Operation Elixir follows private security agents Jouster Woodley (played by Murray Clive Walker) and Noah Fenn (Zackaryah Nolte) as they attempt to defend a high-tech research facility against an assault from an unidentified militia. When Jouster gets shot in the crossfire, it is up to Noah to prevent their capture until a rescue team can arrive to extract them.
Flash-forward to three years later, when Noah is badly injured in an accident, Jouster tries to re-establish contact with his friend. In the process, Jouster reveals a secret he had been withholding about what really happened the night they were under attack.
The film was directed by Marcel Brandel during his time as a student at the Beijing Film Academy where he decided to enroll after age restrictions and a lack of prior experience prevented him from attending film school in his native Germany. And, as Brandel makes clear, the opportunity he had to connect with other like-minded filmmakers at the BFA left a lasting impression on him.
“The most important thing was the huge number of other very passionate and awesome students who could help each other,” he says. “You progress together and making something creative without any limits.”
While he was attending the BFA, the school announced it would offer a limited number of students 120,000RMB to produce a graduation film. It was then that Brandel got together with some classmates to develop an idea he had been considering for some time.
“The idea came to me when a friend of mine told me about a short story about two brothers during World War II. It had lots of details I liked, so I kept thinking about it,” he recalls. “Then, one day I met up with my team and we had a brainstorming session. Everyone enjoyed the creative process and in the end we decided to shoot it.”
While most of his fellow classmates were opting to pitch romantic comedies and dramas, Brandel wanted to make a point by shooting a ‘big budget’ sci-fi action film.
I wanted to challenge this kind of thinking and show that passion always wins…
“A lot of the times I hear people say that the quality and creativity of a film is tied closely to its budget,” he says. “I wanted to challenge this kind of thinking and show that passion always wins and with friends who trust you too, you can make any dream come true.”
Brandel further doubled-down on this point with some Hollywood-sized production requirements—including exo-skeletons, an invisibility tent, and even a helicopter.
“It sounds like it needs an insane budget, an unpredictable amount of post-production time, and will have questionable VFX quality,” he admits. “So, it took me very long time to find an advising professor who believed in my team’s capability and would agree to come on board.”
In the end, the film was selected for production by the BFA. But, while Brandel’s team was thrilled to get the green light, it also meant they were about to get a first-hand lesson in the challenges of finding solutions for wardrobe, props, and set design all on a limited budget.
“We couldn’t even afford to dress the entire set at once. So, we constantly had to reuse props from one scene in other scenes. That meant, we had to dress locations in between takes,” he says. “The exo-skeleton suits needed to be constantly repaired as well. The actors damaged them very easily with any slightly stronger action movements.”
Amongst other challenges the team faced, they had to come up with ways to bring together a large cast and crew with diverse cultural backgrounds.
As Brandel describes it, they struggled to get “fifty people working together in an organized and efficient way, especially because they didn’t always speak the same language!” He further adds that, “The call sheets, scripts, and other information was double the work since they needed to be written in English and Chinese.”
Once you have those two things, everything should hopefully go smoothly.
Nevertheless, the experience also taught him a few important things about the art of operating under pressure.
“Communication and how to remain calm are the two most important things I learned while working on this film. Once you have those two things, everything should hopefully go smoothly.”
Even when things didn’t go as planned, he says his team always found ways not just to turn them around, but also turn them into some of the most exciting moments on the production.
“We were fighting against time—the one opponent you can’t beat,” he states. “But, we were still trying to make the story work, even with all the obstacles and challenges we had.”
Keeping in mind that the film is a student film, it’s still hard as a director not to wonder what—if you had the chance to do it over again—you would’ve done differently.
“I would have made the story simpler,” Brandel confesses. “At the beginning, the script was intended to be a twenty-five-minute short film. When we handed in the film, I needed to cut it down to fifteen minutes, which I didn’t know beforehand.”
Nearly two years after the film was completed, Brandel is now able to look back on what he and his team accomplished and sees clear value in having a project like this with his name on it towards helping him build a career in China.
“Definitely, with this short film we’ve been able to use it for several job applications, show-reel material, and pitches,” he says. “It’s helped me convince a lot of other investors and partners.”
Looking ahead to the rest of 2017, Brandel has a number of projects in the works, including expanding on the original idea behind the film he made at the BFA.
“I’m currently editing a feature documentary about stories along the Great Wall of China. Besides that, turning Operation Elixir into a web feature film is one plan, and there’s another feature length script that I would like to turn in to a web feature as well.”
You can watch Operation Elixir in full below (VPN required if you’re in the PRC) or here (no VPN required).