Dark Encounter Director Carl Strathie Talks Alien Lights And Grief In Our Interview

January 7, 2020

Written by Kelli Marchman McNeely

Kelli Marchman McNeely - Horror Fuel CEO & Executive Producer Email: [email protected]
I had the pleasure of sitting down with writer-director Carl Strathie to discuss his new film Dark Encounter, a sci-fi thriller about a family’s struggle with loss and the truth of a dark mystery discovered with the help of otherworldly beings. The following is our conversation.
Horror Fuel: “If you will, tell us about your most recent film Dark Encounter?”

 

Carl Strathie: “The story is about a little girl who has gone missing. We follow the family a year after on the day of her memorial and they are grieving and they’re coping with the fact that no one knows what happened. It’s about a family struggling. There’s a big twist at the ending. Did you see it coming?”

 

Horror Fuel: “No, I did not, which is a miracle, I always see what’s coming in movies. I like not knowing what happens right up until the end.”

 

Carl Strathie: “Good, that’s good.”

 

Horror Fuel: “I’m glad that you explore the family’s story. It has so much emotion.

How did the story come about?”

 

 

Carl Strathie: “I remember vividly as a child, around 11 or 12 years old, on warm summer evenings, sitting on an old picnic bench in our back garden in our country home, listening to spooky soundtracks on my old walkman, imagining strange lights in the skies over the barley fields as the sun went down. I’d imagine a family looking on from their farmhouse, and some venturing out to explore these strange hovering lights. The images I imagined were from various old illustrated UFO books that I collected, as well as an old UFO’s “Caught On Tape” VHS series. I guess that’s the initial roots of the story. Then, the story of a little girl going missing (and essentially the twist ending of the film – which I won’t mention!) was a separate story I had. When it came around making our second feature film, once we had wrapped on our debut feature, I explored what we might do next and I was just drawn to the UFO idea. I ended up combining the two ideas, of lights in the skies haunting a family, and a family at the grief of their missing daughter. I then started writing. That is essentially how Dark Encounter was born.”

Horror Fuel: “I love the way the lights flood the home. How was that achieved?”

 

Carl Strathie: “Bart Sienkiewicz, our outstanding Director Of Photography, and his genius Gaffer, Tom Nowell, came up with various ways to have these huge lights, which represent the UFO’s, pass the windows. Some were fitted to camera cranes and some tied to ropes, which were essentially pulled like a clothesline across the windows. But it wasn’t easy as there wasn’t much room on set. All the interiors of the house were built in sound stages and we were practically wall-to-wall, not allowing much room down the sides of the house for these UFOs to pass. But Tom, Bart and the team handled it like pros and created incredible lighting effects. No condition is ever perfect on set. And it’s not about the conditions. It’s about how the conditions are handled and how you overcome them. I like to nickname Tom Nowell “The Lord Of Light” as he truly is a genius with lighting. We also had him on Solis, our first film, in which light is also essentially another character. But with this film, Dark Encounter, we were just blown away by what he and his team achieved and how hard they worked to pull it all off.”

 

 

 

Horror Fuel: “It worked out beautifully. The alien looked amazing, was it CGI?”

 

Carl Strathie: “I’m so glad you think so! The alien was actually a full practical creation, a huge six-foot-something puppet created by ArtemFX. I knew early on that I didn’t want the alien to be CGI. Audiences will just be able to tell, and it’s a cheap trick – unless you’re going to pour loads of time and money into it, which we didn’t have either of. So Artem rose to the challenge. In fact, they didn’t have to rise far as it wasn’t a challenge for them at all! These guys are wizards. There’s nothing they can’t do, especially when you don’t have much room in the budget. But they created “Maurice” (the alien’s birth name, I believe) with a full inner skeleton, some organs, and translucent skin, and could be manipulated to move his head, arms and torso. They also created a hero arm that has moveable fingers for separate close shots. We then decided that digital technology could be used to enhance Maurice, so using CGI in post, we had these light effects inside his body as if there are pulses in energy running through his nervous system. I think they based the little lights inside on the UFO’s themselves, so there’s that connection. But the VFX team just enhanced the light within the alien, which completed the effect.”

 

Horror Fuel: “It looked fantastic. I love its sleekness. So, how much of the overall effects were practical?”

 

Carl Strathie: “So the alien was practical, enhanced only with CGI a little bit, the UFO’s outside were real lights fixed to huge drones and were only occasionally for some shots enhanced with CGI. Basically the stuff I think you’d expect to be CGI in the film wasn’t, and the stuff you wouldn’t think was CGI probably is. For example, the house itself was entirely CGI. We couldn’t find an American-style house close to the studio here in the UK. So we found a house with the right landscape setting; the garden was right, the driveway was right and the surrounding layout was right. We then just digitally created our house 100% and plopped it on top of the existing house. As we were shooting in the UK for the US, we carefully selected American-looking locations. But the VFX team still had touch-up jobs to do. For example, we have white dotted lines on the roads over here. In the states, they’re yellow and often unbroken. So the VFX team had various painstaking jobs of small amounts of detail that make a huge difference. And the frustrating part of VFX work like this is that nobody must notice your hard work! It is to be invisible, to sell the illusion. If you can see it, it’s wrong. But the guys at Viridian FX, a VFX house in York, are just incredible at what they do. But as a basic rule, wherever possible, I like to do things practically in-camera. Practical effects enhanced with CGI; I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. Rather than pure CGI, I think the balance of the two creates the best visuals.”

Horror Fuel: “Did you get to keep the alien? I always wonder what happens to props after films are completed.”

Carl Strathie: “Maurice the alien is safe and sound in the lobby at ArtemFX I believe. We wouldn’t have room for it at home. Would make a great burglar deterrent though… We do however have the spooky-as-hell cymbal monkey, the famous Charlie Chimp. We endured all kinds of hell acquiring the rights to use that thing. Well, our Production Coordinator Rory Johnston did. I think he still has nightmares about it. So we’ve kept it in our loft. I think a few cast members got to keep a few props related to their characters. I know that Bridget Doherty, who plays Maisie, the missing girl, got to keep her red dungarees. She was very pleased about that. On our last film, SOLIS, I really wanted to keep the miniatures we shot with, as again we avoided CGI as best as we could (the finished result was a combination between the practical miniatures and extensive touch-ups with CGI) so we had both spacecraft in the film made as models. But there was no way we’d have the room in our house for them. So both spaceships I believe live in the ViridianFX offices in York. It’s always nice going in there and seeing the models sitting there. They become symbols of memory.”

Dark Encounter’s cinematography is fantastic and the story will break your heart while keeping you on the edge of your seat. Luckily, you will not have to wait to see it, Dark Encounter arrives on VOD and Digital on January 7, 2020.

Follow Carl Strathie on Instagram and Twitter for more on Dark Encounter and his other projects.

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