There is a meme that has been going around on Twitter of late—in November a user tweeted, “there’s only ONE MONTH left in the decade. what have you accomplished?”. Well, Twitter did as Twitter does, and the prompt spread like wildfire, with folks replying in ways alternately pompous or self-deprecating, heartbreaking or inspiring.
Filmmaker Colin Levy did not serve up a reply (though he’s worth a follow), but if he did, his tweet would have been pretty impressive: a heralded graduation film from SCAD made a splash, two animated shorts in collaboration with the Blender Institute each entertained worldwide audiences to the tune of the tens of millions of views, and a productive stint at Pixar Animation working on films like Inside/Out and Finding Dory was added to his resumé. Yet despite the achievements, the specter of Skywatch hung over him, a passion project 7 years in the making that dominated his spare attention throughout. From initial doodles in 2012, to a massive Kickstarter campaign, and almost 5 years in post-production, it has been a long journey to completion for Skywatch, but today Levy’s impressive proof-of-concept is sneaking under the decade deadline with its online premiere.
Skywatch is a near-future sci-fi vision centering on two teen boys who hack an ubiquitous consumer drone delivery service called NexPort in order to prank their neighbors. Naturally things go badly, and when a dangerous conspiracy is uncovered by the pair, they attract unwanted attention from the Amazon-esque corporation pulling strings behind the scenes. NexPort will stop at nothing to keep their secrets hidden, placing the boys in immediate danger.
In this era of Stranger Things, the phrase “Amblin-esque” is over-used, referring to the Spielberg-founded production company that gave us E.T. and Gremlins, but I’ll apply it anyway. Skywatch really aims to invoke the pleasures of those 80’s kids movies, fusing action/adventure escapades with aspects of a high-concept thriller in a way that is kid-friendly but not shorn of all sense of danger. The stakes of the film feel real and high while maintaining, at its core, a slightly corny innocence familiar to works of that era.
Despite this nostalgic tone, the film deftly weaves in contemporary concerns. Trends that were scarcely on the cultural radar in 2014 when the script was written, are now massive debates, from Big Tech’s use of data and its fusion with the military-industrial complex, to the rise of Amazon and the plethora of consumer on-demand services hilariously dubbed “Millenial Lifestyle Sponsorship“. The technological vision of Skywatch is not remotely far-fetched, and while it’s conspiratorial imaginings would be scoffed at by Jeff Bezos, they really are not too difficult to extrapolate from our current reality—think of the things we already sacrifice for the sake of convenience?
While one must tip their cap to Levy’s prescience, it cannot be argued that the themes are explored in any particular depth here—the short is unabashedly a teaser, complete with a world-expanding cliffhanger ending and a Marvel-esque surprise cameo. With a feature script in hand, this online release is very self-consciously an attempt by Levy and his producer, Andre Danylevich, to drum up interest in their expanded pitch which they are taking out to industry now. We’ve long had a conflicted stance towards these types of proof-of-concept shorts—as champions of the medium we tend to favor self-contained films that are stand-alone, yet the undeniable popularity of these works and their increased effectiveness over the decade at launching the careers of exciting new talent is worth celebrating. As with any selection we’ve emphasized discernment, and judging the work on level of its filmmaker’s intention.
With that disclaimer, we find the premise of Skywatch fun and would be genuinely excited to see it stretched to feature or series-length. Furthermore, the film is executed with undeniable skill and style. The glossy mainstream look of the film is perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but there is a thoughtfulness and care to its design and execution. From the kick-off scene which utilizes bravura swooping camera movements in a faux-commercial for the NexPort service to the plausible interface designs, it is clear that Levy has labored over the details in a loving way, and details are really what sell world-building. Too often films of this type lean on VFX in an unincorporated manner, with objects or interfaces that sit on top of and separate from production design, or fail to interact with traditional filmmaking techniques. Levy alongside his VFX Supervisor, Sandro Blattner, create something seamless that utilizes all the elements of film craft despite the logistical challenge of incorporating over 200 VFX shots into a 10min film.
Recently completed, the film celebrated its World Premiere last month at the Austin Film Festival before today’s online premiere. After such a long process to bring it to life, we’re excited for Levy to share his passion project with audiences around the world. We’re sure it will find favor with them, and fingers crossed that it finds favor in Hollywood too, so that we might see more of this intriguing world that Levy has imagined.