Artist spotlight–Retro sci-fi is alive and well with filmmaker Michael Prestage

Robinson Robot

I was lucky to catch up with an aspiring creator of short films who has a love for the sci-fi vision of the future as seen through the viewfinder of the past–U.S. filmmaker Michael Prestage.  His films harken back to everything from 1950s serials and commercials to 1960s cartoons like Fractured Fairy Tales, old NASA films, and even the live-action series Tales of the Riverbank.  Michael has a great eye for styles of the past and you could easily see his work used in modern marketing and commercials or to help create the setting for motion pictures taking place in decades past.

I interviewed Michael about three short films, which I am posting in their entirety here.  First, check out Michael’s recent competition entry in the 2013 Firefox Flicks contest:

CB:  Michael, thanks for sharing your work with us today.  Please tell us about your work on Tale of the Firefox.

MP:  Tale of the Firefox was a project that came ridiculously close to never happening.  It was past midnight when I remembered I’d left my PC on in the other room and went to go shut it down.  I got there and there was this little blurb that had popped up sometime in the interim, imploring Firefox users to enter their short film contest proclaiming the virtues of Firefox.  I like Firefox as much as the next person, I’ve been using since the 56k days, but I ran the prospect over my brain cells and I came up dead empty.  I said to hell with it, shut the PC down and forgot about it… or, so I thought.  Lo and behold, I wake up the next morning, grab a scrap of paper and start madly scratching out this offbeat story about a cherubic little kid suddenly finding himself tossed into this creepy netherworld.

CB:  I love the narration that sounds just like someone out of the 1960s.  Was that you or someone else’s voice?

MP:  I’d hit upon the idea of placing my pocket voice recorder inside this old NASA floodlight that I’d been noticing for some time to have unusual resonating properties.  I spent the rest of an afternoon reciting my narration into the amphitheater-shaped lamp, and by that night I had my narrative track laid down exactly as it plays in the completed short.

CB:  How long did Tale of the Firefox take to create?

MP:  I spent the next 6 months attempting to craft a cartoon to live up to the soundtrack.  I knew from the onset I wanted all the animation to be hand-drawn in keeping with the toon’s old school sensibilities.  To that end, I managed to locate a cache of vintage Snoopy pencils from the 1960s and used them as a guide to create the some 290+ drawings that comprise Tale of the Firefox.  As I’m a confirmed novice when it comes to anything involving but the most rudimentary animation, this project was, literally, trial by fire… only of the animated variety, as it were.

Keeping with my usual M.O., work ensued maddeningly right up to within 2 hours of the 3:00 a.m. deadline for the contest, whereby some miracle I assembled 6 months of individually-produced clips onto the audio timeline.  Within 15-20 minutes of seeing the images married to their soundtrack for the very first time, I was uploading the outputted short to the competition website.  With my heart still making like a bongo drum, I waited the eternity of an hour for my upload to complete.  Upon finally receiving confirmation message that I was officially a contestant, I promptly collapsed.  Before drifting off, I couldn’t help but contemplate that for the very first time I had actually seen a project to fruition that did indeed look, act, and sound remarkably like the intangible, though compellingly clear vision that had existed only in my head.

Michael Prestage Firefox

CB:  Your style reminds me of work we now refer to as “retro” although it was state-of-the-art in its day.  For me it’s reminiscent of great animation like The Pink Panther and Sherman and Mr. Peabody.  What are some of your influences?

MP:  As for Mr. Peabody and Sherman, I’ve never been able to get those two out of my system; without the weird world of Jay Ward I can’t imagine my toon existing in the first place.  I’ve always had a soft spot for classic Pink Panther as well, so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Fox wound up with a few Friz Freleng chromosomes.

As for influences… One film is an homage to the antiquated imagery of George Pal and Chesley Bonestell.  The other, an ode to bad Italian sci-fi, featuring all practical special effects, varying from the almost-acceptable to the Don Dohler-esque variety.  The latter was shot entirely on an iPhone (don’t ask!).  The highlight of the Antonio Margheriti-inspired farce is an enormous 1/10th scale miniature containing a few hidden hardware homages to several mid-century classics.  Of the handful of viewers to see it, I don’t believe a single one has spotted them yet.

CB:  I’m not sure people are aware how much time and effort go into just a few minutes of final production material.  How long have you had the desire to make your own films?

MP:  Whatever the Firefox Flicks contest outcome, I am one step closer to achieving what has been a dream of mine since the age of six or seven.  Toward that still-elusive objective, I’ve spent the better part of two years assembling a cache of vintage motion picture cameras, lenses, lights and peripherals–a feat that only five years ago would have proved nigh impossible on my humble lawn maintenance wages.  Now, thanks to the sudden migration of mid-tier production outfits to an all-digital workflow, professional film cameras are surfacing on the market for a fraction of their original cost.  Oftentimes for less than the cost of renting them just a few years ago.  Cameras costing the equivalent of a modest house can now be had for the price of a primered ’92 Toyota.  If this unprecedented trend continues, we are seeing a filmmaking changing of the guard, every bit as relevant as any supposed digital democratization, perhaps more so.

With these cameras falling into the hands of enthusiastic, still-idealistic filmmakers, a 21st century renaissance may be in the offing for the one-hundred-and-eighteen-year-old medium that began it all.  If I can play even a small role in film’s continuing story, then my journey will have been worth it, and then some.

Here is another one of Michael’s films, Atlas:

CB:  Michael, how did you go about making this 1950s inspired commercial?

MP:  My short, Atlas (2004), was actually shot live-action on mini S-VHS tapes, though it’s often mistaken for a predominately animated piece (my Sis thought it was a PowerPoint project).  Aside from a digital matte painting of an orbital space wheel (due to time constraints), the bulk of the production was realized through frighteningly small scale miniatures that made creating the on-set pyrotechnic and exhaust effects a real nightmare.

That said, it was a helluva lot of fun.

Here is Michael’s short film, Robinson Robot, S.O.S.:

CB:  Michael, I can’t get enough of the visuals in Robinson Robot, S.O.S. and that crazy soundtrack.  How did this come about?

MP:  It was one of those out-of-the-blue DIY projects, where one day you’re minding your own business, merrily coasting along, then two days later you find yourself up to your neck in cardboard and styrofoam.  This can usually go one of two ways… neither one of which I’d wish on my worst enemy!  That said, with a mere three weeks sandwiched between having learned of J.J. Abrams’ Action Movie FX competition and its fast-approaching deadline, I set about creating an as believable world as possible within the time allotted.  Needless to say, a host of shopping center dumpsters were raided to satisfy the project’s voracious demands, as well as enough hot glue sticks to damn near reach the moon and back.  I suspect the lady at the craft store believed I’d discovered some illicit use for the cursed things.  On that peculiar note, I did discover I could create injection molded parts using hot glue forced into makeshift silicon molds, resulting in the trio of translucently-embellished weapons adorning the spaceship interior, the likes of which should appear familiar to fans of a certain Pidgeon-powered space opera.

CB:  How long did this film take to create?

MP:  With my hectic three weeks drawing to a close, I somehow managed to complete the near entirety of the construction dictated by my ridiculously overzealous storyboards.  Ironically, unlike the lovably bad Italian sci-fi films I was seeking to pay homage to, I wouldn’t have the luxury of their laughably short two and three-week shooting schedules.  No, I would have one afternoon, or, as it turns out, after lugging two carloads of props into the wilderness… three hours.  Between a temperamental iPhone camera, and the fact that my Sis and two nephews had barely glimpsed any of the hardware before that afternoon, shooting went as well as could be expected.  Rallying together, we gave it our all, and before losing the light, got what we hoped would be enough to fashion a coherent short. In a mad two-day rush, I worked, literally, day and night to complete the miniature and practical element photography, retool my story, put together my sound effects, then finally stir it all together and hope it wouldn’t blow up in my face.

Given the time constraints, and any number of the other mitigating factors that seemed to rear their ugly head at every turn, Robinson appeared to weather the storm, and then some. While not taking any prize money home, he did get an enthusiastic thumbs up from sci-fi historian, Bob Burns.  For me, and Robinson, that was more than reward enough.

Here is a great feature Michael created showing a brief look at his process for creating Robinson Robot, S.O.S.:

Michael, thanks for sharing your awesome work with us today.  We look forward to your future projects!

C.J. Bunce

Leave a Reply