Elliot and Zander Weaver’s Film COSMOS Proves You Don’t Need Money If You Have Time and Determination
Indie Film Junction | August 7, 2020
Indie Film Junction | August 7, 2020
Elliot and Zander Weaver spent years making documentary and narrative shorts. The experience provided them with the skills (and the patience) to make their first feature, COSMOS, which has become a nano-budget hit.
We asked them how they managed to put together a film with exceptional production value on a budget of roughly $7,000.
IFJ: Congratulations on the release of COSMOS! Can you tell us what it’s about?
Firstly, thank you very much! As filmmakers it’s a dream moment to present a film for people to watch and enjoy.
COSMOS is a modern sci-fi mystery following three amateur astronomers who accidentally intercept what they believe is a signal from an alien civilisation. Realising they may have just stumbled across Mankind’s greatest discovery, they must race to document their finding, prove its authenticity and share it with the world before it is lost forever.
IFJ: What was the inspiration for the movie?
COSMOS is a love letter to the cinema that had made us dreamers as kids. It’s a nostalgic, sentimental film inspired by the character driven adventures of the Amblin-era – where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. It isn’t a gritty, cynical take on first contact, but a story of friendship, wonder and the belief that our search for new life brings out the best in us. If someone watches COSMOS and heads outdoors to look up at the stars, we’ve succeeded.
We wanted to put scientists and astronomers at the heart of a story and paint them in the heroic light they deserve. We feel that often in film these characters are depicted as having the brains but not the bravery to save the day, but outside the movie theatre it’s engineers and scientists who shape the world we live in. Having interviewed many NASA scientists for our documentary work, we wanted to pay homage to their capability and contribution.
Our filmmaking inspirations were rebel spirits like Robert Rodriguez and Gareth Edwards who helped us believe we could be resourceful and inventive and make our own ‘no budget’ mini blockbuster.
IFJ: What is your process for writing as a team, and have you written other features together?
COSMOS was our second feature film script together, written from start to finish in four months in the autumn of 2013. We spent the first month in pre-write, developing plot, characters and themes and the following three months typing. We committed to a minimum of one page per day with the goal of having 90 pages after three months – in fact we ended up with a 101 page final draft.
We are very close brothers with basically identical inspirations as storytellers and filmmakers, so we bounce ideas off each other very well and find working and writing together very creative. We write sometimes sitting side-by-side or sometimes taking it in turns at the keyboard – whatever works for that particular scene or moment.
IFJ: Prior to making COSMOS, you made several shorts, both narrative and documentary. How did the experience gained from your earlier productions inform how you approached making your first feature?
By the time we were shooting COSMOS in 2015, we’d been filmmaking as brothers for over 20 years and had nearly a decade’s worth of industry experience – together we had professionally shot, lit and directed thousands of interviews, edited over 700 individual projects (including 39 x 1 hour documentaries) and worked for corporations like the BBC and Discovery Channel and for brands such as Bentley, Smirnoff and PlayStation. We also made four narrative shorts and produced 10 hours of documentary content through our own production company for international broadcasters such as Discovery, PBS and Canal+.
That degree of concentrated experience bred a self-reliance and confidence in what we could achieve – we believed with limited resources we could make a polished looking indie if we were sensible and creative. So we pooled our collective knowledge and the equipment we’d invested in as freelancers and finally committed to an indie feature. It was seriously hard work and took every ounce of our willpower and experience, but it has been a journey of immeasurable reward and self-fulfilment.
IFJ: Can you tell us what the shooting schedule was like?
We shot 55 days in three separate filming blocks over 11 months – about 15 night shoots in Sept 2015 covering car exteriors in the field and the forest sequences. 30 days in a “studio” garage over Jan/Feb 2016 filming all the car interiors. One green-screen shoot in May, two pickup night shoots in July and then the final seven night shoots in Aug 2016 filming the finale at the Radio Telescope Array.
This scheduling was mainly due to our busy and talented actors who had other commitments we wanted to respect – but these hiatuses worked in our favour as we could rest and review and also plan reshoots if necessary. We aimed to shoot about 4 pages a day, sometimes we did less and sometimes more.
IFJ: What was the make up of the crew?
The main production crew consisted of just three people – us two Weaver brothers managing everything from shooting, focus pulling, lighting, footage management, sound recording, directing, set decorating, rigging and derigging kit and scheduling. The third member of our crew was our mom, Lesley Weaver, responsible for hair & make-up, continuity and script supervising and pretty much all behind-the-scenes documenting as well as often slating with the clapperboard or holding a mic. Occasionally a friend lent a pair of hands to help with the smoke machine or lighting. We feel it was as barebones a crew as is possible – it certainly felt that way – talk about spinning plates!
IFJ: What equipment did you use during production?
We shot on the original 1080p Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera with Metabones Speedbooster in ProResLT on two 32gb SD cards. And we had two lenses – a 28mm Sands Hunter 1960s stills lens (used for 90% of the film) and a 18-200mm Tamron zoom for anything wider or longer.
Sound was recorded on a Zoom H4n and Sennheiser 416 mic. For lighting we had 3 bi-colour K4000S LED Panels and a 2 kW blonde (when we had access to mains power) – most of the car interior was lit practically with desk lamps, computer screens, torches and iPads. Other kit worth mentioning was a 1 metre Konova camera slider which was invaluable for rigging the camera inside the car and an Artem gas powered smoke machine.
IFJ: COSMOS has several VFX shots. How did you go about planning for that, and do you have any advice for other filmmakers that might be considering VFX, whether as an enhancement to live action material or to make up entire shots in their project?
COSMOS has approximately 170 VFX shots all modeled, rotoscoped, composited and rendered by Zander over 12 months using Blender. We knew the film would require certain stand out effects, namely the climax of the movie at the Radio Telescope Array, so did tests before finalising the script to give us confidence we could achieve our ideas – but in general it was very much a case of learning on the job and pushing our comfort zone as we went along. Zander placed tracking markers on shots he knew would require a camera solve but during post, as he became more comfortable with the process, we added more and more shots that had no on-set consideration for the VFX post pipeline.
Many of them we coined “Invis-effects”, i.e. shots you’d not realise had a VFX component. These might be removing light reflections from actor’s glasses or replacing the occasional computer screen for continuity. A large proportion of this “Invis-effects” work was digital set extension; in order to make the world and production feel larger than it was, Zander added starry skies and a silhouetted treeline to almost every exterior shot. He also tracked and replaced the front element of our telescope (which was actually a tripod carry case) to make it look more impressive. As we got more confident we also added effects to the car driving sequence (some near-misses, red lights, traffic and road signs). But we left the hardest stuff to last, which meant Zander was ready for the toughest effects by the time he got to them.
Our advice would be; keep it achievable. If you’re considering a VFX component in your movie don’t try and compete with Hollywood (unless you have the resources and team to achieve it of course!) and don’t make your life too difficult. If you’re a small team or a one-person crew, think about how you can add to your movie in subtle ways; effects that will go unnoticed but will build your world, your production value or enhance a scene – matte paintings/set extensions, prop enhancement etc. Effects are TIME CONSUMING and there are no shortcuts so either make sure they’re totally important and worthy of being included or that they’re achievable and aren’t going to grind your post process to a halt.
And remember, ultimately effects aren’t really supposed to be noticed so if you’re concerned you might not be able to deliver them to the correct standard, do some tests and if it’s not working find another option. Pulling an audience out of the moment is not the goal and a poor effects shot might do more harm than good. The fact that your question is phrased as “several VFX shots” rather than almost 200, is an enormous compliment and proof that these kinds of “invisi-effects” can be achieved seamlessly with no-budget.
IFJ: What was your post-production workflow like, and what software did you use?
Our post-production workflow was kind of insane. Between us over a 28 month period, we completed the picture cut, picture grade, VFX and all ADR, foley and sound effects recording, editing and mixing. And we worked alongside a film composer called Chris Davey for 3 months to score approximately 90 minutes of orchestral soundtrack.
To picture cut we used Final Cut Pro 7 – many filmmakers bulk at this as an odd choice – a) we already owned it and had been cutting on it for years (and in the spirit of no-budget filmmaking always used what we had) and b) it still does the job marvellously well… in fact Best Picture Academy Award winning Parasite was cut on FCP7. To sound-design and mix we also (maybe foolishly) used FCP7 to edit and place over 60,000 individual sound elements on 99 audio tracks. We made a 5.1 surround mix in Soundtrack Pro 2, graded in Apple Color 2 and all VFX were created and composited in Blender and After Effects.
IFJ: You’ve said before that COSMOS was five years in the making. Can you give us a breakdown of how that time was allocated and also how you were able to sustain your enthusiasm and momentum over such a long period of time?
COSMOS began in August 2013 with scriptwriting. All pre-production and casting was done by just us two over 18 months, part time between our other work commitments. We shot 55 days over the 11 months between September 2015 and August 2016. Post-Production began in February 2016 (after wrapping our second filming block) and was both of us working full time, 5 days a week all the way to August 2018 when COSMOS was officially completed. From August 2013 to August 2018 was a 5 year journey, however in reality not the whole story. We continued to work on COSMOS full time up to November 2019, negotiating distribution, creating and delivering masters, posters, trailers and marketing for the release on November 8th. Even now we continue to work on the film, writing articles, being interviewed for podcasts and engaging with our audience… so in reality COSMOS has to date, been 7 years of our lives.
That kind of time commitment can only be fueled by passion. We didn’t make COSMOS for festival recognition or financial reward – we made it because we wanted to. Initially COSMOS was designed as a tool; evidence to show future producers and investors that we could take a story from script to screen without the support and financing that filmmakers normally have. In reality, COSMOS became far more than that and before we’d finished a single week’s filming with our cast it was clear that we were all in this together. So, how did we sustain enthusiasm and momentum over that period of time? The simple answer is: we live and breathe movies and are committed to doing whatever it takes to create the career we dream of, but we also did it for the cast who gave us their trust, belief and commitment. We count ourselves incredibly lucky to have had the pleasure of making a film with such a brilliant team.
To quote from a message we received just yesterday from a retired scientist who “grew up in the age of Sputnik” – she wrote “I want to let you know what a wonderful time I had watching Cosmos. I felt every emotion your characters felt, and re-lived what it was like to be young and love something so much that you will pursue it with a burning passion because you love it… not for the money, but because you cannot let it go. Congratulations on a passion well done.”… that’s what filmmaking is about to us… it’s not a hobby or a career, it’s a passion – and we love it so much we can’t let go.
IFJ: Without spoiling anything, how did you go about planning and shooting the car-centric action sequence?
The car sequence at the end of the film is a real tapestry of different techniques of “poor man’s process”, practical filming and some VFX.
Our plan for capturing performances was always going to be “poor man’s process” because we just couldn’t afford or achieve the alternative – and we actually love the results. There are some great examples of “poor man’s process” in Super 8 (among other movies) and that’s a $45M movie – so if it’s good enough for J.J. Abrams, it’s good enough for us. So we filmed our car interiors with the Volvo stationary in a garage and the actors pretending to be on the road and we shook the camera, rocked the car and waved our hands in front of lights to sell the movement, then we cut this footage together with exteriors in post. With the sound design of the engine and road noise layered on top you can even fool yourself sometimes. Once we had all our car interiors cut into the action sequence on a timeline, we planned what exterior shots we needed to sew it all together – some of that was simple animatic work to help with timings, but most of it was just black cards with white writing describing onscreen action.
95% of this exterior material was captured by just the two of us, either with the camera clamped to the bumper or through the windscreen for forward POVs or clamped to our other car as a camera pursuit vehicle, either leading or trailing the hero Volvo.
Two notable occasions for the car-sequence are worth mentioning. Late one night, Arjun and Tom (two of our actors) joined us with their own personal cars to act as “traffic”. We went out onto local roads and had the Volvo hero car weave, at the legal 40mph speed limit, through their two cars driving at just 15mph – this simple trick allowed us to safely give the impression the Volvo was dangerously speeding through traffic. With some gentle ramping, quick cutting and sound work the effect sells well we think.
The other mention should go to a moment where the characters break a road traffic rule and have a near collision with oncoming cars – this was simply done by the old trick of locking the camera on a tripod, filming the hero Volvo driving up and by camera clear of any crossing traffic, then film cars safely crossing frame and finally splicing those two seperate takes into one seamless shot in post. Buster Keaton would be proud… although maybe not as he loved doing his own stunts for real!
IFJ: What’s something you learned from making COSMOS that you wish you knew going into production?
In reality we’re glad we didn’t know a lot of what we learnt while making COSMOS – because learning it is what’s made the journey so thrilling. I guess we wish we’d known how rewarding it was really going to be, because then we’d have just been even more excited.
To answer your question with something we’re glad we didn’t know, it’s that things take a lot longer than you anticipate especially when you don’t have money – we thought COSMOS would be shot in 10 days and locked in 12 months – but it took 55 days to shoot and 5 years to complete – so that’s five times longer! If we’d have known this we might not have dared to try – BUT – we were very impatient, hungry young men and I guess we still are. People tend to overestimate what they can achieve in one year but underestimate what can be achieved in a decade… and I guess that’s what we’d tell our younger selves. Work hard, persevere with passion and persistence and eventually the finish line will come if you just don’t give up. Also, make damn sure you love your film at the script stage – don’t write something for others and don’t write something that might be a smart business move, write something you love (and if you can make it a smart business move then all the better) – this is going to be years of your life and when you’re in the thick of it it’s going to be hard even if you’re in love with it – imagine how much harder it would be if you didn’t like the film you’re making?
IFJ: You’ve been very successful in connecting with fans and building a massive audience in a way that feels very organic. What advice do you have for other filmmakers looking to connect with the right audience for their projects?
Thank you very much, that’s a real compliment. Our strategy has been to be as honest and open about the whole journey as possible, hoping that kindred-spirits and filmmakers would connect with our content and story and feel inspired. We’ve benefited from the insight and inspiration of other creatives and we wanted to pay that forward and hopefully make COSMOS an example for aspiring filmmakers to use as a template for their own work – yes, we’re asking for support, but we’re trying to give so much more back in exchange. Through that we’ve built genuine connections with people all around the world and an audience that is extremely supportive. We haven’t tried to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or market COSMOS as something it isn’t – we’ve embraced our no-budget life and tried to make it entertaining and hopefully empowering – “if we can shoot with a cardboard matte box and homemade camera-rig… so can you!”
We’re genuinely humbled that anyone stops by our social media, so we do our best to reply to every comment and every email and just give back as much as possible, and since the release of the film we receive countless messages daily from families and film watchers worldwide sharing their love for the film. We have no idea how many comments, emails and responses we’ve written or replied to in the past few months, but we’re easily into the thousands.I guess the takeaway from all that is to be true to yourself and your film and your audience will find you – to quote Field of Dreams “if you built it, they will come”.
IFJ: A lot of your social media content consists of behind the scenes footage. Was that captured spontaneously, or did you have a formal strategy in place to make sure some time was allocated to creating that sort of content during production?
We didn’t have a thorough plan other than knowing we wanted to document as much as possible – a) for our own sake and enjoyment as a diary to look back on, but also b) because we could use it to market the film to other filmmakers who we feel are a core audience alongside pure sci-fi/Amblin lovers and families. Filmmakers might watch COSMOS, whether it was to their taste or not, if they were curious having followed the making of it. Our mom was responsible for capturing most of the BTS with our dslr and of course, all of us were grabbing photos and videos on our phones between takes which we collected in a group Dropbox, archiving for later use.
IFJ: What’s next for you?
We’re in development on a few different projects of varying scales. We were due to move out to LA in spring 2020 to begin partnering with producers and hopefully pitch to studios, but Covid-19 changed our plans. So for now we’re still based in the UK, developing those partnerships via Zoom, but also developing a solo character Covid-compatible sci-fi feature, approximately £1M budget, which we might shoot in the UK over the next 18 months while the world and film industry adapts to a post-Coronavirus world. Who knows? We shall see.
IFJ: Where can people find you online to stay up to date on future projects?
Thank you for this opportunity and if anyone has any questions about COSMOS or filmmaking, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us via any of the above.
Director Elliot Weaver & Zander Weaver
Runtime 128 min
COSMOS is a modern sci-fi mystery following three amateur astronomers who accidentally intercept what they believe is a signal from an alien civilization. Realizing they may have just stumbled across Mankind’s greatest discovery, they must race to document their finding, prove its authenticity and share it with the world before it is lost forever... but the truth they uncover is even more incredible than any of them could have imagined.More