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EARTH TO ECHO

About The Production
An inspiring science-fiction adventure, Earth to Echo captures all the mystery, excitement and wonder of an extraterrestrial occurrence in a small Nevada suburb. But at its heart, the movie is about friendship. Our three young heroes - Tuck, Munch and Alex - are a closely bonded trio of outcasts, whose time together is coming to an end. Their neighborhood is being destroyed by a highway construction project; forcing their families to move away. Only the promise of one last thrill together - a journey into the desert to search for the source of strange and mysterious messages that have appeared on their cell phones - can distract them from their impending move. "The movie is really about this group of kids and how they have to say goodbye to each other," says director Dave Green. "There's something bittersweet about the fact they're spending their last night together. But is goodbye really goodbye? In our movie, it's not. It's a beginning."

Earth to Echo all began with the seed of an idea from producer Andrew Panay. Panay wanted to recapture the spirit of seminal family movies from the 1980s that he loved as a child - E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me - movies that managed to conjure the wonder and heartbreak of early adolescence and infuse it with an intoxicating sense of adventure. If the story of E.T. were to happen today, he asked himself, how would it be told?

With video recording technology becoming increasingly accessible to all ages, especially kids, the movie's concept seemed to fit perfectly into today's world. "Kids today are doing a lot of their own filming and they're videotaping and Vine-ing. There are all these different social media outlets and ways of communicating which comes down to turning the camera around and shooting yourself and sending it off. It just makes sense," says Panay. Today, kids want to share their experiences with people. Fortunately enough, this group of friends brings viewers into their story with the click of the "Record" button. With its roots in the found footage genre, Earth to Echo is the next step in storytelling.

Instead of approaching seasoned feature directors to help develop the project, Panay decided to go in another direction. The heart of the movie lies in the way the characters piece together the story themselves using their own cameras, editing, and insight. This was exactly what Panay wanted from a director. "I wanted to find a young filmmaker from the generation that sits and edits their films themselves," says Panay.

He found what he was looking for in Dave Green, an enterprising filmmaker with a unique vision and strong resume. Aside from having been a producer's assistant on the set of the Spiderman trilogy, films acclaimed for their stunning visual effects, Dave also had a series of polished short films and music videos under his belt. When Panay watched one of Green's shorts, he was immediately convinced. "It was practically a trailer for Earth to Echo," he says. "After seeing that, I had no doubts at all."

Green met with Panay to discuss his idea and the two immediately hit it off, saying that "[Panay]'s idea just sparked my excitement."

According to Green, Panay's idea was already in the family of concepts Green had been discussing with his writing partner, Henry Gayden; but Gayden wasn't convinced. "At first, I didn't know what to do," Gayden admits. "It was too broad a container. But then I got this idea and started writing and by two in the morning, I had a rough story." Gayden called up Green the next morning and said he had landed on something interesting.

As the next step, Green shot a one-minute clip to help sell the fun, the mystery, and the suspense of what Earth to Echo would ultimately become. When Panay saw it, he was immediately convinced. "It was practically a trailer for Earth to Echo," he says. "After seeing that, I had no doubts at all.

From the beginning, Green wanted to approach things differently with Earth to Echo. In this case, the material isn't simply raw footage, it's a finished video created by Tuck, an avid, DIY filmmaker who regularly posts his videos on YouTube. "We wanted to lean into the idea that Tuck not only shot the whole thing, he's also cut the whole thing, and he's put music to it when he feels like it's necessary, and he's put titles in there, and he can pause the movie, and he can interject," says Green. By doing this, Tuck could tell the audience the story the way he and his friends experienced it; pinpointing all of their adventures as they go, whether it be with a voice over or a piece of music.

If an extraterrestrial occurrence actually happened today, almost anyone would be able to capture it with the amount of video recording technology at people's fingertips. "I thought it was very believable coming from a first person type of movie because nowadays with all this technology, a lot of kids and a lot of people can videotape and document everything," says actor Teo Halm, who plays Alex in the movie.

Green also found a compelling advantage to creating a story that hewed solely to his main characters' point of view, an attribute of many of his favorite movies from the likes of Spielberg and Hitchcock. "You build suspense out of what the characters don't see and don't know," he explains. "And that's the most exciting part. It's fun to parse out information, just one seed at a time."

With a firm production start date in place, the filmmakers embarked on an involved casting process for the four young leads. Green was particularly focused on authenticity, which meant finding actors who were comfortable with one another and who could think on their toes when the shoot demanded it.

The casting directors cast a wide net for the role of Tuck, the charismatic and extroverted leader of the trio. "Tuck is the motivator of the story," says Green. "He's the one who says, 'Let's not be lazy. Let's not take no for an answer. Let's not think small. Let's go on the biggest adventure we've ever been on.'"

Tuck is also the character who, in most cases, is in charge of filming the movie. "Tuck is the performer," explains Gayden. "He's the one who needs to have a camera. Like so many kids, he films every moment of his life. He's cast aside by his family who worships his more conventional older brother, so Tuck takes to the internet to get attention."

After weeks of auditions, the team wasn't satisfied with their options...until they received a video from Brian "Astro" Bradley, a young musician in New York who, like Tuck, has developed his own online personality and following. Remembers Panay, "He shot this off-the-cuff video at home and he was immediately so real to us that we knew we'd found our guy."

Bradley immediately identified with the character of Tuck. "He's kind of like me when I was younger," he says. "I talked a lot. I just spoke based off of the moment. I didn't really think too much. And it's the same thing with Tuck. He trusts himself. Maybe too much!"

Tuck proves instrumental in encouraging his friends to follow the mysterious cell phone messages into the deep desert. "It's an opportunity for Tuck to film," explains Bradley. "Tuck's not really the coolest kid in the neighborhood. It's filming that makes him feel cool. So he's like, 'Let's just go out there. Let's do the impossible.' And we end up going out there and discovering Echo."

For the role of Alex, Tuck's soulful best friend, the filmmakers turned to young actor, Teo Halm. "Alex is very observant of things, and he has a lot going on inside his head," explains Halm. "He was orphaned at a young age and he went through a series of about five foster families. He hadn't found true friendship until he met Tuck and Munch. So this is the first time he's actually enjoying his life."

On casting Halm, Green says, "When [he] auditioned, I could see the excited part of him, but I could also see the wounded part of him, too. That was crucial for the role and he ended up being phenomenal."

Of the four lead characters in Earth to Echo, it's Alex who develops a unique bond with Echo. Explains Gayden, "Alex is that kid who's lost and feels like an alien on Earth, and then you have Echo, who obviously mirrors that outwardly. That's what bonds them together."

Reese Hartwig rounds out the trio of boys as Munch, the extremely cautious eccentric who provides much of the movie's comic relief. "He's just a shy hoarder," says Hartwig. "He has a tool for anything, but he never wants to be out there. He's very under control." Assuming the role of the impromptu guardian of the group, Munch always keeps the well-being of he and his friends in mind; often a little too strictly. But as the story progresses, Munch rises to the formidable challenges facing the kids, discovering a new side of himself. "He blossoms and transforms into a whole new guy. He becomes a do-everything, give-it-all-a-shot, daredevil guy."

"Reese is hilarious," avows Green. "In his audition, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and was very confident, and at first I wasn't sure if he could play a character who's scared all the time. But we had him improv a bit and he was just incredible."

"Munch basically has all the eccentricities that I personally have thrown together and turned to hyper-drive," laughs writer Henry Gayden. "And Reese just made the character sparkle."

Though her first appearance arrives later in the movie, the boys' more popular classmate, Emma, makes a splashy entrance and soon becomes indispensable to the boys' mission. "Emma's parents force her to be someone she's not and she kind of wants to break away from that crowd," explains actress Ella Wahlestedt. "And when this opportunity with the boys comes along, the sense of adventure really gets to her. She earns her place with her quick thinking and gets them out of a sticky situation."

"There's no question," says Green, "Ella is a star." Wahlestedt particularly impressed Green in her audition scene, when Emma got in an argument with her mom. He says, "She absolutely unwinds, and just starts crying and screaming, and we were all just totally struck and got chills."

Last but not least, Green and his team had to design the most notable star of the movie: Echo, the digitally animated alien. A small, owl-like creature that can fit in a backpack, Echo communicates with the kids using a variety of inhuman sounds and demonstrates over the course of the movie that his extraordinary powers belie his diminutive size. The production visited several creature houses and considered sketches that were, according to Green, "all across the map. Some were really scary. Some of them were very abstract. But I said, 'None of these are making me feel like I care for this being.'"

Through a network of friends who are designers, Green eventually got the phone number of Ross Tran, a 19-year-old designer who at the time was living with his parents in Santa Cruz between semesters at school. "I called him and asked him to come work with us and he thought we were crazy," laughs Green. "A couple days later he came down, and from his very first sketch, right away, I was like, 'That's him. That's Echo. It was futuristic but also warm, neither too robotic nor too organic. It just made sense and from there we refined it." In a movie where the story is constructed by a group of kids, it was only fitting that a 19-year-old designer would help create the most crucial piece to the puzzle: Echo.

When it came time to take the drawing and idea of what Echo would look like and bring it into physical reality, there was no better person for the job than Alan Scott, co-owner of Legacy Effects and effects supervisor for the physical construction of Echo. Alan Scott has one of the strongest visual effects resumes in the industry, with titles ranging from Avatar to Jurassic Park. As Dave Green was inspired by the works of Steven Spielberg, it was only fitting that this would come full circle when he got the opportunity to work with Alan Scott, who had been a mechanical designer and effects supervisor on a number of Spielberg films.

Even with Alan's extensive history with special effects in film, he saw working on this movie's unique shooting style as a constructive challenge. "We're always trying to look for new ways to improve. So for us it was a great adventure to try and figure out how to make our particular work habits work in a completely different venue," says Alan. "It was exciting because when you're on set, you're constantly on your toes. And it was like 'what are you gonna be shooting next' and trying to figure out from an effects perspective what we can offer up."

Not only would Legacy Effects help bring the character of Echo to life on the big screen, they would also bring something new to the production set as well. In order to get the design of Echo down and to have physical presence on set, Alan and his team used 3-D printing to create multiple Echos to use in production. Due to the rapid pace of the shoot and the short time frame from designing to shooting, Alan and his team had to work quickly. They would design a new Echo, print it and then mechanize it so that it was ready for production.

"We could direct manufacture, which is where all this 3-D printing, which is very popular right now, is heading," says Alan. The Legacy Effects team would print multiple copies of Echo with different looks; whether it be different dents in Echo's body or different placement of scratches. From there, the director, Dave Green would be able to choose the exact model that he felt fit the specific scene.

Alan recognized that the set was not always predictable and loved the challenge. When they would bring their animatronic Echo to set, "we wouldn't tell everyone what it was capable of doing, especially the actors... We always try to hold back a little bit so that there something a little unexpected on set."

As the movie is strongly rooted in the relationship that the three friends share, Green did everything possible to allow his young cast to bond with each other in the weeks before production began. "I wanted them to feel like they had known each other for a long time on screen," he explains, "and the only way that was going to happen was if they connected with each other in real life." In some instances, Green even took away their cell phones. "I didn't want them going into the corner and IM-ing with their friends back home," he says. With a steady schedule of rehearsals in place, nightly dinners, and even a trip to an amusement park, it was only a matter of time before the actors became just as close as their character counterparts.

Throughout production, Green encouraged as much freedom as possible. "Even though we had a fantastic script from Henry, we had to borrow from who the kids really were," says Green. "If they felt like they wanted to invent something great. It gave the film glue that we were looking for."

Adds Bradley, "Dave would ask, 'Well, what would you say in real life as a teen? What kind of music would you listen to? He was very open, just as far as taking in ideas. And we were very open. Everybody was all ears."

As it was his first time in the director's chair, Dave wanted to come to set with every detail mapped out. "My instinct was, I'm going to know everything about how this whole thing's going to go. We're going to be razor sharp with all of this," he says. Everything changed once he got his cast on set. "Giving the kids the long leash they needed to feel free to invent stuff, meant they wouldn't naturally stand on mark all the time. So it became a little less precise than I had envisioned, but I think the energy we gained was crucial."

That sense of spontaneity also affected the camerawork. The filmmaking team would light each environment for 360-degree movement, providing maximum freedom for the cast. Says Green, "Maxime, our cinematographer, was great at thinking about where the camera would go from the character's point of view. He'd say, 'Oh, it wouldn't go here. It would go here because this guy's scared. He would duck right now.' It's fantastic, because you feel that energy and emotion in the camera work."

For the actors, working on this movie also allowed them to break the cardinal rule of film acting: Don't look into the camera. "It was very hard to get used to," recalls Wahlestedt. "We had to interact with the camera and talk to it like it was a character."

"We had to look at different spots," adds Halm. "Sometimes it was directly in the lens and sometimes we had to look at Tuck. And sometimes "Tuck" was actually the cameraman. It would change every scene."

Green rose to the challenge of directing his first feature, despite contending with several big set pieces involving numerous effects - from car chases to actual spaceships. Says Panay, "He pays attention to every detail. You can see the detail in every frame, every pixel - it's incredible really. He cares so much and the movie's so well crafted. I was impressed."

Through it all, Green set his sights on making every element in the movie feel as authentic as possible. "Everything we did was based in reality," he says. "The more we embraced that, the more fantastical and believable the sci-fi elements became. The movie feels so real right up to the moment that Echo is revealed and then you're like, 'Whoa.' You get caught in this journey of reality and you go with it."

"The movie has a very modern feel," adds Panay. "Because of the way we shot this movie, it feels less traditional and slightly more edgy. We were able to explore this 1980s nostalgia in a language that kids today understand."

Throughout the process, the filmmakers were careful not to lose sight of their original objective: to tell an inspiring, exciting and empowering story about adventure and the bonds of friendship. "It's all about the closeness of friendships and working together," says Gayden. "I love some of the hard sci-fi stuff, but I think if you have enough heart, the movie can work on a deeper, more human level. And that's what we were after."

Earth to Echo is a story of wonder and friendship that is relatable and will resonate with children and adults alike. "What's been so important for me," says Green, "is telling a story about kids who can actually inspire change. By the end of the movie, these young kids have accomplished something much bigger than they are. And hopefully that will encourage kids to step up and take part in whatever way they know how. They can make a difference. They just have to take that opportunity."

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