A behind-the-scene look at one of the sets in 'Tengkorak.' (Photo courtesy of Akasacara Film)

'Tengkorak' Proves Making Sci-Fi Film On the Cheap Is No Stuff of Fantasy


OCTOBER 10, 2018

Jakarta. What happens when a bunch of students and lecturers, none of whom are professional filmmakers, decide to make a feature-length science fiction film, something that's notoriously expensive to make?

"Tengkorak" is what happens, a lively sci-fi fare that has already gained rave reviews and been nominated for best film at a festival in the United States.

Tengkorak ("Skull") was a DIY project made by students and lecturers of Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Vocational School in Yogyakarta, all of whom worked for free.

The film will finally be released in cinemas on Oct. 18 after being screened last year at the Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival (JAFF) and at the Balinale International Film Festival this year.

Tengkorak was nominated for Best Film in the Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Thriller category in the 2018 Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California.

The film is about the discovery of a 1,850 meter-high skull fossil in Yogyakarta after the province was hit by an earthquake in 2006.

The giant skull attracts the attention of scientists from all over the world, but the Indonesian government keeps the investigation of the fossil a secret.

The film then fast-forwards to 2021, when a university student named Ani accidentally obtains confidential information about the fossil that makes the authorities hunt after her.

Yusron Fuadi, a lecturer at the school’s Computer and Information System program, is the mastermind of Tengkorak.

His official roles in the movie were as director, scriptwriter, editor, director of photography and leading actor.

Yusron grew up as a sci-fi fanboy and a George Lucas freak. He told the Jakarta Globe on Friday (05/10) that he had always wanted to make a sci-fi film.

"I've been a die-hard fan of Lucas' 'Star Wars,' and Steven Spielberg's movies, since I was ten. I had to wait until I was in my thirties to make a sci-fi film," he said.

"And in Indonesia, most films are either a romance, horror or comedy. No sci-fi. Making 'Tengkorak' is a form of protest," the 36-year-old director said.

Tengkorak is rated 17+ for violence and plenty of swearing (mostly in Javanese). The film is a polyglot affair, as it also uses Indonesian, English, French, Greek and Russian.

"The story is set in Yogyakarta. I’m from Gunung Kidul [a mountainous area south of Yogyakarta], not one of those gentle Kraton [Yogyakarta royal family] people. People in Gunung Kidul and Bantul like to swear. I want to show that, before it goes extinct. Kids nowadays are more likely to say "fuck" than other swear words. I'll be sad if in 2050 no one says "asu" ["dog"] or "bajingan" ["bastard"] anymore. Those words are part of our heritage. We must preserve them," Yusron said.

Out of Pocket

Yusron came up with the Tengkorak story in 2013 and spent the next year writing the script. Filming started in September 2014 and wrapped up in December 2017.

What took so long? Yusron had to dig into his own pocket to fund the film before the dean of his school, Wikan Sakarinto, offered to become an executive producer and chipped in with his own money as well.

Wikan said during a media Q&A session on Sunday that they had to wait until payday every month they could continue shooting the film.

Yusron said eventually another professor – who wants to remain nameless – offered them several hundred million rupiahs to complete the movie.

"In the first year of filming, I paid for the film out of my own pocket. Luckily, the next year I found a benefactor, a highly respected professor from UGM," he said.

In the end, the movie cost Rp 500 million ($33,000) to make – a modest budget for a sci-fi film.

"That’s just for catering and props. We had to improvise a lot to save money. In the story, there’s a 100 meter-high tower that we made using a blue screen. That was held up using bamboo sticks thrown together by a bunch of villagers we hired. They weren't proper scaffolding," Yusron said.

A lot of the equipment used in the movie were sourced from the school’s multimedia lab. Editing and adding in the visual effects also took place in the lab.

Student Film

Another thing that made filming Tengkorak so slow was that most of film's crew were students at Yusron's university.

Yusron said he didn’t hire a production house because when he started making the movie he had just returned to Yogyakarta after years of working overseas.

"I didn’t really know who the up-and-coming filmmakers were and I was too shy to ask for their help," he said.

Tengkorak's crew was 150-strong and all of them were students at the UGM vocational school.

"But this meant my crew had such a strong sense of ownership for the film. Their enthusiasm came from the heart," Yusron said.

The director had to teach his crew the art of filmmaking. Luckily, his formal training – Yusron has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in filmmaking from Yogyakarta Arts Institute (ISI Yogyakarta) – came in handy.

Wikan said he gave permission for his students to work on Yusron's film because the activity fits the school's motto: "Whatever we learn must end up as a real product."

The students learned everything from scratch – from promotion and distribution to visual effects design.

"We learned how to make CGI and animation from YouTube videos," said Jayanti Tanri, one of the students and the visual effects supervisor for this film.

But this was not the first time Yusron employed his own students to make a film.

His short film "Pendekar Kesepian" ("Lonely Wolf") – screened at the 2015 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) – was also made with the help of his students.

Yusron said some of these students became so adept at visual effects design that they were hired by big-time director Hanung Bramantyo to help make his recently released colossal biopic, "Sultan Agung."

"The biggest challenge was keeping the crew’s spirit up. We nearly gave up but luckily the kind professor saved the day. Then we made it to JAFF. After that, the film got nominated for best film at Cinequest," Yusron said.

Tengkorak's cast included stage and film actors from Yogyakarta, including Eka Nusa Pertiwi, Rukman Rosadi and Haydar Salishz.

Students and lecturers from UGM also played in the movie, including rector Panut Mulyono and its head of International Affairs Office, I Made Andi Arsana.

Knowing that it would be difficult to find an actor who could commit himself to years of intermittent filmmaking, Yusron decided to cast himself in the lead role.

All of the cast and crew worked for free. Eka, who starred in Garin Nugroho’s 2011 film "Mata Tertutup" and Yusron’s Pendekar Kesepian, said the culture of guyub and gotong royong ("helping out each other") helped make the film happen despite lack of funding.

The film has already gained rave reviews from directors such as Hanung, Garin, Kamila Andini and Joko Anwar, all of whom saw the film at JAFF last year.

Yusron said if the film gets 100,000 viewers, he would use the money to pay some of his students' tuition fees and to make more film projects.

"Looking for a job with just a diploma degree is hard. I want my students to have at least a bachelor’s degree. If we get 100,000 viewers, I can send five of them back to school," he said.

Tengkorak will be in cinemas across Java starting on Oct. 18.