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Theodore Ushev Talks Art, War, Conflict and Their Convergence in 'Gloria Victoria'

The prolific experimental animator discusses his latest film and the message, or lack of one, behind his musical and visual decision-making.

 

Over the past two years, I’ve had four occasions to spend one-on-one time talking to Theodore Ushev.  Getting schooled is more like it. Twice in Annecy, once in Stuttgart and once in Ottawa.  Each time, I’m mesmerized.  Each time, I feel like I’ve studied at the feet of a master, humbled and energized at the same time.  Each time, as I listen to him talk about the nature of art, of animation, of what inspires him, his thoughts on visual development and composition, each time, something clicks in my feeble mind, perpetually grinding gears suddenly slide into place, ideas that never made sense suddenly approach clarity.  When I talk to Theodore, something awakens inside me.  I find his perspective on things big and small, important and mundane, serious and silly to be utterly fascinating.  I’m not sure I can explain it any better.  I’ve always felt a great deal smarter after each of our conversations. There is a brevity, a succinctness in the way he talks about his films, the way he shares intimate feelings and insights into his process, his thinking, his reason for making a film. There’s little wasted motion.

Our most recent discussions have been about his multi-award winning film, Gloria Victoria.  The third and most ambitious film in a trilogy about war and power -Tower Bawher (2006) and Drux Flux (2008) are the other two – Gloria Victoria is a tour de force, both musically and visually. Propelled by the visceral “invasion” theme from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony (No. 7), the film takes us across the battlefields of man, his mind, his machines and his lost humanity. Theodore spoke at length about the genesis of the film, how he built it from an image and a piece of music and how the constant existence of conflict, competition and war seem to fuel humanity’s artistic spirit.

Dan Sarto: Gloria Victoria is tremendously powerful film. How would you describe it?

Theodore Ushev: It’s about a clash of civilizations. A clash of religions. There won’t be a winner at the end. Everyone will be a loser when there is a war. I wanted to make a film that expresses the rage and brutality of war. War is just another side of rage that exists in everyday life.

It’s a mix of everything in this film. I even did some of the early images on my cellphone. There’s a lot of CG components. It’s a stereoscopic 3-D film.

I do a lot of scanned work, a lot in Photoshop, Photo Painter, After Effects, I work everywhere! It’s really mixed media. If you asked me which I use the most, I couldn’t tell you.  I work with everything. I have an idea of the image I want to achieve and I just work hard until I get there. I did the final edit of Gloria Victoria in Premiere and Final Cut Pro.

DS: Aside from the fact I enjoy talking to you, I think your work is tremendous. If I didn’t know you, I’d still think your work is tremendous. There are lots of people who I know, and like, whose work I don’t like at all [laughs].

We’ve talked in the past about the fact I’ve never been hugely impressed with most of the experimental films I’ve seen over the years.  Part of the problem was I didn’t really know how to watch them, or what to look for, as silly as that sounds. I saw a program of Steven Woloshen’s films a decade ago or so in Ottawa which was a huge awakening for me. Since then I’ve come to appreciate these types of films much more. 

TU: Well, there are some very bad experimental films. Actually, there are some even worse narrative films [laughs].

DS: Those are much more obvious. You might be able to hide behind some abstract notion if you’ve made a bad experimental film.  A bad narrative film, you’re just standing naked in the middle of a crowded room. However, with a bad experimental film, you fight the urge to gouge your eyes out with a fork.

TU: Sometimes I think many of my films are bad. But I have fun doing them.

DS: How did the film come about?

TU: I was reading a book by Francis Fukuyama called The End of History and the Last Man. Suddenly it came to my mind that I wanted to finish my trilogy about hate and war with the high point of the hate. The film was to be about the hate and art. Hate and war are somehow very connected to many artistic movements at different points in our history. They are still connected. All contemporary art is connected to conflicts. Conflict has always been inspirational for artists. It has always been a starting point for their work. Many of the avant-garde movements started at a point when people started wars, when there was conflict with humanity.

From an inspirational standpoint, war, art, hate, conflict, these subjects evoke tremendous passion in people. 

DS: Why are you driven to express yourself in this manner, through these visually provocative experimental animated films?

TU: I wanted to finish this trilogy in a fast-pitched way. For me, hate and war are the emanation of everything bad in human energy. Maybe I just wanted to take this bad energy out of me. When the ideologists and the political beasts and industry are all in collapse, when the power of industry is no longer valid, what is left in our society? I don’t want to predict anything but the increasing conflicts in our world, for example the Middle East with the Arab Spring and increased violence there, all the conflicts happening everywhere around the world gives me the idea that the war never stops. I wanted to take these feelings and put them into one special piece, with the music of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.

In the book, Fukuyama says that the end of history is going to be a very sad time. I think a lot of people will be nostalgic about the time when the conflicts existed. There will be the realization that continual conflicts are needed, that people need conflict, that they need to compete. They need to be at the top of every competition. That’s what the film is about.  It’s not only about the war. It’s about the hate and the competition.

DS: The underlying need to have conflict as a context for coming out on top in competition.

TU: Exactly.

DS: I know people who seem to thrive on conflict, who need conflict in their lives. It gives them a sense of purpose.

TU: Exactly.

DS: You talk to them and it’s never, “Hey, how’s it going?...Oh, it’s going great!”

TU: Exactly. Some people wake up and they cannot live unless they make their first conflict of their day. After that, they can breathe.

DS: What is it you’re trying to say about the nature of conflict and war? Are you trying to show the futility?  What is your perspective?

TU: Basically, with my film, I don’t want to be didactic. I just wanted to make a film that shows the energy of everything. Something that goes into your gut, not your mind. My message would be, “Watch animated films and don’t make war.” That all that I want to say.

DS: This film has taken two years to make. Do you ever get to a point on a film like this where you throw up your hands and say, “This is just not working! I’m creating a piece of shit!”

TU: Yes it happens sometimes. But up to now, I’ve only started working on films I’m interested in doing something with. I get on that train and I know where I’m going to end up. Of course, I never know if the film is going to be good or bad. But, nobody knows that. But I always have a very precise idea of what I want to have at the end. When I start the film, I have it in my head. Always.  It can change, but I always have it in my head.

DS: For this film, did you start with any rough sketches or storyboards? How did you piece together the film? Do you move around or do you start right at the beginning and work straight until the end?

TU: I start at the beginning and work straight through until the end. I had sketches to begin with.  With the NFB, you have to present very precise concepts and images. I had 40 images from different pieces. I had a construction, an explanation of what the film was about. But the storyboard is the music. It is the music that drives me. I just go and go and go. By the end everything comes together.

DS: How much imagery do you create that doesn’t make it into the film?

TU: For this film, I cut out one minute. I had one scene that just didn’t work.  When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. So I cut it.

DS: Why 3-D?

TU: I wanted to create a printed sculpture of this monster, of war. My idea for the stereoscopy was at the beginning, the movie is very fluid, very 3-D. Coming to the end, as the war develops, the film becomes like the human brain, the human conscience, when we enter into the conflict. Everything at that point becomes flat and black and white. There is never a middle tier in war. It’s always, “You’re either with me or against me.” Black and white. 2D. No depth. Hate, war, that’s it. It’s better to make people feel these things than to try and send your message directly to them. I don’t even consider my film anti-war. I’m showing the nature of the hate and conflict. What you think after that is up to you.

DS: How different was the making of this film than the other two in the trilogy? Did the stereoscopic aspect make things more difficult or time-consuming?

TU: This was my most complex film technically. It took me a long time to make. The stereoscopy is part of the construction of the film. To use stereoscopy as an animation tool, as an artistic tool, I was trying to extend the image to make it expand your visual perception so you’d react in a very aggressive way. Since the film starts in stereoscopy and ends in 2D, I had to estimate in every scene how does it work in 3-D and how do I move from one context to the next.

The film was done with many different software programs. I used everything that is available right now. In the beginning of the film, the images are very complex. I had something like 250 layers in my compositing software. Plus, though it’s all digital, I want my films to all look analog. For me it’s very important they have all the errors. When I say “analog” it’s not to be trendy or cool. It’s because with analog films, they’re imperfect. I love the imperfectness of these types of films. I work with the software until it crashes, until it errors. At that point, I say, “OK, I’ve arrived where I want to be.”

DS: Now you’re happy.

TU: Yes. Everything has to have errors. I work until I find these errors. Everything I do is like animation under a camera. There is no stepping back. If you want to redo something five or six frames previous, you can’t go back. I do the same with my computer. I have no Control-Z function. It doesn’t work on my computer. You make a mistake, you have to go forward. You can’t go back.  That’s it. That’s how I work.

DS: You mentioned you used your cellphone on this film. Is this new for you?

TU: I try never to use the exact same techniques on a film as I’ve used before. Everything needs its own technique. It has its own problems that need unique solutions. My next film will be totally analog. It will use a technique that has never been used before in animation. It will be my last animated film. I’m looking to work with the NFB on a 25 minute film using a painting technique called encaustic, which was the first painting technique ever invented. The Egyptians used it for decorating mummies. You mix pigments with beeswax. I have found a way to use the beeswax as animation components. I can’t tell you too much but the next time you come to Canada, there will be a big installation. Just follow the bees! That’s how you’ll find me!

DS: How do these films start? Do you start with a story idea and then fit in images, or do you start with images first?

TU: When I start a film, I have a very vague idea of what I want to say. I will always have a piece of music in my head and I have visuals. So my first step is not to think about the concept or the script. My first step is I sit and I paint, for four or five days. For this film I did a lot of drawings. It just builds up. When I draw, the film, the concept, the construction, they all come out. My ideas come with a beginning and an end.  The challenge is to fill in the middle [laughs].

DS: I get the impression many people aren’t nearly as together in their process. They start with an idea, but by the time they finish, they’ve gone somewhere very different than their original plan.

TU: I’ve never had this problem in my entire life [laughs].

DS: You’re incredibly lucky. And gifted. Let’s talk a bit about music in animation. It’s an area not many animators…

TU: …Explore. Very true.

DS: Why do you think there isn’t a great deal of musical exploration in contemporary animation?

TU: We live in a time when it’s not very trendy to think with music in mind. Not just in animation but in other kinds of cinema.  It’s like it’s a waste of time. To me, the music is the most important part of a film. When I first think of my films, it’s often one image and the sound of the film. I often build the soundtrack of my films right after my four or five day visual exploration. It’s my storyboard. I admit that I’m not a very good animator. I don’t have a feeling about the timing. I don’t have that natural feeling for timing that many animators have. After almost ten years of animating, I’m just beginning to get an idea of timing and movement. For me, the sound and music give me the inner timing. So I can’t animate without music and sound. Even if I just have a voice, in a language like Farsi, which I don’t understand, I can start to animate. The human voice, the use of language, is one of the most beautiful musical instruments there is. I treat the use of language like I do the music.

Some people criticize that my films aren’t narrative. No. My films are narrative, I just accept that my perception of language is different. I perceive language as music, not only as a tool of meaning. Otherwise, it’s literature. I don’t want to create literature. To me in my films, language is not literature.  It’s sound.

DS: I was talking to Andreas Hykade in Stuttgart and he told me that contemporary culture has lost its appreciation of poetry…

TU: Absolutely…

DS: …and that our poetry today is mostly found in music. Why do you think young filmmakers don’t devote enough attention to sound and music?  Is it that they’re too focused and enamored with the visual development production tools and technology?

TU: Focus on technology is one part of the problem. They concentrate too much on technology. The schools that teach animation don’t devote enough attention to sound design and music. It seems like first they teach them software, then character design, then they teach them storytelling, but no one teaches them how to breathe. To me, the sound is the breathing. You can learn about timing just by listening to how you breathe. It’s an integral part of the sound.

Gloria Victoria (2012)

Directed by Theodore Ushev, produced by Marc Bertrand at the National Film Board of Canada.

Drux Flux (2008)

Directed by Theodore Ushev, produced by Marc Bertrand at the National Film Board of Canada.

Tower Bawher (2005)

Directed by Theodore Ushev, produced by Marc Bertrand at the National Film Board of Canada.

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Dan Sarto is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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