GEORDIE: Hi Nik, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new short film 8:47. I’d like to start by asking where the idea for 8:47 came from and also your decision to shoot the film in one take, which came first, the story or the one-take idea?
NIK: Well, I had specific key visuals in my head for a little while. I actually started writing different versions of it a few years back, but this time around the idea of doing it in one take really made me want to commit to solving how to pull it off. So I wrote the opening section and then came up with the approach of treating it like a play. So I guess the story and approach kind of happened at the same time.
GEORDIE: Having a varied and successful background in Music Videos, Commercials and CGI Animation must have been quite handy when it comes to making your own short film. What were some of the benefits that you were able to apply to 8:47?
NIK: Funny you mention that. My goal for this film was to actually throw away everything I knew and felt comfortable with. I have a background in visual effects and design, so I wanted not to rely on that training. Keep it raw. Be disciplined and purely focus on performance and camera. It was a great exercise. Really forces you to get your hands dirty and nut everything out. But that being said, being exposed to and having experience making music videos and working on feature films, obviously helps understanding the process.
GEORDIE: Most good sci-fi seems to stem from low budget movies that are more focused on interesting ideas than giant effects blockbusters. Do the budget limitations drive you to be more creative, think about something other than the obvious?
NIK: Oh they definitely do. It’s a common theme that we see in films and filmmakers’ careers. Our need to tell stories sometimes forces us to deal with what we have to work with and find solutions. That’s why I really enjoyed the challenge of this film. It was like solving a puzzle; never did I think it was unsolvable. Sure with more money it may have been easier, but it would have also been something different.
GEORDIE: The Australian film industry is either in a healthy state, or at deaths door, depending on who’s sound bite we hear from one week to the next. What is your take on the current state of the Australian film Industry?
NIK: I love, and hate this debate. And I agree, everyone you talk to has a different opinion. I guess I have accepted the up and down nature of our film industry. There are days where I too feel like it is blossoming, then others when there is no hope. But to be honest, to me, it always comes down to the filmmakers. The stories. There are many ways to get your work out there today. We just need to accept that it may not be the traditional way. Aussies are hard workers. And there is great talent in this country. We just need to keep pushing.
GEORDIE: You obviously have ambitions to move into feature film making, how difficult is it raising the capital in Australia to fund a genre feature?
NIK: Seeing as I haven’t quite done it yet, I would say, very hard! Ha! Look, to me, if you can find a story that resonates with an audience, then that path is clearer. Like I said, there are many ways to get your work seen, so I don’t like to have excuses. Just gotta keep writing and making films
GEORDIE: 8:47 has had a few festival screenings already, two fantastic showings at big film festivals: Fantasia in Montreal and Hollyshorts in Los Angeles, when and where can we see 8:47 nationally?
NIK: We want to see how far it can go in the festival circuit. But when the time comes, I’m very keen to launch it online as we have some great supporting material to really expose the challenges on making a film like this. Rehearsal footage, behind the scenes go pro footage. It was an intense process and experience.
GEORDIE: An easy one to finish, what is your favourite classic film, when you first saw it, why it’s still a favourite; and any new releases that have impressed you?
NIK: I love this question. I have a story. As a very young kid I had some friends who’s parents owned a video store. This was back home in Macedonia. We would sneak in and “borrow” films to watch them. Films we were very much not allowed to see. The first film I ever saw was Robocop. Fucked me up real good. Kind of desensitized me pretty quick but I loved the realization of how much cinema can affect an audience. I’m a huge genre fan, I read graphic novels, I watch animated films, and I have a great time. But then I watch a film like PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, and I walk away feeling changed.
Check out the trailer for 8:47 HERE. Hopefully we’ll have a link to the full film soon…
Check out this interview with Rita Artman and Joe Spear of ArtSpear Entertainment, producers of independent comedy-horror: The Killage a wacky, fright-filled journey into the darkest recesses of the human intestines.
GEORDIE: Hi Guys, first of all thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your recent feature release, the Australian horror film The Killage.
ARTSPEAR: Our pleasure.
GEORDIE: I’d like to start by asking you guys to give us a synopsis and let us know what to expect from The Killage?
ARTSPEAR: The Killage is a slasher comedy about twelve social stereotypes on a recreational work retreat who suddenly find themselves being inventively murdered by a psychopath in a wooden mask who may or may not be one of them. It’s a very typical slasher scenario but the irreverent, absurdist style of comedy is hopefully what sets it apart from other entries in the genre.
ARTSPEAR: The idea originated through practicality. Many independent production companies, certainly in Australia, start out making horror films because they’re cheap. Gore and scares are very cheap to produce compared to the material things other genres require. We aren’t fans of independent horror films however, so we wanted to do something different by making a comedy that takes the piss out of them. And by doing that, it gives you that excuse – “It looks like crap because that’s the type of film we’re sending up.”
GEORDIE: Combining horror and comedy is a difficult balance to get right, Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil did a great job by embracing the typical horror clichés and working with them, the Scary Movie franchise didn’t… from what I’m hearing The Killage is very much of the former, how difficult is it to get that balance just right?
ARTSPEAR: I think if you’re going to make a genre parody you need to know the genre very well – watch the quintessential examples and understand the common elements, the genre conventions – and then approach the writing task as the most jaded, cynical moviegoer you can imagine – the guy who’s seen it all before. Write for that person and turn all those conventions upside-down. I found it also helped to have characters in the film that spoke with that person’s voice – asking the questions that audiences always ask when they’re watching these films – “Why are you going into the dark attic alone to investigate that strange noise? Why don’t you come back later with two of your friends in the middle of the day?”. You still make them go in the attic alone, but as long as you let the audience know that you know that this is stupid, they’ll stay with you.
GEORDIE: The Australian film industry is either in a healthy state, or at deaths door, depending on who’s sound bite we hear from one week to the next. How difficult was it raising the capital in Australia to fund your feature? What is your take on the current state of the Australian film Industry?
ARTSPEAR: It wasn’t too difficult raising the money because it came directly from Joe’s savings and his parents. Fortunately the film was incredibly low budget and the cast and crew agreed to deferred payment. If you’re not willing to invest in yourself than no one else should be either. As for the Australian Film Industry, I’m not sure if it can be called an “industry”. I think a more accurate description would be a few pockets of talented people struggling to get their films made. There are many problems with filmmaking in Australia but I think the main one is that the film financing bodies are a joke. For some reason “genre film” is a dirty term to them. It seems that they’re concept of a thriving Australian film industry is one where everyone makes films about suburban outback blue-collar family drama, preferably with Aborigines. They’ll only support films that present the “Australian identity” (whatever the hell that is) or tell “Australian stories”. If you brought an idea for an exciting sci-fi film to them their response would be “What does this have to do with Australia? This is a Hollywood idea.” Never mind that sci-fi is the most successful film genre, historically. The reason why Hollywood is so great is because there’s no restrictions to the type of film you can get backing for – that’s why all our best and brightest leave to go there. Until the film financiers wake up and start supporting films based solely on the script and not on what they might do for the country’s tourism, the Australian Film Industry will not be in a healthy state.
GEORDIE: Australian film has a long history of quality horror films, from the classic schlocky 70’s and 80’s fare through to the box office success of Wolf Creek, and to a lesser extent the independent flicks such as The Tunnel and Redd Inc. What will The Killage add to the mix?
ARTSPEAR: The thing is, we don’t see The Killage as a horror – we see it as a comedy. And to be honest, I haven’t ever seen a quality Australian horror film. But that’s not to say that there aren’t any – I just haven’t see many Australian films, full stop. I guess what The Killage will add is something that can hopefully be appreciated both by people who like horror and by people who don’t.
GEORDIE: You guys seem to have had quite a dramatic shoot behind the camera, not least with Rita breaking her leg. Apart from broken bones, what have you learned not to do on your next project?
ARTSPEAR: We’ve learnt to schedule more time. That was the biggest problem on The Killage – we could rarely shoot more than one or two takes, we had to shoot in rain, without sleep – all because we didn’t have enough time, and that was because we could only afford to hire the camp for two weekends. We’re amazed the film got completed. We also learnt to put more care into audio. The entire final soundtrack ended up as ADR and foley (sound recorded in post-production) because the on-set audio was mostly unusable, due to rain and low-quality equipment on the second weekend. It was a huge undertaking to record each actor’s dialogue again, but surprisingly it ended up helping the film because it gave us something we didn’t have on location: takes. So in the case of audio at least, we had the time to refine the performances.
ARTSPEAR: Australiens is a sci-fi action comedy about aliens who come to Earth and attack Australia, much to the confusion of the rest of the world. The story is told from the perspective of 27-year-old Andi Gibson, who had a close encounter with a flying saucer when she was ten and now believes she is Earth’s only hope for survival – a belief not shared by her hypochondriac brother Elliot, ex-boxer cousin Keith, documentarian friend Cam and embarrassing father Dennis, who reluctantly join her in her quest to stop the invaders.
The film should be an entertaining blend of outrageous sci-fi spectacle and absurdist character comedy. We have a Pozible page which has achieved it’s target, anyone who wishes to lend support to the film can check it out here: http://www.pozible.com/australiensfilm
GEORDIE: The Killage has had a few festival screenings already, when and where can we get a copy? (I’ll post a link to your website here, if you have any other suggestions I’m happy to post more links).
ARTSPEAR: The Killage is being distributed by Monster Pictures – here’s a link to where you can buy direct: http://monsterpictures.com.au/shop/the-killage Other than that it should be available in all major DVD retailers, although you may need to request that they order in a copy.
GEORDIE: You guys are obviously big horror fans, what is your favourite classic horror film, when you first saw it, why it’s still a favourite; and any new releases that have impressed you?
ARTSPEAR: My favourite horror film is The Thing (1982), which we actually make a direct reference to in The Killage. I first saw it on TV I think when I was 12 and I remember, even in these days of computer graphics, being absolutely blown away by the practical effects. It has all the best elements of the genre – isolation in a hostile environment, the mystery and intrigue of discovering the aftermath of a prior encounter, increasing paranoia and distrust, a truly unique and spectacular creature, and a bleak and tantalisingly ambiguous ending. That, and it has two perfectly-designed big jump moments – anyone who’s seen the film will know what they are – and they caught me completely off-guard the first time I saw it. My other favourites would have to be the original Alien and The Fly.All three films benefit from the understanding that what’s more terrifying than encountering a hideous creature is becoming a hideous creature (or giving birth to one).
GEORDIE: My thanks to Rita and Joe for taking the time to contribute to this article during what is a very busy time on production of their next feature Australiens.
GEORDIE: Since Rogue, Greg has spent his time as an executive producer but now has two features in pre-production in a directing capacity, one of them the long-awaited sequel to Wolf Creek, how close are we to seeing Mick Taylor again?
JUSTIN: Greg is in pre-production with Wolf Creek 2 right now, since then Greg’s company, ‘Wolf Creek Pictures’ has been and continues to attach itself as one of the production companies and Greg as Executive Producer for films like ‘Red Hill’ and of course ‘Crawlspace’. There are several other production that are in early stages of development that ‘Wolf Creek Pictures’ is attached too.
GEORDIE: The Australian film industry is either in a healthy state, or at deaths door, depending on who’s sound bite we hear from one week to the next. How difficult was it raising the capital in Australia to fund your debut feature? What is your take on the current state of the Australian film Industry?
JUSTIN: It’s a very good question, my answer to that is that we have not been in a healthy state for a very long time. Of course when you hear about films like ‘The Sapphire’s’ and ‘Red Dog’s’ success here in Australia, but they don’t really translate overseas and these success stories are once in a blue moon. When our films travel abroad, they are generally regarded as being in the art house or specialist category as we have consistently produced drama and we rarely make action or genre films that rely on special effects because they are considered expensive genres. But these are the sort of films that have true commercial success internationally. I also disagree that these films are too expensive to produce, the average American action film with a star like Jean-Claude Van Damme or a Jim Caviezel has a budget of 3 million dollars, and then you have the 1 million and under horror model in the US which has spawned an incredible amount of success stories from ‘Saw’, ‘Insidious’, Paranormal Activity”, ‘I Saw the Devil’ and recently ‘Sinister’ and many more which have gone on to make hundred and hundreds of millions of dollars, which in turn create opportunities for new film makers. But, an average Australian film in a genre with no international appeal is around 4-6 million dollars and would be very lucky to ever see it make money back. I feel here in Australia we have become lazy film makers due to government funding and handouts. In America, they don’t have any such entities and have to work for a living – so the projects are based on commercial viability, about how to make money and how to get bums in seats.
To truly have a healthy film industry we need to be producing at least one hundred films a year. This would not only keep the crew and actors in Australia really busy, but create hundreds if not thousands of new jobs for people wanting to get into the film industry here. They would need to be of commercial value, and I don’t mean ‘American accents’ – those days a long gone, and in fact it did not hinder ‘Crawlspace’ one bit, it was mentioned on many occasions that it was the point of difference that made it unique. At the moment we produce somewhere between twenty five to forty feature films a year if we are lucky. In Hollywood they produce anywhere between four hundred to six hundred feature films a year, they have a film industry.
We also need to embrace the commerciality, action, sci-fi and horror, these films breakdown the language barrier that comedies and dramas will suffer for in overseas markets. Now, nobody goes out to make a bad horror or action flick, but if you do, there is still a market for that- but if you make a bad drama or comedy, there is zero market for it. Hell, there is barely a market for a good Australian Drama or Comedy, even in Australia, not something we like to say out aloud, but it’s true.
GEORDIE: Australian film has a long history of quality horror films, from the classic schlocky 70’s and 80’s fare through to the box office success of Wolf Creek, and to a lesser extent the independent flicks such as The Tunnel and Redd Inc. What will Crawlspace add to the mix?
JUSTIN: Crawlspace will add into the mix exactly what I was saying in the previous answer, that we can make these types of films here, and I mean big looking action set pieces with huge production value at an economical cost, without reverting to Aussie actors doing American accents.
Thank God for Sam Worthington, that lad is paving the way for many an Aussie actor in Hollywood to use their natural accent. I’ve always felt that ‘Mad Max 2’ aka ‘The Road Warrior’ in the US, paved the way for the post apocalyptic film genre and America has been running with it ever since, where as we kind of went in a different direction wanting to be taken a little more seriously.
What I wanted to do with ‘Crawlspace’ is get back to that kind of Aussie film making. Who’s to say that America has cart-blanch on Alien conspiracies, post apocalyptic wastelands, found footage poltergeists or zombie apocalypses. I wanted to do an Aussie film that could slot right in there but without compromising the Australian content. Hell, ‘Crawlspace’ is set right in the middle of the Australian desert, just under it, in a real base called Pine Gap. Basically known as Australia’s Area 51- this is our backyard people, and it’s ripe for great stories and movies to be made.
I’m so looking forward to getting back to the days of ‘Ozploitation’ a time in the late 70’s and 80’s when break-neck-action and schlock-horror were the staples of Australian cinema.
GEORDIE: Greg has been associated with the term ‘Splat Pack’ with Alexandre Aja, Darren Lynn Bousman, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, James Wan and Leigh Whannell. What have you planned next, will we be seeing Justin’s name on that list soon?
JUSTIN: I would love to be considered to be part of the ‘splat pack’ one day, we will just have to wait and see. Next for me is one of three feature films I already have written and have been pitching in LA – ‘Declassified’ ‘Riding Hood’ and ‘High Moon’. Of course having ‘Crawlspace’ as a finished film helps enormously as a calling card and with my background in Production Design and Special Effects make-up I’m able to present the projects in the pitches in various visual ways including set design, make-up tests and storyboards. This goes a really long way as they can see you have a real handle on the visuals and how you are going to achieve what is in your script.
GEORDIE: Crawlspace has had a few festival screenings already, when and where can we see Crawlspace nationally?
JUSTIN: Crawlspace had it’s public world premier in Spain at the Sitges film festival in October. Sitges is recognised as the foremost genre film festival in the world, it was huge with over three hundred films showing over the course of the festival and international guests such as Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Dario Argento and many more in attendance. It was an amazing festival and I was able to attend with thanks to Screen Australia.
From there I went over to L.A. to Screamfest Horror Film Festival for the US premiere of ‘Crawlspace’, again meeting many other fantastic film makers (and the iconic John Carpenter), but also picking up the coveted Screamfest awards for best special effects make-up and best soundtrack which was brilliant.
The film then has done the rounds of a few Aussie film festivals and is due for a simultaneous VOD and limited theatrical release in the US from the 4th of January 2013. From there it will start to be released worldwide on multiple platforms, including Australia, sometime in Jan or Feb.
JUSTIN: Yes, I am a huge horror fan, in fact a get really scared in movies. Friends of mine find this hilarious because I write and work on horror films creating all the effects, but I love cinema and I get very easily drawn into the screen and enveloped into the world on it. My favourite films would have to be John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and ‘American Werewolf in London’ and as far as the Thing remake goes, well it suffers from having a superior film that was made almost thirty years before it being so good, and I’ll say it again as I did before – CGI, just because you can, does not mean you should.
GEORDIE: A huge thanks to Justin for giving up his time to answer a few questions. Keep an eye out for Crawlspace on limited theatrical release and VOD in January and February 2013.
While awaiting the release of the new Australian horror film Crawlspace, I was lucky enough to score an interview with the film’s writer, director, producer, special effects make-up designer and story artist Justin Dix.
GEORDIE: Hi Justin, first of all thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new feature, the Australian horror film Crawlspace.
JUSTIN DIX: No problem Geordie, it’s been a dream project of mine for over ten years, not specifically the film ‘Crawlspace’, but to make a feature film not only for fans of the genre, but for myself to create something that I can still enjoy watching again and again.
GEORDIE: I’d like to start by asking where the idea for Crawlspace started. Would it be fair to say that Crawlspace appears to draw its influences from classic claustrophobic horror films such as Alien and The Thing?
JUSTIN: Yes you could say that, films such as Alien and the Thing are possibly my greatest influences. Alien more for the production design. As I did the production design for Crawlspace myself (including many other roles like storyboarding and FX makeup designing), I was after a very specific look, and with the collaboration of my amazing DOP Simon Ozolins, we created a vision that we are both extremely proud of.
The influence of ‘the Thing’ was the story, not that our stories are similar in any way which they are not, but the feeling of isolation and the paranoia of the characters within confines of our world. John Carpenter is possibly the biggest influence as far as filmmakers I identify with. His early films were so eclectic and had such a diverse range, from ‘Big Trouble in Little China, ‘Halloween’,’The Thing’ and ‘Starman’. I was lucky enough to see a Q &A and meet him at Screamfest this year where ‘Crawlspace’ was playing, which is a huge geek out moment for me. Oh, I also had him sign my ‘Thing’ poster.
GEORDIE: Co-written with Adam Patrick Foster and Eddie Baroo, directed by yourself and I’d assume that you played a major hand in the production design and special effects. This would appear to be very much a Justin Dix film, how different, and difficult was it working on this to your previous work?
JUSTIN: Actually taking on multiple roles for Crawlspace felt very natural and was not a stress at all. I have done this before working on previous feature films for other directors such as Jamie (Urban Legend) Blanks on ‘Storm Warning’ where I Art Directed the film but also Special Effects makeup supervised. It may be a little bit of the control freak in me, but it’s generally more about a cohesive look to the project.
Crawlspace felt no different, and yes part of taking on so many roles was also a budget choice, but it also felt like I was across everything and knew what we had and what we didn’t. So taking on the roles of Director, Writer, Producer, Production Designer, Special Effects Makeup Designer and Storyboard artist meant that I knew the film inside and out. This is all part of what I believe makes a lower budget film run smoothly; planning, planning, planning, and it did, Crawlspace was one of the most enjoyable film shoots I’ve ever been on.
It was a pleasure to go to work everyday and the crew and cast were amazing and we all had such a good time. I’d learnt some things by working on some lower budget films, and I wanted to make sure we avoided any of the perils and pitfalls which can make a project fall behind or create animosity on set. A few of my learnings that I utilized for Crawlspace:
Five day weeks, I’ve done six day weeks and it makes the crew really tired and cranky.
No overtime, as much as crew members like OT pay rates – if you start doing overtime, you are cutting into your budget and working longer hours.
No location shooting – of course this can only work on specific movies, but it makes a huge difference shooting entirely in studio as you control the weather, the light, the sound and at the end of the day you can ‘Hollywood Wrap’, meaning you just turn the lights off and in the morning just turn them back on. Also there is no travel time, which again eats into shooting days.
Make sure the crew are fed really well. These are the basics and there are plenty more, but you would be surprised at how these will give you more shooting time, less stress and keep everyone really comfortable, making for a happy crew. Of course not all film can be done this way, but I wrote Crawlspace specifically to be done this way, knowing that it was my first feature film and wanting to eliminate any obstacles I could foresee prior to even getting into it. I would recommend anyone considering doing their first feature film, but has not written it, to do the same.
GEORDIE: The wide open spaces of the Australian outback have been used as horror backdrops for numerous films; you chose to set your film beneath it. What is it about claustrophobic settings that manage to instil paranoia and fear so effectively?
JUSTIN: Again, this came down to making a film that could be filmed completely in a studio. We used Studio One at the Dockland Studios in Melbourne, by the way. I really loved the movie ‘The Descent’ as it really made me feel very claustrophobic watching it, and I always remembered this and thought it was a great and clever way to manage the paranoia but on a budget.
So you could say that it also influenced me when it came to making Crawlspace. A little bit of trivia by the way, ‘The Decent’ was originally called “Crawlspace’ but they changed the title during production. I actually found this out from Lesley Simpson who has been in all of Neil Marshall’s films including ‘Dog Soldiers’ ‘Doomsday’ and ‘The Descent’. Les now lives in Australia and we have became great friends, so I had to put him into my first film. He is one of the first people you see in the movie.
I figure he was a good luck charm for Neil, so now he’s mine.
GEORDIE: I’m a huge fan of The Loved Ones, on which you were Special Effects Make-up Supervisor, can you tell me what it was like working with directors such as Sean Byrne and Greg McClean (Wolf Creek), who is one of your producers on Crawlspace, what you took from those previous working experiences and applied to your own feature?
JUSTIN: I love working on film, period. Be it my own or someone else’s, and working with other directors gives me a real buzz as we are all working together to bring a vision to life. I have been fortunate enough to work with some real talent in the Australian film industry and can honestly say that we have become friends and supporters of each other’s careers and aspirations.
Apart from working with directors that I respect, but also helping them bring their visions to the screen, I found that I very quickly became friends with people like Sean Byrne, Greg Mclean, Jamie Blanks and Patrick Hughes, as we all share a common vision for the Australian film industry – and that is to take it more into the commercial world of cinema patronage, back to the glory days of ‘The Road Warrior’ ‘Patrick’ and even films like ‘Razorback’ which was Russell Mulcahy’s first feature film.
The Australian film industry has become a little to insular, concentrating on culturally significant films shot in the outback of Australia, or period dramas, or urban gangland crime stories like ‘Animal Kingdom’. I’m not bagging these films but it’s all we seem to produce, even though we know we are capable of so much more and competing in the world commercial market. Did I answer the question, probably not, I get a little passionate about this sometimes.
GEORDIE: Running your own very successful Special Effects Studio must have been quite handy when it comes to making your own horror film. What were some of the benefits that you were able to apply to Crawlspace?
JUSTIN: Having my own special effects studio, Wicked of Oz, and the background of running departments such as the props and miniatures on productions like ‘Charlotte’s Web’ helped enormously when it came to Crawlspace. In fact it really came into play way when writing the script, they say write within your means or what you know you can get your hands on.
Not that this should ever restrict your vision, but it helps with writing something viable that you know you can shoot. With myself, my background allowed my mind to go anywhere or do anything, the only restriction I put on myself was keeping it all practical if possible. In camera always looks the best and I’ve always felt that ‘Out of adversity, comes creativity’ I believe that CGI is not the be all and end all. if you can do it in camera, ‘You Should’ it will save you money at the back end. It’s so much more exciting seeing it on the split right in front of you and with CGI just because you can, does not always mean you should. Meaning that a CGI does not mean it’s going to look or be better, an example, and I’m not naming any film in particular but a CGI werewolf leaping from taxi to taxi then onto buildings does not mean it’s going to look better or give you that visceral feeling of a werewolf running through the streets of London snapping at the heels of pedestrians.
I’m a huge fan of the films of the 80’s for many reasons, but one in particular because they did all the effects in camera and to this day we still hold them up as the benchmarks of what we as film makers want to achieve, but I think new film makers are not given the choice of practical and have been brought up on a diet of Digital, hence the magic of some of those early films like ‘American Werewolf in London’ ‘The Thing’ and even ‘The Dark Crystal’ has been lost. I know that’s where my focus is, I want to be surrounded by this stuff on a film set, not have a wrap around green screen with a dude in green figure hugging spandex suits with pin pong taped to their heads, where’s the fun in that?
Director, Writer, Art Director, Production Designer, Story Artist, Layout Supervisor, it would appear that Deane Taylor has covered most pre-production positions on countless animated productions over the last 30+ years. Although Deane has worked with classic animated shows such as Popeye, The Flintstones, Casper, and Scooby-Doo,the excellent Cow and Chicken as well as features like Happily N’Ever After, he is most well known for his superlative work on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Still incredibly busy on a variety of projects, Deane has been kind enough to answer a few questions about his influences, his art and his work on that classic film.
GEORDIE: With the imminent release of ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania it would appear that the influence of The Nightmare Before Christmas is stronger than ever, are you still surprised at how popular the film remains after all these years?
DEANE: I used to get really surprised but not so much anymore. I worked on the game in Japan and the President of Walt Disney in Tokyo told me that history has shown it gets a new audience every 3 years and can go as low as 4 years old. The film has been criticised for being too dark which I believe is rubbish. “Dark” is often confused with depth of detail and distinctive, original character.I think it has elements of a modern-day fairy tale told with strong humorous undertones . To me, those are the ingredients for classic. ParaNorman has the flavour too…brilliant. I actually did a bit of early concept work on Hotel Transylvania for my very good friends David Feiss and Tony Stacchi.
GEORDIE: Your design style is very distinctive, looking at your work and the work of Tim Burton, recently on show at the Gallery of Victoria, it would seem that you guys are a perfect fit to work together. Can you explain how you came to work on the project and how your working relationship developed?
DEANE: Henry Selick looked at a hundred or so art directors but in visiting animation studios across the States his eye was drawn to faxed cartoons that I’d done, that were on the pin-boards in a number of places. (yes…it was that long ago) This was pure dumb luck in my opinion…these sketches were just me having a laugh with mates I had worked with around the world at different times. Henry saw Tim’s style and thinking in this work and he contacted me for that reason. I was working out of Sydney at the time, but found myself on the job in San Francisco within weeks of that contact. I met with Tim on two occasions. Once for 3 minutes, and again for 4 minutes. Having said that, I believe it was enough. He is very clear in his thoughts, and his style very obviously unique. My brief was to make it look like Tim’s work, and we’d hear about it if it didn’t. Rick Heinrich’s was put on the project as visual consultant. They had worked together as early as Vincent and much more.He was Tim’s eyes and ears, and he is an amazing artist. As an art department we worked very closely with him. I have had a much more direct working relationship with Tim since that time (specifically on the game ) and have found him just as direct and clear as I had before.
GEORDIE: The art direction for The Nightmare Before Christmas is iconic, I can see an incredible blend of Gothic Noir, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr.Seuss and Edward Gorey. Can you describe some of your personal influences and where you drew some of your inspiration from?
DEANE: I really only looked hard at Tim’s work. In that, I saw heavy influences from Edward Gorey and another favourite of mine, Ronald Searle. As you’ve accurately mentioned… Caligari and Seuss are in the top ten also. The way I saw it was that Tim had really blended the flavours of all of these things and brought his own stamp to it, and that’s what I should do as well. We as an art department stayed true to this while allowing additional detail to develop. Kendal Chronkite in particular, brought some very tasty design work into the process, and Henry had the eye to allow it.
GEORDIE: The background work on this film is as much a ‘character’ as the actual characters. Do you have a favourite piece, and speaking of characters, is there a particular character that you identify with?
DEANE: It’s no accident that the environments play into the character so heavily. I believe they really have to, to be believable. I wanted to create illustrations that you could fly in and around. Kind of a pop-up book. The sets were realised with amazing accuracy to the sketches, and in the rendering of the surfaces we went in and painted the hatching as a guide, which really added to the expressionistic finish. We used fat water-colour brushes and black ink. The ink was crushed from hardened coal from the Altai Mountains. Just kidding…it wasn’t THAT long ago. As far as favourites…I am still very fond of Jack’s study, the Evil Scientist Laboratory, the treehouse and Oogies lair. Coincidentally, these were mostly the first sets produced and I believe have the strongest essence. The treehouse interiors especially: you should freeze frame through that sometime and look at the painted lighting and other detail. In characters, I have a very soft spot for Lock, Shock and Barrel.
GEORDIE: You’ve worked in traditional 2D, 3D and Stop-Motion animation; can you explain the difference in approach that was required to bring your designs to life?
DEANE: I think design principles remain largely the same despite the medium but I have to say that the years of having to cheat production value into the limitations of 2-D cartoons was the biggest influence in achieving the style of our sets. Fake perspectives, distorted architecture and scene planning were pivotal. Forcing the viewers eye to look at what you choose to reveal is my preferred way to work. More often than not it’s about what you don’t see rather than what you do. It’s like Keith Richards guitar playing. He knows when to shut up.
GEORDIE: On the audio commentary from the Nightmare DVD, Director Henry Selick talks about how the 1933 King Kong and Night of the Hunter (two of my all-time favourite films), were big touch stones for him throughout the duration of the project. Were there any particular films you could point to as major influences for prep or while you were working on the film?
DEANE: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari obviously, but also the early Universal Frankensteins and Dracula’s…the really early ones. Simple and direct, these films were about three course meals, not pizzas.
GEORDIE: Our influences and tastes change and develop as we age, what were you drawn to as a kid, and what are some of the constants you always return to, or one that simply had a lasting effect on you?
DEANE: The turning point in art for me was seeing huge prints of Ronald Searle’s’ designs for The Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. They were probably huge because I was a runty eight year old but I can clearly remember thinking that an adult had done these, and that he was doing this for an actual job. I though they were beautiful to look at, and they were funny. After that I tracked down the St Trinians books and feverishly tried to copy them. Ronald Searle became my personal tutor, though he probably still doesn’t know that. After that…Wizard of Id, BC and Mad magazine, who I eventually did work for. I still keep a lot of Searle’s work handy, for inspiration.
GEORDIE: What advice would you give to any aspiring young animators, story artists or art directors?
DEANE: You have to keep your eyes and ears open to new influences as well as your heroes. Look for the strange, and understand what it is that makes it so. This can be remote tribes, cultures, weird architecture and of course the minute detail of nature. It’s all out there waiting to be interpreted with a fresh eye or a different wrist. Look for the backstory, the “why”
DEANE: I love visual storytelling and in recent years am more convinced that this should be done with a conscience. It’s easy to produce a well told story, but I believe it should matter. I’m in development of an animated property that I believe does this. It’s a mix of styles that draws heavily on the flavours that have shaped my own work for the last 30 plus years. I’m very excited about it, and look forward to bringing it to fruition with a crew of seasoned veterans and new generation artists. I look at new work all the time and am hugely inspired by the freshness and skills that are scattered around the world.
GEORDIE: Thanks to Deane for giving up some of his (VERY valuable) time to do the interview, and for sharing his thoughts and inspiration. For more of Deane’s sketches, pearls of wisdom, and often hilarious recollections, check out his blog: deanertaylor.blogspot.com.au