From the production to the subject matter, this five-minute short film, created by Tobias Stretch for composer Christopher Bono, is a transcendent labor of love.
Starewicz, Svankmeyer, Barta... Following this succession of stop-motion supernovas, we arrive on a new surname: Stretch.
Winner of the Radiohead's Weird Fishes animation contest, the Stevensvlle, Pennsylvania animator, first name Tobias, is a rising star, the type of talent whose attention to detail and refusal to settle for anything less than his own signature, singular artistic vision suggests an artist decades his senior, and of generation's past.
His new video, Unity, made for an original choral work by avant-garde composer Christopher Bono, was constructed from over ten thousand individual photographs, taken over the course of the brutal, now-legendary 2013-2014 Winter. A labor of Herzogian proportions including frostbite—caused by successive hours spent shooting in Philadelphia snowbanks—couldn't stop Stretch from achieving his vision. The result is a soaring, swirling archetypal tale of loneliness, loss, love, and redemption. It's the kind of labor of love reminiscent of auteurs including Stanley Kubrick, the Brothers Quay, and Andrei Tarkovsky. But enough about why I think Tobias Stretch is one of our generation's most promising filmmakers...
See for yourself, and continue reading for our interview with the hyper-talented artist on how his studio could probably be on an episode of Hoarders, his animation influences, and an upcoming project with awesome band The War On Drugs:
The Creators Project: First off, how did this project come about?
Tobias Stretch: Christopher Bono emailed me over a year ago seeking visuals for some exciting projects he was working on. In our first conversation, we talked at length about a multitude of different subjects with many overlapping ideas. We were on the same page about a lot of imagery we wanted to animate for his music, so from there it was just a matter of how to refine and render all of that into an animated form that could match the power of the piece he created.
What was your 'first listen' to the song like? And then, how were you guided?
I had never worked with a composer before, mostly just bands, but I had been itching to do something more cinematic/artistic so I was committed as soon as I heard this choral work. He sent me a bunch of stuff he was working on, they were all great, but the choral piece Unity stood out right away for it's unique intensity. Christopher had written of Eastern and Western ideas that went into the writing and recording process, I drew from that as well as well as things like Science, Expressionism and Life. Ideas that could be animated were developed to show different states of mind, being and time as it relates to the lyrics of Unity, they are the words of Plato:
"What is absolute unity? This is the way in which the study of one has the power of drawing and converting the mind to the contemplation of true being."
Without giving any secrets away, can you tell me, from pre-production through post, what your process was like?
The technique is all stop-motion animation with some software tweaks. I use a ton of different materials to build and animate with, my studio could probably be on an episode of Hoarders. I tend to work with large, life-sized armatures as much as 10 feet tall, so I approach the characters in various ways but mostly I look at them as sculptures with articulated joints more so than just as puppets.
A majority of it was shot during the heavy snows and frigid temperatures of last Winter. It was challenging shooting consecutive 16 hour days in subfreezing temps, I got some minor frostbite in my fingertips on a few occasions while trying to animate the snow and operate the camera gloveless. That was fun—don't shoot gloveless! I wasn't sure how much snow we would get throughout the Winter but I decided I would animate as much of it as I could. It's funny to say, but luckily all it did was snow everyday.
We had a lot of funny accidents but the craziest one was when on the last day of shooting, my brakes on my van went out! We made it to the shoot location by shifting between gears and using the e-brake, my heart was pounding out of my chest, but we got the shot and drove home brakeless, that was a fun last day! Knowing how to drive without brakes is a good skill to have.
What was the first thing you did when you were finished? How did you know it was done?
It took many months, I can't even remember how many. When it's over, you feel like you just ran an absurd marathon with your mind as well as your body. This time, I knew it was done when I finished the last shot on the list. The first thing I did was smoke a lot, and the second thing I did was fall asleep for a long time.
I wanted to stand and applaud at my computer when I finished watching. It makes me think of Jiri Barta-meets-Dustin Yellin-meets-Freddy Krueger (minus the evil, of course). Who and what were your aesthetic influences?
Thanks for the kind words! It wasn't on my mind when I was working on the video, but Freddy Krueger rules either way! My older sister took me to see the first Nightmare on Elm Street on the big screen as a kid. It's important to see scary movies as a kid, it toughens you up, so thanks, Sis!
Somebody mentioned The Terminator recently when describing it, that's a cool comparison. I like to leave it open to the audience's interpretation, that's part of what makes it fun. Aesthetic influences in the early years would have been comic books, gore, horror, action and scifi films, Slayer and skateboarding and video games. Later on it was Andrei Tarkovsky, Anselm Kiefer, Antonin Artaud, Brothers Quay, Carl Dryer, David Lynch, Edvard Much, Fritz Lang, Henryk Gorecki, Mary MacLane, Robert Walser and of course always Vincent Van Gogh. Jiri Barta is amazing too, it would be great to see masterful animation of the past given it's proper due.
The world of "art" has been reluctant to fully embrace animation, but I was really stoked to see the Brothers Quay exhibit at the MoMA. It was such an incredible mind blowing show, and it only increased my love of artistic animation, especially the masters like Aleksander Petrov, Brothers Quay, Bruce Bickford, Jan Svankmajer, Ladislaw Starewicz, Jiri Barta, Norman McLaren, Rene Laloux, Winsor McCay etc. I still get inspired watching all the old school stuff, it's timeless.
The story operates on an archetypal, allegorical level. Can you tell me about any personal experiences you've had that guided the narrative?
I tried to stay within realm of the lyrics and the idea of a being transcending to another level. There are numerous ways to approach that, of course. I have had several weird, crazy, near-death experiences in my life, so that may have played a role in how I approached it too. The area where we were animating was near a place where I would skate so I was familiar with it and knew that is was a high crime/drug area. We were working at a spot where later that night someone was shot and killed within 40 feet of where we had just been animating a scene earlier that day. There was makeshift memorial set up the next day, seeing that while we worked nearby really had an effect on me, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
There are many elements that influence the energy of the work, but it comes from life experiences first and foremost for me. Christopher Bono cited some difficult moments in his life which inspired him to write the piece, so I think all those factors converged in a way that I tried my best to capture. The story for me was also born out of a desire to animate properties of time as it relates to different states of being. The one thing about mixing stop motion with timelapse is that you really begin to appreciate time in new ways. You are sort of sculpting movement in a parallel time to nature, one that is slowed down. You perform through the characters in your own incremental time. I felt that the fluctuating, writhing landscape and character surfaces working with the time lapse effect helped illustrate time as it relates to different states of being.
Entropy and extropy are at play as a simultaneous duality in the fluctuating animated surfaces but mostly duality is represented by the two little interdimensional, elemental beings who aid the protagonist in transcending to another spiritual level or dimension of unity and peace. There are a lot of ways to think about it, which hopefully brings people back to it. That's why I like to leave it to the viewer to journey where they wish with their interpretations.
Finally, what are you working on next?
I'm currently working on videos for the rad Philly rock band The War on Drugs, and a great piano piece by one of my favorite composers of all time, Hauschka. I'm enormously grateful to have work with musicians/artists over the years who believe in allowing for the proper amount of time and care needed to attempt something sublime and transcendent with their videos.
Working with Christopher Bono was a real blessing, his music is beautiful stuff so that made my job a lot easier and he gave me a lot of creative room to work, you can't beat that. I can't thank him enough and all the kind talented folks over the years who I've been fortunate enough to work with. Big thanks to Natalye Barrios and Alex Ciambriello for soldiering through with me to get it done, I couldn't have made it without their awesome help. Thanks Creators Project and thanks again everyone!
To purchase Christopher Bono's "Unity" see here, visit his BandCamp page.