Marking her third DN appearance, Director Meredith Hama-Brown finds parallels between grief and otherworldly encounters in her latest music video for Loscil’s Sol. Hama-Brown reflects the rhythmic pulse of Loscil’s song with a combination of powerful, lucid 35mm cinematography and warm, retro-looking VFX as she weaves together the story of a woman (played by Mari Yamamoto) who in the wake of losing her partner has a mysterious alien encounter in her backyard. By combining these two profound and transformative experiences, she is able to draw an astute philosophical observation on what it means to face the mysteries of life. DN caught up with Hama-Brown for the premiere of Sol and to talk over its creation, how she embraced light and lasers to construct a version of a UFO that hadn’t been seen on screen before, and the practicality of incorporating Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle’s signature visual effect.
How did you approach the concept for Sol? Was there an aspect of the song you were looking to evoke visually?
Listening to Loscil’s hypnotic track Sol, I kept thinking of something otherworldly and strange. I knew an alien encounter would be an interesting narrative idea to approach, but I also knew that this encounter ultimately needed to be beautiful and transformative rather than what I usually envision alien encounters to be portrayed in films. I wanted the alien presence to at first seem unsettling and eerie. The woman, thrust into a new, bleak world of grief, views death as fearful. It seemed appropriate to frame the alien presence, something that also represents the mysteries of life, in a similar way. However, by the end of the film we see that it has, in fact, extracted and transformed her grief.
It seemed appropriate to frame the alien presence, something that also represents the mysteries of life, in a similar way.
What similarities do you see between the nature of an otherworldly encounter and grief?
I wanted to blend a sci-fi narrative with a story about grief because I believe there is an interesting parallel between the unknowns of death and the unknowns of the universe. They are both puzzle pieces to our existence and yet as humans we may never fully understand them.
At what stage did you land on working with Mari Yamamoto? And what was it about her that drew you to collaborate together?
Once the concept for the film was in place, all of the components came together quite seamlessly. I approached Lead Actor Mari Yamamoto because I was familiar with her work and thought she’d be perfect for this role. This film never had a traditional audition process. Once we started to work together, we discussed the various themes of the film in depth and did a rehearsal the day before shooting.
The cinematography is crucial to bringing out the transformative feeling of this encounter, who did you work with on the visuals?
I worked with Norm Li, csc, as the cinematographer, who I have worked with on almost all of my other projects. We always do extensive shot listing together and this time the process took us several days to finalize. We wanted to lean into the idea that the alien presence at the beginning of the film feels unnerving and so a lot of our earlier shots are designed to feel somewhat tense, cold and even voyeuristic. During the abduction scene we wanted to be close with the character at last, to be absorbed in her intense experience. We also used step printing here to add to the abstract feeling and also to show a sense of time being disoriented, using Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle’s signature effect. This was shot on 35mm film (Arricam LT/2-perf) using Arri Master Prime lenses.
How did you approach the look of the UFO itself?
A big question that we had during prep was what the UFO would look like. I wanted to create a version of a UFO that I hadn’t seen before. Norm had worked with Will Funk, a laser technician, on a commercial previously and when we got in touch with Will he was excited to delve into working on something like this. From there, once I started working with Will, I was able to see what was possible with lasers. I wanted the UFO to have strands and to also pulse/circle in time with the track. To me, the rhythmic pulse of the music was always a huge reason why I envisioned this storyline in the first place so I wanted to honour that initial inspiration. Luckily with Will talent’s he was able to easily achieve this.
Another big creative question that I had during prep was what the healing process would look like once the woman was under the alien’s control. We knew that we wanted to use light to convey this idea and so we once again used the lasers and Will’s expertise to help us create the moments we were hoping to achieve. Norm also came up with the excellent idea to use the laser lights refracted through a spinning crystal to disperse the light into its various colour spectrums.
Similarly, who was involved in the production design? There are so many great details in the film, the alien operating table, for instance.
I also had the pleasure of working with Taja Feistner as the production designer on this project. She was incredible and really brought every aspect of the film to life with her creative eye. One part of the film that she really helped to elevate was the alien operating table. I had originally thought since we had a very limited budget that we would keep this very simple, maybe using some dark, shiny material that we wouldn’t see much of. But Taja presented some incredible ideas to me, such as looking at various types of rocks/textures and then went above and beyond creating something so much more interesting. We ended up featuring this surface more than originally anticipated and also, utilizing VFX, animated it as if the table itself is a living, breathing organism.
This film couldn’t have been done without the wonderful producer, Cheyenne Cage, who helped give this whole project the support that it needed. She helped assemble the entire team, coordinated all of the logistics and supported the creative components in every way that she could.
Given the visual effects required, did you find the shoot to be fairly complicated or smoother than expected?
We shot this film over one and a half shoot days in New Jersey and New York in December 2021. The first shoot day covered the majority of the film, everything except for the “light-therapy” scene. It was a long day but we were fortunate to be working with an incredible crew who made it all happen.
I wanted to create a version of a UFO that I hadn’t seen before.
The shoot was pretty straightforward. The biggest challenge was the UFO scene as the laser was rigged on an 80-foot crane overhead. The biggest hiccup was that we had a limited number of haze machines and it was hard to get the mist to distribute evenly in the backyard. Of course, without the haze, the laser lights wouldn’t be seen, so it was a bit of work getting these shots. I think my favourite memory of the day is everyone working together getting the mist to distribute. The moment that it did, the First AD Fernanda Curi would yell: “It’s happening!!!” And we’d all frantically run into position and shoot as quickly as possible. The second half day was shot in our basement for the “light-therapy” scene with a very small crew of five people plus Mari.
How long were you navigating the creation of the VFX during post?
Post-Production ended up taking a long time but mostly because I started to shoot my first feature before everything was done. I finished editing the film around March 2022 and then went straight into prep on my feature, so the VFX ended up taking eight months to navigate since there was a lot of time where things were on hold.
We worked with Foreign Xchange for most of the VFX cleanup work and they also covered the metallic, mercury-like CGI alien hand. We also worked with Kristian Lindén, who did the CGI “ball of grief”. The “ball of grief” was inspired by a lot of imagery in nature (specifically referencing microscopic images of various cells and jellyfish). From there, Kristian did several excellent versions of what this could look like, until we found the best iteration. Also, the film was graded by Joseph Bicknell at Company 3 who did a beautiful job colour correcting the project and putting the finishing touches on it.
You mentioned there that when you finished working on Sol you began prep for your feature, how is that going and what can you tell us about it as a project?
My feature is called Seagrass and it follows a Japanese Canadian woman in the early 1990s who is grappling with the recent death of her mother. She brings her family to a self-development retreat but when her distressed relationship with her husband begins to affect the children’s emotional stability, the family is forever changed. We shot it in June 2022 on Gabriola Island and also in Tofino. I’m very excited and grateful to have made this! I’ve been writing the script since 2018 and so to see it come to life has truly been a very special time for me. We are currently completing the sound mix now so hoping it will be out in the world in the coming months.