April 1, 2013

An Animated Discussion: The Sun Speaks with Filmmaker Chris Sullivan

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This Thursday, Consuming Spirits, a hand drawn animated film, will premiere at Cornell Cinema. The film — written, directed and animated by Chris Sullivan, an animation professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — took 15 years and more than a few rounds of production assistants to make. This dark and surprisingly real animated film is entrancing and, as The New York Times put it, “You have never seen anything like it.” The Sun had the chance to sit down with Sullivan to discuss his work.

The Sun: Consuming Spirits took 15 years to make. What was it like working on a project for that long?

Chris Sullivan: Luckily, it ended up being something I continued to be interested in, you know. Luckily it worked out that way. It was not a good thing though in terms of gaining weight. It wasn’t just like, “oh this is my next film,” its like “oh there’s this film I’ve been working on, that’s why you haven’t heard from me.” So, whenever you work on something, some long term project, it gains some … gravity. It isn’t comforting [laughs], but I feel really grateful that it didn’t seem to be a disaster. People seem to really like it alot and thats great. I think that is really … that there is fortune. I really had to put my life on hold kind of to make the film, you know. I had kids and raised them and I did normal things. I mean, I worked really hard on the film, but [laughs] one of the equations I tell people is that I probably worked on the film less than most adults my age would’ve watched TV for the last 15 years.

Sun: Did your vision for the film change over time or did you always have a set idea in your head?

C.S.: Aspects changed and aspects held firm throughout the film. There were some images that were there from the very beginning that stayed, and there were other images that kind of went away. When I first started the film, I was really into old-time radio journalists, kind of hard-boiled stuff, which I still am really into. Actually, the film was going to be in that kind of genre and, that quickly became something uninteresting. That, for instance, was not something I’d want to spend 15 years doing [laughs]. There’s definitely some hard-boiled little tidbits in there, you know, there’s an interrogation scene and things like that, but it doesn’t. Probably the biggest change is that the actual main characters kind of flip-flopped. So, one of the secondary characters became a main character and another character developed a mother in the writing, which, we all have mothers, but they’re not always in our scripts, you know. So that was a big change. Stylistically it did not change that much. It was always going to be drawn and cut out and, then I did these table top things which I really like too, which actually ended up holding.

Sun: And that’s a very different animation style that you used. What made you choose that animation style?

C.S.: Well … all of my previous films had been drawn. I still shot the film with a camera, you know, a 16-millimeter camera. That was just the technology that made sense. I’m very much not into obsessing over something being shot on film or anything like that, but that was the tool that best served me at the time. There was a certain kind of full color pallet that I couldn’t really get … without [it]. Right now its very easy to do digital compositing and that’s what I teach, I teach animation. But when I started the film [digital animation] wasn’t easy and it wasn’t simple. To get a full color pallet, cut-outs … became an interesting option, and that’s what I did.

Sun: It’s definitely interesting to look at. Is that why the film took so long to make? I’m trying to imagine how you filmed it; I was watching your “making of” video. Did you move each of the pieces individually? How does [this kind of animation] work?

C.S.: Well … the film was in the camera and it has a motor that goes around one revolution in 24 seconds. I actually made the motor bend around the camera, but I didn’t have the technology or anything I just knew how to make them … and then, basically, I would make a really small movement, you know, somewhere between one eighth of an inch and a quarter of an inch, take another frame, take another movement. And there’s a lot of dialogue in the film so usually, as the other animators were shooting, they have to be watching the dialogue the whole time. … The dialogue is very time consuming in drawing animation.

Sun: How many people did you have working on the film?

C.S.: I get two primary animating assistants, but then the actual film ran for quite a while, so I had probable another thirty people who worked for me via month or two months or something. We had some co-op workers from school. I had other freelancers working on the film, but it was primarily me and Viola and Shelley Dodson.

Sun: The theme of the film must have been a very important to you. When people leave after the film on Thursday, what do you want them to take away?

C.S.: I guess I don’t want to forecast that too much, but I do hope that the film leaves a mark; whether that mark is a love tap or a bite [laughs]. But … I do want the film to be important to people. I don’t think my film did this, but I saw a film recently that was incredibly powerful, and I was describing to someone that after I saw this film, I am now someone else. So there’s a part of me that hopes people are a little bit someone else. You know, maybe that’s a high bar, but, what the heck, throw it out there. I do think, also, the film is experimental in form, but it really is an emotional film and not an intellectual film. It’s smart, but it’s something that definitely gets under people’s skin. I think in a good way.

Sun: And your title, Consuming Spirits, could you maybe elaborate on what it means?

C.S.: Well theres an obvious double meaning of drinking, consuming spirits, but the idea of ghosts from the present or past that really eat away at you is probably the most prevalent meaning really. I have to translate the title often, which you know doesn’t work. Sometimes puns and double entendres don’t translate well. I always ask the translator to go towards the idea of being consumed by a ghost or a spirit as opposed to drinking spirits. That doesn’t work with a direct translation, its like “drinking liquor,” which isn’t really what I wanted to say.

Sun: Is there anything else you want to add?

C.S.: You might want to say that the film is animated, but it really is a film, not an animation in terms of how people engage in it. In its life its been in about 20 festivals and 10 theatres and only two of those venues were for animation. So it basically it lives its life as a live action film, which I think has been really helpful because I think its often really good to put your work in the wrong place. I think that has really helped us.

Sun: Great, thanks a lot!

C.S.: I hope you come and see the show.

Sun: I definitely plan to.

C.S.: Wonderful.

Original Author: Arielle Cruz