A reader messaged in and reminded me of this great video of Terry Gilliam in his younger days, showing how to make a cut-out animation. His enthusiasm is really contagious. What a dude!
I came across music/animation duo Gamer on a late night youtube binge several months ago. Their work struck me as a deranged mix between ‘Cyber City Oedo 808‘, DOS game cut-scenes like ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream‘ and a John Carpenter + Kurt Russel collaborations. I was seriously impressed by the pulsing synth lines, bizarre fantastical narratives, pixel art brutality and an element of humour to it all.
Gamer is Phil Shaw who makes the music, and James Rowsell who makes the animation. You guys are based in Wellington, New Zealand?
Phil: I’m based in Melbourne now, but we started collaborating in Wellington NZ, where Jimmy is still based.
James: Yes Phil lives in a convict colony, he is a traitor.
How long have you guys been working together and how did it come about?
P: We started doing this mid 2012 after I made a couple of tracks and asked jimmy if he could provide animated visuals for music videos and live shows.
Jimmy elaborate here…
J: So Phil had just started making electronic music, before that I think most of his stuff I had heard was live rock etc. At the same time I had started drawing pixel art (before that I only really drew stuff by hand). I made this crude animation of Kim Kardashian, who I was really into at the time (still am), with a severed hand shooting out multicoloured lines. Phil saw that and said “I have this new stuff I’m working on, you should make me an animation” and I said “I will do this”. That’s how it went down I believe.
James, what’s the process for creating your style of pixel art animation?
J: I draw up a bunch of thumbnails by hand and then just start drawing and animating it in Photoshop. The whole thing is pretty much done in Photoshop then I import it into Premiere and edit it. I have started to do keyframing in Premiere also as it requires a lot less processing power than keyframing in photoshop.
P: The first EP is all VSTs and I use Logic Pro – I had no hardware at that point and was making it up as I went really haha. I started exploring the virtual synths and trying to find sounds that sounded like what I was hearing in my head – with some degree of success. If you listen to both EPs there is probably a big difference in the mastering levels, because I really didn’t know what I was doing then and also my old computer would crash if I added too many tracks haha.
By the time I made the Smoke Signals EP I had purchased a Juno 106 Analogue Synth and it’s used on all the tracks. Its probably 80% Juno 20% VST. That machine is great, it sounds amazing and is really easy to use once you get the hang of it… it also has midi and presets so you can save the sounds you make and use them live easily. As far as the Analogue/Digital argument goes, I use both and they are both great in my opinion. The sound the Juno makes played live though is really amazing, it has a massive fat square wave that I love. As much as anything else the hands on nature of some analogue synths is what I love about them.
I do like the restrictions of only having one hardware synth as it really makes you learn how to use that one instrument well….although in saying that if I did have the money and the room I would get a giant modular system haha.
The full length album currently being made seems to be about 50/50 Hardware and Software so far….
When you play live do you project visuals as well?
P: We have only done a handful of shows so far but all except one had the visuals being projected behind/on us. I think the visuals really add to the show, so only want to play live with them in future…
J: Yes the projections are there to give me legitimacy. I really just do a live edit of the animations in Resolume. I need to learn the program properly so I can hook it up to Phil’s computer and just have it play off the music, that way the computer can do it. Computers are better at making those kind of on the spot decisions.
P: Jimmy is being coy, he has a great stage presence, especially when sitting on the floor with a computer. The live animations do look really great and take the focus off me looking awkward behind a synth.
From start to finish how long does it take you to complete a piece?
P: To complete a track it can take me anywhere from a day to a few months as I usually start one then come back to it after working on others.
J: For animation it takes ages, maybe a month for 1 to 1.5 mins. It varies because of the complexity of animation and also whether the ideas flow fast. I am not a real animator so some animation ideas I have are difficult because I have to figure out how to do it, that makes the process take a little longer than it should be.
When you guys are working on a piece; is the sound inspired by the animation or vice versa? I’m guessing that for a short animation like Ancient Cosmos it’s the visuals first then the sound, but for a music video piece like Shaping Staff it’s the other way around?
P: With shaping staff the music was already pretty much done. Jimmy and me discussed and planned a story for it, then he animated it. For turbo, I was as surprised as everyone else at the ending haha that’s all Jimmy’s brain.
I didn’t actually do any of the music for Ancient Cosmos, that was a friend of ours and fellow synth music aficionado James Quick. I was busy doing the Smoke Signals EP so James did that.
J: As Phil said Ancient Cosmos was a kind of side project I worked on that Machinima asked me to do. It got a lot of hatred from the Christian community, I didn’t predict that one, don’t mess with the pope! I am keen to do both, but yeah the animations for Gamer have been made for the music Phil has created. In terms of inspiration it probably bounces back and fourth a bit.
Due to the nature of Pixel Art, and the synth tones used, your work has aesthetic connection to video games from the 80s and early 90s? Do you draw inspiration from any in particular?
J: Well for me I was never specifically influenced by videogames. I first started getting interested in pixel art because of the Russian illustrator Uno Moralez. Pixel Art is always linked to games I guess, but really the things from games that inspired me where the animated movie sequences in between game play and not the game graphics themselves. The initial idea for the shaping staff video was actually inspired by a cut scene from a Master System Star Wars game, where this imperial cruiser just sleazes into the frame from above, I liked the shitty motion of it. Some games that have really influenced me artistically are Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and Snatcher, oh also the backgrounds of fighting games. Films are my biggest influence though, especially ones directed by Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni and Frederico Felini. I am also influenced by the manga of Suehiro Maruo and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. But really it always changes, l just watched Under the Skin and that was pretty inspirational. I am also learning a bit of 3ds Max and certain functions of that program inspire me. I personally am not trying to recreate a kind of timecapsual from the 80s/90s. I like the aesthetic and economic restriction of pixel art. Perhaps it is impossible to escape the link between this style and “retro”. What makes gamer different I think is that although we are influenced heavily by the past there is nothing in our work that is an attempt to just reenact what has already been. If you listen to Smoke Signals that is not just some 80s inspired retro track, it has things that are going on are outside of the so called synth-wave scene I think.
Where else do you both draw inspiration/influences from? Where do you hope to go with your work?
P: My biggest influences are movies from the 80’s/early 90’s and or my memories of them. I grew up with films like Total Recall and Robocop that depicted the most hilariously degenerate future realities and that’s definitely in my head when composing. I am also a fan of B grade action/horror/exploitation films. I mostly get inspiration from finding a good Synth tone though; if it sounds cool I will be inspired to make something out of it. Artists like Jean Michel Jarre and Mort Garson and John Frusciante are big influences, but also contemporary electronic artists such as Kavinsky. Lots of French electronic and house stuff has been influencing me production wise. We have been included on a recent French retrowave compilation for the label Folistar so am pretty stoked about that. Also just seeing live music is a huge inspiration for me.
I have had the chance to see lot’s of amazing bands live in Melbourne, Goblin and Metronomy were awesome and seeing Gary Numan live was the best live gig I’ve seen in years. Loads of inspiration there.
J: I second all what Phil just said, forgot to mention music. Mitch Murder (I got to work with him which was cool), Zombi, Fabio Frizzi, Goblin, the Tetsuo Iron Man soundtrack, Black Sabbath, Clams Casino, Lil Ugly Mane, Raider Clan mix tapes, mid 90s to early 00s DNB.
Do you wish to create more short animations with diegetic sound like Ancient Cosmos, or are you keen to do more Music video type work?
P: I like to continue working on tracks as songs and have Jimmy animate to them. I am keen to do the other way around/its just a bit harder as it’s quicker to make tracks than it is to animate and send huge files back and forth.
J: I have no plans, I hope that one day I can just animate and not rely on anything else for money but that is a bit of a pipe dream. I think you can’t really plan these things because you need to constantly flow with new ideas and possibilities. It would be cool to do a game though; I would be keen to try that.
What can we expect from GAMER in the future?
P: A new LP is nearly done so that will be out later this year. I am also keen to make some loops/tracks for a video game in our style for sure. Exploring that at the moment.
J: Yeah hopefully a game, I really want to make one, it will be a bit of work but can’t be much harder than an animation…
Here’s a solid video essay on the late Satoshi Kon’s editing techniques.
Satoshi Kon is a bit of an anime legend who has directed and wrote several great films including Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers and one of my favourites, Perfect Blue.
Filmmaker Magazine did a little write up on it, which is decent cinema website that I read every now and again. Tony Zhou also has several other video essays on various directors and techniques worth checking out if you’re learning about filmmaking.
I have previously talked about French animator/director René Laloux (1929-2004) and his three feature films Fantastic Planet (1973), Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1987); but I have never looked at or discussed his short films. I find that three of his short films Dead Times, The Snails and Monkey’s Teeth to be some of his most interesting and insightful work.
DEAD TIMES ‘Les Temps Morts’ 1965
The first collaboration between Laloux and writer/artist Roland Topor. This short animation examines Man’s capacity for violence and conflict with a bent of satire. The film combines stock footage and photographs with pen and ink illustrations and cut-out animations, taking the audience from the real to the surreal and back while a factual voice-over ruminates on man’s nature. I think that the three films Laloux created with Roland Topor (Fantastic Planet, Dead Times, The Snails) were three of his best, including Time Masters which is also outstanding.
THE SNAILS ‘Les Escargots’ 1966
Another collaboration with Roland Topor. You can see them beginning to reach a painterly cut-out visual style similar to that of Fantastic Planet, which they completed seven years later. The film portrays the simple story of a farmer trying to grow his crop to no avail, until he discovers that his tears allow the plants to grow to a gargantuan size. This brings a plague of man-eating gigantic snails. The short film is a pessimistic yet whimsical take on existence. No matter how well you go, everything will eventually go to shit and you’ll end up in the ground… but hey! at least you won’t get eaten by escargot!
MONKEY’S TEETH ‘Les Dents Du Singe’ 1960
Laloux’s first animation. He created this film while working in a psychiatric institution. It was written by the patients of the institution and animated by Laloux himself. Dripping in symbolism this film depicts the story a man who visits a dentist. The dentist pulls out and steals all the poor patients teeth and then boxes them up to sell. The animation style is quite primitive but still very effective.
Laloux has several other shorts animation such as The Captive (1988) and How Wang-fo Was Saved (1987) which have a similar animation style to Gandahar but not really the intensity of his earlier short films. Sadly Laloux died before he could create his 4th feature animation.
I came across this pretty neat short stop-mo animation by Sam Barnett. The animation and models are pretty crude but I like the look and feel of them. The story is simple but well executed. I really like the jerky camera work which added a level of abstraction to the film and it made me really uneasy. The short reminded me of a cross between Robert Morgan’s ‘The Cat With Hands’ and ‘Wallace And Gromit’. For fans of dystopian science fiction.
I watched this film over the weekend and it blew me away. The documentary looks at the ultimately failed production of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’ in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I’m a big fan of the ‘Dune’ series of novels and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films are some of my favourites. It’s a really insightful look behind the scenes of one of Jodorowsky’s productions and to hear him talk about his work and the unfettered creativity that comes with it is incredibly inspiring. His stories of assembling the production team and the trials involved had me laughing throughout.
Members of Jodorowsky’s team ended up working on and creating a whole bunch of incredible projects which were some of the greatest science fiction films ever and influenced many more. The team included Mœbius who contributed to ALIEN, TRON, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, STAR WARS V and one of the greatest sci-fi animations LES MAITRES DU TEMPS (THE MASTERS OF TIME) with René Laloux. He also started Métal Hurlant magazine which became HEAVY METAL for english speaking audiences and he created influential sci-fi comic L’INCAL with Jodorowsky. Chris Foss worked on SUPERMAN (1978), ALIEN and FLASH GORDON. Dan O’Bannon who worked on DARK STAR (1974 before DUNE), ALIEN, STAR WARS, HEAVY METAL and TOTAL RECALL (1990). H.R Giger who worked on the ALIEN quadrilogy, SPECIES and many other. Suffice to say that these films themselves spawned and influenced many others.
JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is an insight into a lost gem of science fiction. I recommend it if you’re a budding filmmaker, comic artist or science fiction fan.
Strange Frame: Love & Sax is a queer science fiction feature animation from 2012 and was directed by G.B. Hajim and written by Hajim and Shelley Doty. The film is set in the 28th century after humanity has abandoned the polluted Earth and settled on several of Jupiter’s moons. Much of humanity has been genetically modified to handle the pressures of various tasks and environments, giving them various combinations of wings, extra arms, eyes, fur and figures. Race, gender and sexual orientation seem to be non-issues and everyone seems to be free in that regard, however corporate tyranny and indentured slavery still exists.
The story follows a woman named Parker who meets a debt slave Naia in a riot. They fall in love and begin to play in a band together in the dives on Ganymede, the band is popular and they attract the attention of Dorlan Mig, a record company executive. The band goes to a party to discuss a deal with the shady Dorlan, they imbibe in narcotics and have intense psychedelic experiences. The next morning Parker wakes up in a street and discovers that Naia and the rest of the band have signed a deal without her and she’s effectively been kicked out of the band. Parker is so lovesick and depressed at the betrayal that she leaves to drown her misery.
Strange Frame has probably the ONLY lesbian protagonists in an animated feature film. The vast majority of moving image media features only hetero-normative characters, and the animation genre seems particularly bad in this regard. I found a list of all the LGBT characters in animation and even though I know they missed a couple, it’s still sorely lacking. It’s refreshing and a good step in the right direction to see an independent feature animation feature strong LGBT characters, and strong characters of colour. I also found out after watching the film, that Hajim trained and employed young disadvantaged people in the economically depressed pat of his state (Hawaii) rather than produce overseas. This style of ethical filmmaking is to be commended.
Strange Frame: Love and Sax is a film about quest for love, which could be interesting however the narrative is largely full of cliche’s. Despite the lesbian protagonists and strange science-fiction universe, the base narrative of lovers in a band who are torn apart by drugs and an evil music executive is hardly new or particularly exciting. The film has pacing issues as well. The use of voice over narration by the protagonist Parker is overused from the get go and the development becomes stagnant throughout the middle of the film. The pace picks up towards the climax but then the truncated conclusion cuts off several story lines abruptly.
The animation style is digital cutout with some CGI animated elements and the occasional clip of found footage. The 2D assets have a bizarre aesthetic, they’ve got a look similar to airbrushed paintings, this is due to the smooth digital gradients. Strange Frame’s animation is a form of limited animation. Much of the character movement seems to be done with the After Effects puppet pin tool which distorts the drawings and gives it a constantly undulating and morphing look. There’s rarely an asset that’s not constantly in motion. Due to the limited nature, the majority of shots are closeups and the camera is constantly in motion which ended up making me a bit seasick. There are quite a few weird psychedelic trip sequences which are used to get from one scene to another or utilized as a form of montage when a song plays, however these are over-used and become tedious.
There are quite a few animation references throughout the film which was a nice touch, such as a flying Corvette in space which references HEAVY METAL (1981), various COWBOY BEBOP references and the 3 singing wise women which could be a nod to the muses in HERCULES (1997) but on the other hand it could just be a common trope. Strange Frame is without a doubt influenced by a long list of science fiction; from the already mentioned COWBOY BEBOP to BLADERUNNER and NEUROMANCER. This makes the film seem at once incredibly familiar yet also quite peculiar.
Strange Frame features an impressive list of well known sci-fi actors for voice work, including Claudia Black (Farscape), Michael Dorn (Star Trek TNG, DS9), Tim Curry (Rocky Horror), George Takei (Star Trek), Tara Strong (Boondocks, Drawn Together), Ron Glass (Firefly), Juliet Landau (Ed Wood, Buffy), Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Death At A Funeral). It’s not really a surprise then that the voice acting is excellent. The music pieces on the other hand let the film down which is a problem as it’s a fairly large part of this film. The music is often quite cheesy, campy and awkward. I can see that they were going for a Cowboy Bebop feel by juxtaposing jazz/soul and science fiction but it’s not really cohesive in this case. One scene in particular is the flying chase scene through skyscrapers which heavily resembles one in the COWBOY BEBOP movie yet without the execution.
All being considered, Strange Frame: Love & Sax is a film that fortes in it’s use of a strange visual aesthetic. It’s not a visual aesthetic that I find particularly comfortable or cohesive BUT it’s different and tries something new. On the other hand the narrative is riddled with cliche’s and overused tropes which make the story seem stale. It would be unfair to say that Strange Frame particularly stands out in this manner. It doesn’t, but it pushes a standard approach to storytelling that it doesn’t pull off. It seems to me that Hajim and Doty walked the knifes edge of weirdness for originality yet staple narrative for popular appeal, but unfortunately landed too far on the standard cliche side. In saying that though, It’s an interesting landmark for more diverse and socially conscious animation with it’s LGBT + 3 dimensional characters of colour and ethical production.