How were you introduced to the Animation Workshop, and how did this collaboration come about?
Norwegian animation theorist Joakim Pedersen – who I used to teach with for a while at Volda University College in Norway – first introduced me to The Animation Workshop (TAW). I managed to get myself invited as an artist in residence this coming summer, so I was very happy when they asked me if I wanted to come beforehand, to get acquainted with the place and direct two short works with students during their 2nd ever Film Jam week. They had run their first film jam in December 2009, in which the students directed the films themselves, with some very interesting results. This time, the idea was to get professional directors in, under which the students would produce films during 5 days in February. The Animation Workshop invited six directors, Americans Jamie Caliri, Amy Winfrey and Tod Polson, Russian animator Alexei Alexeev, Priit Tender from Estonia, and myself.
Both this piece, 1925, and 1923, which we Quickie-ed earlier this year, were based on the work of French ‘outsider artist’ Augustin Lesage. How did you come across his work and why did you want to make motion-based pieces based on his paintings?
The Animation Workshop had set ‘The Outsider’ as an overall theme for all the directors. I decided to look at outsider art for inspiration, as a way of making something that fit the brief, while remaining open and experimental and image-based rather than narrative-driven. When researching, I came across Augustin Lesage and was immediately hooked. I love his obsession with symmetry and repetition, combined with his spiritualist understanding of art. Lesage, a coal miner who picked up painting after an inner voice told him to do so, claimed never to have painted except under the explicit guidance of spirits, among them Leonardo da Vinci and Apollonius of Tyana. I am fairly obsessed with patterns and mirroring myself, and I liked the idea of transposing his vision of the spiritual world into a contemporary moving image context – updated through the lens of pop-cultural and art-historic references – using sound, image and movement to try and heighten the sense of the spiritual, while adhering to his parameters of symmetry. The idea of a loop made perfect sense both in terms of a ‘moving painting’, as well as an endless cycle – eternity – implicit in ‘the spiritual’.
Can you describe the working process you used with the students to make these two pieces?
I worked with 13 students who were split into two groups of 6 and 7 people, each group comprising about one-third Animators and two-thirds CG Artists. I gave each group their respective Lesage painting, ‘A symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World’ from 1923 and 1925, and asked them not to discuss their project with the other group. I really wanted to develop two very different takes on Lesage with the students. I got one person in each group working on sound right from the start – Blake Overgaard on 1923, and Adrian Dexter on 1925 – so we had enough time to develop and perfect it alongside the animation. I’m really pleased with the end result of the sound on both projects. We developed animatics – with Thorvaldur Gunnarsson on 1923, and Adrian Dexter on 1925 – and the films grew fairly organically from there.
Lesage’s 1923 painting has a hint of perspective, so it seemed natural to follow that lead and develop it into a forever-ascending loop. David René Christensen took on the role of Technical Director on 1923, and worked out a way of mapping moving 2D animations – created by animators Casper Michelsen and Mikkel Vedel – onto the 3D geometry created by David himself, Thorvaldur, Blake and Arnold Bagasha. This enabled us to translate Lesage’s vision into a futuristic, meditative, uplifting loop reminiscent at once of John Whitney, Las Vegas, Metropolis, Tron and DMT hallucinations (so I’ve been told). Hence the aka title Heaven.
For 1925 we started out by cutting up sections of Lesage’s painting and layering them as a series of consecutive walls. It seemed logical to develop Lesage’s patterns into moving parts and mechanisms, and doors through which the viewer passes through. The elements were modelled in Maya by Adrian Dexter, Allan Lønskov, Casper Wermuth, David Frylund Otzen, Jakob Kousholt and Kristoffer Mikkelsen, and then animated by Adrian, Allan, Casper, David, and Ditte Frandsen. Unfortunately, four students dropped out of the 1925 group during the production. It was due to the fantastic, tireless efforts of TD Allan Lønskov, amazing all-rounder Adrian Dexter, and David Frylund Otzen who created beautiful and haunting lighting, that we managed to pull through within the very limited time we had. 1925 ended up in a much darker place, a forever-repeating spiritual world somewhere between CG Jung and HR Giger, Ancient Egypt and Tomb Raider – hence the aka Hell.
Working with the students at The Animation Workshop has been an incredible experience. Both in terms of professionalism and enthusiasm it was totally comparable, if not more enjoyable, to working with a team of pros on a commercial production. This animation school is comparatively young, and not so well known yet internationally, but I’m sure this will change, especially since all the teaching is in English. I see a bright future for The Animation Workshop.
Any new projects coming up that you are excited about?
Since Bermuda Shorts, who repped me commercially 2007-2009, closed down a year ago I’ve been flying solo and concentrating more on the art/fun/experimental side of things. I started a part-time Professional Doctorate in Fine Art, intensifying my personal projects, and travelling extensively doing live audiovisual performances, lectures and workshops. I’m always interested in suitable commercial commissions – I really enjoyed working with Jemapur, Basement Jaxx and The Egg, but I’m not actively seeking out commercial work at the moment.
The upcoming residency at The Animation Workshop is part of this current pursuit. I’ll be doing it together with Japanese experimental animator Noriko Okaku who I’ve been working a lot with over the last 18 months, and we want to use the residency to develop a new A/V performance.
I’m also rather quite excited about my latest short film Spin which is hitting film festivals from April onwards. It’s a toy soldier musical produced by Academy Award-winning producer Nicolas Schmerkin (Logorama). The film elaborates some ideas from my 2005 War on Terror abstraction Collision, but with a different angle. Spin is inspired by political parades and Busby Berkeley dance routines, conflating troupes and troops. It tries to investigate the aestheticisation of violence that’s happening through the mediatisation of war, by looking at mass ornament, where the individual becomes part of a patterned whole, and violence becomes pretty to look at through its abstraction into pure geometry … Upcoming festivals include San Francisco International Film Festival and Stuttgart Animation Festival (ITFS).
My Jemapur collaboration Aanaatt and the film festival version of my Where’s Your Head At visuals for Basement Jaxx are also currently doing the festival circuit. Right now, I’m working on another short film – again to do with patterning and symmetries. I’ll be showing work in progress at the Animation Exchange Forum at Filmfest Dresden in April. 1923 and 1925 are included in Stash 67, coming out in May. Other than that, I’ll be doing workshops, talks and performances over the next few months, in Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany, Norway, and some more TBC.
Great, Max. Thanks! We’ll look out for more from this collaboration with the students at TAW…