More Steam, Less Punk

Posted Sunday, June 17, 2012, 10:53 PM

Steampunk means different things to different people. Indeed, to a large chunk of the viewing public it doesn't mean anything at all, as they have no idea what you're talking about. But to the geeks who are into it, it's a kind of retro-style science fiction that has great appeal.

Based on the Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs era of adventure stories, it stems from a time when steam, clockwork, and airships dominated technology and therefore influenced their futurism. Aeroplanes, cars, and computers weren't easy for the writers to imagine, so they tended to just extrapolate from what they knew. Now it comes across as antiquated, but nonetheless quite stylish, and the naivete of their predictive tales have a compelling charm.

The key element for modern Steampunk adventure seems to be entirely aesthetic. You have to get the look right first, then after that the story fits within. The plot doesn't necessarily have to revolve around steam, though the limits of the technology of the time can play a part. But even that doesn't always apply, as new tech will have evolved to fill in some gaps. So you might have a road vehicle of sorts, but it will travel at 30mph and need a refill of coal instead, or there may only be airships, but they're small, efficient, and as manoeuvrable as a helicopter.

Many times I have thought about how I'd do Steampunk, given the opportunity, and I have devised a base that I think it would need to follow on from. First, the internal combustion engine doesn't get invented, so that means the aeroplane doesn't get invented either, nor cars, diesel or electric trains, and any sea-going steamships are limited in speed.

Then what if WWI doesn't occur. That would mean certain changes in attitudes that happened after are no longer initiated; which would be compounded further if there were no WWII either, as it was an era where views on equality and racism started to change. So if those huge world events never occurred, that would mean many old-fashioned attitudes would still linger.

But having said that, if we were to set the story in our own current year, via a Steampunk history, there would still be sociological development, and a certain amount of modern attitude would inevitably happen no matter what was different in the recent past, which opens up the world to strong-willed dynamic female characters, even if a lot of sexism still remains.

Also, a steam and coal based history means we still need to utilise horses for much of our transport needs, and therefore cobblestones would remain common. The smoke would cause all sorts of havoc to the climate, forming a thick grey cloud layer, leaving a grimy scum on water and every other surface, and an acrid everpresent stink of smoke and oil.

People would therefore dress accordingly, hence the prevailing popularity in Steampunk of thick wool and leather coats, goggles, and sturdy boots. The adherence of a Victorian fashion sensibility doesn't necessarily make sense unless you keep the story set in the era of the late 1800s or early 1900s, so many stories remain in that era, but my approach of no World Wars, which had sparked such changes as trousers for women, and fabrics developed for comfort and practicality, would explain why those never develop in my Steampunk universe.

A year or so ago, I was thinking about what it would take to make a short Steampunk film, and the problem that stopped me from proceeding was the need to find a lot of very specific stylish costumes for the characters, and very specific kinds of locations that would require a lot of props and expensive set designs.

But having recently completed a lot of 3D backgrounds for a short film that was shot entirely on greenscreen, the realistic results buoyed me somewhat and convinced me that we don't always need a real location to achieve a believable quality image. And as time goes on and our skills and equipment improve it only gets easier.

As much as real locations always look better than anything wholly artificial, I believe that if I do it right I can create something believable enough we can get away with it. Shadows, depth of field, and a great foreground to draw the eye will help hide the digital nature of our sets.

And so I have decided that my next production will be a Steampunk short film. We've already begun pre-production. I will be Directing, my first time at that most important of roles. In the past I've only ever been anonymous crew or post-production. I have sort of semi-co-Directed with my mate Rob on some little productions, but really it wasn't much more than as an assistant-poke-my-nose-in with no real responsibilities to stress me out, so this will be a whole new experience for me. I have tried to Direct once before, but I was discouraged by the rigmarole of preparing that shoot, things just never worked out the way they should've. Locations are harder to find, not only because people demand some kind of money for the use of them, but also the higher restrictions on what you can do and where you can go, due to the weird paranoid privacy issues that have evolved in the last decade.

This time, though, not only am I more confident with my own vision, I have already figured out how to work around the usual stumbling blocks we may encounter, by having a minimal number of actors, no live locations, a controlled environment, and a very short and simple shot list. I have every confidence this will work out very well.

I hope.