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Chris Landreth Talks 'Subconscious Password'

The Oscar®-winning director’s new film is thought-provoking, intense and dare I say, hilarious.

<strong><em>SubcoSubconscious Password</em></strong>. All images courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada and Copperheart Entertainment.

Almost three years ago, I wrote about the first time I met Chris Landreth way back when, in a smoky German disco, listening raptly as he discussed with great intensity a short film he was looking to make about a former animator for the NFB whose life spun out of control and was now panhandling on the streets of Montreal. Trying to bring a bit of levity into an otherwise serious discussion, I said to him, “Sounds like a real comedy!”  And while his Oscar®-winning film Ryan was anything but a real comedy, his brand new film, Subconscious Password, is indeed just that - a real comedy. And a very funny one at that.

Produced by the NFB and Marcy Page in collaboration with Copperheart Entertainment’s Mark Smith and the Seneca College Animation Arts Centre, Chris’ first stereoscopic 3-D film makes its world debut next month in competition at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. While Subconscious Password is Chris’ first true comedy, as he says, “the silliest film I have ever done,” the film nevertheless brings the director’s razor sharp intensity and gifted animation talents to the proceedings.  If you’re thinking a comedy somehow means Chris has “gone soft” or lost his edge, you’re mistaken. If films like Bingo (1998), Ryan (2004) and The Spine (2009) made you question your sanity, Subconscious Password will make you laugh at your own insanity.

I recently had a chance to talk with Chris at length about his new film, the inner workings of the human mind and taking a stroll through the Uncanny Valley.

Chris Landreth.

Dan Sarto: So, let’s talk about your new film.

Chris Landreth: Absolutely. The new film is called Subconscious Password. It’s in some ways similar and in some ways a departure from my other films. It’s similar in that it deals with a person’s inner psychology.  I really love that territory.

DSI was going to say that’s familiar territory for you!

CL:  Yah.  I’d go on to something else but by god, why? It’s so fun!  Seriously, there’s so much to explore. My last couple films went kind of dramatic and had a dark tinge to them.  I was exploring, trying to get rich and deep in storytelling. However, in this film I go in a different direction.  In some ways, it’s the silliest film I have ever done.  I am going silly here.  So thematically, it’s a departure from my last couple of films in that, hopefully it succeeds as something of a comedy rather than a tragedy.  This time, I tried to keep the rich and deep elements but go into something that was more ridiculous and perhaps a little bit more happy and joyous. Who is it that said there is truth in all jest? I think, I hope, there is lots of truth in this film.

Subconscious Password is a film that deals with a situation that all of us have encountered and I think I have encountered more than my share of it. There are these mini-dramas that take place in our everyday lives.  One such mini-drama would be forgetting a person’s name.  The indignity and embarrassment that comes along with that.  It’s happened way too many times for me. You’re at a party, at the Ottawa Festival, or SIGGRAPH, or Annecy, or wherever and you’re just about to leave when somebody walks up to you, is really happy to see you, offers you a drink, wants to hang out, wants to shoot the shit about old times.  And you cannot remember that person’s name. So it’s a period of high drama for all of us.  What happens in that time when that person is there and you don’t know what to say.

"How is it that in our subconscious, in the messy process we all have in trying to negotiate the world with our brains, how is it that we are able to remember a person’s name that we haven’t seen in four years?"

DSThat happens to me all the time unfortunately.  It really is embarrassing.

CL: It really is.  It’s one of those mundane, everyday bummers that happen. For me, what I try to show in this film is that even something as mundane as trying to remember someone’s name can be seen as something quite epic and in the end, quite miraculous.  How is it that in our subconscious, in the messy process we all have in trying to negotiate the world with our brains, how is it that we are able to remember a person’s name that we haven’t seen in four years? The neurology behind that is a long, long way away from being understood.

Because that happens to me pretty often, I have developed some good mechanisms…

DSSome coping skills?

CL:  …Yeah some coping skills for dealing with this.  Stalling the person for example, stalling for time, asking really generic questions like, “How long has it been? It’s been aaaaaaa (fingers snapping) what, like four years since I saw you last?”  Okay so you got that it’s been four years.  So you keep going, likes it’s a game of 20 questions.  But one of two things generally happens.  The bad outcome is that the person says, “Oh, you don’t remember my name.  It’s John” and then of course, all the oxygen leaves the room and there’s nothing you can do, you’re defeated and you have to deal with the embarrassment.  “Yeah…John…nice to see you again, John.”  Dan, on more than one occasion I’ve seen that person having their feelings really hurt. 

DSAbsolutely. It’s a painful encounter.

CL:  It’s a “Don’t you even remember who I am?” kind of thing. But the other outcome is that while you are stalling for time with all those generic 20 questions, your brain is hard at work, in the subconscious part of your brain called the limbic system, deep in the amygdalae and hippocampus.

DSI studied biochemistry in school so I am familiar with those. It’s nice to see my college education at work now and then.

"For me, what I try to show in this film is that even something as mundane as trying to remember someone’s name can be seen as something quite epic and in the end, quite miraculous."

CL:  While much of this part of the brain remains a mystery, what they do know is that there are trillions of these neural pathways that link the limbic system, the hippocampus, where long term memory is generally found to be stored and the amygdalae, which act as the emotional center of the brain.  While the amygdalae and hippocampus are doing these 20 questions, while you are stalling for time, they are frantically communicating with one another through these trillions of neural pathways trying to come up with some kind of concept or word association that will retrieve the pointer to who this person is standing in front of you happily waiving their drink and wanting to talk with you about old times.

The bad outcome is that the person tells you their name and “don’t you remember who I am?” but the good outcome is that your hippocampus yields it treasure, the amygdalae couriers it over to your frontal lobe and boom, you say, “Nice to see you John” and the oxygen doesn’t get sucked out of the room and you have a good time talking.  That’s the miraculous part that happens. So this film explores that process.  It explores that word association, that concept association where your brain is trying to get back that precious cargo of information from the hippocampus.  That’s the first part, the “subconscious” part of Subconscious Password.

DSRight.

CL:  The second part, “password,” comes from a game show. Do you remember game shows from the 1960s and 70s like Let’s Make a Deal?

DSOf course.

"It seemed to me that the mystery of what happens in that subconscious part of the brain is really what the show Password was all about."

CL:  You know Jeopardy, The Newlywed Game, The Dating Game, all these game shows I grew up with.  My mom would have the TV set on when I came home from school for lunch.  She’d be watching Password. It struck me couple of years ago after I came back from SIGGRAPH 2010, when I saw a rerun of Password and something clicked between those two.  It seemed to me that the mystery of what happens in that subconscious part of the brain is really what the show Password was all about.  So when those two came together, I had a film to work on. 

I try to look at it in terms of symbolism. One really nice kind of symbolism for this is that it’s a game show. The kind of word association that goes with a show like Password is a lot like how we understand and retrieve memories.  We do it by association.  We do it by pinging things in our long term memory storage with signals, and in this case, through words. I can’t speak for everyone but for me, that’s certainly the way I find I remember things. It’s through random association of words and one of those words sticks and brings back with it the thing that I need, that treasure trove of memories, that person’s name.

DS: Visually, parts of this film seem like you’re traversing new ground.  Did you mix in some stop-motion or is it stylized CG meant to look like stop-motion?

CL: The beginning and ending parts of the film where you see John Dilworth are done with pixilation, which is stop-motion except instead of using puppets, you’re using real people and posing them from frame to frame into what plays back as animation. It has a nice, crude, unvarnished and raw look to it because there is no motion blur.  There are none of those visual cues to suggest it’s live action. We were animating in ones, sometimes in twos on those sections of the film. John and I were being filmed on a sound stage with green screen all around us. We’re going through this pose to motion of hanging out at a party. The backgrounds are CG.

The beginning and ending parts of the film, which stars director John Dilworth (The Dirty Birdy, The Chicken From Outer Space, Courage the Cowardly Dog) use pixelation with CG backgrounds.

DS: What was the greatest challenge on this production?

CL: The whole game show portion of the film is CG. A challenge for me was going into the Uncanny Valley. I wanted to do that as a deliberate stylistic move. Hopefully you’d agree the characters within the game show part of the film clearly are synthesized CG characters. They’re not real.  I don’t think most people would mistake those for being real actors. So there is a bit of going into the Uncanny Valley there. I wanted to not make it look too realistic so that it would try to fool people into thinking they were real characters. I like the idea of exploring the Uncanny Valley because I think there’s some stuff in there that’s valuable. The Uncanny Valley generally has been viewed in a derogatory way. You get these characters that are real but not quite real. Therefore, they’re creepy. I’m trying to find the realism in that part of the film which I think, at least for me, parallels how our internal processes work, where we are processing something that is not the real world.  They’re not real people in our heads. They’re cool simulations of them. It was a challenge to keep to that as far as the look of the film, without going into the conventions of what CG normally tries to do there.

"I like the idea of exploring the Uncanny Valley because I think there’s some stuff in there that’s valuable."

DS: I know you to be a very deliberate person and an extremely deliberate filmmaker. There’s nothing trivial about any of the frames of any of your films. Now that the film is complete, is this the film you set out to make?  Did you accomplish what you set out to achieve?

CL: If anything, this film is deeper and richer than what I started out with. When I started thinking of the film, writing my first draft, it was a pretty silly film.  Over time, I was looking for an actual message and an actual arc that gave it a little bit more depth. One of the things that came out of that evolution is the part near the end, where he falls into that goop, and basically surrenders.  He gives up.  He relaxes.  Anyone who makes a film, at least in my experience, you get to that certain point where you stop trying to fight what you’re doing and you go with what you’re doing. You surrender to it.  The way that you create things parallels the way you are able to recall things. Somewhere in that surrendering, not consciously struggling any more, you find what you are looking for.  It’s the William S. Burroughs line that’s in there, “Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.” That was a rich part that came out of working on this film and it’s a part I’m particularly happy with.

DS: Well, I see that in the film.  I actually think I understand the film, which for me, is a huge deal, since I usually don’t understand most anything with any depth to it. Your storytelling sensibilities are quite unique.  Your films are always a bit on the “edgy” side. Do you think that there is enough risk taking in film making these days?  We’ve talked about this before.  It’s one thing to have mature subject matter, it’s another thing where the visual style is designed to make people a bit uncomfortable, to force them to confront certain issues.  That’s a much more risky proposition for a filmmaker.  Do you see more or less risk taking in animation these days?

Ryan (2004).

CL:  Well, it seems that the more money there is the less risk taking there is.  I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. In feature films, that’s kind of obvious. We’re seeing sequels, tri-sequels, prequels, re-imaginings, remakes.  I can’t answer you definitively.  Looking at the recent slate of Pixar stuff, they’ve been doing a weird combination of remakes, kind of safe stuff.  But I look at their slate in the coming three years and they seem to be taking tremendous risks still.  I’m delighted to see that.  One of them as I understand is a film set for 2015 about what happens inside a person’s brain.

If you look on YouTube and look at what people are doing all by themselves using 3D Studio Max or whatever, you’re seeing all sorts of weird crazy shit out there.  It’s risky because the stakes are so low.  The stakes are so low because you don’t need a big budget to do a film anymore.  In some ways there are two kinds of prongs on a fork right now for feature films.  One prong is Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks where the budgets are $80 million and up and the other prong is like my friend Nina Paley doing Sita Sings the Blues. Doing that basically in her apartment with a Guggenheim grant and crowdsourcing.

The Spine (2009)

DSRight.

CL:  So you’re seeing both of those kinds of feature films.  The tricky part is doing a studio film or doing an independent film that nonetheless has studio or distributor backing where there is a medium size budget and therefore you can be independent and take risks. There are actually three prongs on this fork.  The left prong and the right prong are pretty well developed.  The middle prong is kind of withered.  It’s kind of analogous to the withering middle class in a manner.  You see films that are either very rich or very poor but the middle class of animated feature films is definitely more problematic.

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Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.

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