‘The Leap’ dir. Karel Van Bellingen

In 2069, New Earth is declared open for civilian migration, a decade after its discovery. As tales of wonder and opportunity reach the Old World, taking ‘the leap’ becomes the dream of millions. Unable to afford the journey, many of the less fortunate risk their lives being smuggled aboard cargo ships. The inter-planetary Migration Administration, or IPMA, deals with human trafficking on a biblical scale.

Writer-Director-Editor: Karel Van Bellingen
Producer: Craig Tuohy
Cinematographer: Tony C. Miller
Visual Effects Supervisor: Bryan Jones
Key Cast: Simon Merrells, Alix Wilton Regan

C8: How did you conceive the idea for ‘The Leap’ and how long did the script take you to write?

KVB: The script took about three months to write, on and off, and we then kept developing it throughout pre-production. The idea was a combination of small moments, which I kept storing in my head, and some larger scale interests that suddenly started clicking into each other. I remember the first thing that came to me was the opening scene, and the atmosphere of dread amongst illegal migrants at the moment when it’s all or nothing. The theme of sacrifice, and a relationship developing between people on opposing sides of a big societal divide combined well with that initial idea. I remember it was a challenge to cram in all that information about the world, while still keeping the story moving. Also, there were more characters in earlier drafts but we cut those down and chose to really just focus on the two main characters as much as possible.

C8: Did you spend a lot of time plotting the backstory to this fictional world or did you solely hone in on Jacob’s narrative?

KVB: I did develop a bit of a future history in my head, and thought up a potential past for Jacob and Erin, but as the scope of a short film is so limited, you have to get to the point quite quickly and there isn’t much room to develop that.

C8: The special effects in ‘The Leap’ are stunning. What obstacles did you encounter while constructing these and how did you overcome them?

KVB: Thank you. I think the main obstacle was the sheer quantity of the work in front of us. I had initial meetings with individual artists trying to divide the work, such as the digital matte paintings and the spaceship CGI, but it gradually became clear that in order to get through the 200 VFX shots the film needed, we’d need a proper integrated team, headed up by a supervisor. We were very lucky to cross paths with an experienced VFX artist, Bryan Jones, who was just about to make the transition toward being an independent VFX supervisor. He took the project on and together we worked out a deal with Troll VFX, based in Finland and known for Iron Sky. For over eight months, we all worked closely together over Skype. Stuff like muzzle flashes, bullet hits and some clean-up I did myself in After Effects.

C8: Do you feel that emerging filmmakers need to have a strong understanding of special effects as they embark on a career in the industry?

KVB: It probably depends on what kind of films someone wants to make. If you want to focus purely on performance-based ‘people-in-a-room’ dramas, then you don’t really need any of that knowledge. That said, I guess out of principle I’d say that VFX are a tool in the bag like any other, such as lighting, sound design, music, and that one should have at least a basic understanding of the common techniques and approaches. Of course you could give plenty of examples of terrific directors who have never concerned themselves very much with VFX so the final answer would have to be no, not really.

C8: How did you work with cinematographer Tony C. Miller to create the visual aesthetic of the film?

KVB: Tony was probably my very first collaborator on the film, the first person who read the script and who came on board. We’d worked together on a commercial before and had a smooth working relationship from the get-go. We sat together a lot and looked at references talking about the how and why of things while I was still at script stage. I always knew the film would be a bit of a combination between Tony’s slightly aestheticizing, stylised approach, and my own sensibilities, which are a bit grittier. As such, the film switches shooting style a few times when we felt it was appropriate for the content, for example during the sex scene or after the shootout. Tony was definitely able to get maximum value out of the sets we built, and his lighting set the mood throughout, especially in the scene where they talk on the bed.

C8: You also edited the film. Were there any scenes that you found difficult to cut or anything you didn’t include?

KVB: I think 90 – 95% of the story that was shot is in the film. We shaved some bits off here and there but it’s largely cut to script. There were a few scenes I spent a lot of time on trying different things to get the absolute most out of the footage as I felt a bit limited by it. The best example is the action scene, which we’d had to shoot in only one day due to time constraints. The effects are all practical so just rigging and resetting everything on set simply takes too long on a short film. This meant I only really had a few master shots and some inserts to work with. Luckily I had two camera bodies that day so that gave me a little more to work with. I must have cut that scene 80 different ways before I finally settled on a final version. In the end I think we just about got away with it, but I wouldn’t mind an extra day next time!

C8: If you could go back and change anything about the film, what would it be?

KVB: I prefer not to think about that. I know that I did what I could with the means and time available to me, always striving for the best result, and that is what matters. In hindsight, one could change lots of things but it often comes down to what you could have done with more time or money, and it’s not constructive to think like that. Learn your lessons and take them onto the next project.

C8: You cut your teeth as an editor. How has this influenced your filmmaking?

KVB: I do find it quite useful to think like an editor when I’m directing on set. I largely know in advance how things will cut together and it’s easy that way to make sure that you really have all you need before you wrap the day. On the other hand, I try and go against that reflex in myself sometimes as it can be creatively stifling to pre-edit something too much in your head, thereby overlooking interesting new options or approaches on set.

C8: How did you initially become interested in film and how did you decide that you wanted to forge a career in the industry?

KVB: Ever since I was ten years old I knew this was what I should probably be doing with my life. Before that I wanted to be a scientist or inventor, until I figured out you have to be good at maths to get any further than building wooden rocket ships in the basement. I’d always loved watching films but, when I then discovered the process, and got fascinated with the set building, prop making and special effects, I think it became some kind of a surrogate for my inventor-bug. The interest in the storytelling aspect came much later, in high school and university, where I did a lot of thinking on videogame and film narrative and how they work. It was always the plan that I would move to the UK to study film after finishing university in Belgium so that’s what I did in 2009 and I haven’t looked back since.

C8: What, in your opinion, makes for a good collaboration?

KVB: It’s a bit like any meaningful relationship in life I guess, where you have to be 50% similar, so you get along and don’t want to kill each other too often, and 50% different so you can keep reinvigorating each other with new perspectives and ideas. There’s no doubt that creative friction can lead to better work, but it needs to be embedded in a framework of genuine affection and respect. The second cliché that applies is that the sum of the work you do together should be greater than its parts. Not often, but sometimes, you have an experience where you just know you could not have achieved or even envisioned the end result, and neither could the other person, but you pushed each other there somehow. That’s very gratifying and it happened several times on ‘The Leap’ in different ways.

C8: What’s next for Karel Van Bellingen?

KVB: I’m looking forward to making more commercials with Great Guns. Also, since finishing ‘The Leap’, I have signed with agents here and in the U.S, with whom I’ll be working on feature film projects.