Australian fan filmmaker AARON VANDERKLEY returns for BEYOND THE SUN! (interview)

Star Trek fan films get made all over the world—from coast to coast in America, across Europe, in Japan, and even Australia. In fact, the Land Down Under has given our community five of the best NX-era fan films out there (STAR TREK: HORIZON from TOMMY KRAFT remains probably THE best NX-era fan film, in my opinion)…all from the same fellow, AARON VANDERKLEY.

A professional freelance filmmaker, Aaron began his fan film “trek” back in January of 2016 with the amazingly powerful 6-minute fan film called NEEDS OF THE MANY.  Strong acting, impressive sets, and spot-on uniforms marked his debut. In mid 2017, Aaron released the 12-minute THE DERELICT, an intensely dark and haunting horror/thriller (very unique for a Star Trek fan film). Again, the acting was top-notch, the uniforms amazing, and now there was even action, suspense, and a few stunts thrown in. It really felt like part of an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise.

By the beginning of 2018, Aaron treated fans to a third superbly-crafted NX-era film, GOOD MEN, this one only 9 minutes long. Six months later, Aaron release his most ambitious release so far, the 14-minute THE FALL OF STARBASE ONE. And finally, in the summer of 2019, Aaron completed what turned out to be a 5-film story arc with the 20-minute LINE OF DUTY, blowing away fans with a touching and emotional story marked yet again by a top-notch level of acting, production quality, lighting, make-up, sets, costumes, props, sound…the works.

And then he was done. Aaron told me in a 2-part interview that he had only ever intended to make five NX-era fan films, and he had no plans to produce anything further in the genre. One of our community’s most impressive fan filmmakers was moving on…the bittersweet end of a short but truly impressive run.

Then, smack dab in the middle of May 2021, without fanfare, Aaron reemerged with a brand new fan film titled BEYOND THE SUN. Once again, the production quality was stunningly excellent, with practical sets, quality costumes and props, and high-end VFX from British animator emiritus SAMUEL COCKINGS. But Aaron had decided to jump forward a couple of centuries to the Voyager-era and set his newest fan production on board a Nova-class science vessel. And indeed, the powerful story felt remarkably like it could easily have been an episode of Voyager. Take a look…

Pretty awesome, right? Well, the clock on the wall says it’s time for another interview with Mr. Vanderkley, and this one is really worth a read, folks…

JONATHAN – Welcome back to Star Trek fan films, Aaron!  It’s been nearly two years since “Line of Duty,” your fifth and “final” Star Trek fan film, was released.  What happened to inspire you to make another Trek fan film?

Aaron Vanderkley lives in Perth, Australia

AARON – I think one of the main reasons why I decided to come back was really because COVID took away the ability to be creative for a while. I was extremely fortunate that in Australia, or more specifically Western Australia, there was an immediate reaction to what was going on. I didn’t lose my job, I didn’t have family members affected by it, and aside from just not going out as much, life generally carried on as normal. The only downside was this looming fear that if you did do something—like a film project—we would all go into lockdown, and it would be postponed or cancelled.

So sitting at work not being able to do anything creative forced me to want to do something creative, which led me into writing scripts, which led me back to Star Trek. We were also extremely fortunate that during this whole period, there was probably more Star Trek than there ever was—Picard, Lower Decks, Discovery—so that inspired me to do something different.

JONATHAN – Why did you switch from Enterprise NX-era to 24th century Voyager-era?

AARON – I think I’ve said this in interviews before, but Voyager was actually the Star Trek which I grew up watching. So really, for me, it has always been my first love. I knew that five films would be the lucky number for the Enterprise-era series, so all those sets were pulled apart after filming. And that meant that we needed to start from scratch, moving into a new era.

Kate Elder (Captain), Maximiliano Laffont (Engineer), and Karin Kowi (Doctor)

JONATHAN – Speaking of inspiration, this was a very powerful story with a strong social message and a profound moral dilemma…in the best traditions of all of the various Star Trek series.  What inspired you to write this particular script in this particular way?

AARON – Moving into Voyager-era (or ‘TNG-era,’ I suppose), you know there is a specific type of story and storytelling that is inherently Star Trek of that time period. There is usually a present day social/economic/political issue that is presented in the guise of a 24th century moral dilemma—sometimes subliminally and sometimes rather overtly. This story was actually inspired by something a friend from work told me about his family situation, and I even rather cheekily Star Trek’d up his name “Braden” to be “Ba’den.”

Religion and how it fits into our future, let alone the Star Trek future (and we know it has a place, somewhere, in DS9) is interesting to me. Starfleet has rules against interfering in the affairs of other cultures, yet we know that these pilgrims will die, so how can we sit back and let that happen? At the same time, we can’t say “Sorry, but you’re wrong,” and lock them up for their own protection until they think the same as we do. So what can you do? For me, Star Trek is at its best when it presents us with an issue and says “Why don’t you go away and have a think about that?”

JONATHAN – Once you had your script, how did you go about casting all of the roles?

AARON – As with most of my projects, I won’t do it unless I can find the right cast and I can honestly say—with no disrespect to the others—that this was overall the strongest cast in my Star Trek fan films so far. We put out a casting call, and what we came back with was five lead actors who portrayed their characters as I had them in my head, and that is a very rare thing.

Jason Burch (Ba’den) and Adam Poole (Pastor)

ADAM POOLE (Pastor) was one of the first people to send through his self-tape—which is always a concern when people send in their auditions within a few days—but he got the tone of the character right off the bat. KATE ELDER (Captain) we worked with a few years on some material for part two of THE ROMULAN WAR fan film, which hasn’t actually come out yet, but I could picture her in this role, and she delivered. KARIN KOWI (Doctor) was actually a “blink and you’ll miss it” extra in Line of Duty, and I kept her in mind while I was writing the role. JASON BURCH (Ba’den) auditioned for the Engineer role, but I could see he was a good actor, so I beefed up the character of the son…literally wrote in an extra heart-to-heart for him and MAXIMILIANO LAFFONT (Engineer) to pack some wallop later on. Working with Maxim was like touching an electric fence—he’s always live! He was enthusiastic, energetic, and full of questions about the story unfolding around him. I was really happy with how these guys brought Beyond the Sun to life.

JONATHAN – A key aspect of pre-production is designing and constructing the sets, and yours are always incredibly impressive…especially when folks look at behind-the-scenes photos (scroll to the bottom) to see how you pack so much into such a small space. Can you talk a little about how you designed and built these 24th century sets?

AARON – Production Design was a huge part of this project. As I mentioned before, we had to start from scratch. The Voyager sets have a specific design style that we tried to replicate, whilst also keeping in mind how the sets were redressed for the episode “Equinox,” which also takes place on a Nova-class science vessel. We were very lucky that a rather clever person online had drawn up some set plans, and from that we were able to get a good estimate on how to achieve the shapes we wanted.

During the pre-production process (and literally on the day of our last rehearsal) Western Australia was hit with a snap week-long lockdown, but we used that time at home to our advantage and built as many different set pieces as we could in the lead-up to shooting.

Another epic feat was the EV suits, which were something uncommon in fan films. But I knew it would make ours unique, especially for the opening scene. They were a combination of long and hard hours for both Production and Costume Design, but the actors looked fabulous in them.

Those amazing EV suits!

JONATHAN – I totally agree! Costume-wise, this was an awesome-looking fan film. Actually, it was awesome-looking all around. So moving from pre-production to production, how did filming go? Were there any particular challenges to overcome? How many days were you shooting?

AARON – Beyond the Sun was shot across three days in late February 2021, starting with the pilgrim ship, followed by Starfleet corridor, and finally the briefing room. I had certainly put into practice what worked last time, which was shooting on a single set per day, rather than the stress of having to turn sets around, and that was a consideration I wrote into the script, as well, and will continue to do for these short films.

The only real downside to the shoot was that we had about five extras who didn’t show up on the first day, so I had to rely on my parents and my partner to step in. And I had also arranged to have three make-up artists across the entire shoot, and by the third day we had none, and my partner had to step in to help there, as well. It was disappointing that something we thought we had well covered suddenly crept into the forefront of our focus, and unfortunately that part is something which sticks out to me in the finished product.

JONATHAN – Shifting now from production to the final phase, post-production, let’s talk first about the excellent VFX shots done by the busiest man in Star Trek fan films, Samuel Cockings.

AARON – The best thing about working with Sam is that he knows how the VFX sequences of the show are supposed to look. And while he doesn’t try and match them frame for frame, he certainly gives you something that you can believe was on Voyager. I think I was very clear about what I was after, sent through a line of action and a screen-cap example, and Sam delivered what I needed. Beyond the Sun had quite a number of VFX sequences, including for the very first time for our productions a transporter effect and an opening title sequence. So we are really evolving from our first fan film back in 2015, and that was something Sam was particularly keen about.

JONATHAN – About how long do you estimate you spent on post-production? And all told, how long did it take you to finish this latest film from start to finish?

AARON – From when we put out the casting call in mid-December to premiering in mid-May was probably about five months all up for Beyond the Sun. After we finished shooting in late-February, I took a little holiday, and when I came back, I just worked through scene by scene for a week until I had a picture lock. From there, it was a bit of a waiting game while Sam’s team worked through their busy schedule of Star Trek fan film VFX’s and got to ours. In the meantime, I worked on the sound design, and my director of photography worked on the grade, and then it all came together.

JONATHAN – And finally, do you have more Star Trek fan films inside you wanting to come out?  If so, what’s next?

AARON – Yes! Beyond the Sun is actually number one in a series of three stories set in the Star Trek: Voyager era, all with the aim of being released (or at the very least produced) in 2021. There was a pretty decent plan for the other two, some of which I actually discussed VFX shots with Sam, but they’ve been thrown out the window (probably) with a focus on something a bit more…relevant to the world we live in right now.

Beyond that, I initially scripted another story as part of my “What-If Star Trek was a television show in the 70s?” concept before I wrote Beyond the Sun, so I am thinking about going onto that potentially after we finish this run of stories. I really enjoy the Production Design aspects of these projects, so to create something again from scratch is very interesting to me.

JONATHAN – Well, I’m certainly very happy to have you back behind the camera giving us more FANtastic stories and films, Aaron!

AARON – Thanks so much for your support on these projects! I really appreciate it, and I am glad that you enjoyed them.

Aaron supplied me some eye-opening behind-the-scenes photos. When you see just how small the studio was, you are going to be AMAZED. Click on any photo below to enlarge it…

Day 1 cast and crew
Day 2 cast and crew
Day 3 cast and crew

2 thoughts on “Australian fan filmmaker AARON VANDERKLEY returns for BEYOND THE SUN! (interview)”

  1. Jonathan, you wrote that Horizon was by AAron also, in the first paragraph above, but, the only Star Trek Horizon fan film, NX Class movie, I know, is by Tommy Kraft. Did I miss something somewhere?

    1. Yeah, I can see how it would be confusing the way I initially wrote it. Aaron made five OF the best NX-era fan films. But Tommy made THE best one. I’ve now tried to correct the sentence slightly.

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