Josh Tanner On Creating His Ambitious Space-Set Sci-Fi Horror Short Film ‘Decommissioned’

Many filmmakers aspire to create a film set in Space, but actualising that dream is another problem. Filmmaker Josh Tanner (of Perception Pictures) took his shot with Decommissioned, a sci-fi horror about a spacesuit satellite that may, or may not… be possessed. It’s an incredibly ambitious film which saw Tanner make use of complicated wirework, projection technology and Epic Games’ impressive Unreal Engine. The result of which is a tense and atmospheric short which will creep you out… and in under seven minutes! We spoke with Tanner as Decommissioned arrives online to learn about how he and his team manifested their impressive vision.

What inspired you to make a sci-fi horror?

Sci-Fi and Horror have been my two favourite film genres for most of my life. One cannot avoid Ridley Scott’s Alien as the first truly great example of Space Horror but I also have a soft spot for Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. I guess based on these influences it was inevitable.  

How did that lead into coming up with the narrative for Decommissioned?

My Co-Writer Jade van der Lei and I have a love for modern history and space travel, often finding ourselves falling into Wikipedia black holes. One of these black holes led us to discovering the Suitsat Experiment which took place in 2006. As the short film explains, the inhabitants of the International Space Station turned a decommissioned Space Suit into a satellite and put it into orbit. All seems pretty benign on paper, but the visual looked like a dead astronaut purged into orbit around the earth and doomed to burn up. Insanely creepy stuff. It caught our imagination and led to this story where we asked what if… it came back.

What did you want your vision of space to look like? 

Verisimilitude is always important to achieving an unnerving atmosphere in horror, terrestrial or not. Therefore making the ISS set look as close to the real thing as possible and having our actor exhibit the characteristics of being in zero gravity as authentically as we could were paramount to pulling that off. I never wanted us to make anything look too stylised in the rendering of space in the film. For example, you don’t see stars. This is because the sun is out and a camera shooting in the harsh sunlight of Space would iris down to expose, thus darkening the stars from the sky entirely. It’s things like that we felt would help create that reality for an audience.

How did you pull off creating a film set in space? Was the planning pretty extensive?

I sketched and edited storyboard animatics for the whole short to pre-plan every single shot. I kept in mind always balancing the spectacle of being in space with the intimacy that Horror films thrive in while also making sure we weren’t piling too much work onto Cutting Edge, our post production facility, who did an enormous amount of work. So, the storyboarding was an iterative process before we even filmed anything and helped us to schedule a day, of our two day shoot, of wirework with our Actor Joey Vieria to emulate the zero gravity environment.

Then there was the ‘Unreal’ element to making the film. Receiving funding to make this film through an initiative through Epic Games and Screen Queensland was predicated on us using the incredible game engine, the Unreal Engine, which was also used for the filming of the Star Wars series The Mandalorian. Because of this workflow, we needed the Earth asset on set to project on set, so there was quite a bit of preparation there.

And how was production as a whole? What did you learn from making such a visually ambitious film?

It was exciting and a total learning experience for us. We had planned to shoot green screens initially but were fortunate to get a hold of a bright 4K projector and had our Gaffer Glenn Jones set up a rear projection screen. Pretty quickly on day one my Cinematographers Jason Hargreaves and I realised we could shoot everything in-camera and use the lighting and reflections to heighten the experience in a very old-school and low tech way. Initially, because we didn’t have access to the big LED walls that Star Wars used, we believed we had to use green screen, but thankfully we experimented and got the result you see on screen. I guess the big lesson was that you don’t need the most top level hardware to get a really great result. 

So much of the tension at play is embedded in the sound design, how did you tackle that? What conversations were you having when developing it?

From the beginning we had known that the real Suitsat had Ham Radio Equipment which transmitted voices from all around the world, including the voices of school children, which could be received down on Earth. From this, we knew there was a lot of possibility to recreate these transmissions and distort them in terrifying ways when the film heads into a dark direction. Sound Designer and Mixer Thom Kellar from Folklore Sound did a tremendous job not only handling the myriad of disturbing radio elements but also building a really amazing atmosphere within the ISS interior. A special mention also to the amazing understated but disturbing score from composers Ack Kinmonth and Stevan Markovic. 

And finally, what can we expect from you in the near future?

I am thankful to be developing a good amount of genre projects with at least two of them quite close to production. Hopefully one of them will get on their feet this year as I am itching to take a stab at my first feature. Oh, and a feature adaptation of Decommissioned is definitely on the cards!

Decommissioned was programmed by the Twelve Cabins team after being sent through our submissions route on FilmFreeway. If you’d like to see your film on our pages, submit here.

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