www.helsinginsanomat.fi/english - Wednesday 4.4.2012 Samuli Torssonen, special effects man behind Iron Sky By Anna-Sofia Berner
The story has many beginnings.
The official story begins in 1992 when 13-year-old Samuli Torssonen ran into his room in the Koivistonkylä district of Tampere, turned on his computer and launched the Deluxe Paint II programme.
The newest Star Trek film had just been shown on television, and Samuli was inspired to produce his own space animation: Star Wreck. It was to be the first of many.
Samuli got his first computer, a Commodore 64, a few years earlier.
But perhaps the story began even earlier than that, with technology Lego bricks that Samuli used to build lorries. He never looked at the instructions because he wanted to figure out himself how to arrange the bricks.
Or perhaps the story began in Pyhäsalmi at his family’s summer cottage, where Samuli built huts and a raft on which he would go onto the lake. Whenever he concentrated on something he would devote his full attention to it. He also did not need a peer group around him, being content to work alone.
A total of 1,500 invited guests emerge from ten cinemas after spending an hour and a half watching Nazis trying to take over the earth. It is Monday and the most expensive film ever produced in Finland, Iron Sky with a price tag of EUR 7.5 million, has had its premiere at the Plevna cinema in Tampere.
Milling among the local residents are the stars of the film itself. Towering over most others is Götz Otto, 199 centimetres tall, who plays the chief villain.
Walking toward the door is 33-year-old Samuli Torssonen who looks more like an engineer than a filmmaker in his red tie.
A white limousine stands on a side road in front of the cinema.
“Who is that for?” Torssonen asks his partner.
They walk around the limousine and stay underneath a canopy because it is raining. A moment later Julia Dietze, who plays the main female lead, appears at the door dressed in an orange evening gown.
“Could you bring it a bit closer?” she asks the man with her umbrella shortly before getting in the car. The stars get a chauffeured limousine, but without Samuli Torssonen there would never have been a premiere.
Samuli Torssonen is the on-set supervisor, pre-visualisation artist, VFX editor, visual effects producer, visual effects supervisor, and producer of Iron Sky.
All of this can be summarised by saying that he is responsible primarily for the special effects of the film. In this movie it means more than just explosions, battles, and gigantic spacecraft.
Most of the scenes were shot in front of a green screen, and Torssonen and his team have added the scenery by computer.
Torssonen’s influence was greater than the funny titles suggest. He and director Timo Vuorensola are a seamless pair who have worked together for the past 15 years.
They were already working together when Vuorensola was a telemarketer who had quit school and Torssonen was unemployed with a Bachelor of Business degree who spent his unemployment money and all of his time to put the final touches on the first full-length Star Wreck film.
Because Star Wreck is where it all began.
The sixth part of the series, which began in 1992, was shot in the early 2000s. The film studio was Torssonen’s one-room flat in the Multisilta district of Tampere. The actors went one by one in front of a blue screen. Because of the limited space, even dialogues involving two actors had to be shot with each of the actors playing separately in turn.
Initially the part six of Star Wreck was supposed to be a 20-minute celebration of special effects. But as often happens when Torssonen concentrates on something, the ambition kept on growing.
It took seven years, but finally the first ever full-length feature film available to be downloaded on the internet came out of Multisilta.
At the beginning of the film, Captain Pirk, the antihero played by Torssonen himself, steps out of the spaceship’s toilet, zips up his fly and moves toward his crew with toilet paper stuck to the sole of his shoe.
Soon the sci-fi parody produced by the two friends had been downloaded more than a million times, and there were viewers all around the world.
This was all happening at a time when YouTube was just being set up.
Taxis and limousines take the guests to the Pakkahuone Hall. It is time for speeches.
“Six years ago I met two guys in Tampere who changed my life”, says producer Tero Kaukomaa.
"Let me introduce: Timo Vuorensola and Samuli Torssonen!"
The two friends step up to the podium. Vuorensola grabs the microphone and takes control of the stage. Torssonen stands to the side, smiling with a slightly loosened tie around his neck.
“This feels surreal. It’s as if I were dreaming”, Torssonen says later with a can of beer in his hand.
Guests are constantly coming up to thank Torssonen and praise the film. “I hope that the world will be queuing at your door”, says editor Suresh Ayyar.
After the success of Star Wreck the world was not yet lurking behind his door, but at least Torssonen was no longer dependent on unemployment benefits.
The production team earned money by selling the DVD versions of the film, as well as t-shirts and other products with the Star Wreck theme. Torssonen set up a company and a Star Wreck store was opened in Tampere, with a back room that became an office. It was a big step.
“It was fantastic to be able to tell people to come to the office at nine and leave at five.”
One person invited to the office was Finlandia Prize winner Johanna Sinisalo whom Torssonen asked for help in writing the script for a new film. The friends had been tossing around an idea dreamed up by Jarmo Puskala in the sauna about Nazis who had fled to the moon, but the idea did not move forward. Sinisalo promised to write a story about lunar Nazis.
Torssonen and Vuorensola started getting invitations from around the world asking them to come and talk about their exceptional first film. When the two travelled to the film festival in the Norwegian city of Tromsø it was the first time that Vuorensola had flown on a plane.
Once Torssonen was invited to Croatia, which he thought was located somewhere in the neighbourhood of Russia. When he got there he realised that sweaters and winter coats were perhaps the wrong attire for the shore of the Adriatic Sea. General knowledge had never been one of his strong points.
On Tuesday, a day after the party with all of the invited guests, it was the turn of the fans to queue up for the biggest screen in Plevna.
Torssonen takes a look at the queue before going to a nearby cafe. He takes off his brown leather jacket, leans back, and starts to tell a story about how Iron Sky came to be – or more precisely, what all the obstacles were before it was really made.
Many people worked on the script, and it kept changing up to the very end. This took years. The budget grew all the time. At times the actors were about to walk out when the shortage of funding forced constant delays in the shooting schedule. In 2009 some of the members of the crew had to be made redundant for months, and in 2011, when the shooting was finally underway, it was not clear if there would be enough money to complete it.
For many of its makers Iron Sky was a more dazzling film school than most. Now Torssonen knows how to attract investors at the Cannes Film Festival, how to fit as many special effects experts as possible into a two-room office, and how to direct one’s own role models – people who have been involved in the production of such classics as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.
“I also learned that sometimes you have to let go of half-finished images even if it is painful to do so.”
And so the film was finally completed and got its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and now is waiting to be shown in cinemas around the world.
For the past two months Torssonen has been earning a regular monthly salary of more than EUR 2,000. Until then he spent 15 years on irregular income averaging about EUR 1,000 a month.
One element of tension, though: will the public find Iron Sky?
“After once getting a million viewers, I wouldn’t want to go back.”
After all of this the situation is the same as it was seven years ago. After years of work, the film is complete, and there is no knowledge of another one.
Torssonen makes films for the same reason that he built Lego trucks. A movie is a complicated jigsaw puzzle which he enjoys putting together.
But too much is always too much. Next he would prefer to concentrate on the special effects – or at least he would like to have a script that is ready.
“It would be good therapy.”
Of course it would not hurt if the script came from Hollywood. Director Vuorensola has already taken some calls from there. As a true resident of Tampere, Torssonen downplays the significance of the contacts. “They’re just calling me to make sure that nobody else gets me first.”
The story has many beginnings, but the end remains open.