THE INTERESTING PRE-AMBLE BIT….
Our obsession with AI in film and literature and the potential it could have for the future (in some cases destruction) of the human race has been around for countless years and this obsession shows few signs of abating yet. From Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis, through seemingly endless examples such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Terminator to contemporary examples such as I, Robot, A.I: Artificial Intelligence and Ex Machina – well you get my point, the list could go on and on. We like this stuff.
Now, I’m not about to go into any pseudo-philosophical considerations of why we are so invested in such stories, or why dystopian views of A.I (at least in the examples from the top of my head) tend to exceed examples of utopian examples of the sub-genre. I will leave it up to those who are far more sophisticated and intelligent than I am to talk about such lofty matters (yes I know, there are LOTS of people more intelligent than me, but jeez, you don’t have to tell everybody!).
The simple fact is that A.I has intrigued, excited and terrified us in equal measure from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the modern day, as the latest edition to the sci-fi channel DUST clearly shows.
We received a request a short while ago to check out a new sci-fi short film, Lab Rat, which we were reliably informed would be debuting on DUST on Thursday 9th July.
So, I hear you ask, just what is Lab Rat about? Well, funny you should ask…….
THE SYNOPSIS BIT ….
In a near future, a group of scientists trapped in a room learn that one of them is an AI and it has been deceiving them. They cannot escape until they figure out who it is.
So before I give you a few thoughts on this film (spoiler alert: I loved it!) let me send your way a short interview with the film’s director, Nour Wazzi, who graciously gave up some of her valuable time to answer our range of deeply incisive and piercing questions. Tipped as a future star on BBC’s 2017 hotlist, Nour, an award-winning filmmaker has worked in the industry for over 13 years collaborating on and developing features – which means I have to be careful because she knows her stuff!
THE INTERVIEW BIT....
Q) Firstly, tell us a little about the plot & inspiration for Lab Rat.
Set in a near future, a group of scientists are trapped in a lab and pitted against one another when they learn that one of them is an A.I. The experiment is orchestrated by a misanthropic lead scientist, whose protégé daughter finds herself questioning if her lover might be the A.I., and as the scientists turn on him, faces an impossible choice.
I drew inspiration from my tenuous relationship with my own mother growing up as we touch on themes of identity, love and humanity – examining the human condition in a way that only science fiction can.
Q) Leading on from the first question, what books/movies influenced the rational of your film?
I’ve always loved science fiction and been fascinated by the possibilities of artificial intelligence, so I don’t believe the film’s conceit was consciously influenced by any particular works. I’m sure that’s not the case subconsciously!
However visually, I was most influenced by ‘Westworld’, ‘The Night Of’, ‘Enemy’, ‘Black Mirror’, ‘Drive’ and ‘Ex-Machina’. I also found myself inspired by Bradford Young’s work, and a number of emerging photographers.
Q) The film is beautifully lit and the cinematography is lovely – how did the process come about for this?
Thank you! My wonderful cinematographer Mark Nutkins really went above and beyond on such a tight budget (which is also why I chose to work with him) – it actually took him and our committed lighting team almost two days just to pre-light our main set as it’s way bigger than it looks on screen! I really wanted to experiment visually and have some fun with this piece, so we played with lighting and colour which I feel is the backbone of emotion and tension. I also came up with a set of rules for each character and the overall visual direction of the piece.
For example, for Alika (the daughter) I wanted to create some level of emotional distance that made her feel imprisoned in a way, so we see her namely in wides, profile and also short-sided her in the frame. We also tried to keep her frames unified with her mother, then as she starts to gain autonomy we start to separate and centralise her.
In contrast, her mother who commands her space is always centre frame, disconnected from her daughter and her frames were always either locked off or with a calculated push in to add to her sadistic manipulation – and only when she demonstrates vulnerability did we off-balance her.
For the group, the framing choices were very much dictated by the shifting allegiances which eventually evolves to a singling out of Johnny (Alika’s lover). We tried to play with the triangle relationships with the boys occupying the same quadrant in the frame as they effectively fight for the same position. Playing with eye-lines, shifting axis lines and camera level also added to the visual storytelling and shifting power dynamics.
We also prioritised an obscured and long lens approach, particularly at the start. Just as the truth isn’t visible to the characters and everyone appears to be hiding something, the views are obscured so the audience doesn’t always see everything clearly either. In the voyeur-like world of LAB RAT, it also reminds us that someone is always watching…
Q) Was the film always intended as a short film or did it start out as something else?
I was asked to make a short ensemble piece with the students from the Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD), which is how LAB RAT first came about. The characters were crafted specifically for the chosen cast members and the script evolved with improv and rehearsals prior to the shoot – a very different way of working for me!
Q) Lab Rat has a beautiful score from Nainita Desai who I’ve spoken to before about her body of work – how important was it for you to ensure the music was just right for your project?
Ah yes, the brilliant and ever versatile Nainita who was such a joy to work with and really handled my knit-picking well! 😉 She truly did such a beautiful job. The music and soundscape were so important to help enhance emotion, build and punctuate tension and create a sense of the epic within the film’s intimate framework. In contrast to my other films, I used temps in the offline that I became wedded to and actually found it pretty challenging to separate myself from them, but Nainita was just incredible throughout the process.
While creating a simmering and escalating sense of the foreboding, we wanted a strong blend between organic and electronic sounds that represented the bridge between human and machine. The challenge for Nainita was to “embrace the subtleties in the dark beauty of the story married with the rich cinematic genre dynamics.” Nainita wrote a theme that was more ‘innocent’ and humanised to represent Alika and Johnny’s relationship, alongside more heightened themes that sat alongside the tense drama and chaotic action of the film.
It was a tricky balance in such a dramatic piece, and we found ourselves pulling back from going too far over the top!
Q) There have been a number of films over the years that have dealt with the rise and impact of AI – why do you think the movie watching public never seem to tire of them?
That’s a great question, I think it’s because these films ask us to evaluate our future relationship with A.I as they are inevitably evolving to be more like us and in certain areas already exceed us. Whether or not they become conscious and develop the empathy to connect on a deep human level, like our children, we will have almost no moral stake, no control and no say in their existence once they outgrow us.
We are still very much in the dark about so many things including our own consciousness, and these stories give us the vehicle to explore the possibilities. And this world inevitably makes us reflect on ourselves and our own humanity. We’re an introspective species, who doesn’t love a bit of existential sci-fi? 😉
Q) Without mentioning spoilers it’s safe to say that there is scope for future stories from this project – any such plans?
Yes, there’s an awesome TV show in the works that unfolds in a direction you haven’t seen before so crossed fingers we can get it green lit!
Q) What ultimately do you want viewers to take from Lab Rat?
LAB RAT questions what it means to be human in a world that intends to commodify love. ‘What if real love could be built, packaged…and sold?’ I guess firstly it’s most important to me that people have enjoyed the mad ride and feel empathy at the end, as it’s ultimately a bittersweet love story.
It’s not easy to bring something fresh to this genre, so my hope is that it will make viewers want to see much more of this world… particularly from those in power! #showmethemoney.
Made on a tiny ass budget with diverse and emerging talent (46% women, 54% men, 28% POC) – I can only hope that this will prove how many of us are capable and worthy if we are only given the opportunity.
There is a demand for entertaining genre and sci-fi, and I’d like to see the Brits doing a lot more of it! And I’d like to see more black women in unique and kickass roles – Kirsty and Abeo (who played the daughter and mother roles respectively) had no screen experience prior to this and they did such a phenomenal job. Talent is everywhere if people are willing to step outside their comfort zone.
Q) Where and when can Lab Rat be seen?
It’s coming out Thursday 9th July on the awesome sci-fi channel Dust!
THE REVIEW BIT….
- Cast: Kirsty Sturgess, Abeo Jackson, Matt Harris, Max Williams, Sian Hill
- Director: Nour Wazzi
- Writers: Nour Wazzi & Matt Brothers
- Producers: Neil Chordia, Amanda Brennen & Nour Wazzi
- Executive Producers: James Appleton, Omar Darwazah, Charlie Moretti, Hadi El-Solh, Sami Moughrabie
- Director of photography: Mark Nutkins
- Editor: Julie Buckland
- Composer: Nainita Desai
- Costume Designer: Karmjit Kalla
- Hair and Make-Up Designer: Alison Rainey
- Production Designer: Isabella Bruno
- Art Director: Lara Zeidan
- 1st Assistant Director: Pratyusha Gupta
Lab Rat, with a running time of just over 14 minutes quite simply looks beautiful. As discussed earlier in the interview with Nour, the sumptuous lighting and cinematography from Mark Nutkins transforms what could ordinarily be an insipid and clinical laboratory & office environment. Instead the scenes are bathed in stunning hues of blue and orange and together with some clever lighting techniques serve to add not just a visual treat but an added emotional intensity to the narrative.
The soundtrack too is sumptuous with the incredible emotive and at times dreamlike mixtures of electronic and traditional instrumentation that carries one along the complex themes being explored. We have been fortunate previously to cross paths with Nainita when discussing her beautiful soundtrack for the recent horror thriller, Darkness Visible.
In fact since we interviewed Nainita in April she has been invited to become a member of the Academy (yes, Oscars and all that). Now I’m not saying that collaborating with 5D enhanced her stature in the eyes of the Academy powers-that-be, I’m sure that it was her talent and stuff that probably swayed their attentions. All I’m saying is that if you collaborate with 5D wealth, fame and riches are probably soon to head your way.
Again, Nour said it far better in the interview here than I could about the music, but I was delighted to hear that they were trying to be careful not to ‘go too far over the top”. This occasionally is a mistake that some independent filmmakers occasionally make, however here the effect is just right. The final emotional climactic scene which then dissolve into the end credits are, from a musical standpoint, just lovely.
Considering the lack of acting experience from the ensemble cast the quality is strong throughout. One thing that can often detract from the success of independent short film is the unevenness of performance throughout the cast, however this is not an issue here. The two standout performances from Kirsty Sturgess and Abeo Jackson are both note perfect – very impressive.
This sub-genre of sci-fi as I’ve mentioned has been around almost as long as any and it’s always difficult to add something new to the plethora of works that have come before. However it’s good to see that the filmmakers stayed clear away from the ‘A.I. Gone Bad’ scenario and have instead produced something still entertaining, but also underscored by asking some basic questions about the human condition.
And if the promise from Nour that a television series may well come from this story – well count me in.
Lab Rat debuts on DUST on 9th July. Highly recommended.
YOU CAN SEE THE TRAILER FOR LAB RAT RIGHT HERE!
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