Skywatch Short Film

It’s very rare that we cover short films on /Film these days, but when one as impressive as Skywatch comes along, we’re happy to make an exception. The sci-fi thriller short is the brainchild of independent filmmaker Colin Levy, who left his job at Pixar Animation Studios to finish his short about two teen hackers who poke their noses where they shouldn’t, hoping to chase his dream of expanding the concept into a feature-length movie.

His Kickstarter-funded short film debuted online today, and it’s one of the best shorts I’ve seen in years. Check it out below, and read on for our interview with Levy about crafting its stunning visual effects, locking down an A-list actor for a cameo, and more.

Skywatch Short Film

I don’t know about you, but I was incredibly impressed with what I saw here. Those VFX are just about as good as anything that’s in any modern Hollywood blockbuster, and the story feels like it was honed down and perfected, unlike a lot of other visually-impressive shorts which sometimes feel as if the filmmakers just shot the first draft. And before we get to the interview, a quick shout-out to actors Uriah Shelton (13 Reasons Why, Looking for Alaska) and Zach Callison (Steven Universe, The Goldbergs) for threading the needle of being good-natured without being creepy here – that’s a tough line that easily could have been crossed with the wrong performers in these lead roles.

Read on for our discussion with Colin Levy about how this whole project came together and what he hopes will happen next.

Colin Levy Interview

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First of all, congratulations on this project – I really dug it. It sounds like this is a calling card in the hopes of attracting enough attention to be able to expand this story into a full feature. Do you already have a full-length script written?
Thanks so much! So glad you liked it! Yes indeed, from the beginning this short was designed as a proof of concept for a full-length feature. I’ve been making short after short for over ten years – but Skywatch is the project that I feel most represents my tastes and strengths as a director, and I would be super excited to see it developed into something larger.
Alongside work on the short, I’ve also been writing the feature script – with my co-writer Mike Sundy, who I met at Pixar. The two of us have been notecarding, outlining, writing and re-writing the feature script since 2015, and for me, writing has been the hardest part of this whole project!
It hasn’t been a linear process, but I’m really excited about where the feature story has landed. As we get more feedback on the script, I’m sure it’ll continue to evolve.
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Let’s jump ahead to the ending of your short: how did Jude Law get involved? And has he expressed interest in joining the feature version if/when (fingers crossed) the opportunity comes your way to expand this?
It’s crazy! Jude’s cameo seemed like such a longshot, and I still can’t believe it actually happened.
Skywatch is truly independent project fueled by passion. We don’t have money or crazy connections, but we had this cameo role and we hoped the work itself would be strong enough to attract someone to the project. That was the one benefit of our slow writing process: we literally finished the film in September 2018 – except for that single cameo shot, which remained a storyboard! That gave us a flexible timeline, while we were chipping away on the script, to try to make something happen.
Ultimately it was a “friend of a friend of a friend” situation. We were able to pass along a private link to Jude through several hands – and to our complete surprise, he responded to the short and offered to help! He’s been absolutely generous – and it was a literal dream come true to get to meet and work with him! For someone like me, still trying to break in to the film world, it means so much to have his support.
The feature iteration is a whole ‘nother ball of wax – so much to learn about how these projects come together. For now I’m just grateful that he lent his name to the short!
I read that you were working at Pixar when you decided to leave to make this short. As the writer of this script, did you apply the Pixar methodology of breaking the story down and building it back up again and again? How did the writing process work for you?
Great question! I learned so much from my time at Pixar. I was there from 2011 – 2016, and one of the great privileges of working at Pixar is that you get to see many iterations of a single film as it evolves. The writing process is very fluid, and iteration – along with internal test screenings – are a key part of the process!
I definitely was very influenced by what I saw at Pixar in terms of story development, with both the feature screenplay for Skywatch, and the short film itself. In fact, I screened an early cut of the Skywatch short for my colleagues at Pixar, and got some great (but brutal!) notes! That feedback inspired us to restructure the opening of the film, and to cut an entire scene – which led to some targeted reshoots.
It was a bit painful, but that Pixar-like process of breaking the movie apart and putting it back together resulted in a much better film – more of a thrill ride, and several minutes shorter!
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You’ve been working on this for six years. How has the short changed since your initial vision, and how has the world changed around you to nearly catch up to your ideas?
When I first began working on Skywatch, drone delivery felt a lot more like science fiction! Amazon’s drone delivery service hadn’t even been announced – and now it’s old news. Now UPS and Google Wing are already completing delivery trials in the US and Australia.
The world of cinema has also changed. Just to orient you with the timeline: we shot this short before Stranger Things, before the MeToo movement. Our culture has been evolving fast, and to me, actually… Skywatch – the short – feels a bit behind the times. A bit too familiar. It’s been fascinating to watch the conversations evolve, and to allow those conversations to inform the work we’re doing with the feature script.
But as dramatic as these changes are, what feels more dramatic to me is how I’ve changed as a person and filmmaker. I’m not the same guy who wrote this short back in 2013! Skywatch feels like a product of a younger, less grown me. Last year I made a short documentary about my grandfather, and I was lucky enough to have it published as a NYTimes Op-Doc. It couldn’t be more different than Skywatch – a very personal story, hand-drawn, made in a handful of weeks – and yet it was incredibly emotionally gratifying to do. As much as I love sci-fi, I’d also love to continue to explore more personal stories as a filmmaker.
Did you watch a lot of other shorts to get a crash course in what makes the successful ones work? And maybe more importantly, did you learn any lessons about what not to do with Skywatch?
There’s been a lot of great sci-fi shorts released online over the years. I gobble them up – I’m definitely a fan of the internet sub-genre, and watched quite a few of them as I was writing the short!
One thing I noticed is that many of these proof of concept shorts rely heavily rely on world-building spectacle. So many of them execute the visuals really well… but it’s a more daunting challenge to get an audience to care about a character, or tell a story with heart. Whether or not I succeeded myself, I think the narrative ambition comes across – and I’m happy with the balance we’ve found tonally.
I’ve also noticed that while many of these shorts are released to acclaim and explosive view counts – and some have led to Hollywood deals – very few seem to actually make it to the silver screen as original feature films. I don’t expect Skywatch to be any different – it’s hard to get any movie made – but I wanted to give myself the best chance possible by spending the time to develop a compelling feature script to accompany the short.
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The visual effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a short film. Can you talk about the design process for the VFX-heavy elements of the short, like the NexPort delivery system and the drones? And how long did the post-production process take?
Thank you so much! Very proud of the visual effects in Skywatch – and the team that created them, led by my VFX Supervisor Sandro Blattner. The early design process was particularly fun – just to imagine the most seamless implementation of drone delivery. How might it look, from an engineering perspective? How could a drone–to–pneumatic–tube system accommodate a standardized pod?
Most of the final designs were created by Industrial Designer Matt Bell, who explored countless variations of the delivery drone, NexPortal appliance, and other parts of the system.
Can you tell me a little about your influences for this project, from both a story and a visual perspective? 
I love Rear Window and Disturbia, and tried to pepper in a bit of that voyeuristic tension into my short. I also love Attack the Block and how it managed to be both grounded and fun. From a genre standpoint (conspiracy thriller!), I think I’ve been most influenced by Minority Report, which will always be one of my favorite movies ever.
I feel like the short has some shades of the ’80s Amblin movies I grew up with, but unlike several other projects I could point to that try to capture that tone, this one doesn’t feel like it’s overdosing on nostalgia. Can you talk about striking a balance between paying homage and establishing your own thing?
True! Hm. For me, as a filmmaker, I want to be true to whatever story I’m telling. True to the characters and the unique world of that story. I think it can be interesting to layer in nostalgic elements for the sake of tone or style, but for me it’s got to have a great story justification. Since Skywatch takes place in the near future, I just wanted to stay true to the elements that were organic to that particular world and story.
At the same time, I think my favorite movies naturally influence my work, and sometimes I’m surprised by what shows up. I appreciate sincere kid-focused stories that have a sense of scope and adventure…my top-two favorite films are The Iron Giant and E.T.. I certainly wasn’t consciously channelling Amblin, but having grown up with those movies – they clearly influenced Skywatch, and my sensibilities in general!
What else should I know about Skywatch that we haven’t talked about yet?
My fantastic team! So many people volunteered their time and energy to help out on this project – and since they were unpaid, I just need to shout them out! I’ve been working with my producer Andre Danylevich and VFX Supervisor Sandro Blattner since we met at SCAD 10 years ago. My DP Adam Habib is a friend from Pixar, our 3D Lead Pawel Somogyi was a long-distance volunteer from Poland. Nearly 500 people backed the short film on Kickstarter. Obviously there’s a hundred more names to name – just watch the credits! Super grateful for all the support I’ve gotten over the years, and I’m proud of what we were able to pull off together, with only modest resources.
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