How To Design A Good Sci-Fi Space Helmet: An Interview With The Filmmakers Of 'Prospect'

Prospect is a bold, unique indie film (read /Film editor Jacob Hall's review of the film from SXSW). It's a low-budget sci-fi western that relies heavily on practical effects to tell its story. In this day and age, that's a rarity. It's particularly impressive because when you use practical props, sets, and effects, you have to deal with a lot of inconveniences on set, like figuring how to work with actors that need to be in helmets and space suits for eight or twelve hours per day. That's daunting on a big budget film, but the challenges are exacerbated when your budget is in the low seven figures.

On the occasion of Prospect's March 8 VOD release, I spoke with filmmakers Zeek Earl (writer/director) and Matt Acosta (production designer) about how they overcame some of these challenges. Below, you can watch and read my interview. Matt and Zeek also shared some great behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot, which you can see in the video.

[Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Prospect Interview

Helmets are a really challenging thing to execute in a sci-fi film. Tell us about some of the challenges involved and why you chose the approach you did.Zeek Earl: Prospect is a very practical film. We didn't want to make this film in front of a green screen. We wanted to make it in a real location with tons of practical sets and props. Texture is very, very important to us. We wanted to make an original world. The story is set in a frontier environment. Prospect is very much a western in many ways, just in kind of a sci-fi setting. And for us it was also really important that this frontier environment not just replicate Earth. I love Star Wars, but a lot of Star Wars movies, every single planet somehow has the right mix of oxygen for human beings to thrive and survive. We were like, "No, humans did not evolve on this planet. It's a toxic atmosphere. Our actors have to stay in their suits the whole time. They're in a survival situation. They can't take their helmets off."

Both Matt and I, we actually didn't have a lot of experience in the industry prior to making Prospect. We're kind of outsiders and we had kind of sat on our couches and were really critical of other sci-fi movies for years. One of the big ones is, and I love Ridley Scott, but in Prometheus, they come up with an excuse to take their helmets off after like five minutes. And for those five minutes where the helmets are on, there's lights that are like blaring in the actors' faces that in reality would actually like blind you. So we're like, "No, we want to do this very like grounded and realistic." And that was our goal. That's what we set out to do. Part of this was ignorance. Like we were too stupid to like not know why you don't like realistically depict helmets . So in some ways, we made a very, I think, unusual movie because of that ignorance. I'm excited with how it turned out, but it was, it was definitely challenging.

With helmets in space movies, there are a lot of advantages to taking off the helmet. It gives the actor time and room to emote. Lighting an actor's face is a lot easier when they're not wearing a helmet. So how did you solve some of these problems?Zeek Earl: So, the challenges on Prospect with the helmets. I think the first one is just actor comfort. We were custom making these helmets and we tried to make them as fitted and comfortable and breathable as possible, but when you have to spend eight to 12 hours a day wearing this thing, that is very challenging. [With] Jay Duplass, we consulted a yoga specialist to try to get like custom yoga moves for neck comfort but still failed. Jay went back to LA with a very, very sore neck. Pedro's helmet we actually designed so that it sat on his shoulders and that was really smart. Applying that design to the other characters might've been a good idea. And then the other thing for the actors is the sound. Usually, particularly in sci-fi movies, they try to do action in the helmets, but then when there's big dialogue scenes, they try to move that outside the helmets. And for us it's like, "Nope, you're in a survival scenario. We're not going to come up with excuses for you to get out of your helmets." But when actors are performing, they have to get used to the sound bouncing back at them. You're kind of in an echo chamber. I think it took a couple of days for each actor just to get used to how weird it sounded inside that helmet. And also, our sound guy consulted with the crew of "The Martian" to figure out the radio system because we actually had to then build a radio system that was not just recording the audio, but was actually usable and live for the actors to talk to each other.Right. So people are reacting to the dialogue in real time.Zeek Earl: Yeah. We didn't do a whole lot of ADR. The dialogue in the movie was recorded in those helmets. What was cool about it is, it sounded real. It sounded like these people are on location in suits, but at the same time it got pretty muddy and took quite a bit of sweetening to be audible to the audience.Matt Acosta: I think the coolest thing about the microphones is it just adds another layer of realism. We had to build them because they were going to be on their faces. We can't hide them anywhere. We really needed to get a good signal. So we had to build something that looked kind of in world and looked good. We actually had different designs for each character's microphone. Some people had similar ones because they were from the same world. But it was another point of realism that we had for all of our characters. They had this microphone, and then microphone play actually was part of the script. I think that it added to the film in a lot of ways.Zeek Earl: When you're designing a movie, if you essentially start it from a really grounded place where you're thinking through the logic of every facet, you just creatively arrive at new ideas that you wouldn't get to otherwise if you're just sort of kind of imagining everything in a vacuum.In a normal sci-fi movie, lights are blasting into the actors' faces. It reduces glare and it also allows you to see the actor, but you didn't want to do any of that, or you didn't want to do something that was that obvious. You used completely natural lighting for most of the film, it sounds like?Zeek Earl: Yeah. So, not having lighting gear is just one part of that challenge with these reflections. Each helmet is like – picture those mirrors they have outside of parking garages. They reflect like 180 degrees. Normally, when you're shooting a movie, you only have to worry about what's on one side of the camera where we had to worry about what's on literally both sides of the camera. So our camera people had to wear black cloaks. They looked like ghosts. Then the other thing we had to do is that you have anywhere from 20 to 80 people on a film crew who generally are just hanging around the set, but on our set, they had to disappear. So the minute we would yell, "camera rolling," everyone had to jump behind a tree or in the Hoh Rain Forest duck into the ferns. Then you yell "cut," and they just kind of like emerge like an army of the undead like out of the ferns. We had to hide our camera crew. But also what was kind of cool about that is like we have our actors who are like in a real environment, in real helmets, and we are hiding the crew for like every take. So I think we were giving them a real scenario to work with as we possibly could.Matt Acosta: Not to mention inside the helmets they were hot and uncomfortable, like you would be in a real space suit, and you can hear that in their breath.Zeek Earl: I think that's the one thing we didn't cover earlier is that in these helmets, it was legitimately hard to breathe. And I think that's one thing we actually didn't anticipate enough, where it was kind of fine if you were sitting, not doing much. But if you're running, this movie has a lot of action, you get winded way faster. Not to mention that all your breath, all the moisture coming out of your mouth has to go somewhere. So the helmets would fog up within minutes. And the amount of like hours, weeks we spent trying to figure out how to counter that problem was ridiculous.Matt Acosta: The search for finding the perfect de-fogging stuff. We tested multiple companies. I think we ended up settling on this hockey de-fogging wipe and spray?Zeek Earl: We contacted numerous companies that were making experimental materials for the military, like essentially plastic that was incapable of fogging. And we did all these tests and they all didn't work or didn't have perfect optical quality. It was this huge endeavor in pre-production to try to find the right material. And we just ended up using hockey liquid.So, challenging to light, challenging to cool, challenging to get sound for them. After all of these challenges that you solved, was it worth it? What have you learned?Zeek Earl: I'm extremely proud of how this movie looks because I think if we had really understood what we were getting into, we might have not done it, or we might have done it differently. But because of our ignorance, I think we made a really unusual, original looking movie. And when you see some of the reflections on the visors – cause that's the main thing, is other sci-fi movies are just trying to kill those reflections, because they're so hard to work with. But instead we embrace them. And we have actors in the forest and it's a whole second layer of visual information. Sometimes you see other actors that are in the scene reflected. Sometimes you see props. Some other things that are kind of relevant. You're reflecting the forest, the sky, the amount of atmosphere and texture we were able to cultivate. I think it's just really beautiful and makes that environment feel real and immersive.Matt Acosta: You start to learn how the actors are acting within the helmets and it becomes this other extra level for the actors. And there was this very specific scene where Jay Duplass literally holds a gun up to Pedro's helmet and puts it against the glass. And it had this completely different threat and weirdness to it because Pedro could like look at the gun and there's this forced distance between the gun and the character, which in other movies you don't really have. It was so interesting to see him playing in that space because it's just a new, a new thing, a new piece that he had to play with.Zeek Earl: Yeah. I mean I think that's what we realized what a brilliant actor Pedro was. Because it took them a couple of days to figure out that he more or less had this like frame that he could play with. And to see him use that throughout the film...Like he would position his body and like turn his head and interesting ways to kind of like create this villainous kind of floating persona was just so cool. As much he was uncomfortable, like overheated, I think it led to an extremely original and performance.Prospect is available on March 8 on VOD.