'District 9' and 'Chappie' Director Neill Blomkamp on how Steam Could Shape his Next Project

New project Oats Studios will share experimental work and even assets on the gaming marketplace

Blomkamp with his sentient robot creation, Chappie. Credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Last week the director of District 9, Chappie and Elysium – and almost the Halo movie – revealed he would be putting experimental movies and projects on PC gaming storefront Steam. The chance to see anything new from the Duke Of Dystopia Neill Blomkamp is always exciting, but this new project goes beyond just sharing small pieces of unreleased footage. He wants to create a healthy ecosystem for his work outside of big studio blockbusters and to share assets and raw footage with the community so they can create their own work using it.

He spoke to Glixel about the new project, called Oats Studios, why Steam was the right place for it to live, Friday afternoons playing Counter-Strike and whether or not we'll ever see him make that Halo movie.

So tell me more about the Oats Studios project.
In traditional Hollywood you have this situation where directors work on these pretty large films that take a couple of years to make. They end up doing ten or 15 films in their career because of how long it takes to mount the projects. My initial reason to want to do this was because you don't really have the opportunity to play around as much as you may want to. If you think of a painter or a sculptor or a musician they have hundreds of pieces of semi-completed artwork lying all over the place while they're testing stuff out and they go from one painting to another painting and then back. Because filmmaking requires so much capital per project it behaves like a very different beast.

I really wanted to try and figure out if there was a way to not have to adhere to that, at least for 50 percent of my career. I still want to do big Hollywood films, my interest in that hasn't waned at all, but how do I introduce this sandbox of playing around, this incubator or nursery ground for ideas, how do I make that happen?

If you think about it from a financial standpoint it's really difficult to get something like that to work unless you're just burning money. We have just burnt money, for the last two years all we've done is just set fire to a bunch of money because we don't know if it's going to work or not. One way that it could potentially work is if you found the right platform where experimental test films can live and the audience can pay for them in an ecosystem that feels like they're not getting ripped off and that is enough money for the studio to survive. Then maybe you have a viable way for that to work. It's much more difficult than it sounds because if you think of iTunes or other ways that people are able to click a button to pay $1.99 or whatever, they're very stale and non-creative environments. If you go searching for a Marvel film on iTunes it's very precise. You just click on the film, and if you buy the film the only thing you can get is extras that are maybe a Behind The Scenes.

The goal of this is really to communicate with the audience and be putting out concept art and ideas between when we make shorts. It just needed an all-encompassing platform. I don't know if Steam will be right for it – it may not be – but it's the closest thing that I can think of to be able to do that.

The second thing is when something this weird comes out and the audience doesn't really know what to make of it, because we're not making traditional stuff. Maybe the films are a minute long. Others might be 20 minutes long, but may not have a beginning, middle or end – that third act feeling that the audience is looking for. If that's the case it's maybe not the best thing to charge at all in the beginning and just let the audience see them, let them judge how they feel and then do a second batch later that we charge for.

You also want to share assets on Steam right? What are you hoping to see people do with those?
I'm not really sure what people are going to do with it. The way I think of it is that you have this situation, again with traditional Hollywood, where the content makers and the audience are in two extremely different airlocks. There's no back and forth. If they want all the raw footage because they feel like they want to cut something together – if there's some film student that's studying editing and they want to cut a scene together – they can just download all of our raw data and a cut a scene. They can see if they can cut it better or change it. It's about giving people all of the tools that we use.

It goes the other way too, if we hand out 3D assets from the VFX stuff that we've done there may be people that get those assets and put them in a real time setting and make some kind of game. One thing that we've done a lot of is photogrammetry for some of the 3D environments and we've gotten a lot of that work ported into Destinations for the Vive. I don't know if it will provide any value to people but it may, and that's cool. All of it is predicated on the idea that people like the film to begin. If they do they can get on board, if they don't that's all good.

So I'm guessing you're fairly comfortable and familiar with Steam to have chosen it as a platform?
The most views are going to happen on YouTube, because it's free. Why wouldn't the content be on the biggest platform? Then the concept art and the 3D assets, anything that any user wants from us, would be in this downloadable environment on Steam. Maybe there will be one or two shorts on Steam that we charge for to test the ecosystem and see if it works. But initially YouTube would probably be the place that just has the most reach.

The ideal outcome is that we make full scale feature films that end up in theaters

The other thing that's interesting is the potential upload part of it. So if Steam users feel that they have an idea about where a story can go they can share it. If I have ten or 30 or 300 ideas for where the story could go arrive in our Oats inbox, then I can choose where I want it to go. If somebody had an idea that is really, genuinely interesting we may very well go down that road. It doesn't have to just be written ideas, someone could give us a 3D asset of say a weapon that we could mocap with a soldier that we have in a different scene, or designs of ships or vehicles. It really is anything. That's where Steam – we're trying to figure out where the whole upload download thing happens exactly but that's where YouTube doesn't really work in the same way.

Steam does have a creative community who mod and like adapting ideas.
Yeah, it's interesting. I don't know if it's going to work. [Laughs]

In an ideal world what do you want to see from the project in one or two years?
The ideal outcome is that we make full scale feature films that end up in theaters. Speaking about finance – to keep the place running, put out more work and develop the stuff that you have – one model is that you put out District 9 scale films in theaters that we make entirely in house. The traditional model of going to a movie theater and buying a ticket pays for the insanity of the rest of the shit that we're doing here. The incubation of all of the other ideas is piggybacked on the bigger release stuff. In that scenario the stuff we're about to release would just be free forever and you'd have some sort of relationship with the audience where they understand that if they go to see the proper film in the theater, based on one of the ideas that was selected, it pays for more of the other ideas.

A separate version would be if the community did actually buy some of the pieces online that were shorter, and it became self sufficient in that way, then you could just scale up online and do two hour films if you wanted to.

So it's either of those but the outcome is the same in terms of what the goal is. The goal is large scale feature films, built on ideas created in the incubator that is Oats Studios. While the bigger films get made, more and more testing and playing around continues to happen.

You've already put a trailer and a couple of shorts out, one of which featured an elaborate gold-covered Presidential motorcade. Those look like a jab at today's political situation.
The presidential stuff was actually cut out of a bigger series that we had called Bad President, which was conceived of and shot before Trump was even running. His presidency has, in a way, hurt that project. The funny CG stuff, like those vehicles I put out, those are fine, but the president himself and the way that we filmed him in this absurd presidency feels like it doesn't exactly hit Trump. It feels like it missed the target because he was invented before Trump, but now everything is compared to that. There are one or two pieces that just don't really have a home. They were experimental and as times change they're not exactly applicable. So we could have some sort of rejects bin or something where some of the pieces go.

I sent some of the bigger pieces we have, that are five minutes or 15 to 25 minutes, to Hideo Kojima, just to see what he thought. It seemed like he really liked them, but it was interesting because he had an astute point of view about where he thought that films and TV were going to go in the future. About where culture is at this moment, with the YouTube generation absorbing films in a disposable way. It felt like he had a lot of insightful knowledge which was rad. There were a few clips I didn't send him, but the bigger ones he saw.

He's a big movie fan. How did you end up in contact?
It was specific. I wanted to see if people like Hideo – that really know what they're talking about – felt like there was value in what we were making. So I actively sent them to him. He bridges the audience I'm kind of going after, where it's somewhere between films and games and this 21st century crossover of these two mediums. I felt like his point of view was very valid, so it was me actively seeking him out.

I'm kind of obsessed with Counter-Strike, we play CS:GO at Oats most Fridays 

I'm guessing from both the projects you've worked on, your thoughts on Kojima and your background in 3D animation that you've had a relationship with games for a long time.
I love games. It's one big fluid thing to me. I love three-dimensional virtual environments, that's what I used to do when I was in VFX. I love the idea of something existing virtually and as a 3D space which is probably why I like VR so much. We're actually working on a project now in Oats for a client and I'm directing a piece inside a realtime engine. Building the environment in real time and being able to look around in real time, which essentially is a game level, but we're not going to put it out in a realtime setting. It'll be a 2D video dump. That process is incredibly creative and I love it – that whole idea of exploring a 3D environment that you've just magically conjured up out of nothing.

Games have all of the elements that I, as an artist, really love. This tangible world that you can go and exist inside of and you can start adding sound design and music and do what you need to do to place the audience member in that environment. It's an incredibly compelling thing to me.

I'm kind of obsessed with Counter-Strike, we play CS:GO at Oats most Fridays. Just the idea of running around in an environment that's 3D, and after a while you get to know the maps and they become these 3D places that you visited in your head over and over.

Games also distill down the other 50 percent of cinema that is overlooked. Cinema is often discussed as character and plot and story – which it should be, that is the skeleton that you pin everything on to – but there are far fewer discussions about design or tone or environment, production design, costume. Those elements rise to the top in games. Everyone relishes in them. They don't need to make excuses for why they just spend 40 weeks designing a dropship to look awesome. They can just do it. So there's an element of that in games that I love as well.

Hearing you talk about building worlds, what do you think of virtual reality? You can really build whole environments in there.
I don't know where this weird studio that we're building is going to go but I definitely want to be able allocate some resources to exactly that. Build one level in VR and play around with it, add sound design, put all of the elements in place to put the audience member there. I would love to do that, we just need to figure out how all the resources line up and if the whole process works. Is it on the creative target list? Yes.

We've got a bunch of Vives in the office and one of the things that's so simple, but i just can't get enough of, is Google Earth. It's insane that the human race has built that.

The thing that's interesting in VR is the level of adoption in general, and whether it works or not as a viable format. I don't know what the answer is to that. To me it's a 'yes', but to a global population I don't know.

So Counter-Strike, what else are you playing?
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. A lot of it for me is just the big FPS games. Battlefield 4 is one of the best experiences I've ever had, just playing that over and over and shooting people in the head. I love that game.

I was obsessed with most of the stuff Valve made. I was literally obsessed with Half-Life 2. If you look at District 9 a lot of the weapons are basically Half-Life weapons, which is funny. The gravity gun is essentially what the exosuit uses. Those are the big ones. It goes back too, back to the formative stuff. Myst had a massive effect on me. It's that kind of stuff where you break new boundaries in game or in film that leaves resounding effects on people.

I have to ask, if the chance came up to do the Halo movie again, would you take it?
I love Halo, especially from a film standpoint. The opportunities that are there to be capitalized on and the characters. The only downside with Halo is that when you work on something like that, you are entering into a very corporate, giant machine that has a very specific idea of how their "product" needs to be digested by the audience that's going to watch it. It's not as creatively free as I think I would like to be, but it doesn't take away from how much I like the stuff that has already been made.

So if it came up again I would probably say no, reluctantly. But I am a massive fan of Halo, and I always have been. 

You can find Oats Studios on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This interview has been edited and condensed.