Steve Ziolkowski’s Insidious Intrigue

Silent films and computer generated special effects may seem like a combination from beyond the limits of time and space, but Steve Ziolkowski and the team of creatives at Chronophotograph have demonstrated just how well these two divergent ideas can blend.

Earlier this year, Chronophotograph realeased 1873: The Insidious Intrigue, a silent film with over 400 visual effects, including digital sets, mechanical workers, and grand flying machines. The project was as daring as it was risky. It took a special kind of vision to pull off this feat, the kind of vision honed by decades’ of experience with visual effects and film-making.

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We caught up with the director and visual effects designer, Steve Ziolkowski, to learn more about the story behind the short.

Me: Silent film is a classic element of film history, and they say everything eventually comes back into fashion, but what drove you to lead the charge?

Steve Ziolkowski: I don’t know about leading the charge, The Artist came out while I was still in production. But I did mine as a silent film for two reasons. The first one was financial, actually. Since I was financing this one myself, I didn’t have the budget for stellar sound. The second reason was artistic. One of the things that I didn’t like about a lot of home grown Steampunk films was, well, they looked like they were shot on video. HD video, to be sure, but still, no cinematographers were involved. So I started looking for something that would make mine stand out. My favorite silent film is The General, with Buster Keaton. And, well, given that sound might be an issue, and I had an amazing musician (Terry Huud) in my corner *and* I wanted something a little unique, I figured out ways to incorporate the silent film mythos with modern cinema sensibilities and bingo. I had my style.

1 - loadingDock001AMe: Your grasp of special effects seems well matched with your talent as a director. In 1873, special effects play several pivotal roles (including dialogue!). Yet, the effects served to support rather than distract from the story. How did you maintain this precarious balance?

Steve Ziolkowski: Well, I spent 20 years working in visual effects. But one of the things that was pretty ingrained is that effects can only serve a story, they can’t be the foundation for it. I wanted to build a world where everyone sort of took neo-futurism for granted. Steam powered robots were good workers. Lava powered airships were being constructed and flown. But at its heart, I was trying to introduce characters into the world and tell a little prologue about how seriously pooched this inventor is without anyone on his side. Whether I succeeded or not is up for debate, but the environments and machines are simply a backdrop for the larger story.

Me: 1873: The Insidious Intrigue is clearly designed for a sequel – or as the pilot for an entire series of shorts. Any short-term plans or long-term hopes?

Steve Ziolkowski: Originally, 1873 was more of an experiment. Could one guy do 400+ visual effects shots in a reasonable time? Could he tell an interesting story? Would it look good? Would people like it? Well, the answer to the first one was no. It took me two years to do all those shots- we filmed everything against a green screen and I built five major digital sets and half a dozen minor ones. It was a slog. The answer to the other questions was, well, yes.

Ideally, we’d very much like to make a feature film based in the world. I originally set out to do this prologue (The Insidious Intrigue) and then follow that up with three more. The next chapter would be Mulvey going to the ocean floor. In the third chapter, Mulvey makes it to the moon. And in the last one, Mulvey exacts revenge in an epic battle in the skies over Virginia. But this first one cost an even ten thousand dollars, and at this point, I don’t have the money to get another one rolling. That’s part of the reason why I’ve been making shorter films as part of my website; practice at becoming a better storyteller and perhaps getting funding through a crowdsourcing page.

IMG_9332Me: You had a chance to show 1873: The Insidious Intrigue at the Fear and Fantasy Festival earlier this year. Will fans be able to see your work at any events in 2015?

Steve Ziolkowski: Currently there are no plans in the hopper. However, it’s also been shown at Teslacon, Gaslight Gathering and this year’s San Diego Comic Fest and I was also on a panel there talking about the steam powered genre. It was fun and I’d love to do it again!

Me: How did you come to join Chronophotograph, and what brought this company of creative types together?

Steve Ziolkowski: Well, Chronophotograph is actually an idea of mine to try and get some talented, enthusiastic people together to make cool things. So far, it’s been pretty interesting and we’ve made one short horror film and another one is about to drop next week. Mostly, it’s friends who just want creative support, a commodity that is severely lacking across multiple artistic denominations.

IMG_9353Me: Chronophotograph seems up to all sorts of things – multiple short films, a slice of gag reel, even commercials. What’s next?

Steve Ziolkowski: Right now it’s a pipe dream. We are all hoping that we can find ways to make bigger and better things. When the entertainment industry cratered two years ago, the company I had been working for for almost 20 years went under, right after winning the Academy Award for Life of Pi. Creating Chronophotograph and working with other people to produce cost effective commercials, visual effects and sound design is just a natural extension of creating art.

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You can learn more about Chronophotography and their other projects on their website, follow the team on Facebook or Twitter, or watch 1873: The Insidious Intrigue on Vimeo

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