In late March of 2010, we were introduced to a teaser trailer for a short concept film entitled Project Arbiter. The teaser got us excited to learn more, so we spoke with writer/director Michael Chance about the project.
The 20-minute concept film is designed to pique interest in a proposed feature trilogy that includes trans-media integration - meaning video games, toys and novels. As the director of a number of short films and commercial projects, Chance is ready for the next level, talking on a potentially career-defining franchise. If a studio is as impressed as we are by the work he has done on Project Arbiter so far, expect big things in the future.
The short film is still a mystery to many, so we discussed it with Chance in detail over an hour-long phone call. All we really knew back in March was that the story twists the reality of World War II into a genre-bending action sci-fi movie. But Chance doesn't want audiences to see this as an alternate reality like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds - it falls closer to an untold story based firmly in reality, according to the director:
"It is NOT an alternative reality or new history. This IS very much rooted in historical events. I would consider it more like a Saving Private Ryan or a Band of Brothers in that we are following a group of people encountering key battles and individuals within the history of World War II. I think what [Quentin] Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds was awesome in that you just didn’t see that twist coming at the end. But at the same time I think our film strays away from that type of fantasy in that ours is very much rooted in reality. More so we’ve gone very deep into what is technologically possible and the amount of electrical hertz that can go through a body for example. Jesse Boots and our visual effects team are working hard with me to create a cloaking technology that is visually different from anything you’ve seen - this is just one way we are taking the WWII experience in a completely new and virtually unexplored territory on film. That type of open collaboration within our team is what has allowed us to continually expand the story and its presence."
The cloaking technology he refers to is a major aspect of Project Arbiter. While it may look like a run-and-gun action movie, it actually focuses more on the stealthiness of a soldier who finds temporary invisibility with an unprecedented chemical and the situations that ability gets him into.
"In science fiction, there has been much emphasis on weaponry as in explosives, guns, and different kinds of battle armor. I thought what would be more interesting is if a soldier has the ability to go invisible and moreover put the emphasis on the difficulties that come with that responsibility. There are personal moral decisions with such a power and there are severe consequences when using raw chemical materials that have the capability to change you forever. You are basically an invisible person that could go into virtually any room undetected and do whatever you want. The possibilities are limitless and when put in the hands of a trained soldier, it’s a lethal combination."
Project Arbiter is as much a character study as it is an action film, if not more. Chance is proud of the emphasis on character, stating that the main character of Joseph Colburn has a "darker turmoil inside that is personified by the way the suit looks." The engaging short film should have no problem finding a core audience, but the story always takes precedent to cool weaponry.
"The story follows Joseph Colburn [played by Lex Cassar] who is part of the O.S.S. and he is paired with his S.O.E. handler Tom Hardy [played by Jake Lyall]. At the beginning of the film they are on a mission to secure more information on a specific individual who created the German version of the suit. On this journey, they switch up the plan to potentially capture this target, which increases the risks and rewards. The Arbiter parachutes out of a prototype aircraft while they are hit by anti-aircraft flak fire from the location they are trying to infiltrate. Along the way, there is a series of battles and confrontations that the Arbiter encounters with specific individuals on the Nazi side of the story. We focused on creating a conflict that unfolds Joe through action, mystery, and personal growth."
The future of Project Arbiter relies heavily on the reactions to the 20-minute concept short. While it has been designed as its own short film, it exists for the greater purpose of jump-starting a franchise. But as any independent filmmaker will tell you, getting the right attention is the hard part. Chance has made the rounds by attending 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, speaking with the press and simply getting the word out through social media. We noticed the work before filming even finished, so he must be doing something right.
But the big question is how Chance, producer Vicki de Mey, and the rest of the Project Arbiter team will push the film to the next level. Independent filmmaking is a tough market, but short films have been picked up in greater numbers lately and Chance sees his opportunity to pounce.
"What’s been interesting is having the comparison to District 9 or The Raven, which was recently picked up by Mark Wahlberg. It is a really exciting time for independent filmmakers to get their films seen. The biggest thing that Hollywood and the industry looks for is an immediate reaction to a concept. If you can solidify your concept within two minutes, and then gather enough steam to create a concept short that’s 20-minutes, you can show beyond the concept that the group of filmmakers that created it have the ability to follow through on a feature film."
TRON: Legacy was pitched to Disney with a concept short in the same vein as Project Arbiter and that resulted in a mega-million investment. While Project Arbiter may not have a predetermined fan base like TRON, there is enough to get excited about in just the teaser trailer from last year.
Chance says they are at the halfway point in post-production, with nearly 50% of the 220 visual effects shots finished and an original score in the works by composer Ryan Leach. If you have any doubts about the visuals in the original teaser, rest assured only a half-year has passed since production wrapped and they are already enhancing it further. Below are the first stills to be released. Chance expressed how thrilled he is with the imagery and detail that cinematographer Jason Beckwith and colorist Tashi Trieu have created.
It will be interesting to see the finished product and follow the attempt to turn this into a bankable franchise.
Original concepts are difficult to come across these days in the movie business. While it is an appealing aspect of Project Arbiter, it will also be its biggest enemy. With a few strokes of genius marketing, like the unexpected Arbiter custom LEGO mini-figure created by Amazing Armory in Hong Kong, Arbiter has a chance to mimic Neill Blomkamp's journey from Alive in Joburg to District 9. But Michael Chance will be the first to urge you to stray away from comparison and experience Project Arbiter as its own entity.
If you haven't seen the teaser from last year, watch it one more time and share your thoughts with us on the short film.
Finally, check out the exclusive new Project Arbiter “CODE: Red” poster below, by concept artist Robert Simons (Click for a larger version):
You can visit the Project Arbiter website for more details and follow production updates on Twitter and Facebook.