Aussie sci-fi pilot ‘Science+’ premieres on DUST


Science+, a pilot from creator/producer Seaton-Kay Smith (Alphabet Street), producer Yingna Lu (Tangles and Knots) and director Leela Varghese, premiered this morning on DUST, a US-based platform from Gunpowder & Sky, dedicated to science-fiction and boasting more than 3 million viewers 18-35 years old.

Supported by Screen Australia, the 10-minute episode follows Matt (Akkshey Caplash), who accidentally shrinks himself and is captured by the ants whom he has unwittingly been squashing. He must find a way to escape their clutches and their impending death sentence.

The creatives talked to IF about pulling it together.

What’s the genesis of ‘Science+;?

Seaton: I love sci-fi, and I wanted to write something that incorporated all my favourite elements from those classic sci-fi films – shrink rays, teleportation devices, time travel, etc. – but wanted to bring them into a straight realistic world. I was also working at an agency writing how to videos for home technology products – so started to write sci-fi technology how to’s and went from there.

How did you guys connect as creatives?  

Leela: I met Seaton working as a runner in my first ever job in the industry back in 2014. Years later after I’d just had a film in Tropfest, he wanted to chat about working together. Then I met Yingna through Seaton!  

Seaton: Yeah, I’d worked with Leela on The Roast way back, and have worked with Yingna on commercial projects and really enjoyed working with both people. The team on the project was basically people I’d worked with on other things coming together, so it was super nice and super fun.

Yingna: This was the first time Seaton and I had the opportunity to work on something independent and original after years of crossing paths in the ads world, and it was exciting to be able to experiment with a bit of financial support.

This is a pilot; there are more eps planned?  

Leela: Yep, hopefully this is just the beginning. I’ve seen the scripts for the whole series and trust me you’re going to want to see more! You’ll definitely struggle to predict what happens next. Matt goes through a lot! 

Seaton: Ideally, there are at least six, it’s just a question of getting the go ahead to make them, and in what form they’ll be. We will see.

The ‘Science+’ team.

Tell me about the shoot. When/where did you film, and for how long? 

Yingna: It was an intense three day shoot in Sydney, squeezing every dollar on to screen; two days live action in a garage of a house that was about to be sold, and one day in a green screen studio. That was at the end of 2019.

Leela: The fish bone cage was set up in the garage. Building that cage was a huge effort by Amber [Theron] the production designer. Working with green screen was very new for me. It’s really cool to have had that experience. Emma Paine the DOP was so incredible, she was on top of it all. I didn’t realise how tricky it can be! But hey that’s what you need to do if you want to shrink people. Unfortunately, the shrink ray doesn’t exist in real life… yet. 

Talk through the casting; especially that of Akkshey as Matt. His character has to spend most of the time nude; was it hard to get an actor keen to do that? Seaton, you also star as Karthu; was that always planned?  

Leela: Originally we all wanted to have full frontal nudity. But when it came to casting it was all about casting the best actor for the job. Akkshey was so good in his self-tape I just couldn’t get his performance out of my head. He was so easy to watch and so likeable. We then found out what he was comfortable with and worked with that. He wasn’t keen for full frontal, and look, I totally understand. He was an absolute champ about being nude otherwise. The most important thing was that Matt could be naked, so we felt his character was incredibly vulnerable. I think we definitely feel that in the pilot. The whole team was passionate about auditioning actors from all different backgrounds for all the characters. We were really lucky with the casting. They are all amazing actors who I have no doubt you’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future. 

Seaton: I’m an actor, and it’s what I love, so I wrote this as a vehicle essentially for me to get a role. I wrote it with myself in mind as Matt, but I really wanted to – and this is something we discussed as a team – get the best person for the job. So I auditioned like everyone else, and at the end of the day, Akkshey was just so good in his audition and so charming and likeable and funny, that it was a no-brainer to cast him. Leela suggested that I’d make a good Karthu, so I auditioned for that, and eventually ended up with that role. But as Leela said, getting a cast that reflected Australia – and for that matter crew – was hugely important to all of us – as it should be for everyone. 

How much did the support of Screen Australia assist you in getting this off the ground?  

Yingna: We couldn’t have done this without Screen Aus. Only then was Dust able to consider acquiring us. And it gave us the chance to collaborate with our favourite local crew! Emma Paine on camera, Christine Cheung on editing, Amber Theron on costumes and production design, Pete Foley and Scotty Ford on VFX, Matt Campbell on colour and VFX supervision, Stu Beedie as AD, Amanda Rieck on make up, Mat Wilson and his ace crew on lighting as well as new collaborations like Melbourne based Chiara Constanza with the epic soundtrack. Shout outs to Carina Burke, Trudi Gultom,  Natalie Verriest,  Andreas Dominguez, Nick Keate, Dinalie Dabarera, Steve Anthopoulos, Nic Godoy, the Buchans, Jen Lalor, and Lee Naimo! 

At what stage did DUST get involved? What are your hopes for the project on the platform?

Seaton: Very early on. I wrote the entire first series before chatting with Dust – and had many conversations with Eric Bromberg [SVP, Gunpowder & Sky] initially about how we could work together – Dust have amazing short films on their service and have made some incredible features too. So I approached them with the project and chatted with them through the process of re-writes and funding applications. They’ve been great. The plan is to make more, for sure.

Yingna: The hopes would be to engage with the strong Dust community then find the leverage to produce the series. We want to reveal the rest of this world we’ve been cooking up!

Going with US platform obviously means there is the potential for your project to reach a wider audience. However, there’s also a perception that Australian commissioners and distributors are not as receptive to sci-fi as a genre as their international counterparts. Was this something you found at all? 

Seaton: We were offered opportunity from The States early on, and because Science+ was a digital series, it didn’t matter where it was going; more that a place had to be willing to take ideas from Australians and help get them off the ground. We always intended to make Science+ here, and if we’d matched with an Australian broadcaster we would’ve jumped at the chance!

Yingna: Commissioners and distributors will fund anyone who has clearly figured out the pathway to their audience. It makes sense with the amount of financing that’s available at this very moment to take fairly conservative and calculated risks. Sci-fi can often feel expensive to investors, and ours is clearly lo-fi, so we leaned on story and characters. It’s our job as producers to find access to available funding. It can feel limited, which means it’s probably living somewhere else like overseas. 

What else are you working on?

Seaton: So many things. A few features in development, and plenty of pitches going out, so hopefully we’ll get some more stuff out soon and build on any momentum we can create with this.

Yingna: Finding EPs for a series called Hair,  making the feature version of a short called Tangles and Knots, exploring the TikTok space and developing stories for every type of screen and medium.