Cover photo by Tia Rosenlof
This spotlight series highlights some of our Next Level Grant recipients. In this spotlight, we spoke with Arthur Veenema about the making of his short film, ‘The Atomic Spawn’.
Set in the year 1952 on a nuclear test site, The Atomic Spawn follows John Nguyen, a scientist who maps fallout in the desert, when he finds an egg that survived an atomic blast. John’s boss chooses him to be the new guinea pig in a fallout shelter, but when he’s trapped underground the egg hatches to reveal a mutated monster. And it’s growing…
Arthur Veenema is an independent filmmaker, with a focus in writing and directing, based in Salt Lake City. He has worked as a staffed screenwriter at Vavani Productions, a video producer at the Genetic Science Learning Center, and has shot commercials and industrial work as a freelance director. He began directing his own short films in 2015, telling his own stories in an anthology of science-fiction narratives.
How did you get started in the industry?
I studied film and media arts at the University of Utah, but it’s hard to say if there was ever an inciting incident for my career in film. I’ve been shooting homemade videos ever since I was a kid. Maybe my childhood love for Godzilla and dinosaur movies really inspired my passion, and that ties into The Atomic Spawn.
What led you to document this story?
After directing a handful of grim and dark sci-fi stories that were reminiscent of Black Mirror, I wanted to return to the fun genre that inspired my love for filmmaking way back when — classic giant monster movies. I specifically looked at the work of Ray Harryhausen, a stop-motion visual effects artist, whose monsters always had their own charming character. His Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is often cited as an inspiration for Godzilla’s origin in 1954. And a lot of people will remember watching Clash of the Titans (1981) as kids, with the evil kraken fighting Perseus’ Pegasus.
I came up with a story set in the 50s where a monster like this would feel at home. Being from Utah, I was naturally drawn to the tragedy and arrogance of nuclear testing that poisoned our land in the southern part of the state. When you look back on the rampant atomic bombings in the west desert, it’s hard not to feel angry and anxious.
So, The Atomic Spawn became this merging of childhood passion and adulthood anxieties, but that’s what a lot of the monster movies from the 1950s kind of are.
How did you prepare for the film?
It’s always exciting when your team comes together and starts building on your vision of the film. As long as I’m specific and know what kind of movie I’m trying to make, I love watching other talented people contribute to the work and elevate it into something I never expected. When working on such a limited budget, patience is key. Executive producer Yolanda Stange and I took our time in development and pre-production as we worked around schedules and other projects. But I couldn’t be happier with the team we ended up assembling.
Getting the location right was important, and we were lucky to find the Tekoi Missile Range in the west desert. To film on such a unique location, we worked closely with Sheila Urius and the Goshute Skull Valley Indian Reservation, who were incredibly helpful. A huge thank you to them.
Then there was the casting. Yolanda and I held auditions and looked at a number of great candidates from Utah’s talent pool. Brandan Ngo brought a quiet awkwardness to the role of the main scientist, while Terence Goodman could dominate the room as the authoritarian boss. Both of them did a great job balancing between a solemn realism and the concept’s heightened absurdity.
What was your day-to-day experience while filming and through your post-production process?
The Atomic Spawn’s principal photography took three furious days of work and I loved every minute of them. Filming is a little bit like solving a series of puzzles, so if you think of it like a game it can be a lot of fun. I say that now knowing we were incredibly lucky and everything fell into place. For instance, the weather for our exterior shoot wasn’t windy or stormy. That’s always a risk. But our team’s hard work still laid the foundation and made it all possible to take advantage of our good fortune.
Post-production was a lot slower. Again, to save money we took our time and patiently worked on improving the film. The stop-motion visual effects were easily the most time consuming elements for myself. I learned how to animate frame-by-frame and carefully shot the monster against a blue screen. It’s a process that took up most of my free time for several months. I listened to a lot of audiobooks.
What did you take away from this experience?
I think The Atomic Spawn is more in line with the kind of films I want to produce in my career. It’s fun, unique, and draws from a nostalgia that I hope others can connect to. Personally, my experience on this film was incredibly positive and everything seemed to come together very well. It reminded me why I love making films.
What do you hope your audience takes away after seeing this film?
While many of my films in the past were interesting or creative, I love how The Atomic Spawn speaks to a wide audience. I hope kids can watch it and feel the same sense of wonder I felt watching old monster movies. And I hope older audiences can watch it and appreciate the weird humor and darker themes. I also hope everyone loves the monster’s cute but disgusting look as much as I do.
How did the Next Level Grant help you in the process of creating this film?
The Atomic Spawn sort of hit a wall once our process went into post-production. For a few months after we filmed, Stephane Glynn and I edited the film, but the extensive stop-motion visual effects remained up in the air.
The Next Level grant infused the project with a headwind of financial backing that I could use to recruit the expertise of local artist Patrick Charles. I met Patrick at the Poor Yorick Art Studio, and I was enamored with his strange and monstrous art sculptures. We sat down and discussed how he’d make a stop-motion puppet in his style. The three models, arguably the centerpieces of the film, only came about because we had the freedom to experiment and push forward on that part of the project.
Also thanks to the Next Level Grant, I was able to start pursuing professional sound design with Jake Proctor and Strawberry Sound. I’ve never worked with a foley artist or professional sound mixer before, and Jake’s work truly elevated the film to another level. That wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the grant.
I’m very happy and proud I was able to support local artists and make new connections through the Next Level program. Thank you to the Utah Film Commission.
Do you have upcoming projects to look out for?
Sometime in the future, I’d like to revisit the world of The Atomic Spawn. Yolanda and I have explored radio play options or a graphic novel. If the short works as a proof of concept, I’d love to expand it into a feature film. I think that’s always a goal.
Safety on a film set is a priority… and working at our level, filming during a global pandemic can be tricky. My current project is hosting a podcast, A Century in Cinema, where Andrew Slaughter and I watch and discuss a classic film from every year starting in 1920. One thing I’ve really missed since the pandemic is going to new movies or renting DVDs from the Salt Lake Film Society. A Century in Cinema has turned into a way for me to explore films, learn new things, and make recommendations to our audience. I’ve really enjoyed it.
What advice would you give to a local who is trying to get started in the film industry?
Develop a skill set that makes you valuable to other people as you push forward with your own goals. If you can find a way to make those two things work, you’ll be in a very good place. I started out helping on small sets as a script supervisor and assistant director. I think my level of organization was useful on those productions, and at the same time I folded those skills into my own directing style.
Find a network of people. Learn from them, help them out, and if they’re a good network of people, they’ll help you out too. Ideally, you can all build your careers together. A lot of my best friendships and close connections have been formed working in film.
The Atomic Spawn has a fun Instagram page with tidbits from the production process. Follow @theatomicspawn and #theatomicspawn.
A Century in Cinema podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts.
For more of my work, people can go to www.arthurveenemafilms.com
You can learn more about Arthur Veenema in our Utah Film Directory.
The Next Level Grant Program provides support and funding for local directors and producers to take their projects to the next level. Read more about the Next Level Grant Program here.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Allie Russell is the Marketing Coordinator for the Utah Film Commission. For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at firstname.lastname@example.org.