Although Jabbar Raisani had established himself as a premier visual effects supervisor working on such films as “Fantastic Four” and “Predators,” he still found himself awed by what could be accomplished with practical effects. In fact, it was on the set of “Iron Man” when he saw Robert Downey Jr. walk out onto the set in a partial suit for the first time that Raisani realized he might be suited for something else.
“There was stuff [on the suit] that was going to be replaced by ILM, so it wasn’t even a complete and the first time that [Downey Jr.] walked out of the tent, I was sweating bullets because this half-made Iron Man was being presented for the first time,” recalled Raisani. “I watched Jon Favreau go out there, get a viewfinder, and just own it. All these Marvel people were just super- impressed. I was super-impressed, and I was like, ‘Man, that’s what I want to do, I want to be that guy.’”
Raisani, who would go on to win an Emmy for his VFX work on “Game of Thrones,” can finally say he is now. With writing partner Blake Clifton, he has created an ideal first feature for himself in “Alien Outpost,” an immersive sci-fi thriller set in the the not-too-distant future in which an alien race called the Heavies have unsuccessfully attempted to take over Earth yet remain a problem for humans who have struggled to rebuild infrastructure to prevent another attack. Still, some military troops remain intact and the film finds one at Outpost 37 in Pakistan that persists despite constant threat of the Heavies, making up for what limited resources they have with passion, persistence and brute strength.
In some ways, that may be a perfect analogy for what Raisani and crew have done in creating “Alien Outpost,” which tastefully embeds just enough otherworldly visuals into its down and dirty first-person aesthetic to be a convincing and often suspenseful intergalactic rumble in the jungle. Shortly before the film’s release, Raisani spoke about a complicated shoot, how learning the technical side of filmmaking led to imagining new creative possibilities and why if he has his way “Alien Outpost” is only just the beginning.
Since I’m well-aware of the do it yourself ethos at Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios where you once worked, was it influential in becoming a director?
It was absolutely eye-opening working at Troublemaker. I worked at Stan Winston Studio, Pixel Liberation Front, people that were vendors and we’d do a small part of a film and [the work was] split up for who knows how many [other] vendors. You just feel like a small part of a big team. Troublemaker was the first place where I saw everything done under one roof and Robert was great [about helping filmmakers]. I’d say, “Hey, I have a real interest in camera,” and he gave me full access to the camera department, the camera room and the F900s and F950s and really said, “Go do whatever you want to do. If you want to use the stages, use the stages. Make whatever you want to make.”
I’ve read you actually learned about filmmaking from assembling cameras. How did that teach you what you could accomplish with them?
Visual effects overlaps really heavily with the camera and the camera department and I’ve been working in visual effects since I was 17. I didn’t go to film school and it was one of those things where I knew the basics of cameras, but I didn’t know the details of it. So for me, how I learn best is hey, give me the camera, show me how to take it apart, how to reassemble it, and let me do it on my own to see what each part and each component does.
How did “Alien Outpost” come about?
Blake Clifton, the guy I co-wrote it with and who [shot] the film, actually both worked together on Robert Rodriguez’s “Shorts,” then “Machete,” and “Predators.” Near the end of “Predators,” we both said, “Hey I think I’m going to split off and start doing my own stuff,” and [Blake] said, “Why don’t we try doing something together?” I got to know Topher Grace from working with him on “Predators.” He’s really into sci-fi and I’m really into sci-fi, so we all got together and said, “Why don’t we make a couple of short films? Robert granted us the access to use Troublemaker stages, Topher starred in a short film that both Blake and I co-wrote and that was really the first professional filmmaking experience I had. I just fell in love [with it], but I moved back to LA and Blake and I just started writing. In 2011, we wrote the first draft of “Alien Outpost.”
And you actually both came from military families, right? Of course, the film, while not actually shot there, is set in Pakistan, which also must’ve had some personal resonance since that’s where your father is from.
Absolutely. I think both of our military backgrounds gave us a certain familiarity and comfort with the military and it’s also a world that I like and enjoy working within. Those type of characters, the camaraderie, and the teamwork that go along with those kinds of stories really appeals to me. in regards to Pakistani, I’ve been there twice and it’s a part of my heritage and who I am, so being able to bring that into the film was a bonus. It was really something that allowed me to draw from experiences that not everybody has.
As a VFX supervisor, I imagine that you’re given images after they’re already composed and captured, then build upon them, so was it actually easier or harder to construct scenes from the ground up?
The entire script really was constructed to take advantage of what both Blake and I bring to the table. We were figuring out where these scenes were going to land in terms of the cost of execution, particularly in regards to visual effects. As we were writing a scene, it would be easy to say, “well that’s going to require this type of shot or this number of shots,” so when we were getting too expensive, we’d pare it down. That’s one of the other reasons that we went with a practical suit [for the aliens], so when you see the [alien] heavy, sometimes he’s full practical and sometimes he’s full digital — and sometimes he’s anywhere in between. That really lets you choose your approach, your scenes, and your camera angles all based on the budget and limitations that you have. There’s 322 visual effects shots in this film, and typically you wouldn’t be able to achieve that quality and quantity of shots. With good planning and a good team, you really can.
Was there an aspect of directing a feature you didn’t quite expect after actually doing it?
Yeah, there’s a big difference between watching people direct and directing. I’ve been on tons of sets and watched people direct pretty big films very closely. I didn’t realize the extent to which people ask the director what they want. There was a point after the maybe first week of shooting where I turned to my wife and I said, “I’ve never wanted to not hear my name said like I want people to not say my name right now.” Because I couldn’t film more than two minutes without someone saying, “Hey Jabbar, what do you think about this? How should we do this?” They’re all good questions. There is never anything that shouldn’t be asked of you, but I just didn’t realize the extent to which the choices need to be made.
Other than working with Topher Grace on the short, directing actors on a feature like this must’ve been a new experience. Was it exciting to see what they could bring?
It was, it was great. Every single one of these guys really gave it their all and they trusted me. It’s one of those stories that if these guys don’t commit to the world, it’ll fall apart. It will come across as campy and it won’t be compelling and all of the guys brought a lot to the table. Joe Reegen, for one, spent days with guys who’d been over in Afghanistan, figuring out what they were really like and talking to them about their experiences and he brought a lot of that to his character. So my hat’s off to the actors. They also went through a week of boot camp in which they all acted as a real platoon [and each actor played] their rank within the film. That week made a huge difference. They got really familiar with the weapons, and with each other.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on set?
There were a lot of them. We worked it out to where every week we’d have a big action sequence. The schedule was only 24 days, which is not a lot to shoot the amount of content that we had to and every big action sequence was a really difficult day. You’re working with a lot of pyrotechnics and a lot of live fire. There was a particular location that was difficult, which [you can see in the] third act as things start to come to their climax. We only had that set for two days and it is a live munitions testing range, so those tunnels are all very booked up for weapons testing. and South Africa [where we shot] produces a lot of weapons. So we had a very limited amount of time to get in there, shoot our sequences, and get out. We had budgeted for overtime because we knew we had to get these shots, otherwise the end sequence of the film does not work, but those were some stressful days. It was full pyrotechnics, full blanks and we had prosthetics that had squibs and blood work, and it all had to work together.
And yet you plan to do this two more times?
Exactly. The plan is for two films that take place after “Alien Outpost” ends. They take us through the completion of these soldiers’ journey and then there’s a prequel that takes us back to the initial invasion because as I’m sure you noticed, it doesn’t get to explicit into exactly what happened from the invasion to where we get to Outpost 37. The reason behind that is the documentarians are telling a story that everyone in their world knows. Blake and I felt like you need to know the basics, but as a viewer, you don’t need to know all the details, so if you’re following these guys, and you feel for them, being with them is enough. That also led us to a place to write [about] that gap of the full story of what happened from the invasion until the time that we pick up in Outpost 37.