Trevor Hogg chats with Emmy Award-winning VFX Producer Sophie Leclerc about her directorial project Happy Downloadday…
Following in the footsteps of Tron  where human beings become entwined with software programs is the science fiction tale Happy Downloadday; the short film depicts a dystopian society where computer generated children are not allowed a human body until the age of 18 at which time they are expected to become productive citizens. Family conflict arises when a virtual teenager portrayed by Nick Eversman (The Runaways) defies his parents’ wishes for him to download into a physical body. “First of all, I believe each film has its own unique voice because each director has his/her own vision,’ states Emmy Award-winning VFX Producer Sophie Leclerc (The Grey) who helmed the project. “Secondly, I think this short film in particular deals with the subject of virtual reality that has not been seen before thanks to the original script by Phil Ferriere [Crazy Beats Strong Every Time].” The story by the former software developer for Microsoft Xbox turned screenwriter and producer was rewarded first place at the Creative World Awards Screenplay Contest and the California Film Awards Screenplay Competition. “It is very difficult to do visual effects on a tight budget but thanks to my experience as a Visual Effects Producer I have discovered techniques that will allow me to incorporate visual effects within a reasonable budget,’ says Leclerc who had to scale back the amount of visual effects envisioned by Ferriere. “I also work with a few brilliant artists who can do very beautiful work even when they are challenged financially.” Key members of the production crew are Cinematographer Elie Smolkin, Production Designer Alberto Gonzalez-Reyna (Amar a Morir), Costume Designer Suzanne Barnes (Intruders), Casting Director Diana Buglione (Wick), Makeup Artist Dawn Subhasiriwatana (God Bless America) and Line Producer Rebecca Hu (40 Is the New Dead).
“I am trying to stay in the 2D realm as much as possible while incorporating some original designs,” states Sophie Leclerc who devised a simple but effective technique to visually separate the virtual environment from the real one. “I did some thinking with my Director of Photography Elie Smolkin and we used lighting and color to distinguish the two worlds.” Questioned about how to maintain a proper balance between the realistic and fantastical elements, Leclerc answers, “I think that is the beauty of science fiction. We can create a world with more or less plausible technological advances and make it a believable world. The characters in this world have emotional reactions even though some of them are computer programs. I hope that the switch from realism to fantasy will grab attention.” A lot of visual research went into creating the worlds populated by actors such as Emily Jordan, Chris Gann (The Pacifier), Caroline Rich (In the Key of Eli), Emil-Bastien Bouffard and a Teddy Bear. First I visited many places in Los Angeles that looked futuristic or had an original look I could transform with props and set dressing, but the fees for these locations were out of reach. So after several months of location scouting, we decided to build. I am very inspired by the architect Zaha Hadid [Abu Dhabi Arts Center, Guangzhou Opera House, only to name a few]. She always designs beautiful buildings with curves and a futuristic edge. I showed many examples of her work and other inspirations to my Production Designer Alberto Gonzalez-Reyna who incorporated my ideas in a new concept that fit with our budget.”
“If robots could have feelings and could show emotions would not it be as fascinating as meeting an alien?” responds Sophie Leclerc when asked about the continued fascination on whether robots can develop emotions. “There is so much interesting literature, films, and experiments about this. I am not a scientist but I just think that if robots can mimic humans and imitate them then they could recognize and respond to emotions the way we know them. The question becomes: Is the robot programmed to mimic feelings? Or does the robot develop a super intelligence as some consider the development of superhuman artificial intelligence inevitable, a moment referred as ‘the singularity.’” At heart of the tale is the exploration of family dynamics. “I think that the nature of the conflicts stays the same. Technology provides access to much more information at an earlier age and exposes teens to more voices and point of views. Probably the quest to define oneself starts younger and teens’ conflict with their parents are inevitable. Fortunately it seems that most families are welcoming technology and use television, computers, and video games as a shared experience.” As to whether the digital revolution has made life easier for teenagers, Leclerc notes, “I am just a teenager at heart. Technology has very rapidly become omnipresent in our lives and young people are immersed in it today and have been exposed since a very young age. I will have a conversation with my 15 years old godson to see what he thinks of this.”
Securing the necessary funding has proven to be a difficult task. “Making a visually breathtaking sci-fi film on a low budget is the biggest challenge,” reveals Sophie Leclerc. “This is why we are on Kickstarter to reach out an audience that we think will enjoy our movie and at the same time can provide their financial support.” As to whether public funding sites hold the future of independent filmmaking, Leclerc observes, “It is a new platform and a very successful one. So why not try it? I do not know if it is the way of the future for independent filmmaking but through the emotional and financial support we get from our backers I get a sense that the technology is bringing us together and helps to build a community.” No particular cinematic sequence stands out at the moment. “Not yet. I just started editing and I am extremely proud of my actors and their performances. I have a beautiful cast and I can’t wait to see it all come together.” Leclerc acknowledges that a feature length version of Happy Downloadday would be completely different. “Right now, I just hope I can finish my film the way I envision it. What comes after, we will see.”