Tim Reckart Talks Head Over Heels
Spend enough time at film festival screenings and you soon realize that some of the best, most innovative and interesting animated shorts made today are student films. You still have to wade through the usual amount of dreck to find the truly outstanding pieces. But by and large, the work being produced by student animators is certainly on par with the work of the vast majority of independent animators you’ll find lurking about today’s animation community, hiding in the shadows as they wait for their renders to finish or their disability checks to arrive.
One of the best animated shorts you’ll find from last year’s crop is one such student piece, Timothy Reckart’s graduate film, Head Over Heels. The only student film among this year’s Oscar nominees, Head Over Heels takes a poignant, funny and remarkably mature look at the inherent struggles that both define and plague relationships. The film’s unique frame of reference – a husband and wife living upside down from each other, separated by gravity – forms the central visual metaphor that has meaning and context within any conflict between two people.
Following in the footsteps of his idol, Nick Park, Timothy did his work at the UK’s National Film and Television School. In fact, his stop-motion graduate film comes exactly 30 years after Mr. Park’s introduction of Wallace and Gromit in his 1982 graduate film. After meeting Timothy and his film’s producer, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly (pronounced “Fola”) at this year’s Annie Awards, where Head Over Heels took home the Best Student Film award, we had a chance to talk about his film, his first time directing a real crew and the challenges of telling such a compelling story without the benefit of any dialogue.
Dan Sarto: So tell me about the genesis of your film? How did you first come up with the idea?
Timothy Reckart: So, it started with the idea of a husband and wife who are separated by gravity. That encapsulated a lot of ideas that I had been thinking about, things that I thought would be great to address with the film. One of those was the kind of hostile tone that political disagreement has taken on in the US over the past few years. So it appealed to me, because it’s a story about two people who see the world differently, but they still have to find a way to live together. This is an idea that could apply to political, religious, really any sort of ideological disagreement. It was a great metaphor for that. Of course, it’s also directly about marriage. It highlights what I’ve seen with marriages. Personally, I’m not married but the married people in my life have provided great examples of the fact that marriage doesn’t just “happen.” You have to work at it, to “try.” This film is an opportunity to talk about the sacrifice that fuels marriage. The other thing was at the time, I was studying in England and my girlfriend was in New York. So during the animation process, that divide also provided a lot of emotional fuel for all the acting and performances of the puppets.
Once I had settled on this idea, we decided to go with stop-motion because it’s the sort of idea that could just be a metaphor and could work just at the conceptual level. Just having a world of ideas. I wanted it to have realism. I wanted the world to be tangible, for people to feel this upward gravity, that they weren’t watching the film at arm’s length. I wanted people to always be aware of the metaphor but actually remain fully immersed in the here and now of the characters. Ultimately that was why stop-motion was the right medium. It’s got that intense focus on miniatures which exaggerates the textures that all the objects have naturally, that makes everything so immediate and tactile. Also, it’s wonderful because you can do some fun things in-depth. We didn’t have to do everything like a doll house. We could do some high angles, low angles, do some interesting over the shoulder shots, which were actually sort of below the shoulders in a way. Stop-motion was going to be the only way to do it. It was a weird choice though. When we started doing development meetings with the school faculty there was some concern about how the hell we were going to build a set where you can hang the puppets from the ceiling. Are we going to need to flip the set? That kind of thing. Because it’s just not something that people usually do with stop-motion.
DS: No they don’t.
TR: Yeah. It was funny because the one reference I used to show them it could be done was the bit in The Wrong Trousers where Wallace is walking on the ceiling of the art museum. It was great being in England because we had the context of Aardman. I asked a couple contacts there how that was done. [They said] they literally just put it upside down, it was that simple. So we knew we could do it. We needed to find a way to build the set so that we could flip it. The way we ended up doing is was the whole thing was built so it could be taken apart and reassembled without destroying it. That was the set build.
We crew up at the film school with one student from each discipline. We had a production design student, one [handling] editing, composing, sound design and cinematography. The production design student headed up the set build. Over the course of around five months, we built all the props, the sets and the puppets. Then it was time to start animating.