“Prism”: Interview with Jackson Miller, Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Chapman University

| March 7, 2016

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An ambitious collaboration with VFX artists David Reynolds and Chris Purse, Prism is a dystopian sci-film about a desaturator, tasked with sapping beauty from the world in a future where color is used as energy. When his superiors suspect that he may secretly be hoarding color in order to support his “unhealthy” passion for drawing, Dan is reassigned with life-changing results. We chatted with Jackson Miller about his moody flick.

Prism will screen as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices.

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) and LARS (voiced by Heston Horwin) in Prism

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) and LARS (voiced by Heston Horwin) in Prism

Tell us: what got you into film?

Hi, I’m Jackson. The high school I went to just happened to have a video production class, which I just happened to be placed into after I didn’t get my first choice elective. After just a few months I became hooked and I’ve been making movies ever since! I transferred to Chapman University from a community college, and in my 3 years there I was granted one amazing opportunity after another and even got to direct two thesis films! I love dark, gritty, bleak films with a glimmer of heart and hope, and in particular I enjoy making films that take place in a world different from our own.

How did Prism come to be.

Prism actually started out as a thesis at the digital arts branch of our school. [VFX artists] David and Chris came up with the initial concept and wrote the first draft along with Matt Rebong, the producer of the project. They needed a director and I was fortunate enough to have been chosen. From there, it very much became a collaborative process. It didn’t take long for us to get on the same page. I did a few rewrites and then we went right into pre-production.

dropship travels towards Lumacorp Tower, the shining spire at the center of the city of Prism.

A dropship travels toward Lumacorp Tower, the shining spire at the center of the city of Prism.

I got hints of Starship Troopers with the introductory video to LUMACORP–the “shining saviour of humanity.” What inspired the ‘promotional’ video and can you tell us about creating it?

I actually didn’t see Starship Troopers until after the film was completed! In various test screenings, before we attached the intro, people were having trouble grasping the “rules of the world.” I knew we had to give the audience something, but I wanted to stray away from the text explaining everything at the beginning method since there is quite a lot to convey. I got the idea that we could do a propaganda commercial, which would visually communicate the rules of the world while also telling us a few things about the government. Aside from old propaganda commercials, the educational video in Snowpiercer was also an inspiration.

A Lumacorp Executive (Guerin Piercy) in her office.

A Lumacorp Executive (Guerin Piercy) in her office.

How did you come up with the concept of desaturators?

Full credit for this goes to Chris and David who came up the idea for the desaturators, as well as the world in general. As digital artists, they wanted to come up with a film where the visuals were intrinsically related to the conflict. What they came up with was the world of Prism, where color is sucked out of the world and used as energy.

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) desaturates a flower to collect a family’s unpaid color tax.

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) desaturates a flower to collect a family’s unpaid color tax.

Describe the process of creating LARS (Lumen Assessment and Reporting Sentinel). How long did it take for you and your VFX artists to create the character LARS?

LARS was a part of the story from the very beginning, but his design certainly evolved and changed a lot through development and pre-production and even (a bit) in post-production. In some of the early concept art, he is pretty much just a sphere! Eventually the design evolved to become more angular and “dangerous.” David and Chris had a lot of time to really focus on his design and they did a fantastic job. The initial 3d model was finished soon after we finished shooting. From there, I gave notes and some minor tweaks were made. Another challenge was creating his movement, since that is a large part of [his] character. Countless hours went into animating and tweaking his movements and full credit goes to Chris and David for making the character come fully alive. The last aspect is the voice. The voice actor, Heston Horwin, and I played with a few different reads, and through trial and error came up with the voice, which was then adjusted and passed through filters by Gerry Vazquez, our sound designer.

How does one design a dystopia on a student budget? Can you tell us about working with your production designer Andrew Evers, cinematographer Sten Olson, and others to achieve this gloomy look?

Creativity is really the key here, as well as extensive location scouting. In terms of PD, when you are on a budget you want to create as little as possible and use what is around you as much as possible (and not always in the way it’s intended to be used!) That way, you can devote more resources to creating the things that you absolutely have to make from scratch. Often, but not always, I think that building sets is a poor allocation of resources when on a budget. It takes a whole lot of management, people, time and money, and then when it’s all complete it may not even suit your needs as well as a location that already exists just down the road.

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) and LARS (voiced by Heston Horwin) wait outside of a housing unit in the outer precincts.

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) and LARS (voiced by Heston Horwin) wait outside of a housing unit in the outer precincts.

Set dressing can really help transform a location fully into what you need. We turned a classroom with frosty windows on one wall into a futuristic “living unit” by bringing in couches and chairs and vases, etc. The way you capture your locations is extremely important as well. Sten and I came up with a set of “rules” which we made sure all of our shots followed throughout the film. Having a unified look helps cement the mood or feel of a world.

How did you scout locations for the inside of LUMACORP headquarters? How did you decide between CGI and on location shoots? 

All of our LUMACORP scenes were filmed at a community college. In the 30 days leading up to production, I spent 8 location scouting. It takes a lot of googling, driving and walking around, along with negotiating skills and the expectation that you won’t get anywhere with many of the locations you pursue. Personally, whenever I pass an interesting or futuristic building I make a note of it. The entire building doesn’t need to look good, just a small section of it! Community colleges are one of my go-to secrets in terms of futuristic looking locations. Many are modern looking and they will often let you shoot for a reasonable amount, especially if you are on a student production. Also, city owned buildings will usually have minimal location fees and often have an interesting look.

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) and LARS (voiced by Heston Horwin) make their way through a housing block.

Dan Warner (Chase Cargill) and LARS (voiced by Heston Horwin) make their way through a housing block.

In terms of choosing between CG and on location, CG tends to be best when combined with actual footage.  The times when we chose to go full CG, or nearly full CG, were pretty much born out of necessity. We had a moving sidewalk-type shot written into the script from the beginning. Attempting to pull this off practically would have been a lot more trouble than it was worth, so it was simpler to create the whole shot and just comp in our characters. For most of our shots, we found great locations and composited in elements which helped sell our world.

Who do you cite as influences?

I tend to be inspired by individual movies as opposed to directors. Some of my favorite’s are Gattaca, Pan’s Labyrinth, District 9 and The Godfather. I also love pretty much everything David Fincher has done.


Prism filmmaker Jackson Miller

Prism filmmaker Jackson Miller

Tell us about your Chapman University experience.

Dodge (Chapman) is an amazing film school with incredible resources, great teachers, and talented like-minded peers eager to collaborate on projects. However, like at any film school, for the most part, things won’t be handed to you. You will get out of it what you put into it and if you don’t go in willing to commit 110% then it’s probably not worth the tuition. Attending film school costs a lot and doesn’t guarantee success so push yourself and get your money’s worth!

Do you have any advice for student filmmakers?

Shoot high and take risks. If you succeed, be proud, if you fail, fail hard, learn and apply what you’ve learned to the next project.

Jackson Miller is a Los Angeles based writer and director currently in development on a sci-fi feature and several online projects.

Learn more about Jackson’s work on his website: jacksonmillerfilms.com

Like Prism on Facebook: facebook.com/PrismMovie

Prism screens as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices showcase on Friday, March 11 @ 9:30pm, and Saturday, March 12 @ 3:45pm.

All screenings are at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, CA.

Click to read more Cinequest interviews.

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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