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Thomas Renoldner Definitely Knows What He’s Doing

Director mixes slapstick with elegant avant-garde in ‘Dont Know What,’ his OIAF 2019 grand prize-winning experimental animated short film.

Needless to say, it’s a rare moment when an avant-garde, non-narrative film wins a major award at an animation festival. And by avant-garde cinema, I mean a form of innovative, non-traditional filmmaking that often lacks linear narrative but rather invites viewers into a more poetic cinematic experience. But I’m also using avant-garde in this case to mean a type of filmmaking that’s ahead of its time.

Yet, that just happened when Thomas Renoldner’s Dont Know What took home the Nelvana Grand Prize at the 2019 Ottawa International Animation Festival. Standing on stage to receive the award, Renoldner's shock was quite apparent; awarding his film, a crowd favorite, with the top short film award was a bold and welcome jury decision.

After seeing Dont Know What in competition and, impressed with the way Renoldner marries slapstick and avant-garde cinema, I had arranged to speak with him prior to his surprise awards ceremony win.

An artist and musician since the early 1980s, Renoldner has made approximately 40 experimental and animated films. Seven years had passed since his 2012 short, Sunny Afternoon, was released, and the process of finding his way from that film to Dont Know What raised several critical questions for him: How much of an artist’s work is planned rational concept, and how much arises purely from intuitively playing with materials?  What new discoveries can be made when single-frame editing sound and image? Dont Know What is also a musical composition, and the whole process of frame-by-frame editing of video began when he started to explore and micro-edit the sound.

Exploring these ideas, the filmmaker and I enjoyed a long chat between screenings.

According to Renoldner, the concept for Dont Know What originated with the making of Sunny Afternoon, which was based on a song with the same title. The original footage was shot as a photo-sequence of 16 images when he was a student some 20 years previously. "I couldn't finish the film as a student", he recalls. "But the song kept spinning around in my mind. So, 20 years later I decided to finish this student project. I still had the photographs from that time, which I use in the animation. I scanned them [and] put them on the computer. It was really difficult, long work to clean the photos up and make them available for editing. This took a lot of time, and when I had them available, I discovered this joy of playing with them. And so the originally planned 5 second sequence expanded into the 3 minute long first part of my film."

As a concept, Sunny Afternoon presents Renoldner in the first part of the film as himself in the simple, everyday act of sitting down on a chair. "That's an everyday movement," he explains. "It has no special meaning, just standing [then] sitting down." But by micro-editing the sequence he discovered that he could twist the meaning of the images completely.

Bringing the scans into non-linear editing software, he twisted and mirrored, copied and pasted the images, a process that quickly becoming intuitive and playful. With frame-by-frame editing of the stills, new meanings began to appear. "There were sexual connotations," he laughs, "when the pelvis starts to vibrate slightly and then trembles more strongly. Finally it is rocking quickly back and forth, and sooner or later people think about sex. And when I'm in that [crouched] position shortly before sitting down, I guess people have anal associations; they think about shitting, or sitting on a toilet. They have to laugh about this. Only editing can manipulate the meaning completely and can generate new meanings which absolutely never were a part of the original material."

When Sunny Afternoon screened at the OIAF in 2012 as the first film to open the competition screenings, Renoldner felt like a rock star. "I was receiving positive feedback from people for two or three hours after the screening," he remembers, still with surprise. "I had to constantly speak with people who gave me their comments and their compliments. I've never experienced something like that. I must say, this experience of overwhelming audience reaction was a strong motivation to continue working and develop further my discoveries in Dont Know What."

The initial strategy for Dont Know What  was to video record Renoldner’s performance while he spoke 3 sentences: I don’t know, what I’m doing; I am just experimenting; I have no idea, what the result might be. 

Each sentence created one part of the film and in addition to speaking the phrases, Renoldner also gestures. In fact, the beginning of the film feels quite serious even to the point that his body appears to be suffering.  As the film progresses, that seriousness is disrupted by a certain humour that comes from the frame-by-frame (or what Renoldner calls “micro-editing) editing of the frames.

Asked if the title reflected the truth, he shares, "Of course, I know what I'm doing. But I find it very rewarding and nice when you discover things which you didn't expect. In the artistic process, I think it's always about this balance of having a concept and knowing what you're doing, but then having the freedom and the possibility to discover something new. Experimenting without knowing exactly what might be the result, is something positive, even if it might sometimes be formulated as a criticism towards experimental film."

Dont Know What, a sophisticated and elegant film, has the same slapstick sense of humor as Sunny Afternoon. One key difference between the films is that the audio in Dont Know What was edited in sync with the video. And frame-by-frame editing of the audio transformed the vocals and consonants of human language into bizarre melodies and rhythmical patterns that sound like a drum set. 

At the film’s OIAF 2019 screening premiere, the audience began laughing after only a few short moments. “This was the earliest moment any festival audience had begun to laugh while watching this film,” Renoldner reveals, clearly amused. "I'm interested a lot to see how the audience reacts. The reactions are very different in different cultures or countries, and it also tells us a lot about the atmosphere in the audience. Yes, I must confess, in Dont Know What, I play with this… I play with audience expectations. I pretend to be very serious at the beginning because I want to make them feel like they’re watching a very serious avant-garde film. That also makes the later humorous effect stronger. It’s an old strategy in cartoon movies or generally in the arts. No comedy without tragedy."

Which discoveries arose from micro-editing sound and image? He set up some rules to dictate how he would edit the frames. One of the limitations was to create sequences only from consecutive frames of a length from 8 to just 2 frames. For example, the rapid fire blinking of the eye is made up of only two neighbor frames from the same take. In addition he never manipulates or shifts the sound in any way.

“It was kind of a surprise for me how quickly the eye can close,” he notes. “In a twenty-fourth of a second, the open eye closes. I didn't know that. I used this blinking eye [sequence] and copy pasted. The reason why we have to laugh here to a certain degree is based on the fact that the blinking is accompanied by this audible ‘flicker sound’ – usually blinking eyes don’t generate sound.”

"When I discovered the very funny effect of the eye blinking sequence, I had to laugh, intuitively and without being able to control it because it looks so surprising and strange," he continues. "And I started to think more intensely about questions like why is it funny if you see something like that. I can't really 100% say. A part of it certainly is the surprise effect, that you don't expect something like that. Or I think because you see a human, but it doesn't behave like a human anymore. I just can say that there were many moments when even if you are a really controlled person, you cannot hold back from laughing. You have to laugh about certain situations without knowing why you're doing it."

But this isn’t the kind of avant-garde film we are used to seeing. “Avant-garde film, or experimental film, has its own rules, its own set of conventions,” he says. “I want to question these conventions. Is it possible to make an experimental film, which at the same time entertains the audience?"

“I mean really entertains the audience, makes them laugh out loud. Or would that go too far? I clearly remember the moment during editing, where I felt this danger to cross the line of what is allowed in avant garde film, at least in my home country Austria, where we have quite severe rules for that. It was exactly the eye glimpse sequence. Then I decided to keep it, even if it was clear to me, that I am risking my reputation as a serious filmmaker when I keep it.”

"Historically, the concept of avant-garde film or experimental film was to be against entertainment cinema against Hollywood and Disney. Simply against ‘commercial mainstream cinema’. Avant-garde film was a counter position to that. That generates the rule that you should not entertain your audience. You should rather torture your audience. (Laughter) But also, in order to make that very clear, I don't want to ridicule avant garde film, that’s not my intention. Experimental film has always been very important for me, and with my, let’s say, ironic comments, I also want to contribute to analysis and reflection and expand the possibilities of experimental/avant-garde film.”

Which brings us back to his process and the simplicity and austerity of the setups.

"I really enjoy experimenting,” he states. “And I was also thinking a lot about average moviegoers when making the film. It was my intention to tailor the film in such a way that it can be ‘consumable’ for average moviegoers, but without losing the ‘language’ of experimental film. In that sense we could say, that Dont Know What is an attempt to open the eyes of these moviegoers to avant-garde cinema. The avant-garde film family should be happy about it.”

Renoldner is now heading into his next avant-garde adventure. Slowly. Knowing what he's doing. And being open to playfully not knowing what he's doing.