Blogging Sci-Fi London: A Day and Night in the Life

A single-orbit sampling of labs, flicks and vibes from London’s largest genre film festival

A montage of the films, directors and goings-on at Sci-Fi London.
A montage of the films, directors and goings-on at Sci-Fi London.

The Apollo Piccadilly’s neon-lit stairs bathe me in a blue glow, zapping all worries of H1N1 and other possible outside world infections as I descend into Sci Fi London’s infectiously enthusiastic lower lobby, bar, gaming arcade and general festival hub. I spot the striking figure of festival commander Louis Savy hovering lightly, alternately checking in with volunteers and visiting directors such as Marc Caro, saluting festival veterans and scoping out newcomers. Gamers zap aliens on sponsored wide-screens, while a medieval-meets-punk couple sidles up to the bar. It is Saturday afternoon, day three of the festival, and there’s no time to waste as “Making Movies for (SM)all Screens” Film Lab is already underway.

I slouch into Theater 4 to find an intense discussion in full swing. Americans Cory McAbee and Dekker Dreyer listen attentively to fellow filmmaker and Scotsman Richard Jobson who is equating his digital film tools to having a guitar when he was a punk rocker in rough and tumble 70s Glasgow. Jobson, former frontman of the Skids, is happiest and most creative when working on low-budget projects, as evidenced by his latest short I Am Digital (view the trailer here), shot with a camera phone in a London train station and mainly public locations. The film draws upon a Matrix-like character and aesthetic, yet the intensely whispered and looped voiceover slides it into more experimental territory as we discover its theme of killing off the stodgy studio film industry. Jobson has two other episodes in the works for downloading, as well as a game version of the film with Sony.

Dekker Dreyer, founder of the sci-fi/fantasy video-on-demand network Illusion, is working on Emissary, which he aptly describes as Indiana Jones meets Bourne Identity. His action-packed series, whose New-York-centric storyline spans a few hundred years, is offering audiences a first taste on the web, but is scheduled for IPTV distribution in late 2009.

Not to be outdone, Cory McAbee (another musician) spoke of the trailer of his recently completed new short-form series, Stingray Sam. The six-episode collection picks up on the oddball avant-comedy qualities of his 2001 Sundance hit feature American Astronaut, with McAbee this time in the role of a singing space cowboy. He has designed his high-contrast black and white episodes to work on small screens, with dense visual compositions, keep-you-on-your-toes narrative twists, and highly catchy tunes, but also has plans to release it as a feature.

The lab’s participants duly note McAbee’s best practices and throw thoughtful questions to the panel pros. With no less than 18 labs during the festival, Sci-Fi London seems very committed to building the next generation of sci-fi directors. Beyond its industry-driven Film Labs, which also cover the ever-burning indie sci-fi issue of budgets, the festival’s Literature Labs offer rich topics such as steampunk culture, female sci-fi authors, and writing fantasy for young adults. The Science Lab program delves into science fact (or what we can venture based on current research) with issues such human-robot relationships, space colonization and etiquette for alien first contact. With London offering easy access to a range of top experts in all of these fields, the labs are truly mind-buzzing stuff.

My lab is followed by “Blink of an Eye Program 2,” a collection of shorts from the UK, France, Spain and the US. While themes like germophobia and earth boy meets alien girl felt familiar, some of the executions were more surprising. Javier Chillon’s The Schneider Disease uses well-crafted pseudo archive footage shot in Super 8mm to tell the tale of a 1950s crash-landed soviet chimp cosmonaut who spreads a deadly virus. In a more human vein, Daniel Piatt’s The Small Multiple relies on a claustrophobic basement workshop, intense performances and intimate camerawork to draw us into the world of an obsessed physics professor whose experiments with time travel become a leap of faith bid to save his marriage. Watch the full film online.

While I found certain films such as The Small Multiple were picking up intellectually-charged cues from cult-followed 2004 feature Primer, my next screening was an unabashedly B-movie story. Recon 2023: The Gauda Prime Conspiracy (view the trailer here) is the third installment in Christian Viel’s Recon series of Starship Troopers-style shoot-em-ups, featuring, among others, a sleazy hired-gun hero, a back-stabbing commandress with disturbing sexual fantasies, a seriously-disfigured misogynist killer, busty android soldiers, and one very pissed-off giant mutant chicken. In the Q&A, Viel, who funds more personal films with the Recon series, explained the '70s style hot tub scene and the film’s other sexual content as due to “distributor requirements”. My main issue was that the film’s running gags and character oddities didn’t go far enough to give the flick the rambunctiousness required for any kind of cult status, although apparently the series has a hefty following in Japan.

The eclectic festival crowd intensified for what turned out to be my screening highlight of the day: Stingray Sam. With several song and dance numbers, and beautifully retro still-image collages (by John Burroso) illustrating a quarter of the total film, the six episodes strung together as a feature wonderfully confounds conceptions of what a sci-fi flick should look and sound like. With the plot revolving around the rescue of a cute little girl, Cory McAbee steers the film though Americana territory, while serving up darker comedic backgrounds of genetic mutation and prison work factories. Ex-convict-turned-lounge-singer Sam plus his sidekick The Quasar Kid are ever-fun and funky, and the episodes dovetail well to make a tidier-than-American-Astronaut but still splendidly oddball space-musical-western. Coming soon to a mobile phone near you, but you can already catch the trailer here.

I chatted after the screening with Recon 2023 director Christian Viel, who flies in from Montreal every year for the passion of Sci-Fi London’s organizers and audiences. A feisty lady in a wheelchair interrupts us to remind him of their fest meeting two years earlier. “It’s like a rock band reunion”, Viel exclaims, referring to his sci-fi buddies. As Saturday’s three all-nighter screenings draw closer, the fans become more decked out, with an assembly of creatures that wouldn’t look out of place in Tatooine’s Chalmun’s Cantina. The retro comedy B-fi program “MST3K” (aka “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”) is sold out, but with free ice cream and energy drinks as sustenance, the “Anime All-Nighter” is looking very promising … Sci-Fi-London definitely has something contagious going-on.

Check out Sci-Fi London’s award winners along with interview podcasts and shorts from the festival’s 48 Hour Film Challenge: and

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