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Pictures from the Brainbox: Animators on Animation - 'Tennessee'

Jack Wedge opens up about the frustrations and challenges he faced while making his  short take on modern love, 'Tennessee' (2017)

Jack Wedge is, for the moment, a young painter and animator from New York. He’s made graphic novels, animation films and, most recently, tried his hand at video games.

Wedge’s film, Tennessee, is a sort of sci-fi take on the challenges of finding love, intimacy or any meaningful connection in a world dominated, filtered, distracted and dumbed down by tech gadgets.

So, how’d you make this?

I made Tennessee during my freshman year of NYU out of an explosive feeling of idealism and knowing that I could make anything I wanted to, pretty much by myself on my laptop, without spending a lot of money. I remember thinking I wanted to make something on a bigger scale. I was coming straight from making three other short films pretty much back to back, using the same program (flash). I thought that I had momentum. This one however didn’t turn out as easily as the others. I went through a hellstorm to make Tennessee.

Why this technique?

The movie is 2D because I started making it before I realized how cool 3D animation is. The project I am working on currently is not 2D. I had an epiphany about 3D animation last summer when I was learning Maya online. The concept of digital sculpting had always turned me off because I never thought I could make them look as good as my drawings. But I didn’t understand the power of moving a camera around in a 3D space. Lighting especially is the most exciting thing to me.

How long did it take?

There are two versions of Tennessee. I finished the first draft at the end of my Spring semester in 2016. It was so unwatchable that my own father let out a deep sigh when I showed it to him and left the room without speaking to me. He came back downstairs eventually, after making a cocktail, to give me and one of my creative partners, Will Freudenheim, really good advice that was also really hard to hear. I took the summer off to make a music video for a friend and go work as a sailing instructor in Long Island. I came back having thought a lot about how to make the movie less terrible, and edited about half of it out, (it used to run about 14 minutes). I also remade about 75% of the animation. The end result was still weird but less creepy and bad. The final version was completed in April of 2017, a year and half after I drew the first storyboards. The longest I had spent on a movie before Tennessee was about 4 months.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

Admitting that I was wrong and making the decision to go back and fix the movie instead of abandoning it. The most valuable thing I learned by a thousand miles was the importance of showing work in progress and making sure you have a functioning movie before it’s too late, before you spend 1000 hours working on it. Up until that reality check I had always finalized each shot as I went. I never knew how long anything I made was going to be until the final weeks of production where you enter that magic stage where everything hopefully starts clicking and you finally are able to see the results of your work pretty much immediately. That for me was usually the really satisfying part where you realize you have a movie. That magic feeling of everything coming together never happened for Tennessee. Instead everything I did to the movie just made it worse and worse. I never knew what sections of the story worked best because I could never watch them from beginning to end. I made my creative partners Will and Adrian go through hell because I could never give them accurate timing cues for sound and music, and as a result they would always have to change everything a million different times. God bless you Will Freudenheim and Adrian Martens. Learning how to make a proper animatic was the most valuable thing I got out of the project. Taking notes and getting outside advice has been essential to my work ever since.

How does the finished film compared to your original vision?

I think my original idea compares to the movie pretty well. I like building surreal dream worlds. That was my original vision, building the world where Tennessee lived. I wanted to make a Bladerunner/Enter the Void city where a young woman goes to a strange hotel to see a boy that she met online, and they have a crazy nightmare drug trip together. I had ideas of her being a runaway princess type of character but that got changed. Now I am more interested in the interaction with the audience. I am more interested in autonomous aspects of filmmaking and video games, taking from my role models: David Oreilly, Nikita Diakur, Ian Cheng. But ultimately I still am going after the same sort of thing which is storytelling.

Is there any part that now makes you cringe a bit?

Every frame of the movie is terrible to me. My next project will be not as ugly.

Do you feel better having made it?

I’m glad I finished it and didn’t give up. For months of my life that was a serious possibility, and I do remember feeling stupid deciding to go back and change the movie, like I wasn’t allowing myself to move on. It was a really depressing feeling finishing that first draft and knowing that I would never be able to show it the world. Of course I’m glad it’s done now, because I never have to think about it ever again! It’s even a little strange to be talking about it now because since I’ve finished Tennessee I’ve been working a lot on completely different work, including a video game that I recently published, as well as 3D projects that I am really excited about. I am looking forward to sharing them soon with the world.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.