‘Let’s build the ring’: How a 360-degree image posted on Facebook inspired an ambitious sci-fi film

IE speaks to famed science communicator Hashem Al-Ghaili about his upcoming movie ‘Orbital’ in an exclusive interview.
Paul Ratner
Orbital ring
Orbital ring from the upcoming film "Orbital."

Credit: Hashem Al-Ghaili 

Many of our readers and fans of all things science and engineering have seen Hashem Al-Ghaili’s videos. Since 2015, he’s been posting short science explainer videos on Facebook, which consistently go viral, gaining him 33 million fans on his Facebook page, 511k subscribers on his Youtube channel, and billions of views.

Recently, the Berlin-based science communicator released exciting trailers for his upcoming science fiction film “Orbital,” which also went viral.

As a self-taught filmmaker, he's making the film, which features some stunning VFX, largely on his own. The documentary-style film tells the story of the creation of a massive orbital ring around the planet Earth.

The film's storyline about a megastructure comes at a time of heightened possibility of megastructures being built that were once purely science fiction.

The idea maybe not far from Jeff Bezos's proposed idea of "floating cities" in the Space which would mimic the Earth's weather and gravity and be able to house up to a million people in giant, spinning cylinders. Closer to our time, Saudi Arabia plans to build The Line, the world's first megacity -- a 105-mile linear skyscraper.

Interesting Engineering (IE) spoke to Hashem Al-Ghaili about the inspiration for his vision, the process of creating the film as well as what the future may hold for this talented creator.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: As you’re a scientist by trade, how did you get into making movies?

Hashem Al-Ghaili: I'm a scientist, I got my degree in molecular biotechnology from Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. I've always been a video producer, making videos on social media. But these are short videos. They are up to three to five minutes long, generally. But then I decided to upgrade my work quality in 2018 when I created a sci-fi film called “Simulation.” It was a short film that I published online. I also learned how to make it online. I read some books. I followed some filmmakers. I tried to make myself familiar with the process. And I created “Simulation,” which won awards at international film festivals.

After several years, I decided to return to filmmaking and make “Orbital.” It's a feature film. “Simulation” was around 23 minutes, but this one is an hour and a half. And I'm doing more than 90 percent of the work myself. Pre-production, writing, casting, directing, editing, visual effects, which include scene preparation, lighting, and compositing animation. Later on, there will also be the sound design and the rendering. It’s a very exciting project!

IE: Can you share a bit about your process — how long does it take? What software do you use?

First of all, you start with an idea and a script. I prefer to write my own films. If I'm going to put a lot of work into a film, it better be my own writing. After the writing, I review the script multiple times. I did it with friends reviewing the script over a period of around three months. I went back and forth until I was happy with the script. This is the one [Orbital] you want to spend more time with because whatever film you make is determined by the quality of the script. It's the big thing that determines whether people are going to like it or not.

Then the pre-production, which means you find the cast, you find the group, and you make sure that they all have a certain schedule -- that they can all show up on time. Pre-production also involves the look of the film, and the design of the set — what should it look like? What should the shot look like in the end? Sometimes you make props. For me, this took a while. But in fact, for “Simulation” it was much longer because it was done in a narrative style. But this one did not take a long time because it was in the interview style. It's a science fiction, documentary-style film. So you just show up in a green screen studio, and you film the interviews. That took two days, but to prepare for these two days. It took a lot of work -- around five months.

So I've got three months in writing, five months in the pre-production and finding the cast and the crew, and then two days just for filming. Then you get the footage, you put it in the software to sync the audio and everything in Adobe Premiere that I'm using. You start editing the film based on the script that you wrote. And now you have a film. But there are a lot of gaps missing — one, you need to change out the green screen with visual effects. And then you also need to fill the gaps in between the interview with visual effects shots. And this process takes a while. In fact, it has taken me over one year now, since. I am now at one hour ready. And there's still half an hour, 40 minutes left in the film. And you still have to go back and visit some old shots, to update them and make them look better.

Now, what do I use for visual effects? Cinema 4d, with OctaneRender. And I'm also using Blender, and sometimes a software called Daz 3d. And for whatever I export from these software tools, I use Adobe After Effect for compositing, which means combining all the elements of the shot to make sure that they blend well together. Normally, in the standard industrial filmmaking, they use high-end tools like Houdini, or Nuke, or Maya, but I don't use these because these are incredibly complex to learn. I believe that if you spend enough time working on each shot with the tools I'm using, you can achieve similar results. Close to the industrial, standard tools.

IE: What gave you the idea to make “Orbital”?

During the Coronavirus pandemic, I was learning how to create 360 [degree] images. I love anything that has to do with virtual reality. And learning how to make 360 [degree] images was definitely something that I was interested in. And so I was searching for models, 3D models on websites like TurboSquid, or CGTrader, or Art Station. And I found the model of the rings that looks very realistic. You could zoom in and you could see incredible details. So I bought the model and used Cinema 4D to put the rings around Earth. And then I created a 360 image and published it on Facebook, which supports 360 images. I said, “Let's build it, let's build the rings!” And it got over 100,000 likes. And over 60,000 comments. People turn into engineers trying to describe it.

I thought if one picture can generate this much engagement, what if I turned it into a story? A film with moving images and visual effects rather than just still images with video. Then came the idea of writing the script — it wasn't in the back of my head at all. It was the good response to that post that motivated me to write the script. So I wrote this script for the film. And after extensive feedback from friends, it was time to learn visual effects. So I started learning them online. Some courses on Skillshare. Some online YouTube tutorials that are available for free — in fact, a lot of free courses helped me to learn new skills in visual effects. When I noticed that I was ready, it was time to shoot the film and proceed to the next steps.

IE: As the film was shot during the Covid pandemic, what were some practical issues with making it?

For the main interviews, which were filmed in Berlin, we rented a green screen studio. It took two days for the three actors. There are also things filmed outside Germany, for example, in India, and in Nigeria. It’s done in an interview style so for those segments, you contact a filmmaker there, give them a description of what you want and a script, and they deliver the materials to you. So I didn't have to travel to those places.

The film essentially is like you're watching a documentary. And there are news reports in between. And this fictitious news report, you need people to pretend that they're in front of the camera delivering reports. And for this, I used freelancers, which you find on Upwork and Fiverr. You just give them a description and they prepare everything for you and they send you the footage.

IE: What’s next for “Orbital”? When will you release it?

I have one hour finished. There are still 30 to 40 minutes that I need to finish and since I’m doing all the visual effects by myself, rendering on my computer, it's taking a long time. But I'm approaching a decent amount of work being done. I have to wait until I have made a significant amount of progress so that the next trailer will announce the release date.

The trailer attracted a lot of attention. There is a distribution company that we are talking to now. If this works, the film might be on a distribution platform like Netflix or Amazon Prime. If not, it will be published on my YouTube channel for free. People can enjoy watching it and sharing it.

I think it's interesting that it already has some attention. Google shows that people are searching around the topic of “Orbital”. People are looking forward to watching it. It's on their radar. I receive a lot of messages and emails from people asking “what's the progress with the film?”

I also think the film deserves a lot of attention. At least for the process, the fact that you can make a film entirely by yourself, without a studio or a big production company behind you. The process itself will inspire a lot of people like, “Okay, anybody can make a movie now.”

If it gets the attention, then perhaps in the future, I won't have to struggle. And a studio might come and say, “You know what, we're familiar with your work and would like to be part of a project that we work on together and will provide you with the necessary budget,” which means projects will be finished sooner if there are more people involved.

IE: How does your science background play into your science fiction?

There are two types of science fiction. One is called “soft” science fiction, and the other is called “hard” science fiction. Soft is the one that goes too far from science, like Star Wars — “the Force.” It becomes fantasy at some point. And hard science fiction is going to try to stick to science as much as possible, making things somewhat realistic.

Hard science fiction is very essential to my writing, because I want people to feel that it is as realistic as possible. You will find it in my upcoming novel, and you will also find it in “Orbital.” I use my background in science communication and science in general to do the research to see what are the impacts, looking at predictions and outcomes. So it does play a very big role in my writing, and in my filmmaking as well.

Check out another popular video recently made by Hashem Al-Ghaili:

IE: What are your other future plans?

I actually have two things that are coming next year. One is the film. The second is a science fiction novel, which I finished writing. It's called “Simulation: The Great Escape.” So basically, I revisited the old short film, and I noticed that it was too short to tell the whole story. So I wrote a full book novel on that — it's 460 pages and has 33 chapters. And it talks about the world of the simulation, where humans exist as just a part of the universe, like a small section inside that universe. It's a universe within a universe. Overall, I’ll be making more films and writing novels. This is the direction I’m going in. Hoping for one novel per year.

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