Chris Landreth Talks Subconscious Password
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?
DS: Of course.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.