Salute Your Shorts is
a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any
other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
After several years working as a 3D animator, Neill Blomkamp has gone from music video/commercial director to feature director remarkably fast, his rise greatly accelerated by mentor Peter Jackson. Still, it’s pretty damn impressive that he was given $30 million in funding for the independent and personal District 9. This makes more sense, though, considering that his oeuvre of short films, music videos and commercials is composed almost entirely of a very individual view of science fiction, one that’s compelling enough to warrant his big picture debut.
District 9 is about this as well, in its exploration of race
relations through extraterrestrials, but the movie is in fact an
expansion of a short Blomkamp directed in 2005, "Alive in Joburg." The
short shows what happens months after aliens arrive, when they’ve gone
from a curiosity to a pest. Aliens are focused on as criminals and are
being racially profiled as just another minority. Extremely well-done,
it only tells a portion of the story. Anyone planning to check out District 9
should give it a look. The short feels not quite finished, but shows
the promise of a truly original science fiction writer/director just
catching his stride.
It can be pretty difficult to figure out who’s directed
music videos and especially commercials, but as far as I’m aware his
professional directorial debut was with Sun Like Star’s "Day Survive,"
which unfortunately is unavailable today. What it’s about is anyone’s
guess. His next video, though, sets down what could later be expected
from Blomkamp. "Perfect, "by Fluffy Star, is set in a recording
studio/projection booth—exactly what is unclear—which despite its
arty lighting doesn’t feature anything too out of the ordinary. In it,
though, is a woman who is possibly (though who can really say) an
android. At the very least she looks sci-fi-ish, to use a dumb word,
and the video sets down Blomkamp’s take on science fiction. One element
of the video takes place beyond our current technology, but the rest of
it is still cast in a world we can easily recognize, even though its
lighting gives the video a more Hollywood feel than the more
naturalistic style he later moved on to.
Blomkamp’s next video was also definitively sci-fi, though frankly much stupider than his later works. Sonica’s "Unexpected" looks a bit like Michael Bay circa-Armageddon,
with a constantly, and pointlessly, moving camera and non-stop cuts.
The Earth is superimposed in the background for whatever reason,
placing the video in space somewhere, but the main science-fiction
element is in fact its odd, moveable mechanical arms. The arms look
just like ones from a car assembly line, though they shoot some not
particularly great looking lasers. The sad thing about Blomkamp’s music
videos is that as a whole they're very clichéd and you can tell he clearly works for
hire. Even the director’s craft seems not quite there, though he still
mostly sticks with science-fiction. "I Miss My Sweet Embrace"
for Jet Panic again has a person singing in front of aggressively
edited video, with nothing noteworthy going on. His lowest point as a
director came from a pair of videos he did for LiveonRelease, "Let’s Go" and "Emotional Griptape,"
which are both depressingly literal and disappointingly mediocre. They
look exactly like every other video from the 2001-2004 era, and worst
of all, their music, for lack of a better term, really, really sucks.
The highlight of Blomkamp’s music videos were"Let’s Dance"
for Edwin and the Pressure, which features the singer casually ignoring
a black hole, and "Tango Shoes"
for Bif Naked. "Tango Shoes" is, again, a bit overly literal and doesn’t
say anything in particular; it’s another video made as a product.
However, it’s shot more interestingly, with extreme angles and a singer
speaking directly to the camera. It’s a sad fact of Blomkamp's video career
that the highest thing to recommend it is that it’s not bad so much as
average. Suffice it to say, music videos are not Blomkamp’s strength, which is probably why he seems to have transitioned out of the
Blomkamp has likely directed many more ads, but the few he’s
actually put a credit to are head and shoulders above his videos. His
Nike shoe video has just the level of creativity that was missing in
the music videos, with a simple design perfectly executed by giving a
shoe almost-alien evolutions to show off the company’s different
styles. Blomkamp’s CGI is typically impressive, but the signature part
of the commercial isn’t the CGI but the placement of the shoe under a
bridge. Blomkamp connects the strangeness of the events with reality
here, featuring subtle non-diegetic sound to help situate things. It’s
important because of how it differentiates the scene from more typical
commercials, which are frequently shot in an all-white soundstage, and
the touch gives the video an odd note of poignancy.
His perhaps more famous Nike video does the same, where
spider-like robots wearing Nike shoes play a makeshift game of soccer.
Everything except the robots is rendered consciously naturalistic,
setting the game inside a dirty trash-filled lot where debris makes up
both the robots' goals and their obstacles. Less noticeable here is the
way Blomkamp is choosing his shots. The robots are purposefully framed
off-center and the objects frequently come between the camera and the
robots. Its best moments are when the camera unevenly zooms in on the
robots, jittering as it moves rather than smoothly on a track. It’s
short-hand cinema verite that also begins to feature Blomkamp’s
political and social views, where science-fiction wonders exist in a
world ruined by mankind. Its landscape is deserted except for the
robots, the only other sign of life being the waste that’s been left for
them. Blomkamp’s Citroen C4 commercial has mostly the same traits,
though its background is rendered rather unrealistically, especially
compared with its car. It’s not a well-made a video, but on the other
hand, it features a dancing robot-car. Overall, it's kind of a wash.
Blomkamp’s best commercial is in fact not a commercial at
all but a short film disguised as a commercial for a non-existent
company. "Tetra Vaal" is a different take on Robocop, where
an android is being used as a police officer. Its world, though, is
light years away from Paul Verhoeven’s glossy corporate landscape,
instead taking place in the impoverished world of Blomkamp’s birthplace,
South Africa. The robot, presumably Tetra Vaal, is shown patrolling the
developing nation, shooting up shanty towns and running across the
landscape of a ruined city. The short is entirely verite, with the
exception of one stylized shot of bullets, and as well as feeling
frighteningly real, it's also a great deal darker than its predecessor.
Ending with the words "What If..." superimposed on the screen, it’s
science-fiction gone wrong, but in a readily identifiable setting that’s
frequently ignored by the genre. The twist is that it’s the world, and
not the robot, that is in fact the problem with the situation.
Another rather similar almost-commercial he made was "Yellow"
for Adidas. Part of a series where directors’ were given free reign to
do a short about a color, Blomkamp again went with artificial
intelligence, and rather than doing a take on Robocop, it has obvious similarities with Blade Runner. Its twist on Blade Runner
is focusing on the robot’s "birth." The short contrasts his typical
verite in the real world with more classically composed scenes of the
robot’s construction, and as such, it ends up Blomkamp’s most polished
work to date. Its gunfight falls a bit flat, but with that exception it
feels similar to something David Fincher or the Wachowskis would do with its sense of detail.
In 2007, Blomkamp became famous, at least within certain video game circles, for a trilogy of shorts he directed set within the Halo universe.He was tapped to direct a Halo
feature film because of his work on these, which were clearly shot with
an extremely small budget. The trilogy, edited together here, is mostly
just one long battle sequence. Unsurprisingly, they combine realistic
filmmaking with a fantastic world. What’s impressive is how much
reality Blomkamp forces into the over-the-top franchise. Although at
times it looks a bit like one of Roger Corman’s low-budget exploitation
films (and likely its production had a lot in common with them), it
still takes time with details in its visuals, making sure all of its
actors and vehicles are covered with dirt and every wall littered with
stains and bullet holes. The sound editing in particular is pretty
awful, but lengthy sequences look just as fans would hope a live-action
version of Halo would look. It’s not perfect given the
obvious budgetary constraints, but does a good enough job capturing the
tone and feel of the games that this is easily overlooked.
The most fully realized story Blomkamp has worked on prior to District 9 is "Tempbot."
By far his longest film to date, it’s the one time Blomkamp has
developed characters, focusing on a robot temp worker and his crush on
a friendly HR woman. The story between the two is relatively by the
numbers and has a look and feel not too different from The Office, the film takes Blomkamp’s view of science fiction the farthest of
any of his works. The defining trait of Blomkamp’s sci-fi,
whether using aliens or robots or whatever, is the sense that it is
ordinary and just part of the world. It’s magical realism but with
sci-fi, where the strange elements are taken for granted, and with this
become more than just allegories. Blomkamp uses Tempbot to explore the
treatment of office temps, not robots, and its observations tell us
about our treatment of other humans. The science-fiction elements are a
maguffin for using this tool to examine the very ordinary.