Keith Arem has made a career of making popular video games look real. As talent director for some of the highest-grossing video game series, including “Call of Duty,” “Ghost Recon,” and “Tony Hawk Pro Skater,” Arem directs the human actors whose motions, expressions, and voices are captured to create the animated characters.
Now, Arem is again blurring the lines between imagination and reality for his latest project: a feature-length thriller that aims to explain one of the world’s most famous UFO stories, the March 13, 1997, incident known as the Phoenix Lights. Unlike some creators of science fiction, however, Arem buys into his own premise — he says he genuinely thinks there was an alien visit that night.
His film, “The Phoenix Incident,” is a science-fiction film dressed up as a documentary exposé of a military coverup of a close encounter with aliens. Arem will hold a question-and-answer session after an advance screening of the film Thursday at the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival and Marathon at the Somerville Theater.
What happened in the sky over Phoenix that night was captured on four videos. Each one shows a series of glowing lights that move across the sky, seemingly in formation, then disappear.
The US military has maintained that the lights were part of a training session involving flares dropped by A-10 jets over the Barry M. Goldwater Range near Gila Bend, Ariz. But UFO investigators have sought to prove that the lights were in fact aliens — or that the military created the lights to divert attention from a battle between fighter jets and alien spacecraft.
Arem’s film ties in a real-life, unsolved missing persons story of four Phoenix men. The upshot of his film: There was probably a battle, there was definitely a coverup, and the missing men were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We leave it a little open-ended,” Arem said this week. “I think the presumption is that these guys didn’t make it, but with alien abductions, you never know.”
Like 2008’s “Cloverfield,” “The Phoenix Incident” relies in part on fake found footage. But it also borrows motion-capture techniques and staging from the world of video games. Arem said scenes have been recorded by hundreds of cameras at once to create a 360-degree view of the action.
The film is getting a one-night theatrical release in March. Arem’s team is accompanying the rollout with an elaborate viral video campaign incorporating real news events and sources — for example, the Arizona missing persons database — and with websites intended to confirm the sense that the film is telling the truth.
So, is it? Although Arem acknowledges that he fictionalized the ending, he believes that it is.
“Our military was caught off guard by a peaceful fly by,” he said. “My feeling is that they have been here for years and they have visited our planet many times. Phoenix was the first time that we actively engaged them, and that has provoked a more hostile relationship.”
That conviction shaped the film itself. “We didn’t want the UFO community to think that this was a hoax or in any way insulting,” Arem said. “Because I’m a believer.”