Filmmaking: 'The Phoenix Incident'
Issue: April 1, 2016

Filmmaking: 'The Phoenix Incident'

LOS ANGELES — The docu/drama The Phoenix Incident ( has its LA premiere today. Produced by PCB Productions ( Titanfall, Far Cry 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts), the film centers around the disappearance of four men who went missing after taking their ATVs into the Phoenix, AZ, mountains at the same time unexplained lights appeared over the city in 1997. The film is presented in the form of a documentary, with found footage from the outing, eyewitness accounts, military interviews, and interviews with the victims’ families, all of whom suggest a cover up.

PCB ( president and creative director Keith Arem directed the project, which he says is transmedia in nature. In addition to the theatrical release, PCB created content for online and television distribution, all with the goal of creating excitement and anticipation for the film’s release, and to extend the storyline into future projects, giving audiences a chance to add their own conspiracy theories. While the Phoenix Lights are the center of the story, the film’s timeline also weaves in other current events of the time, including the Heaven’s Gate cult and the Hale-Bopp Comet.
“The idea is that there is so many conspiracy theories for what happened around the Phoenix Lights that I wanted to take the perspective of looking back after 19 years and seeing the broader picture, and telling a very human element of exposing the disappearance of four men in the middle of all of these conspiracy theories,” Arem explains. “So we were able to weave our narrative through all of the events that were actually happening. We met with 1,000 eyewitnesses, people from the military, political leaders and civilians to get that in the movie.”

Arem says his team spent approximately two-and-a-half years on the project and its companion assets. While the film makes use of stock footage for news reports and statements from numerous public figures, including Senator John McCain, PCB also recreated eyewitness interviews after licensing the actual footage.

“We shot everything to look like the era and we recreated footage that we either found or was the original footage,” says Arem. “We did go back and license that actual footage from the witnesses and then we matched our footage to that. To that effect, we shot on 4K cameras and made everything look really pristine, and then we brought it down to VHS, messed with the helical scanning heads to add snow and distortion on the picture, and reshot that on televisions so that it would match the footage from 1997.”

Arem says the production made use of many different formats. The main footage of the actors was shot in 4K on a Red digital cinema camera. They also shot 8mm, 16mm and DV.

“I’ve seen a lot of ‘found footage’ films where you have a shaky camera and you are always looking from that perspective,” says Arem. “I wanted to do something different. Considering our budget for the film — our budget was extremely small — we knew we weren’t going to be able to tell a wide cinematic narrative on the budget we had raised. But I still wanted to do something that incorporated visual effects and told a much broader story. I took the approach that a documentarian was bringing together this footage and unraveling this conspiracy, and in doing so, he could bring in military footage and eyewitness footage, and all the different sources of surveillance cameras, and then he could do nice interviews with the families and other things. 

“You see films like Catfish, where they are going online and then they have live footage,” he continues. “I was really inspired by films like that, that were able to very effectively weave together this multimedia approach. Since our story was very transmedia in nature — we were creating things for the Web as well as for television and the motion picture, and our app that was coming out — I wanted to have these different looks.”

Silicon Imaging’s SI-2K camera was used to capture higher resolution footage for integration with the alien visual effects. Baked FX ( in Culver City, CA, created the film’s visual effects, which include the alien creatures and their spaceship, and the US military fighter planes and helicopters.

“There was only supposed to be one shot of what the things were,” says Arem of the aliens, “but when I met with (Baked FX founder/executive CD) George Loucas, he said, ‘I think we can do this.’ They did the visual effects shot for the ending, where the alien is front and center, and it looks real! George’s team does amazing visual effects work. George was on location during the shoot and did a phenomenal job. He’s great to work with.”

Arem served as editor on the film, cutting it inside of Apple’s Final Cut Pro 7. PCB also handled the sound design, which he says serves as “a huge character in the film.”

A first-time filmmaker, Arem says he learned a lot over the course of production and post. The Phoenix Incident, he says, “was my film school.”