Chris Landreth discusses with Greg Singer many of the artistic and personal issues that have made Ryan such an acclaimed short on the festival circuit this year.
Chris Landreths short film Ryan (2004) paints in broad strokes the story of Ryan Larkin, the celebrated animator whose life trajectory during the last 30 years has lead him to become a panhandler in downtown Montreal. As we enter into the discomfiting visual language of Landreths 14-minute semi-documentary, we discover an affecting narrative that explores the fragility of an artistic life.
Given the seeming superficiality and indifference in everyday affairs, one might argue that a person needs to be insane to be sane in modern society. Ryan reminds us that perhaps we can all spare a little change in allowing ourselves, and others, the opportunity to be different.
Ryan was produced by Copperheart Ent. and the National Film Board of Canada in association with Seneca College's Animation Arts Center. The film was made using Alias Maya for modeling, rigging, animation, lighting and rendering; Discreet combustion for compositing and 2D effects; Adobe Photoshop for painting and texturing; and Adobe Premiere for editing.
Greg Singer: To begin with, how did you come to know Ryan Larkin? Why did you choose to make this film?
Chris Landreth: I had come to know Ryan, actually, from kind of an accident. I was asked to be on the selection committee of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. There were originally to be four of us animation professional types selecting films. At the last minute, one of [them] dropped out. The organizer of the festival, Chris Robinson, happened upon Ryan Larkin in Montreal. Chris had heard of Ryan, and that Ryan had this unusual lifestyle of panhandling for spare change. He thought it would be interesting, in light of this other guy dropping out, to have Ryan be on the selection committee. So, Chris drove Ryan to Ottawa from Montreal, and thats how we got to meet him.
That week was very unusual. It was basically three of us, being the animation professionals, judging these films, and Ryan was at that point acting very much like a person who had not been around animation at all; very much like a bum, actually. He was saying, I got to have my beer now... Im tired, I got to lay down... He was out of it for the first day or two. Then something kind of remarkable happened. He came to realize, I think, that he was in the company of people like he had been around when he was a creative person, and he started to really come alive, and we got to see him being lucid and engaged and very impassioned. That transformation of the personality was a very striking thing.
Then the last day, we showed each other our films. Ryan was the last, and he showed Walking (1969) and Street Musique (1972) and another film called Syrinx (1964). We had seen the film Walking before, but now we were really looking at it. We came to realize that this person was a flaming genius in his time. We were looking at him today and, first of all, what a change, what an incredible contrast... and then, second of all, as Derek [Lamb] in the film says, hes living out every artists worst fear. But if this is where hes come to, theres something thats actually not horrible about that. Theres something very redeeming.
I was immediately inspired to try to get that story into a film. I sat on that for a few months before acting on it. Then I decided thats what I wanted to do.
GS: You wanted to make this film to show that there was this redeeming quality to his story?
CL: That was definitely part of it. Although, there were other elements of the story that I had no idea would make it in there that eventually did. It became something a little different than what I was expecting it to be at the beginning, but I think, in the process, it became something better.
GS: What did you intend for it to be, and what did it become?
CL: I had intended for it to be pretty much about Ryan Larkin. It was to be Ryan being interviewed. Youd hear Ryans voice and hed be narrating the audience through his life story. But the thing that happened was there was this snippet of conversation that you hear and see in the film where the subject of alcoholism comes up. And its a big subject. Its obviously a big subject in Ryans world, because he acts so impassioned and angrily toward it. But it is also a big subject in my world, too, and because of that, it brought the interviewer (me) way more into the story than I would have planned beforehand.
GS: As you worked on the film, it became a way for you to explore some of your own concerns or history?
CL: Its not necessarily me trying to explore it, as much as it is trying to tell a story that connects with an audience. I found that the way the film could connect with the audience would be to bring myself into it.
GS: Ryan is a kind of animated documentary. You integrate photography and live-action footage with animation. When people think of documentary filmmaking, in general, they assume that its an objective medium. But a documentarian naturally brings their own perspective to their work. What are the benefits or shortcomings of making a documentary as animation?
CL: One of the elements is that you can add a subjective point of view that you cant do with live action. I mean, it happens with live action, but it happens in a way that is still very literal, because youre dealing with the real subjects at hand. But some of the creativity and passion of the story comes when you can change the visuals to reflect in a metaphorical or symbolic way, how the filmmaker, or the author, sees the subject matter.
GS: What were some of the creative and technical challenges in developing and achieving the film? How did the aesthetic vision for the film evolve?
CL: When I was first getting to know Ryan, I got this impression of him that was a very metaphorical one that ultimately became what you see in the film. That started off with a lot of sketches of the appearance that you see, and I also did some self-portraits. Thus you see the interviewer, who looks like me but has all these other things happening on his face and arms and stuff. The other characters that you see in the cafeteria came more gradually later on.
We also had a lot of logistical challenges of being able to do this film with a relatively small crew, in a relatively non-studio type environment. It was at Seneca College where we were making up the pipeline for this. That certainly took a long time to do. As much time was spent on pre-production as actual production.
GS: Was there any homage to Larkin's earlier work in your film? For example, when Ryans 2D drawings from Street Musique are dancing in step with your 3D character?
CL: Yeah, he dances with one of the creations there. We also make an homage to another Canadian filmmaker, basically the mentor to Ryan Norman McLaren where Ryans character begins his dance and you see these Shiva-like 10 arms strobing... Thats actually a blatant rip-off excuse me, homage to a piece by Norman McLaren called Pas de Deux (1968), which came out around the same time that Ryan was really at his peak.
GS: Your film goes into the psyche of its characters, where you are outwardly portraying their inner life. Your work has been described as psycho-realism. Can you speak about this?
CL: Psycho-realism was a term that I came up with about three years ago when I was trying to think of a title for a talk I was about to give. It deals very much with a belief I have in using advanced tools and CG. Unlike the way theyre generally used, to doggedly recreate photorealism or to tell superficially imaginative stories, what I think they can also be used for is to show, in a very detailed and realistic way, something that is not necessarily, literally realistic which, in this case, is the psychological makeup of people and characters; often ordinary characters who nonetheless have very complex psychologies and personalities and behavioral dysfunctions. Wouldnt it be cool if you can portray those things in a visual manner? What kind of storytelling might that open up that wouldnt have been there otherwise? Thats what I tried to do with the imagery in a piece like Ryan.
In painting, that has precedent. My favorite example is the painting of Francis Bacon. He tends to take a very realistic approach to painting, but he is able to twist and to dismember and to fracture the appearances of his subjects. Although they have these horrifically disjointed, disconnected appearances, they nonetheless look uncannily realistic with the likeness of their subjects. For example, he does a self-portrait that is more realistic, really, than a photograph of himself.
GS: A more accurate representation... When Ryan is talking or listening in the film, there are colors playing on the inside surface of his face. What was that representing?
CL: Sometimes it represents literally what hes seeing in front of him, or how hes comprehending what hes seeing in front of him. He looks at Felicity, and you see the young Felicity in the back of his head. When hes looking at a sketch that hes done of his friend, Derek, you see the real Derek sort of talking there on the back of his head.
GS: His memories... At the end of the film, when Ryan is panhandling in front of the restaurant, his reflection in the window is a full-bodied, healthy looking man. Is that his vision of himself, or is that Ryan once upon a time?
CL: Yeah, that is him once upon a time. In the beginning of the film, we established this mirror motif, where youve got real Chris [the narrator] who doesnt have all those [emotional scars] on him. Then he points them out on his mirror image, which does have those things. So you get this through-the-looking-glass setup. What I was trying to do with that last scene was to invert that. So, youve got weird-looking Ryan in the front part of the scene, and normal-looking Ryan in the back part. You may have noticed that all of the writing is backwards in the cafeteria and in the street scene there. So, were in this reflected world, and any reflections that you see in the other side are in the unreflected if you will, the real world. Thats what we were trying to do there.
GS: There is a saying:We dont see things as they are. We see things as we are. In the film, you briefly reference your own emotional scars, and we see your character struggling with the impulses that have clearly consumed Ryan. What is the fear that artists have, whether theyre animators or writers or musicians or what have you? Is it that ones artistic drive is going to consume them? Is it that, wherever ones creativity comes from, its going to dry up? Whats your own personal experience or observations?
CL: My personal take on it is that the wolf is at that door, that Ill never be creative again; Ill never be able to think of anything worthwhile to do again. Therefore, Ill just descend into this spiral, this nothingness. Im not saying anything about that is unique in me. I think, in fact, Im almost stereotypically describing what artists, filmmakers, musicians go through... If you want to see a really good representation of the artists worst fear being played out, Fellinis 8 1/2  is a great movie to check out.
GS: Is it a fear of failure, or a fear of not having anything to say?
CL: Well, in this case its both, with not having anything to say being the same as failing.
GS: In the film, you encourage Ryan to start creating again, and he wonders, even if he did have something to say, who would listen?
CL: Hes saying something a little more pointed and defensive. Hes saying that he doesnt create because hell be ripped off, like someone will just take his ideas and not give him credit, and not give him money.
GS: Has Ryan had a chance to see your film? What were his impressions?
CL: He was quite stunned at first. We showed it to him twice. The second time we showed it, he was just loving it, actually. It was very much a high moment for me, because it wouldnt have been the same if he looked at it and said, Oh my God, thats dreadful. He was disturbed by his appearance, but then on the second showing came to realize that everyone had that disconnected, distorted appearance.
GS: What does he think of the accolade surrounding the film, now that it is being received so favorably at festivals?
CL: The last time I talked to him was the night we had received three awards from our showing at the Cannes Film Festival. His immediate reaction was to caution me about eating food in all of these foreign places that we go.
GS: Does it surprise him that people care about him?
CL: It seems like hes delighted... I think that he knows a whole new generation of people are looking at his stuff. I think he would like to get back into doing something creative. I hope he does.
GS: What kind of fellowship do you feel with Ryan, whose short films have won festival honors and been nominated for an Academy Award? How has Ryan's story informed your relationship with your own art?
CL: First of all, I do feel very much a kinship with Ryan. He is 20 years older than I am. In some ways I look at his life, and theres something very reassuring about it. Hes basically followed Murphys Law as an artist [if something can go wrong, it will]. If you look at his life now yeah, hes poor, hes sort of on the bottom rung of society but, on the other hand, he has in many ways a very positively structured life. He has a community of dozens of people who, if they dont know that he is an artist, at least know that hes a decent guy, and they take care of him. He has a community of people that a lot of us would find enviable.
GS: In the film, during your moment of temporary angelic good intention, one of Ryan's contentions is that, without money, what can anyone do artistically? As a corollary to this question, he broaches the issue of why bother to create at all when there is no market for it? Do you share this sentiment and/or frustration?
CL: I am fortunate enough to have, as a producer on this film, a moviemaking entity in the form of the National Film Board [NFB], which produces films that are part of the consciousness of at least the people in Canada, and I think a lot of people throughout the world know and love the artistry of animation from people like Norman McLaren through Ryan Larkin and Caroline Leaf and Derek Lamb, and this pantheon of great animators that came out of the NFB. But these animated films that they produce are not money-makers in the sense that studio feature films are. There is, sadly, no market for that kind of thing. You cant turn a profit from doing short films like these. I dont think it has to be that way, but it is. The way that television is set up, the way that theatrical showings are set up, you cant really do a film like Ryan, or Ryans Walking, or Norman McLarens Neighbours (1952) without losing money. Fortunately, the National Film Board, while not making money on these films, puts them out, and theyre great contributions to the art of filmmaking.
GS: Your earlier short films, The End (1995) and Bingo (1998), have a similar stylistic sensibility as Ryan. Bingo was a visual adaptation of a live theater performance, much like Ryan is a visual interpretation of your interview with Ryan. The End also has a reflexive surrealist narrative, similar to Ryan, as if to ask: What comes next... how will this all end? Do you find that you are exploring fundamentally similar themes in your films? How is your own artistic growth evidenced in your films?
CL: Its very natural to use myself as a springboard for exploring themes. I am thinking of, by analogy, an artist named Max Beckmann who did dozens of paintings over a few decades, all of which involved him in the painting in one way or another. But the paintings themselves were very complex narratives with other characters that you would read from left to right, and you realize there was a whole narrative drama there. There he was always in one place or another providing, if not central elements, some important contributing element to a story that was beyond merely him. Thats certainly one theme that comes naturally for me: to use myself as a catalyst to explore some bigger stories or themes.
GS: You used to be an engineer doing experimental research in fluid dynamics. Animating, of course, was the next logical step. Why do you choose to animate?
CL: Because its fun. Doing the kind of computer art that I do, I wouldnt do it if it werent just raw fun. Seriously. Engineering had a certain degree of fun to it, but there was an aspect that wasnt taking advantage of my best talents.
GS: Do you find that youre learning something about yourself through animation?
CL: Yeah, I am. Im learning that Im more patient than I thought I was. Also, both the left and right side of my brain gets a workout when I do this, so Im learning how to integrate the analytical with the aesthetic.
GS: What do you feel is unique about animation, in how audiences relate to it, or in what its able to express?
CL: The kind of animation that Im into stretches the definition of narrative. I think that Ryan does stretch that definition somewhat, in bringing in the documentary aspects, and by adding, I hope seamlessly, this very subjective visual aspect to make something that the audience might find jarring, at first, but they kind of get into the groove of it and go somewhere with it.
GS: Copperheart Ent. (producer of Ryan) is developing a feature-length animated film ( Uberman), and earlier they had produced the first fully animated IMAX 3D movie ( Cyberworld). Is your focus to continue to make auteur short films, or do you see yourself moving more into commercial work or features?
CL: I am always open to the idea of doing something longer format. I would like to do it on terms where I would have more creative control than is generally the case with studio films. That would probably involve the cost of doing these films coming down a tad more than they are at right now.
When I think of the feature films of Bill Plympton, hes a real hero of mine in this respect. Sure, his films get a very limited release largely in festivals and a few theatrical venues but nonetheless he produces these on his own, on a very, very cheap budget, and hes able to get a rate of return on it that allows him to keep doing this stuff, which is very inspiring for me.
I have a lot of hope that CG, although its certainly not there now, will evolve so that, instead of costing $90 million to make a film, it will cost $10 million (and maybe even less), like Sylvain Chomets Triplets of Belleville. When it becomes that cheap, youre going to see some interesting things happening, and some of them may be coming from me.
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.