumes, decor etc. we would select out of so many choices made available to the production. There were some tough decisions to be made on what to eliminate. This was not a problem. It was a bonus.

Q) Just how much has the advance in technology changed how you approach a film project?

As we approach 2019 A.D. I have seen technological advances beginning with Alfred Whitlock's glass matte paintings on Marty Feldman's "In God We Tru$t", John Dykstra and Doug Trumbull's in-camera effects on "Starflight One" and "Blade Runner" & Brainstorm"(70mm), respectively, to motion pictures shot with digital cameras and cellphones. My work is basically the same except it's all in the digital domain. Design is design no matter the input and result. The difference is it's lightning quicker to express your ideas in hours and minutes instead of graphite (pencil) on vellum drawing paper set designs that would take days or weeks. The ability to share your ideas from Hollywood to China in seconds, as I have been recently doing would have been impossible to imagine 20 years ago. It boggles the mind. CAD, Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop, 3D SketchUp and other software that I may not even be aware of. It's all good. The future is now.   

Q) So what are the future plans for David L. Snyder? 

Back together again with Douglas Trumbull ..........

David L. SNYDER (left) with Douglas Trumbull

You can find out more about David's work by looking over his website at

I would like to say a huge thanks to both Drew and David for giving me such a huge slice of their precious time. I don't expect that this will be the end of my eulogising about Aether as I'm hoping to do a couple of follow up interviews with some of the aforementioned creative individuals very soon.

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