‘The Last Human’ dir. Tom Walsh

A short film about the last human being left alive and their mission to implant DNA on a strange world in an attempt to seed new life in the universe.

Writer-Director: Tom Walsh
Production Designer: Amy Nicholson
Visual Effects: Tom Walsh & Nic Pylypiuk
Music: Swimming & Alex Herington
Key Cast: Hester Ruoff

C8: Where did the idea for ‘The Last Human’ come from?

TW: The fate of mankind has always been something that has interested me. At some point in the future there will be one person left and I’ve always wondered who that will be and what that person will do as the final act of humanity. This simple story came to me as I was falling asleep one night, as the best one’s often do. I got out of bed and wrote it all down. The premise was simple yet seemed to me to express the nature of humanity and our existence in the universe at the same time.

C8: You decided to work without a cinematographer. Who took the role on? Was it a collaborative effort or did you do it yourself?

TW: The budget on the production was so low that we simply couldn’t afford a cinematographer. I would’ve liked to have used one and spent the time to go to the location and carefully plan the set ups and shots but there just wasn’t the time or money. So I took on the role myself. Since I’d written the story I had a very good idea of what the shots would be and so I shot listed and storyboarded the film beforehand and shot it as best I could when we got to the location.

C8: What were the biggest challenges during production?

TW: Finding the location was tricky. I had some negotiations with the National Trust about using Kinder Low in the Peak District but they were too expensive for us! Eventually I found Monknash Beach in South Wales whilst searching online and knew straight away that it was right.

Another challenge was the design and filming of the time machine. I wanted to try and capture a 1950s sci-fi feel and so I took inspiration from the Russian ‘Vostok 1’ capsule. I prefer to use in camera techniques wherever possible and so decided early on to build an actual sphere to use on location. We had a 4ft metal framework built and then added the coating and graphics/paintwork on top of that. The sphere then had to be carried down onto the beach via a dirt track.

Finally, the weather. On the morning of the shoot it rained until 11am. That meant we didn’t start shooting until midday and because it was February it got dark at 6pm. So we had to shoot the whole film in six hours. By the time we got up the hill and back to the car park, it was dark.

C8: ‘The Last Human’ is a standalone short film that is also part of a larger story. Can you tell us a bit about the feature project?

TW: ‘The Last Human’ only tells part of the story of the fate of humanity. The scope of the potential narrative quickly became so huge that I decided to start writing the backstory and present it in the form of a website (www.hera.im) of a fictitious company called HERA (The Human Evolution Recovery Administration). Alongside that I am in the early stages on script development for a feature film based around the concept.

C8: Did you find it difficult trying to serve two narratives?

TW: When I wrote the initial story I hadn’t thought of the larger picture. I was just concentrating on the struggle and emotions of the character in the moment. It wasn’t until afterwards that I started to think about how the character got there. It was at that stage and during pre production that we started to explore the larger narrative and how that might manifest itself in the short film through the design and the character’s actions. For example the graphic ‘HERA’ is seen on the sphere, the case and in the holographic projections. That is all part of the larger story but it was actually more fun, rather than difficult, to incorporate it into the film.

C8: If you did the whole process again is there anything you would change?

TW: I now work regularly with a much larger team of people on low budget projects who do it for the love of film making (thanks largely to the success of ‘The Last Human’). So the restrictions on things like cinematography, camera etc would be less. With that in mind I would use a DoP and shoot on something like the RED Epic or Scarlet. I’d also schedule to shoot for at least 2-3 days so that we could really take our time to ensure we get the best out of the shoot. I’d also use a different, more cinematic aspect ratio, something like 2.35:1. I would also work for longer on the vfx. We were on a tight deadline and so some elements got a bit rushed.

C8: You wrote, directed and produced the film. Did you find it hard keeping these roles separate or did the lines blur somewhat?

TW: The writing came long before the producing/directing so that was fairly separate. However, producing and directing blurs and very often hinders the other. I’d much prefer to have been able to simply direct the project and work closely with a DoP and the actor but due to budget restraints I had to produce as well which meant that I was also sorting things like transport, accommodation, budgeting etc. So it was pretty much impossible to keep everything separate because both tasks are so huge.

With that in mind, any good producers out there please get in touch!

C8: Short filmmakers often shy away from sci-fi as a genre because they presume it needs a big budget. What advice would you give to those looking to make a sci-fi film?

TW: I think our production was fairly ambitious for the budget but I’m lucky to have a great collaborative relationship with a production designer and graphics artist. That makes it less intimidating to get the ball rolling on something like this. But sci-fi doesn’t need to vfx laden. Just work within your means, be sensible and use what you can get your hands on. For us it was about finding the right location and getting creative with props and costume. That’s where we concentrated our energy. Also, sci-fi is such a broad genre, you can cover anything from space travel to genetics and cloning. So there are ways to explore the genre without extensive vfx. Start small and work up.

C8: What tips would you give to emerging filmmakers about using visual effects?

TW: The one thing most people assume is that it’s all done in post. It’s not. Half is done in post, half is done in camera. You might have to use lighting on set to replicate the glow from a light source you’re adding in post, you may get your actors to react to something imaginary like an explosion. That’s all done on set.

In post, the key is to think about what real life elements make up the effect and then think about what tools will allow you to sell the illusion. For example, if you want to create a blast wave, think about what makes a blast wave – the initial flash, the dust etc.

Most importantly, practice. Do loads of test shots. Try different things out, experiment with your ideas. There are some great tutorial sites online which will give you’re a good starting point.

Finally, the best vfx are the ones you don’t notice.

C8: Are there any filmmakers that have inspired your work?

TW: David Fincher is the first director that springs to mind. The darkness in his work really speaks to me. When I saw ‘Se7en’ at the cinema it elicited such an intense emotional response in me that I was immediately inspired and I’ve followed his work ever since.

I also really admire Guillermo del Toro. ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is a tour de force of visual story telling as far as I’m concerned. Ridley Scott is pretty high on the list as well -  ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ are big sci-fi inspirations.

C8: What’s the essence of a good collaboration?

TW: Most importantly it’s about respect for each other’s work. You have to believe that your collaborators are going to do the job to the best of their ability and that it’s going to look good. You have to be open and able to offer and take constructive criticism without taking offence. It also helps if you get along and have similar tastes in film.

C8: What’s next for Tom Walsh?

TW: I’ve just finished producing a new short film called ‘Lancaster’ which is going into festivals now. I’ve just directed a couple of music videos, one of which is in post, the other has been featured on Gizmodo, CBS News, Promo News and Video Static. Both are puppetry based.

I’m now starting pre production on my next short film project as well as working with a fellow producer/director on a number of shorts and feature development projects.