In a forgotten village where everyone is cut from the same cloth, a new self-proclaimed leader arrives changing the local way of life. Dividing lines are carved out as the once unified society is torn and segregated.
Hi Robin thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?
Thanks for having me. It’s obviously been a strange time for everyone and like most people I’ve spent the majority of the last 6 weeks at home. I’ve been editing a weekly comedy show for German television during this whole time so I’ve actually been really busy which is a good distraction from watching too much news.
As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative inspiration?
In the beginning I thought I would have some time to develop new ideas but I have too much work on now. I think most creative people probably felt the need to make something that commented on the current situation. I felt like the ideas I wanted to develop before the outbreak just didn’t seem relevant right now and they didn’t excite me anymore. I don’t think that this will be the case once this is over but I assume that most cultural output will be clearly recognizable as being pre or post corona. I’m looking forward to working on material that has nothing to do with the outbreak.
Your film THEM has been selected in the European Experimental Film Category at the 2020 ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?
It was great to hear that we were selected and equally worrying to not know if it would actually go ahead. It was great to see how everyone quickly came up with an alternative to the actual physical festival.
What has the experience been like for you making THEM?
It was a big learning curve. The film combines miniatures and motion capture and I had no previous experience with either. Originally I thought this could be something I could shoot and produce entirely by myself in my apartment and I did many tests with miniatures that I built myself. That was before I teamed up with Mika Ceron (Dop) and Mathias Schwerbrock (Producer). The film was never funded so we were on a very tight budget but the people that helped me were fantastic. Alex, Berton and Claudia had just finished working on the miniatures for Isle of Dogs and did a great job of creating the world. The music was composed by Tomer Moked Blum who seems to be able to play anything and has a large collection of unusual instruments from around the world. Mathias brought in Frank Kruse who is a veteran sound designer for some huge Hollywood films and decided to do us the honor of doing the sound design. My friend Ryan James who was the mocap performer also has a voice over studio where we recorded a bunch of friends making up the language of the film. The whole process was a very long one and the animation took up most of my free time. But I am very thankful to all of the team that helped me make this film.
With the lockdowns happening around the world and a lot of political uncertainty THEM is a very timely film, what was your inspiration for this unique film?
That’s a very kind thing to say. I feel like it was more relevant before all of this and hopefully it will be again after. Aesthetically the inspiration came from playing around with different mediums. I had made a small model of a golden river on a black landscape that was a test for a music video that never saw the light of day but somehow I was really into it visually and didn’t want to let it go. I just started placing tiny figures onto the landscape. They looked like ants and it got me thinking that it would be fun to try and tell a story about a society’s rise and fall from a birds eye perspective. Also around this time Trump just got elected and the general shift in global politics wasn’t looking too positive. From there the script basically wrote itself in a couple of days. I wanted to make something that was visually interesting but also that had something to say.
You use a mix of digital and analogue techniques for THEM, what made you want to combine these two techniques for this film?
I was foolishly drawn to the challenge! I had never made an entirely animated film before but the story required it.
It was only after we had finished the first round of shooting the miniatures that I decided to do the characters with motion capture. Originally I had intended on doing them in a flatter, more sketchy look using greenscreen and roto but it was around the same time that I was seeing people getting decent results from low budget mocap set ups. So I spent about 3 months researching and testing in my spare time if I could pull it off. In the end we had one day to do all of the mocap with a set up that was still in its beta version.
There were plenty of glitches and there was still lots of clean up to do with the raw data and then there are some parts that are animated manually. I did all of the post production myself in between other jobs and normal life so it took up a lot of time. Also being new to this method I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I certainly got faster as the weeks turned into months. What was important to me was that it didn’t look too polished in the end. I wanted it to feel handmade and raw. For instance, the characters have a sketchy black outline which was very much inspired by the early 2d character tests that I had made.
Is this a process you've used before?
No. I have been working I post for over 10 years now but this exact combination of techniques was new to me.
"I think that now if I start making something, I need to be fairly sure that I will still like it a year or two down the line."
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
That’s so hard to say. The miniatures came with some of there own problems. The set was too small to move a camera around in freely so for each shot we would have to take everything down and set it up new. You can’t just quickly do a reverse shot. So that involves very precise planning. Some scenes that don’t look so spectacular ended up taking ages because of problematic mocap data and some other scenes worked right away. We only had one mocap kit and one actor so any of the fights had to be timed accurately to do both parts. That turned out to be far easier than anticipated.
Looking back what would you say has been the biggest lesson you've taken from making this film?
Be patient. And don’t take short cuts when learning something new.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yeah. I wasn’t allowed to watch much tv as a kid so everything I saw really stuck with me. By about age 9 I started making little films on a high 8 camera with the neighbors kids and would cut them on a VCR.
How much has your style and approach to your films changed since you started out?
I think I have become more cautious. When I was younger there was less to lose and you don’t know how bad you are yet so it’s easier to take risks. It’s such an investment of time, money and energy now that I need to feel like it will be worth it in the end. That said, I miss the more reckless approach I had when I was younger. I think that now if I start making something, I need to be fairly sure that I will still like it a year or two down the line. This is definitely not not the case for everything else that I’ve made in the past!
What has been the best piece of advice you have been given?
Don’t panic if things don’t work out the first time around. Just get up and try again. If it was easy everyone would do it.
Do you have any tips or advice to offer filmmakers about to make their first film?
I think most filmmakers are constantly told to be original, tell stories that are true to their experience and to just go ahead and make something. So they probably don’t need to hear that. The thing that kept me motivated in making THEM was that I really believed in it. If it’s a complicated project then you need keep that fire burning to get you through the finish line. If it’s going to be a tough slog to get through then you won’t make it if you loose interest half way. So I guess make sure you have an idea that’s really exciting to you. But if you can’t find that perfect idea then I guess the old advice still holds true - just make something.
What are you currently working on?
I work in post so I’m pretty busy with other people’s projects. I am developing some new ideas of varying complexity and learning some new techniques that I can hopefully have some fun with once this lock down is over.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from THEM?
I don’t think that this one little film will change anyone’s mind completely. But that said, I do think that culture changes society incrementally and that it’s important to have something to say if you are contributing to the conversation. We are so divided now by what we believe and follow that we seem to have lost the ability to find common ground with people from the “other” side. My wish would be that people don’t define themselves by what they are opposed to and that we can see the beauty in finding common ground with people that we disagree with. Try to stay curious about ideas that you don’t agree with. Let’s celebrate what connects us and not be divided by our differences.