Salute Your Shorts: District 9 Director Neill Blomkamp's Science-Fiction Reality
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.
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 genre.
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.