Back in September, I started preproduction on a short film titled, [WELCOME TO] LEVEL 7. The funny brackets around “[WELCOME TO]” are a stylized way of indicating that this film is part of a much larger family of projects that all fall under the LEVEL 7 property — a new sci-fi, horror setting that I’ve been creating for the past couple of years.
I don’t want to spoil all the fun of LEVEL 7 before you have a chance to see the short and the other upcoming expressions of the setting — half of the fun in exploring this setting is the mystery and the experience of slowly peeling back the onion to reveal more and more of the creepy, crazy, messed up world that it is. I will tell you that LEVEL 7 incorporates popular government conspiracy theory and well-known mythology unique to our modern culture (though present in nearly every culture on Earth). There are monsters, both human and inhuman. There are dark and dangerous places. And there are secrets, the answers to which will be revealed through a variety of experiences, including this upcoming short film, as well as the LEVEL 7 [ESCAPE] board game to be released this summer from Privateer Press, and some other fun experimental media projects.
LEVEL 7 began as a feature length screenplay that I wrote about 18 months ago. The script establishes the world and the major conflict taking place within it. It’s the tip of a very big and horrifying iceberg. While writing the script, I also compiled a world bible that detailed the backstory of how everything came to be and who the players are in this deep, far reaching conspiracy that has been going on for over 50 years. While developing the feature script with my producing team, I also initiated the board game project at Privateer. The goal with LEVEL 7 is to explore it through as many different mediums as possible, and that’s where the short film comes in.
[WELCOME TO] LEVEL 7 is not an excerpt of the feature script, but rather, a tangential story with a different cast of characters that gives us a glimpse into the setting without revealing the greater scope of the conflict. I had several reasons for tackling it alongside the other projects we’re doing with LEVEL 7. For one, it acts as proof-of-concept for the feature project. Getting a feature off the ground is no easy feat, and the more ammunition at your disposal that can demonstrate the commercial validity of a project, the better chance you have of getting a green light on it. Second, it’s a fun and unique way to expose people to the new setting we’re launching at Privateer Press. I’m not sure if any other board game in history was preceded by a short film to help announce its release. (If there was, let me know in the comments section because I want to see it.) And last, as I’ve become quite addicted to filmmaking in the past few years, I was ready to jump into a new project and LEVEL 7 is a world I have a great deal of passion to explore.
So with a polished eight page script in hand, I recruited my producing partner, Tarik Heitmann, to help me assemble a fantastic crew and bring [WELCOME TO] LEVEL 7 to life. My great and very talented friend, Farzad Varahramyan leant me his artistic skills, and together we evolved the look of the film’s monsters until they were ready to be realized in the flesh. With designs in hand, I then had the opportunity to spend a month at ADI (Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated), an Academy Award winning animatronics and creature shop known for their work in such films as SPIDERMAN, STARSHIP TROOPERS, and the ALIENS and PREDATORS franchises. There, I supervised the creation of prosthetics and even got my own hands dirty building the actual ‘suits’ that our creatures would wear. As a lifelong fan of special effects and animatronics, you can only imagine how much fun it was to visit the studio several times a week to see these monsters that were born in my head come to life right before my eyes.
As it goes with projects like this, we finished up the creatures and costumes just minutes before we started production in November. Shooting on an amazing digital camera called a RED Epic, we stalked the basements of Los Angeles’s famously haunted Linda Vista Hospital for three days. This hundred year old hospital has been in constant use as a film location since it was shuttered in the early 80’s, and it’s notorious for being inhabited by ghosts. Aside from being locked in an unlit basement by a very live person, we had no harrowing experiences, but I will say that by the end of the shoot, I felt like the walking dead. It was three days of some of the most exhilarating work I’ve ever done. There’s nothing like seeing your words on the page get turned into real dialog and action right there in front of you. But we had a three day shooting limit, so we had to squeeze every minute out of every day. In those three days, we worked almost 60 hours total, but at the end of it, I was ready to come back and do it all over again.
Once production wrapped, it was time to get down to post. The goal with the edit was to give the film a very tense, fast, and frenetic pace. It’s very much an action-thriller that takes you on a high-speed tour de force of the LEVEL 7 environment and we wanted the film to reflect that in every cut.
Meanwhile, Deane Ogden, a man who I have sung the praises of many times in the past, composed the original score. While he’d already created over 20 minutes of music to help develop the feature project, he started from ground zero with [WELCOME TO] LEVEL 7 and created an entirely new score, custom tailored for this film, and it’s amazing! To capture the tone of the setting, Deane peppered the score with mechanical and industrial sounds. It’s creepy, gritty, and totally gets your blood pumping.
Once the final edit was locked in March, it was time to get down to the final visual effects. We worked with Entropy Studio, an incredible VFX company based in Spain that went above and beyond anything we could have expected. They added atmosphere, digitally animated the creature effects, perfected and polished our green screen composite shots, and created an entire environment from nothing but our concept art, allowing us to realize visuals that would have been otherwise impossible with our limited budget.
With an almost final picture in place, I began working on the colorization process with a brilliant colorist and filmmaker, David-Aaron Waters, where we brought every shot into the same color space and gave the film a look that would enhance and increase the tension of the story. At the same time, the sound scape was designed by Michael Ferdie, a genius of sound design — I can almost guarantee you’ve heard his work if you’ve turned on a television any time in recent history. He filled the environment with textural sound and ensured that the subliminal experience would be just as visceral as the one in front of your eyes.
And for some icing on the cake, I recruited a little help from Privateer’s art and video team to produce the title and end credits for the film, giving it that last bit of professional polish it needed to feel like a real production. Maybe it’s the artist in me, but good credit design is very important in my mind — it’s like great package design on a product. It’s easy to go overboard with something like that on a short film, but the crew at Privateer struck a perfect balance between artistry and subtlety that I think perfectly speaks to the heart of the film.
Right now, we’re just days way from having the entire film completed, in the can, and ready to show to the world. So where can you go to see it? As soon as it’s ready, I’ll announce a website where it will be available to view. It’s been several months of constant work and I’m combing my hair over a few bald spots that appeared during the course of this project — but that’s the nature of the beast. I hope when we’re ready to unleash it, you’ll come have a look.
In the meantime, I’ll be running a little Twitter contest for anyone interested in grabbing an early copy of LEVEL 7 [ESCAPE]. Check out the details in last week’s blog post and thanks for staying tuned!