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Sci-Fi filmmaker Austin S. Harris believes aliens could help us

By Emily Gaudette
Stevie's Aliens

When he was in sixth grade, Austin Harris developed a habit for handling cameras. On vacations, he constantly snuck his mother's digital camera to experiment with lining up shots. When his family went to Disney World together, Harris's parents finally gave him a camcorder, encouraging him to document the trip.

Harris made his Disney video, treasuring the footage, and before long, the budding filmmaker found himself directing his kid brother in short films around their house. When he produced a short horror film about an evil teddy bear, his mother sent it to their whole family. "People came to expect it from me," Harris tells SYFY WIRE.

Today, he's making stunning science fiction shorts and hoping to one day make a half-hour anthology TV series. Harris says his dream project falls somewhere between an homage to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, namely a series of "short, creepy, fantastical stories in the horror and sci-fi genre that the whole family can watch together."

Of all Harris's projects, many of which are available online, Stevie's Aliens is a standout. The short won Best Cinematography at NFFTY 2018 and was an Official Selection at the Coney Island Film Festival, San Francisco Black Film Festival, and the DC Black Film Festival. The nearly 16-minute, gentle sci-fi short follows a teenage boy as he nurses an obsession with extraterrestrials, and it ends on a sweeping, colorful shot with a grandiose score. It feels like a cousin of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What is it about aliens that excites you? What kind of aliens in movies hold your attention?

Austin Harris: I love the idea that we aren’t alone in the universe, and that there are things out there that scientists can’t prove. I used to check out these creepy books about UFO abductions from my school’s library and scare myself reading them before bed, but the kind of aliens that hold my attention are the friendly ones. Steven Spielberg, the king of movies about friendly aliens, once said something like... hopefully, if aliens figure out how to get all the way to Earth, they’ll at least be friendly and want to make contact. I’m also fascinated by the idea of aliens having a more advanced understanding of the world than we do, and that they're able to help us.

Which movies interested you most when you were a child? Do any of them still hold up?

I was really captivated by Disney movies like Aladdin, Toy Story, and 101 Dalmatians, and I think they all absolutely still hold up. I loved that they could be heartwarming, but also have moments that, at least to a kid, were really scary. I also remember being traumatized, but also fascinated, by The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (whose idea was the tunnel scene?). I got scared easily as a kid, but I sort of craved it in movies, maybe because I knew that it would all be resolved by the end.

Jordan Presents

What training or education have you had in filmmaking? Are you self-taught on anything?

I went to NYU [Tisch School of the Arts] and got what I’d call “formal training” there, but I taught myself a lot before getting to college by imitating my favorite movies and directors on my own. My most valuable moments of learning were as a middle and high schooler, running around with a camera and trying to come up with cool angles. In fact, one of those movies I made by myself in my house is the portfolio piece that got me into NYU.

Who are your primary collaborators when you're making films? Why do you work with them?

Aaron Daniel Jacob, who composed the excellent score for this film, is a good friend and frequent collaborator of mine. We both have a well-established love for the kind of grandiose, John Williamsian score that Stevie's Aliens demanded, and I’m completely in awe of his talent, so working with him was seamless and rewarding. I think it’s by far our best collaboration yet.

This project also reunited me with two actors: Aleah Quinones (Julia), who played a major role in my last short film Jordan Presents; and Ian Bouillion (Stevie), who had a small role in Jordan Presents. I met both of them while we are all studying abroad in London, and they’re both such talented actors and wonderful people that I couldn’t wait to work with them in the future. 

Since I'm still relatively new to filmmaking I'm still forging relationships that I hope to continue, and I definitely worked with some collaborators for the first time on this shoot that I plan to work with again. Alex Hass, my awesome cinematographer, and Danyal Niazi, my incredible gaffer, helped me achieve the look for the film, which was even better than I imagined in my head, and it all came together because of my producer, Sidney Butler, who was part of this project when it was just an outline for a script, gave me notes, helped me cast, found our other awesome producer Caroline, and handled all of the logistics on set.

What was the most difficult shot to get in Stevie's Aliens, and how did you figure it out?

The most difficult shot to get was definitely the reveal of the UFO that happens around three minutes into the film. In the shot, Greg walks up to the camera, stops, and slowly takes off his headphones when he hears the fence behind him rattling, then he slowly turns around to see a blinding blue light behind him. We didn’t use any VFX to accomplish the scene – it’s just a bright light on a device called a Menace arm that allowed our grips to turn and aim it right at the camera, and a special filter that gives the light that awesome lens flare. Because the effects were all practical, the scene required a lot of choreography. We had our Steadicam op following Devin, the actor playing Greg; a whole crew of grips on the Menace arm; a grip on the fog machine who had to turn it on at just the right time; and a grip laying on the ground shaking the fence. We had to do about eight takes to get the timing right – and keep in mind that this was all taking place at around 1 a.m.

What would you like to see more of in science fiction?

I would like to see more diverse representation, both in front of and behind the scenes. I think sci-fi has long been on the forefront of representation, but often minorities only play side characters, and that diversity is largely limited to the talent on screen. I made this film with the intention of centering it on a black couple because as a black filmmaker, I felt like I had yet to see a positive movie like this centered on black people, without making their race a plot point. I wrote Greg to be someone that anyone in the audience can relate to, as the main characters in sci-fi movies often are, but often relatable means white. I want to live in a world where it’s not unusual to see sci-fi movies focused on black characters, and where I can name a famous black sci-fi director off the top of my head.