Fan films like Star Trek: Horizon, Prelude to Axanar, Star Trek: Renegades, Star Trek Continues, and New Voyages have been viewed millions and millions of times on YouTube….and with good reason. All are excellent productions of professional-level quality.
But those are the “big fish” in the fan film pond. Two much smaller fish have swum underneath the sonar and haven’t been noticed by more than a couple of thousand viewers each…which is a shame because they are two of the best, highest quality Star Trek fan films you’re likely to see!
They didn’t have mega-budgets like some fan films, nor did they use big-name Hollywood actors or Trek veteran producers. In fact, there isn’t even a VFX space shot in either. What’s more, neither violates any of the fan film guidelines, coming in at 6 and a half minutes and 12 minutes respectively.
The first of these two films, THE NEEDS OF THE MANY, was released in January of 2016 (five months before the guidelines were ever announced) and the second, THE DERELICT, debuted just last month on the 51st anniversary of Star Trek.
Both short films take place during the Enterprise NX-01 era and use real, practical sets instead of green screen. The costumes look amazing, and the actors do a really spectacular job. Add in subtle lightning, great make-up, excellent camera work, a strong script, solid directing, and even top-notch editing, and these two fan films can easily take their place among some of the best ones so far.
So who made these two masterpieces, and how did they manage to do such a FANtastic job for so little? For the answers, we need to travel all the way to the land down under…
AARON VANDERKLEY lives in the city of Perth in Western Australia. And it probably won’t surprise you to discover that this 24-year-old fan filmmaker has also done this sort of thing professionally. Aaron graduated from Murdoch University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Media, majoring in Screen Production, with minors in both Scriptwriting and Screen Acting. He currently works as a freelance filmmaker on projects across Western Australia, delivering high quality media content to a variety of clients.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Aaron and finding out about him, his team, and these two amazing fan films. Before we get to the interview, however (since it does contain some spoilers), how about you first take a look at Aaron’s two Star Trek fan films…
Pretty impressive, right? Okay, let’s kick off Part 1 of a really great interview with Aaron Vanderkley…
JONATHAN – Western Australia isn’t typically considered a hub of Star Trek fandom…especially for such a young fella as yourself (I am more than twice your age, mate!) What initially got you interested in Star Trek?
AARON – My father was the one who introduced me to Star Trek. In fact, he introduced me to a lot of television shows that he had watched and enjoyed as a child. So while other children watched Sesame Street and Disney Channel, I immersed myself into the likes of Doctor Who, Lost in Space, Thunderbirds and, of course, Star Trek—and lucky for me there was a lot of it.
My earliest memory of Star Trek is the “Last Time on Star Trek: Voyager…” sequence at the beginning of “The Killing Game, Part II.” The programme was given the Thursday night death slot in Australia, so my father used to record each episode on VHS tape and then watch it the following night.
From there, it was frequent trips to the video shop to hire out the entire VHS catalogue of the franchise. Lucky for us, the man who owned the store was a Star Trek fan, so there was an entire wall dedicated his collection.
I loved Voyager because there was a sense of family which I recognised within my own life…and a strong woman in command, which I immediately likened to my mother. I enjoyed The Next Generation, too, saw virtually zero of Deep Space Nine, and struggled with the original series. Even at that age, there was something I noticed about the storytelling that was…different. An unconscious observation that most likely developed my interest in film and television production.
JONATHAN – I noticed you just listed every series EXCEPT Star Trek: Enterprise (and Discovery, of course). Yet both of your fan films have centered on the Enterprise NX-01 era. What made you choose that particular time in Federation history?
AARON – Enterprise was the first Star Trek series that I was able to watch from start to finish, and that was of great benefit because it was a production that unfolded before me as it was actually happening at the time. It was a response to the world around me—flat screens, terrorism, and season-arcs. I had all the merchandise—the action figures, the ship and the phase pistol (I’m still mad that they never released the Mayweather Bridge Base, by the way).
At the time of Needs of the Many, Enterprise was the most modern and, therefore, the most realistic and relatable of all the Star Trek series. Since the project was the last in a series of unrelated short films I was working on, I wanted my existing audience to have easy access into the franchise.
Plus, my father loves Enterprise and still watches it every chance he gets. He was devastated when it got cancelled so I guess I just wanted to make more stories for him…and give those poor Blu-rays a break from the machine.
JONATHAN – The acting in both your films us really strong. How did you find such amazing actors…and are they Trek fans themselves?
AARON – So, the first project, Needs of the Many, I actually wrote for Harriet Fettis, who plays Elisabeth. She is my dearest friend, a wonderful performer, and I certainly would not have continued with it had she said no. Working with Harriet in theatre, I often found she was typecast with the roles that she was offered, so wanted to give her some meat and play to her strengths as an actor. What makes me the happiest about Needs of the Many is that Harriet won an award for her performance, because it was solely written for her to shine.
JONATHAN – What about your second Trek fan film, The Derelict? How did you go about casting that one? You now needed five actors instead of just two. Were these people whom you already knew, like Harriet, or did you hold a casting call…or both?
AARON – With The Derelict, we had an open casting call for actors in Western Australia. Over 110 people responded to the listing, and I then began the process of sifting through the audition tapes to find the right performers for the roles. I always say to myself that if I can’t find the right cast, I won’t do the production. It’s high stakes, but I was fortunate to lock in Mario Rouse, who plays Rag & Bone Man, on the first viewing. It’s a tricky character to play, because you could take it quite over-dramatic, but Mario delivered exactly what I had in my head…which is rare.
JONATHAN – Yeah, Mario’s performance was awesome. Very disturbing and threatening!
AARON – After that, I ran audition workshops to work one-on-one with six performers who I thought were great but needed some direction to get them to where I wanted them to be. In fact, four of the actors ended up in the finished film, and the fifth I am saving for a future project. I found a kindred spirit in Zach Clifford (who plays O’Dell), because he grew up on the same diet of television shows that I did, and it turned out he only lived about ten minutes away. We joked about all the play dates we missed out on as children, and Zach is moving to England to pursue his acting career further.
Jess Niven, who plays Fletcher, and Mario both didn’t know much about Star Trek beyond the reboot films, I believe. In fact, I was explaining the cargo ship background for the Rag & Bone Man to Mario and he turned to me and said, “Man, how did you come up with all this backstory?”
“Wikipedia” I replied.
JONATHAN – Your sets are also amazing! How long did they take to build, and how many people worked on them? Are they permanent somewhere, or do you store them?
AARON – The majority of the set pieces were constructed myself, with help over each project from Andrew David (who worked on both films as Make-Up & Effects) and my parents.
The set pieces, of which there were originally four—a door, a window, a plain wall, and a ‘busy box’—were actually made for a project many years before Needs of the Many that never transpired. When I was writing Needs of the Many and needed a setting, I thought that I might as well finally put those set pieces into good use and develop the story within a Star Trek context. It resulted in the production of four ‘columns’ and a ‘light box’ at the base of one of the walls. That entire section of corridor was about 2m by 2m and fit nicely into my study for the corridor filming. It was later struck and reassembled in a different configuration, with an added wall and console, for the bridge set within the same story.
With The Derelict however, our characters needed to move throughout an entire cargo ship, so the corridor set was adapted and extended a further four sections along, resulting in a total of nine ‘wall pieces,’ ten ‘columns,’ six ‘light boxes,’ and the floor/roof elements. This set was bumped into the space on Friday for Saturday’s corridor shoot and then struck and reconfigured on Sunday morning for the rest of the filming later that same day.
As an emerging filmmaker, I don’t have my own studio space so the sets are currently in storage for future works.
JONATHAN – The costumes are spot-on…which isn’t easy with NX-01 era Starfleet uniforms. I noticed the costume designer shares your last name… Anyway, how long did it take to make those uniforms, and how do you get them to look so good?
AARON – As there aren’t (or weren’t at the time) any commercially available Enterprise-era uniforms, we had to get them custom-made and, in actual fact, are the same uniforms used for both pair of characters on both films. I got my mother, who is very talented with a sewing machine, to make modifications like adding epaulets to the shoulders (as seen in the Enterprise finale), equipment loops, functioning pockets, assignment patches, changing the department trim to suit each character, and making adjustments to better fit the actor wearing it.
We also spent a great deal of time researching the civilian clothing designed and used in Enterprise to create a wardrobe that worked for the crew of the cargo ship too. It might be a tough life hauling cargo, but those crews are well dressed!
JONATHAN – Was there anyone else on either production who was really a stand-out?
AARON – Without a doubt, one of the most valuable members of the production team for the project this time around was Clayton Orgles. Clayton and I went to university together and have worked on a number of sets together over the years, from music videos to short films. Clayton is possibly one of the most talented cinematographers I know. He has an eye for lighting and everything he produces looks visually beautiful. I was so fortunate that he was willing to come on board for this production because it really places it a step up from Needs of the Many visually.
JONATHAN – So Aaron, you wrote and directed each episode. Let’s begin with your first effort, The Needs of the Many. How did you come up with the idea, and how long did it take you to write and finish the script?
AARON – I, rather embarrassingly, started drafting Needs of the Many while I was on stage, acting in a radio play. Working on a show that was heavily reliant the sound of someone’s voice, I started to write out a conversation between two people in a disaster situation. It made me consider what it must have been like to be a 911 dispatcher on the line to a victim during the 9/11 terrorist attack—two people utterly helpless and just talking to each other until the end.
From there, I don’t think the script went through more than one or two drafts before we shot it, across two days—one in late December 2015 and the other in January 2016. What made this production particularly easy to shoot was the fact that neither character moved too much within each scene so we had time to make sure the lighting was just right for the bulk of each section and time to spend on working each performance one-on-one.
JONATHAN – Once you completed and posted The Needs of the Many, what kind of reaction did you get from fans?
Come back next week as we learn what folks thought about Aaron’s first Trek fan film…and why he was NOT initially planning to make another! Also, we’ll be asking Aaron how long these films actually took to write and produce, how much they cost, and whether or not he’s planning to make any more.