Production Blog


Leighton Hickman is the Art Director for Refuge and has been hard at work developing the visual language of the film. Leighton has spent the bulk of his career in visual development on animated features at DreamWorks Animation, including Shrek Forever After and The Croods.  

Q: What inspired you to become involved with REFUGE? 

A: I was drawn to the project immediately while reading the script. I couldn't help but visualize the movie playing out in my head: the rain falling, the characters caught walking through this horrible future, and the mechs looming in the mist. The emotional tone of the script was so strong I just had to start painting and create the world!

Q: What is your favorite painting so far?

A: My favorite painting is definitely the big reveal of the mech. It was inspired by a combo of Blade Runner and the T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park. Our idea with the mechs is to treat them as monsters looming in the shadows. I feel like a lot of movies, especially horror films, are ruined when you see the monster and I like that ours is more obscured and hidden, keeping them as a nearly abstract emotional quality rather than just a cool special effect. That adds much more strength to the fear of the mechs as we follow the mother and daughter through the story.

Q: Talk about any particular styles/techniques that you've utilized in your paintings and how you want that to apply to the visuals of the film.

A: We're looking at the art to support the story through the use of lighting, local color and the overall composition of the shots. For me the emotional quality of a piece is paramount and I use these elements as tools to convey it. Color especially plays an important role in the visual storytelling- in Refuge yellow is a comforting color that represents safety. It's the predominate color at the beginning and in the doll that the little girl is carrying. Throughout the story we'll start to lose that color, as the doll is muddied, to show hope and safety are being taken away. Conversely we're using red to show the violence and the fear, we'll introduce more reds as their world becomes more dangerous. The cold color of steel versus the earth tones of humanity. You'll see that the earlier images in the film are more stable, using strong horizontals and vertical elements, but as we progress further the view becomes more dynamic and angled, making it feel like the world is slipping out from underneath the characters, in some cases literally.

Q: What's next for you on this project? 

A: Next for me is tackling the interior. A lot of the early development work has been done to establish the world and the mech. Now that we've had opportunity to define that and have finished building some truly killer mechs, it's time for me to start focusing on the softer side of the story- the more emotional and intimate moments that happen between the mother and daughter as they try to survive in this perilous world. 

Q&A with Story Artist Johane Matte

Johane Matte has been working with director Leif Jeffers on the story for Refuge for a little over a year. Johane has a background storyboarding for epic features like How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel as well as Rise of the Guardians for which she won an Annie Award. I sat down with her to talk about her experience so far on Refuge. 


A: It was a different project than what I've done, somehow more serious. I liked the possibility of working on something live action because it's a different way of thinking. It's not only the content but the way you approach it -- you're in the mindset of being more realistic. I'm dealing with human beings. It depends on the project but on REFUGE you have the idea that some moments you're able to go more fantasy whereas in other moments you need to be grounded in reality. It plays in the back of your mind as you're working - it's going to be filmed in the real world with real people. 


A: Leif is super easy to communicate with. It's really fun to bounce ideas off of him and it's fun to try and adapt his vision of the story into something that's watchable and able to be produced. It's his movie, it's his project, but getting to throw in those extra ideas that spark other ideas is inspiring. It's about his vision, trying to stay close to what he wanted to say. We had to make changes along the way but we kept going back to the core of what he wanted. For all storytellers it's that - you have a story to tell, you tell it the best way you can. 


A: I like getting an idea for a shot, figuring out how to make it work in terms of the staging and thinking of the characters and really being into the story. What's harder is when I get to the stage where I have to be really detailed in drawing. I have drawn in a cartoon-y style my whole life and suddenly drawing something realistic is more of a challenge, but it's a welcomed challenge. 


A: We've locked into a rough, thumbnailed version of the entire project. It's a dirty animatic that I've drawn and Leif has assembled to get the basic idea of the story. Now we start cleaning up the drawings and clarifying the moments to make sure it all works. 


A: Because I'm right at the beginning of the process, I can't wait to see what happens a few months from now - sets and costumes, the actors - everything that happens when it starts to come together. That's when it becomes real. 

Our First Twitter Talk!

Team REFUGE recently participated in a Twitter talk hosted by the magnanimous Seed&Spark, purveyor of all things crowd funding for independent film. Seed&Spark's model is interesting - rather than offering their tools to all, they review every film project on a case by case basis before making them a part of their family. They employ, foster and reach out to true lovers of the craft and we were honored to be invited to take part in one of their talks!

We are just beginning to stretch our legs into the world of social media, and the concept of a hosted talk on Twitter was brand new to us. The topic was simple: What makes a good movie? And the question was posed to hundreds of people in the film and social media worlds, along with more specific questions to drive the conversation: is there one element a movie needs to be considered "good" and how has that criteria changed over time? 

For us, the questions were easy. The heart of any good story is its characters. Interesting visuals should push character and emotional development throughout the story, but as time has marched on, visuals have started to overpower character. This creates a feast for the eyes but is often devoid of emotional connection. A "bad" movie is usually because of characters we don't care about, poor pacing and unmotivated actions. 

Seed&Spark then moved on to topics more related to this new age of social media, asking with so many voices able to be heard, which metrics of how films are judged are most important for filmmakers to consider? Our director Leif had a great insight to add, saying that you have no control over how your work is viewed, just that you need to make something you're proud of, tell your best story and the rest will come.  

The group closed with this question - with so much out there, how do you find great new voices of independent cinema? This is a question that we pose to ourselves regularly: how do we make REFUGE and its team known as one of the great new voices in the crowded world of independent film? Social media is an incredibly powerful tool, one that can be harnessed to make helpful and meaningful connections with people who share your passion all over the globe. We were fascinated to read the responses and conversations of all the other Seed&Spark chatters and even made a few connections ourselves. We look forward to participating in more of these chats and finding like-minded filmmakers in the weeks and months to come! 

Q&A with Our Director

Kristen here with director and writer Leif Jeffers to get at the heart of how "REFUGE" came to be and to talk about the progress the team has made so far. 

KM: What inspired you to tell this story? 

LJ: I was interested in telling a war story, not about a soldier or a fighter pilot, but about the person at the other end of the gun.  A person greatly outmatched, and completely alone.  

As the story slowly begin to take shape, I found myself continually coming back to the idea of a mother and daughter trapped in this impossible situation.  Two characters, who view the world in a unique way, yet share a bond that we can relate to on a primal level.  When you really think about it, what's more beautiful, more human, than the connection between a mother and her child?  

I knew that whatever threat they faced had to oppose their humanity in a meaningful way.  For that reason, I began to explore the idea of using a machine.  Not just any machine, but a machine that would symbolize the cold, heartless, brutality of war.  I wanted these giant mechanical beasts to become walking representations of death and chaos.

Once I had all that figured out, there was nothing in the world that could have stopped me from writing it!

KM: Give us an update! What's been happening lately? 

LJ: Oh man, where to begin?  There has been so much happening on the project.  I'll give you guys a small taste of what's been going on, and save the rest for later.  

Lately, I've been laser focused on refining the story with Johane Matte.  In our first version of the boards, we focused heavily on exploring character moments and pushing tension.  It didn't take us long to realize that the short was getting long, and it was pretty obvious that we had to go back and streamline it a bit.  We had a bunch of meetings on how to tell the same story in a more concise way.  Through a lot of trial and error, we were able to find a succinct way to push the character arcs, while retaining the tension and mood we were after.  We are in the final stages of the the story process, and I couldn't be happier with the direction things are going.

I've been working with our Art Director, Leighton Hickman, on all things art related.  This includes Visual Development paintings, Mech designs, and costume designs.

Our Mechs are being designed and built by Stan Seo.  It's hard to imagine the amount of time and energy that goes into designing these mechanical beasts.  They have to be able to move in a believable way, while still serving the visual needs of the story.  Stan and Leighton have knocked it out of the park, and it's going to blow you guys away when you see the Mechs in their finished form.  

Phillip Boutte Jr has been hard at work on the costume designs.  They're looking amazing!  He nailed the daughter's outfit on his first try.  We're really pushing towards a very worn, dingy, and lived-in look.  Even though the film has giant Mechs in it, it's important for us that the characters and their costumes stay grounded in reality.  

KM: What has been your proudest or most favorite accomplishment to date? 

LJ: That's a tough question!  It's really hard for me to pick just one thing because this whole project has been full of special moments. So...I'm going to pick two, knowing full well that there will be a lot more moments to come!   

1.  I'm really proud of the amazing team we've assembled so far, and I'm deeply humbled whenever someone new joins our crew. Seeing them work tirelessly to bring "REFUGE" to life is an indescribable feeling as a director.  You can't help but feed off of that passion.  I owe everything we've done so far to my team, and this project wouldn't exist without them.

2.  I wrote a scene about a giant Mech silhouetted in the rain, and towering over a young girl. As I was writing, I couldn't help but doodle the image on a scrap piece of paper.  A few months later, Leighton took a stab at painting that scene.  When he showed me his first pass,  I was blown away.  He had nailed it on his first try.  It was exactly how I had envisioned it.  I've never shown anyone my doodle, but somehow his painting had the exact same composition as my crude drawing.  It's as if there was only way this image could exist in the world.  It was a moment I will never forget!

KM: What do you think will be the biggest challenge moving forward? 

Everything!  I'm not going to lie, the film we're making is extremely ambitious.  The challenges ahead of us are huge, but I have no doubt that we'll find our way through the storm.  It wouldn't be any fun if it was easy!  

What a week!

This has been an amazing week for the team.  Your overwhelming support for "REFUGE" was felt deeply by the whole crew.  Your comments, and willingness to share the project with your friends means the world to us.   Thank you! 

Our Producer, Kristen Murtha, will be your main guide on this blog.  Expect weekly updates from her.  From time to time, I'll drop by to give you guys a sneak peek into our world.  I'll talk some about what the team is working on, the challenges we're facing on the production, and insights into our thought process.  My updates will be randomly posted, so be on the look out! 


Leif Jeffers - Writer/Director

Twitter: @leifjeffers