In a spotless garage of a modest house in Apex, the severed head of Elvis Presley sits atop a wheeled platform.
The head is attached to a snarl of tubing designed to supply blood and oxygen, with tanks underneath for recycling air and liquids. On each side of Elvis’ head, robotic arms whirl, controlled by wireless remote.
Operating the joystick is local filmmaker Pavel Nikolajev, who is not, contrary to all appearances, a mad scientist. Or maybe he is.
The wheeled rig is the central prop in Nikolajev’s new micro-budget 3-D horror film “Headsome,” screening this month at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. Nikolajev not only built the fully automated robot from the ground up, he even designed his own proprietary DIY camera system to shoot the movie in 3-D.
‘Singing Elvis’ rewired
In the film, the head doesn’t belong to Elvis, it belongs to an unfortunate scientist injured in a deadly car accident. When he comes to after the crash, he discovers that his twin brother – also a scientist – has transplanted his head atop the robotic contraption. Things get even weirder from there.
In real life, though, the automated head is actually a highly customized “Singing Elvis” novelty item that Nikolajev bought online and rewired. A software engineer with Toshiba by day, Nikolajev is a tireless tinkerer on nights and weekends. Nikolajev said he applied his practical knowledge of electronics to make “Headsome” for a fraction of what it would have cost otherwise.
For instance, when he started making inquiries to professional effects shops, he was told a robotic head would cost him around $100,000. Instead, Nikolajev bought the used Elvis head online for $80, then spent another couple hundred dollars replacing the wiring so it could be controlled remotely via Bluetooth, laptop PC and a rejiggered video game joystick.
“Yes, they wanted $100,000, and that didn’t fit our budget,” Nikolajev said with a smile, sitting in his garage on a recent sunny afternoon. The robot – “We just call him Headsome,” Nikolajev said – is a surprisingly intricate machine, with separate controls for the wheels and the two robotic arms. The head itself requires a third operator to handle the array of facial movement including eyes, mouth, eyebrows and yes, even the trademark Elvis sneer.
Elsewhere in the garage are the homemade camera rigs and equipment that Nikolajev and his team used to make the film. Although the Carolina Theatre screenings will be two-dimensional, “Headsome” was actually filmed in stereoscopic 3-D using a proprietary camera system that Nikolajev invented himself. Nikolajev said he hopes to have future local screenings in 3-D and release the film in 3-D home-video format.
“Headsome” might be a micro-budget film, but Nikolajev said the entire production was managed as professionally as possible. The film was shot over the course of 14 days using a crew of five people, and a handful of Triangle area locations. Nikolajev hired a casting agent to secure his lead actor, William Haze, who plays the parts of both twin brothers. Haze has had small parts in several TV shows and films, including “The Punisher” and “CSI: Miami.”
For close-up shots, Haze wore a special collar designed to work with limited green screen effects. But most of the special effects in the film are practical, as opposed to digital, which Nikolajev said seems to appeal to fans of independent horror movies.
“They are very forgiving of effects if they see there is effort there, and if the story is good,” Nikolajev said. While “Headsome” won’t be winning any Oscars for its special effects, the scenes of the severed head attacking with robotic arms are oddly compelling and genuinely scary.
Nikolajev debuted an earlier cut of the film at this year’s Nevermore Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre. Nikolajev has since submitted the film to other organizations, and it’s been accepted into festivals in both the U.S. and Europe.
Jim Carl, film director at the Carolina Theatre, said “Headsome” is a good fit for October and Halloween. “At Nevermore, the selection committee really liked it, and it was well received by the audience.”
Carl said Nikolajev is part of a community of filmmakers in the Triangle area and statewide that are making films more or less constantly.
“When you’ve been running around for a decade with these festivals, Nevermore and Escapism, you start to recognize the names,” Carl said. “Even though they might not be the producers or directors, they all work on each other’s films. When I saw some of the people involved in ‘Headsome,’ I knew that it would be good quality. It’s a good film, it really is.”
Nikolajev said that in the process of shopping the film around for distribution in the U.S. and Europe, he’s met some interesting people and found that life can imitate art in strange ways.
“There’s a guy that’s planning to try an actual head transplant,” Nikolajev said. “Really, it was in the news just recently. I sent him the movie. He loved it.”