Blog Entry #001

Hi RGF fans! I’m Mike Belshaw, writer and co-creator of the Retro Grade Future universe. Welcome to the exclusive blog of behind the scenes content.

From spinning around on an office chairs in front of a green screen, to doing stunts with a Delorean, the cast and crew of Final Film are embarking on a journey of great unknown potential. We’re a mixed bunch of faith over fortune but with a rich desire to bring the world something fresh and original, simultaneously utilising our deep passion for times gone by and those deep rooted nostalgic emotions that simmer in each and everyone of us.

The original concept and main characters for RGF were first spawned many moons ago by Chris Stratton, primary creator and director of RGF. Jake Retroski and John “Grade” were two bad ass cops in a fantasy world mix of sci-fi comedy and commoradre. Imagine for a moment Martin Riggs and Alex Murphy joined forces and attempted to work together on the same beat. Now visualise the two of them in daily life, enjoying a bit of down time together, shooting pots of baby food off the hood of a Pontiac. In short a kind of sketch show where anything could happen.

I met Chris through Facebook, through a friend who I used to blow cartridges with and eat packed lunch together on the school field. A single conceptual image of the two of them got my attention and I needed to know what it was about.

Chris had also recently been inspired by the gradual emergence of the synthwave scene. This new genre of music, being inspired by films of the 1980s, was ideal for cinematic use in the same fashion. It had spawned in us many fresh ideas. It was from here we found out just how much had influenced us both growing up. We’re both practitioners of martial arts thanks to asian cinema stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Both inspired by the rags to riches story of Arnold “The Oak” and huge fans of retro Saturday morning TV, full of unforgettable theme tunes, over the top visuals and larger than life characters.

With my passion for writing and Chris’ vast collection of ideas. We started to concoct a whole new formula for these characters Retro and Grade. Chris’ line of work had given him the tools required to visualise the content on paper and turn that into a body of work which I can only describe as the work of a slightly unhinged perfectionist.

We’re not just a duo of brotherly love on the film set. On board with us is sound, visual and lighting experts Martin Tucker and Rob James. Two long time friends who have been with us since the beginning, using their skills and ideas to bring Retro grade Future to life.

The fantasy begins with some dreaming and between us sketches, concept images and plot points were formed in the pub, at home and at work. Yes, we have day jobs, and yes we would love to live and breathe movie making together but to do this you need a foundation.

Our passions run through the veins of RGF, from the costumes and cosplay, the props, the music and the cars. Each one of us has brushed the canvas of this work and hopefully this blog will let you into some secrets and inspirations of our story so far.

Early on in the project Chris even sacrificed his own car after I shared some conceptual ideas for the pursuit vehicle, based on his Toyota. In the story Sgt Jake Retroski is transported forward in time to the current timeline, in which Officer John Grade still patrols the city in the now modified vehicle.

We agreed that for this project we would all have to make sacrifices to achieve our goals. Most free time was spent organising scenes, with every intention to make the stunts and effects as practical as possible. For you car nuts out there, yes, we know the Celica was a 90’s model but we felt in the spirit of action B movies in the past, why not utilise a little artistic licence? Plus there aren’t many of us who could commit to buy a cool 80’s car and then rattle can it.

After some bonnet dives, driving stunts and location scouting, sadly the Toyota blew the head gasket. Our enthusiasm took a hit from the real world and the team had to think fast. On a tight budget and with every intention of moving forward, myself and Chris chose a car and planned to scrap the Toyota but not before we used it for one last shoot.

The replacement pursuit vehicle was a rare Japanese sports car, the Mitsubishi 3000GTO. These land beasts are well known in the car enthusiast groups but not always for favourable reasons. They are now becoming scarce for a reason, through neglect and time perhaps, they’re either running or not, without much in between. Even so, we made the arrangements and decals to transform the car into the new pursuit vehicle.

The filming of other scenes carried on whilst we made plans for chase scenes and shootouts with the GTO. However it wasn’t long before, on a run to make more location visits, the GTO suffered a fairly major mechanical failure. Running a classic car comes with a list of potential problems as long as your arm, the GTO required an engine overhaul and that kind of money we didn’t have.

Our focus had to change slightly, the car was to be one of the main focus’ of the trailer. Chris and I have every intention of making this happen if the Kickstarter is successful but we had a job to do and trailer to produce.

It wasn’t just the cars that needed to be in good working order. Physically I needed to be in better shape, I had gotten quite slack in the previous years to the project, so I pulled out the punch bag and got to work. Wearing the suit for hours on end was tiring. The helmet alone would be a hot place to work and with a wetsuit like material underneath, it was constricting and claustrophobic making it hard to hear to. Sometimes on set, I’d daydream and think about how Peter Weller felt when he was squeezed into the Robocop suit and helmet. If you’ve ever watched the making of Robocop, you can’t help but feel inspired by Peter and how much of a slog it was some days.

Fight scenes would be performed in the full outfit, with armour plating and heavy combat style boots. It was quite a treat to actually film outside in the cool night air. Indoors, with the acting under studio lights meant I couldn’t wait to jump in the shower.

Chris Stratton is a true director, what he has in his mind's eye needs to come alive on camera and if it doesn’t look right, it’s back to the starting blocks. The vision was to create this trailer and simulate the world of RGF through a sequence of short shots, that would have the viewer believe they were about to watch the full feature. As much as we would love to have performed such a feat on a shoestring, we both knew just what level of quality we’d like to present to world, in the most open and honest way we could.

In April of 2014, I travelled to Thailand with a friend who studied Muay Thai. It was here we visited a friend who practiced for combat in Chiweng stadium on the island of Koh Samui. I spent my time here dedicated to training almost six hours a day, split between morning and afternoon classes. In the past I had trained in Karate and Taekwondo for over a decade but Muay Thai increased every aspect of me physically and mentally. Since my return from Thailand I have continued to practice techniques and to improve my on screen abilities.

From car parks to bars, abandoned industrial complexes and wasteland, we planned and executed many shoots at locations as a team but if it wasn’t for the help and dedication of Kat Walpole, we would have been thin on the ground. Onset hairstylist come talent scout, Kat became some of the bricks and mortar of Final Film structure within only a few months. Originally an extra in the alleyway fight scene, it quickly became apparent her skills could be put to even better use.

From dancers and punks, mystery agents to drug dealers. We had quite the pool of willing actors and on set helpers which, without them, this project would have been left standing. All of us at Final Film have formed strong bonds between old and new friendships. Being great admirers of Hollywood we’ve seen things come full circle and now, we believe as releases become more and more of the same ilk, we want to throw our hat into the ring and see if we can make a mark on the world.

We don’t live in L.A, we live in rural England but our childhood fantasies were, for the most part, set in the cool, outlandish cities and suburbs of America. Once we were at a stage where our characters and ideas were flowing, we enlisted the help of prop and costume design makers Gwenefer Roskilly and Tom Mills, to bring this world to life.

Gwen is Chris’ partner and has been there from the beginning supporting us and the production in so many ways, not only using her talents for prop creation and set building, but also using her voice acting talents to become the voice of AIDA, the crime network computer A.I in the trailer. Her eccentric take on things has given rise to a solid position in Final Film as someone who can bring a little magic to every facet.

Tom Mills is an cosplay craftsmen, anything from horror fantasy to angelic japanese anime. He is the mind behind the final look of Officer John Grade you see today. The helmet, along with its lighting and aesthetics, have all been painstakingly hand crafted to produce a futuristic, yet retro look and feel. The combination of the purposely short leather jacket and old school helmet, was inspired by the artwork of the movie Crime Zone and we hope viewers will be able to pick out other inspirations as they bare witness to the RGF world unfold.

Shooting began once costumes, scenes and props were developed enough. England can be a little unforgiving weatherwise and so we planned as carefully as we could, to work as efficiently as possible on the night. Even so, with all of our planning and organising around our personal lives, it was to prove more difficult than first thought. The first few locations and shoots were long, cold and often in wet conditions. Guerilla filmmaking at its finest.

Atmosphere was created with light gels and using the weather conditions to our advantage. The alleyway scene is a pivotal moment in the RGF world and realising it’s complexity meant we would return to location three times in total. Water sprays were used to keep continuity over the course of the weeks we returned, as we really loved the look of the light reflected in the scene.

As we weren’t often in a studio with power, vapes came to the rescue!

During outdoor scenes you would often see a member of the crew hunched over, shuffling or pirouetting through a shot, if the wind was right, we’d have only seconds to snatch the shot we wanted. We had vapers behind rocks, in the back seats of a car, and running across streets to obtain the mysterious ambiance RGF needs.

Indoors we obviously used real smoke machines and later in the project we actually started to make our own smoke bombs for outdoor use. Over the course of the filming of Retro Grade Future, the team have a learned how to make do but make good.

We quickly discovered how important planning was and conceptual ideas shared between both myself and Chris, enabled us to complete a shoot more efficiently everytime. Scouting the locations and planning shots first, meant almost everyone could do their thing and leave.

One of the most complex shots was performed on some abandoned waste ground which was due to for some new development. There was a real desolate feel to it and we couldn’t miss the opportunity. With the storyboard ready, everyone was invited down, all equipment powered with banks of high capacity batteries.

With a new perspective on the project we vowed to continue making RGF as real as possible. Green screen is great when used innovatively, which in the 80’s was paramount as the technology was still in its infancy. You may have spotted a few moments where CGI was employed, one of our most amusing moments was spending an afternoon spinning half a cigar on fishing line to create the effect of flying.

Not so amusing for Chris who had to painstakingly edit out the fishing line but nevertheless, this goes to prove just what the team are willing to do to achieve perfection.

In the full feature of Retro Grade Future we are planning some action packed car combat scenes. We’d like to revive some of the real world sequences that featured so heavily in the classic action movies in the 80’s and 90’s. During the course of filming I used my own vehicles, as well as requesting use of others, so it was difficult to perform some of the intended action scenes risking vehicle damage or worse.

Set in a fictional city, something akin to Gotham or Mega-city one in the Judge Dredd series. RGF will be full of custom designs and innovations that have been discussed behind closed doors, waiting for the opportunity. Grade’s own vehicle in future is to be a weaponized and armoured version of Jake Retroski’s pursuit car. In the style of Mad Max or Twisted Metal the video game, we’re looking forward to going to town on these designs to make something quite memorable.

No retro scene is complete without a Delorean and so we sent up the smoke signals in the hope one such enthusiast would agree. Luke Palmer of the Crazy Prop DMC came to the rescue and helped out with a shoot in which all the bad guys appear, including the mysterious Echelon figures. Once we had been suitably starstruck by the damn thing, the filming ensued but it wasn’t without distractions.

If you’ve now seen the trailer you will have spotted the awesome weapons station in the Cyber Police Department. In “Act 2” of the trailer Retro and Grade gear up and get ready to fight crime in the city. The entire set, including lights, background and props were all 100% real.

Would you believe this was all created from some scraps of wood and an old door? We had the help of experienced set builder Ben Sadler and professional carpenter Leam Brisbane to create the interior of the CPD. Between them and Final Film team we created the Grade chamber and weapons storage over the course of one week.

An intense couple of days filming produced some of the best and most exciting shots of the project. No one can doubt the skills of the team and the passion that drives us. It can be difficult to believe in the grander plan when all you see is on set action, but this shoot looked so good, you didn’t even need to see the edit.

We knew that one of the most difficult things to maintain throughout a project like this is consistency.

From lighting to sound, from costumes to props, it’s the detail that really inspires us and we know that if, like us, you enjoy films you’ll hopefully appreciate some of the minor touches throughout the trailer. Even though we had very clear inspirations, the colour pallet of Retro Grade evolved organically. In every scene that we shot we found new ways of lighting to paint the picture of the cool and mysterious world of RGF.

To further enhance the production level we have teamed up with IKnow studios in Russia who have brought to life some of our most bold ideas. Two of our shots were digitally built from the ground up. The Future City landscape and the corridor inside the CPD Headquarters. Other shots needed enhancement to fit in our sci-fi world. With a distant exchange of images and plans between our two production companies, IKnow Studios were more than able to produce the excellent shots we needed on a limited budget. We’re eternally grateful to Vlad who believed this project was crazy enough to work. Vlad, an expert colourist also brought his skills to the final edit and worked closely with us to achieve the final look we wanted.

The UK is home to some fantastic brutalist architecture. From the 50’s to the 70’s these quirky structures appeared all over the world. London is, as always, a bit of a hub for anything new architecturally. We investigated all kinds of locations but in the end we really liked several structures in Portsmouth, specifically the library.

Almost like something out of Robocop, the library is situated in a very intriguing location with some interesting buildings near by. We knew that, with some minor tweaks, this located would be perfect to imagine a future world with a retro twist. With the help of IKnow studios we’ve created the frontage of the CPD main headquarters. With an interior design which compliments this, entirely made from scratch!

All of the hours spent modifying cars, making props, makeup hair, set design and computer graphics have really boosted all of our skills and I think the trailer shows just how polished things are getting.
My advice to anyone getting started with a project, is to make sure you keep it fun! The best times we had on set were laughing and mucking about in costumes. We’ve all managed to get through the tough times without strangling each other and looking back on this project, it’s something we’ll never forget.

Once all scenes had been shot, once all dialogue had been recorded. Chris was adamant that we would produce a theme song for Retro and Grade, employing the use of some of the best synthwave artists around. Theme songs and catchy tracks that intro a series or movie is almost a thing of the past. Shows like the A-Team, Knight Rider and Street Hawk all have immense intro tracks with narration. We wanted to combine these techniques but incorporate this along with a vocal track. This is by far no small feat. Since the days of Galaxy Rangers, Thundercats and M.A.S.K crusaders, there really hasn’t been a resurgence of rousing soundtracks like this.

There is no denying that synthwave is inspired by the 80’s, it’s inspired by the sound and visuals of the same shows mentioned above. We knew if we struck up communications with artists, they’d know exactly what we were trying to achieve. Both Meteor and Wolf & Raven have been with us all the way. Meteor edited three of his existing tracks into the score we needed for the first part of the trailer. This worked fantastically and really brought the action to life.
Chris Greninger (Wolf and Raven) on the other hand was much grander affair. For part two of the trailer Chris Stratton worked closely with him to produce a bespoke score to the visuals, that eventually builds into a full blown theme song. Chris and his musically talented friend Leam Brisbane wrote the lyrics and we hired vocalist Matthew Walker to produce the song. Its influence was clear, and the target was the same as every 80s cartoon intro, to create fist pumping ebullience. We are more than happy with the result, and have shared an air guitaring celebration on numerous occasions.