Four years in the making, two-time Oscar nominee trades in his familiar comedic 2D animation style for slow-paced storytelling in a brand-new stop-motion short film.
Cordell Barker hasn’t made many shorts in his storied career. Three actually - The Cat Came Back (1988), Strange Invaders (2001) and Runaway (2009), the first two of which were nominated for Oscars. Despite a prolific commercial career starting with a gig animating for Sesame Street while still in high school, Barker’s body of indie short work is marked by extremely long production schedules and a frenetic, zany and somewhat dark storytelling sensibility that matches perfectly with his cartoony 2D animation style. Until now.
Well, come 2015 and Barker brings us his fourth film, If I Was God, which finds the animator shifting creative gears and changing almost every filmmaking variable imaginable from his previous work. A gentle yet whimsical tale of a rather awkward yet ultimately eventful day in the life of a 7th grade boy, If I Was God is nothing like any Barker film to date - the most obvious difference being the film is primarily stop-motion, a medium with which Barker had no previous experience.
I recently had a chance to speak with the filmmaker about the new film, what possessed him to step away from his signature animation style and storytelling comfort zone, what he hoped to achieve creatively and what lessons he learned from the experience.
Cordell Barker: What's up with that kind of thing?
DS: Yeah. What's up with that?
CB: Well, I wanted to do something different. I knew the NFB, going back to 2009, 2010, was really hot to do stereoscopic stuff. I thought, "Well, what really takes advantage of stereoscopic quite like stop-mo?" It has that kind of surreal, hand-made quality. I didn't want to do CGI because it never has that, “you feel the hand of the artist at work” kind of feel. I wanted it to be stop-mo, but then I don't really do stop-mo.
I figured, "Well, this would be my opportunity to work with a team." Up until now, of course, I've worked with other people on my other films, but it was always like a component that was added in during the completion phase, maybe getting some in-betweening or cleanup done. Primarily I was always handling most of the animation. That gets pretty lonely, especially for the span of time I take to make a film. I thought, "The stereoscopic would work really well with stop-mo and stop-mo requires me to work with other people. It would be kind of neat to do." I’d have to be able to translate my desires and wishes to other people. It's not just all trapped in my head.
I thought, "Well, that'll be an interesting challenge." The whole thing about designing for stop-mo, like with characters, is I can't take the short-cuts like I did with my other films. Look at Mr. Johnson in The Cat Came Back. That guy can't really exist in a 3D space. He has no back to his head to speak of. Just eyeballs perched on a nose.
DS: How did working with an animation team change how you communicated your thoughts during the production? Did it force you to clarify your thinking and direction or otherwise change your development and production process? How appreciably different was your experience making this film?
CB: That's actually a really good question. Because it was going to be stop-mo, I made the decision that it was going to have a different tempo than my other films. I wanted it to be more surreal. It was a grand experiment because I was going out of my comfort zone. I see lots of slower films that I admire and I always think, "I don't know if I could do that." It's almost like using speed as a crutch. I like that faster tempo of films like The Cat Came Back. But for this one, it was very much initially a conscious effort to slow it down and generate character a bit more.
But then on top of that, translating the ideas to somebody else was an unbelievable exercise because you might describe things to death. You hit that point of you've over-described. I'm a real note writer. I'll write huge laundry lists, but I'm never really sure if anybody reads them because they’re so daunting. When I was working with my musician, Luigi Allemano, he said that he'd never in his career received notes quite like those I had done. They went on for pages and pages – just for the music. So I was doing a little bit of the same thing with the stop-motion crew. It's a husband and wife team - Dale Hayward and Sylvie Trouvé. But it was a little better because we did daily Skype calls, so we could really talk things through. Then they'd shoot up to a point and then send it to me mid-shoot before they took another frame and say, "Are we headed in the right direction?"
Also, to mitigate against misinterpretation, I learned how to use Maya enough that I could block out actions and using that as a reference, turn it into cut-out animation and then an animatic. I used Maya for camera angles, general positioning and camera lens choices. Then I would turn those spaces into cut-out animation so I could work out the tempo of the shot. My fear was that they [the stop-motion animators] would do a terrific job with the animation but the tempo would be wrong, or certain looks would be at the wrong moment. When everything's edited together, if the scene bogs down, you lose it, you just lose that feeling of tempo. So that was a crucial thing for me. I think the daily Skype calls and on my end, doing the cut-out animation, really helped get what I wanted.
DS: Along those lines, how did that new production dynamic affect your storytelling sensibility? This is a much more slowly paced story, very different from your previous films.
CB: Yeah. There are two schools of thought. One is you find your brand and you just do it. Once you've established your brand you build your career on that kind of marketable branding. I didn't want to really do that over and over and over again and I just thought, "Ahh, I'm going to experiment." I just wanted not only to change the technique to stop-mo, but like I say, change even the sensibility of the thing, the pacing, everything about it. I wanted it to be a grand experiment where I'm working in mediums that I've never done before.
I did do some of the stop-mo, the fantasy scenes, I did the stop-mo in those. I went to Montreal to do those and I tell you, I was really nervous doing that because it was like, "Oh my God. I don't have any control. This is straight line animation. There's no going back." I know stop-mo animators are used to that. They blow a shot and they just have to ramp up the next day and do it again. For me that was just like, “Wow!” I was really invested in each shot I did so the idea of going back was just a horrible thought for me. It was tough. Anyway, I wanted to do something where almost every aspect of it was very different for me. Now, after this film, let's say I went back and did something more like The Cat Came Back, people could view it sort of like, "Oh, yeah, well he did that [If I Was God], now he's going back to the well."
I’ve got to admit there's something really comforting about doing simplified 2D like I did with The Cat Came Back where I have total freedom. I can time it down to the nth degree. I can't do that with stop-mo. I have a certain amount of control and Dale and Sylvie, they were really, really good and professional about trying to accommodate the little nuances that I wanted in there. But it's still at arm's length. They did a phenomenal job. There's some stuff in there that I felt like, "Wow." They added little secondary actions that just really brought the characters to life in these little spots.
DS: When did you first come up with the idea for the film?
CB: I was toying around with two film ideas in the summer of 2010. This was supposed to be my “speed” film, where I was going to do it in 2 1/2 years. It was just going to be amazing that I could just get it done that quickly, but it ended up being another half a decade.
DS: What was the main challenge once you got into production?
CB: The main challenge was communication. If it was communication with somebody doing CGI or 2D it wouldn't have been a problem. In 2D, if you didn't like something, you would just go, "No, let's eliminate those keys, keep these other drawings and we'll massage it into submission." You could do the same thing with CGI, but you can't do that with stop-mo. It was the communicating of ideas.
Additionally, it took me about six months to learn Maya just to a fundamental level. In fact, I spent six months and came out the other end realizing that there is no way I will ever learn Maya to any level of competence. I just used it in fundamental, basic ways to give me what I needed. I realized that was a detour I needed to take, to play around and generate my communication aids and then convert that all into animatics. I spent an awful lot of time doing that. Maybe it would have been faster to just describe things, the animators shoot, they do their attempt at it, and then I go, "Oh, no, no, no, no. I need this to be this.” But that means they’d have to do every shot twice. That just didn't seem fair or logical.
So it was a real long ramp up on this film. If I was doing another The Cat Came Back kind of thing there'd be no ramping up. I'd do my animatic, although I play with my animatics for a very long time. I can spend a year and a half just puttering with the animatics and changing the story and altering everything. The good thing about this film, working with a crew, I knew that the schedule was running and I had an imperative. I had to lock down my animatic so that I could start getting the cut-out animation done so that I could hand them shots so that they could get going. I knew the schedule. The puppets were being made, the sets were being built and everything was falling into place and the clock was running for me. That aspect was very good.
DS: Forced you to adhere more to a schedule.
CB: Oh, yeah.
DS: So you're using Maya basically to create the 3D elements that you then cut out to create the 3D space to design the shots within a 2D animatic?
CB: Yeah, because in Maya I would create the classroom. I built the classroom and in fact, that became the guide for the scale of building everything because I needed to know what would the lens see? Did I need more space on the back wall? Do I need the windows to be higher? I needed to know what that lens was going to see. I needed to know desk spacing because I wanted to see, if I saw a close-up of a character, where those characters were, how many other classroom kids am I going to see, and choose all of that ahead of time. The kids were all just balls on cones with eyeballs. I would just use that and the details of the desks, walls, corners and windows to generate my line drawings. Then of course where the ball was I'd actually draw the head of the character and the bodies. It was pretty accurate, actually.
DS: The actual production of this film, how long did it take?
CB: Well, that's a tough one. Early 2011 I think was greenlight. Then I finished the sound mix back in January of this year. So four years.
DS: Principal production, from when they started building sets, until animation was finished?
CB: Probably two years. Yeah, and then when that was done, I still had 2D animation to do. I still had my cut-away scenes of stop-mo to do. So I was in Montreal for a big chunk of the winter before last. Then there was a lot of comping and 2D stuff to do here and so there was a lot of secondary stuff going on. I would say Dale and Sylvie shot for probably close to a year.
DS: The kids in the classroom, are those based on kids from your childhood? How biographical is this with regards to...
CB: …Not very…
DS: I think anybody of a certain age probably dissected at least one frog when they were in junior high school…I had my way with several myself.
CB: I hope so.
DS: So which of the students in the classroom were based on kids you went to school with?
CB: You know what? I have a terrible memory for people and faces, so memories of junior high and elementary school are so vague and disconnected that I thought I'd just manufacture some. You see a lot of short films based on people’s memories of family or friends or all that kind of stuff. I thought, "Nah, I'd rather do a fake one and just manufacture my friends."
DS: They're a little more malleable when you manufacture them. No stop-motion pun intended.
CB: Exactly. Yeah.
DS: So after working in a new medium, with a new production process which included directing more than animating, learning Maya to incorporate 3D elements into your animatic, and telling a less frenetic, more slow-paced story, what have you learned? What are your take-aways from this experience?
CB: That's a tough one. On this one, I worried all the way through. Dealing with kids, portraying kids, I thought, "Oh, that can come across as too sweet or sort of like pandering a little bit." All the way along I kept thinking I have this subtext there. It's a darker subtext underneath, but I don't think it was dark enough to outweigh the sweetness of the visual. Whereas on Runaway, the dark underbelly is, even though it's got some goofy stuff, the dark underbelly is there for everybody to see, especially when the film ends. This one, it's much more subtle, the underbelly thing is much more subtly stated. So my take-away is that I think I'm better, my films work better when that balance is struck more strongly. Where it's sort of goofy and funny but with a dark underbelly. I like black comedy. Dr. Strangelove was always my all-time favorite film. If I could pick one film that was a film I’d made, it'd be Dr. Strangelove. It's such a beautiful pairing of goofy and dark. It's got a really dark underbelly.
I think, on my next film, I would make sure that that underbelly was dark enough for anybody to glean. Maybe the ideal for me is that I love it when kids, even small kids, can watch my film, but they don't perceive the dark underbelly. Their take-away is just the goofy, bouncy sort of thing. But adults perceive the darkness underneath. I love that duality.
DS: That's a storytelling strength.
CB: Yeah, and I always seek that out. But even lately I was thinking about all these things I should have done in this current film to enhance that darker side without it going too overtly dark. But I don't know. I see a lot of that stuff at festivals, where it's so dark it's just basically hitting the audience over the head. There's no subtlety. It should be balanced.
DS: I would agree.
CB: It's slightly ironic too, but this is the first film where when it was finished, I had a certain distance on it. I guess it’s from collaborating and working with other people that I was able to sit back and look at it and see it for what it was. With my other films, I'd be depressed at the end. Runaway, that was a black, dark finish for me. It just was overwhelming. I thought, "Ugh, this film is awful. It's just going to be gutted when it's released," and then it did quite well. This one's having a slower start and yet I felt like it was one of my most professional and had subtleties in it that the other ones did not have.
DS: Well, for one thing, on this film, you were the “director” not just the animator. That brought more distance.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.