“I’m not a big visual effects guy,” says Ben Brewer. “I just think of it as a democratizing tool. There’s no reason why we have to watch Star Wars—anyone with a laptop and access to YouTube can literally make Star Wars.” Or, in Brewer’s case, A Folded Ocean, which premiered at this year’s Sundance in the midnight shorts program. Ocean presents a couple who swoon around each other with an almost unbearably cloying closeness that goes from metaphorical to literal when they wake up one morning to find themselves fused at the arm. The two grow increasingly inseparable, a process that’s as metaphorically clear as it is convincingly envisioned with grotesque clarity by Brewer—who wrote and directed the film, created the VFX and is one of the six total cast and crew.
Brewer went to SUNY Purchase for one year before transferring to Emerson for film. As a junior, his feature project, Beneath Contempt, was successful enough to play at Slamdance in 2011—but, says Brewer, that early experience “actually led to me pivoting to wanting to do music videos, because I went to Park City with an idealist’s sense of ‘Oh, I’m gonna show up with this tiny movie I directed and see what happens,’ got a big faceful of how industry works out there and realized I had to make a slightly more commercial pivot.” Noticing that his Emerson classmates Daniels were getting a lot of work making music videos, Brewer asked how they broke in. “All we did was we just emailed a really small band that didn’t have a video and said, ‘Do you want a video?’” Brewer recalls them telling him. So, he and his older brother Alex followed suit and, after the first few such videos, started taking meetings in Los Angeles and making videos for the likes of Skrillex and The Chainsmokers.
Throughout, the Brewer brothers were accustomed to doing their own VFX as part of their music video productions; they also co-directed a crime drama, 2016’s The Trust, starring Nicolas Cage, which premiered at that year’s SXSW. When music video work dried up, Brewer stayed professionally afloat by brushing up on his VFX knowledge. He reconnected with an old friend, Zak Stoltz, who started bringing him in to work on films, a sideline that eventually led to Brewer being part of the special effects team for Daniels’s Everything Everywhere All at Once. That team of five, all directors who can do VFX, have since formed a company, Pretend, whose upcoming assignments include Brewer’s first non-student feature as a solo director, next year’s Nicolas Cage starrer Arcadian. He describes the film, which he’s directing but not writing, as a post-apocalyptic project that’s “probably the closest thing I’ll ever make to a family film, but also a bit of a horror-ish movie.”
Brewer storyboarded A Folded Ocean and did tests for its central effect prior to production, planning it as a kind of zero-budget proof of concept for a feature he still hopes to make. He shot the short in two days last July, executing all 11 pages of the script on the first day and using the second to reshoot one scene that didn’t work for him. Then, he sat for about a month, cut the film and executed the VFX, trying to finish in time to submit to Sundance. “I think a lot of people” race to make that deadline, Brewer says, “as an excuse to finish the thing. But it’s funny because I didn’t make the deadline. I uploaded a video that was literally silent. I was like, ‘I hope they don’t watch this for a while’ and just kept replacing the file.”
Speaking about his reference points, Brewer cites David Lynch and Lars von Trier—two filmmakers whose work isn’t automatically thought of as effects-heavy, even though it’s often full of visual manipulation. Of the latter’s Antichrist, Brewer recalls seeing the moment when a fox says, direct to camera, “Chaos reigns!” Brewer assumed, “They filmed a fox and tried to get it to yawn. Then, I found out it was completely CG, and I was like, ‘How is something like that in this weird arthouse movie?’” With Pretend, “I’m hoping that we can get a couple of movies under our belt so it will open up the opportunity [to provide similar VFX] for other directors in this lane.”—Vadim Rizov/Image: Braxton Pope