Chris Reading | SOMNUS

PrintE-mail Written by Michael Coldwell

Short films are the lifeblood of new talent into the film industry but making the jump to features is no easy task. UK Director Chris Reading has done just that with Somnus, a space thriller that pays homage to a number of genre mainstays including 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien while spinning a gripping tale of its own. We caught up with him to get the low-down on Somnus and find out about the trials and tribulations of getting an ultra low-budget, 1970s-style space thriller made in 2016…

STARBURST: Somnus is your first feature, how would you sum up the experience?

Chris Reading: Interesting and it was so much fun. It was great because we were doing things in the way of movies which we all love from the 1970s and 80s.

You’ve come from the world of short films, a medium STARBURST really supports. How difficult was it making the jump to a full feature?

It was difficult because talking a cast into doing a feature is a lot more difficult that asking them to do a short! The commitment you need from them is a lot more, the same goes for the crew.

What size crew did you have?

It was pretty small, a couple of people in each department, ten at the most, and we brought people in when we had specific roles that needed filling. We couldn’t afford to have people standing around.

Somnus is a sci-fi movie with a very cool, retro style. What were your sci-fi influences?

Alien – as soon as I was able to watch it that is; obviously Star Wars but also things like Silent Running and those sort of films which weren’t was popular. Everyone talks about Star Wars, it’s a vast part of the language of filmmaking now, but I also like the original Star Trek films - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a real favourite, the techniques they used there we tried to emulate here.

Some specific shots in Somnus seem to evoke other films, such as the rear-view shot of the two crew looking out of the cockpit window which is very reminiscent of the Orion shuttle sequence from 2001.

Yes, that shot was definitely there when we were storyboarding and thinking about how things were going to look, it was central to what we wanted.

So how much of what you originally storyboarded ended up in the finished movie?

Quite a lot. We went to find the locations first and storyboarded off the back of the ones we chose. We wanted to get everything we could on camera.

Your locations are quite unique…

The opening was shot at the Severn Valley Railway in the West Midlands and the spaceship interiors were shot at a place called the East Midlands Aero Park where some guys have collected some post-war aircraft. They’re real enthusiasts, they’ve got things like Vulcan bombers, Nimrods and various Cold War equipment. It was just perfect for what we needed; it meant that all we had to do was dress those interiors and they just looked great, we didn’t have to blow our budget building lots of sets from scratch.

Did the fact of shooting in such a confined space make for some tense moments with your cast?

The bomber compartment we were in was built for one person and we had three guys behind the camera and three guys in front of it, in this one little space. It was really cramped and we had a lot of hours working in that environment. But the team were amazing, we never had bad moments. As soon as we found those old aircraft it just clicked in my brain: we have to make this film, this is going to make it happen because we can save so much money on building sets and still have a really distinctive ‘look’.

You also include elements such as specially created in-camera computer graphics on monitor screen around the sets. What are the technical issues in getting these elements to work effectively?

Some of the screen graphics were done in ‘post’ but most are in-camera. We did a lot of face projections, so the graphics did interact with the actor’s face and hands. It adds to the whole look of the shots as well; they’re dark sets and they’re just lit by the reflections coming from the screen. We did some computer post-production, just as a very last pass to make sure things were perfect.


Somnus features a paranoid female computer called Meryl, another nod to 2001. Are you comfortable with technology?

I’m really comfortable with technology and not against the use of CGI in films. In the 1980s, one of the main themes in movies was fear of computers, no one really understood them. I think the last of that trend was Jurassic Park, where people still really didn’t understand the technology and that’s what caused the problem. I think The Matrix was the first time that people had the internet and had a full understanding of computers which meant changing how they were used as a threat.

It’s great to see practical model work being used for your spacecraft rather than CGI. Was this always the plan?

Yeah, when we started in this I didn’t know too much about CGI and so I didn’t want to hand too much over to a production house. Even if they were really helpful and worked with me on everything, it’s kind of a dark art that I wouldn’t understand and I would have ended up leaving a lot of decisions to them. So we did our research and we figured out how they used to do it with miniatures. I knew I’d have so much more control, it’s a no brainer really.

Given that the balance of FX expertise is now in CGI rather than model work, how hard was it to get geared up to the point where you could shoot full-blown miniatures?

It’s a process of learning about how things were done back in the day. We watched a lot of documentaries and did a lot of reading but we still came across issues. We built a big 6ft model of the main spaceship and just the pure amount of light you have to put onto a thing like that to get it all in focus so it doesn’t look like a miniature, it actually melted the ship! We were on a ticking clock shooting that model.

After Star Wars came out there were films like Star Crash that tried to emulate it but completely lacked the technique required to shoot models realistically. It just shows how wrong things can go…

Yes, a lot of the films that followed were very poor. The photography of miniatures is an absolute art and it’s really difficult to find the expertise nowadays so we had to learn it for ourselves. It’s not that models are not still used in some films, but it’s so specialist now.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year saw something of a renaissance for practical FX over CGI.

I think the key there was they went for practical sets compared to all the green screen work in the previous trilogy. Obviously, the way Star Wars space battles are made now it would be very difficult to do those purely with miniatures. But compared to the previous trilogy, it was really telling in the performances that they were interacting with real sets this time.

There’s a scene in Somnus where the two leads have a bit of argy-bargy over the terms of their space contract. A nod to Alien?

Yes, it was more than a nod (laughs)! We did cut out a section which was a little bit too close to Alien but that scene is still there because I wanted to push the notion that these guys are doing a normal job and really have their own interests at heart. Whatever’s happening in the story, they are still primarily interested in getting paid.

So when it comes to matters of contract Chris, are you a ‘Company Man’ or are you a rebel?

Probably a rebel!

What’s next for you?

My next film I plan to shoot in the Highlands of Scotland. That’ll be a two-year process but we’ll shoot it next year and take it from there.

Finally, with Somnus being your first feature, what has been the biggest obstacle to overcome?

The biggest obstacle is motivation. Given that I was doing a lot of things myself and it was a very small team, it was just about having self-belief and getting out there and doing it. So many people fail to get to this point in the sense that they just give up. Basically it cuts the field in half. So I just thought we need to push this through. From then on, I knew it was on me to get it finished on behalf of everyone involved who’d just worked so hard on it. It was personal for me. I owed all those people to get it out there.

Somnus is now available via VOD.

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