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Going against the grain: Oats Studio and experimental filmmaking

Film Feature by Owen Herman

Oats Studio film feature

Oats Studios describes itself as an “experimental filmmaking lab”; something that is trying to be innovative in the blockbuster heavy world of film. When asked the question “What is Oats?” various employees ‘ummed’ and ‘arred’ before coming up with words and phrases like “playpen”, “secretive” and “collective of ideas”. The themes of filmmaking freedom mixed with fun experimentation run through the various descriptions of the studio and through the short films it produces. Headed by Neill Blomkamp, the South African director of District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, the studio has so far produced eight short sci-fi films as part of its ‘Volume 1’. With such a big name behind it, and the size of the studio itself, Oats manages to bring Hollywood level production design and special effects to short films normally associated with low budget aspiring filmmakers. While these shorts may lack the charm that comes with amateur filmmaking, Oats’ films bring sparks of originality and passion to genres that are so often bogged down by studios’ pursuits of profits.

Funding can be tricky with independent films. Oats has a head start due to the names involved, but soon it’ll need to start monetising its content (right now all the shorts can be viewed for free). The three option they have talked about are crowdfunding, charging for future volumes, or releasing a feature version of their most popular idea and putting any profits back into the studio. Rather admirably, each option seems to be really taking the fans into account; starting with free content means people know exactly what they will be paying for when the time comes, and because those who provide funding will be able to see the result of their generosity in the form of content made specifically for them.

The films themselves can be split into two groups. Firstly, there are five comedic sketches, God: Serengeti and the Cooking with Bill series. Ranging from three to four minutes in length, these shorts are simple, black comedy sketches with a sci-fi twist. There is a charm to their bleakness that gives a more light-hearted look at the studio’s overall dark tone. However, the real meat of the studio is its three main short films: Rakka, Firebase, and Zygote. These films, each over twenty minutes in length, are all made in the same vein, imaginative sci-fi action-horror presented in a stripped-back and focused way, but they are all unique. Using little exposition or backstory, the shorts pinpoint the best elements of genre cinema, creating fun, scary, gory, and exciting worlds with which fans can engage.

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Rakka is a multiple perspective look at the aftermath of a grisly alien invasion. Its structure is very different to normal film narrative, switching between characters and events to provide exposition through action. It is more episodic in structure, showing how these shorts allow experimentation with the techniques behind crafting the narrative, not just the narrative itself. Rakka feels like a cousin of District 9, albeit more harrowing and with the roles reversed.

With its second major outing, Oats Studios brings sci-fi with to the Vietnam war. Think Apocalypse Now but with an invisible River God who can send tanks flying into the air. Basically, the kind of premise that would struggle to get mainstream studio backing, but flourishes under an independent studio. It seamlessly blends the true with the fantasy, and leaves its mysteries as mysteries. A great example of why ‘leaving the audience wanting more’ works so well.

Zygote film

Certainly the most familiar in terms of its story, Zygote is nonetheless gripping and unsettling. A miner (Dakota Fanning) and a security guard (Jose Pablo Cantillo) are the only survivors in a remote facility in the Arctic, and are being hunted by a nightmarish creature. The short takes the twenty-minute spell from the final third of those monster movies where the final confrontation looms and the drama really mounts up. Without the first half build up we normally expect, Zygote relies purely on its atmosphere to chuck you right into the tensest moments and keep you gripped. It also helps that the creature is genuinely scary and pretty gross.

With the success and popularity of the three main shorts, Oats has the option of either making Volume 2, with more experimental shorts, or adapting one of their works into a feature film. The former is certainly welcome, but it is the latter that is most exciting; District 9, still Blomkamp’s best feature, was created off the back of a short he made called Alive in Joburg. The idea that original ideas could be first tested as (relatively) cheap shorts bodes well for genre cinema. It also allows for more interaction between fan and creator, on which Blomkamp is keen.

Although it is a shame that Blomkamp’s Alien film looks extremely unlikely to happen (it’s hard not to think about what could have been with Sigourney Weaver’s appearance in Rakka and the overall feel of Zygote), perhaps it’s best that he puts his sharp and mature sci-fi vision to more original projects as the once masterful Alien franchise becomes increasingly bloated and messy. This can also be applied to Halo, as Blomkamp was once down to direct the adaptation of the iconic sci-fi game after making the Halo: Landfall series of shorts. Again, elements of Halo can be found across his work, from Elysium’s titular ring-world to the marine vs alien combat of Rakka and Firebase. With Oats, Blomkamp has a lab to nurture original sci-fi ideas and a stage to show them off to those who love the genre the most. Instead of stringing out these decade-old franchises, the studio is letting itself be influenced by what came before to create new and exciting content. Film will be better off with something fresh that can be hailed as the new Alien/Halo/Blade Runner/The Thing rather than repeating and rehashing what we already know.

Whether Oats Studios continues with original shorts or starts a feature project will be down to the fans. As mentioned earlier, both options feel incredibly appealing after the quality of what’s been produced so far. I certainly am looking forward to my next helping of Oats.


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