Cinema Is Animation: an interview with filmmaker Thomas PhillipsApril 5th, 2012 | Posted by in Film Festivals | IndieFlix in the Media | Interview | Movie Reviews | New Releases | Short films
he IndieFlix short film “Sometimes the Moon Is Velvet” contains vast worlds in a small vessel. It tells of a love story between a fisherman and a burglar and of the night they spend on a velvet moon. Filmmaker Thomas Phillips, whose dayjob is as a visual effects artist on films such as Sunshine and Sweeney Todd, brings that artistry to this labor of love, and achieves a kind of magic rarely seen in an interdependent short film. After a few weeks of trying align our schedules—me on the West Coast of the US, Tom in England—we finally found the time to have the following conversation.
Thomas Phillips: My background is in visual effects, and the producer on the short, Simon Thomas, is an old friend and VFX [visual effects] colleague, and French. We decided to set up this company to do visual effects supervision as well as make films, and when we ran out of ideas we just thought of Méliès. It’s a bit cheeky to steal his name. Maybe one day in the future I’ll call it “after Méliès” or something along those lines.
He is the grandfather of VFX. And if you’re like me and believe that, fundamentally, cinema is animation, hence animation is the original cinema, then Méliès is a pioneer; not just of VFX, but of filmmaking in general.
CC: The illusion of movement created by a series of still images.
TP: Yes. So yes, there are strong influences there. There’s a great book called Before Mickey. It talks of the crossover between vaudeville, circus, film, spectacle—all that stuff that was going on in the early days. Some of the earliest recorded films are not Felix or the Lumière brothers, but “trick” cinema where someone would animate a candlestick stop-motion across a table, as a proof of “spirits.” I love this aspect of film, which, in a way, is not at all different to the “trick” of Jurassic Park, or [Ray] Harryhausen. Méliès embraced this spirit. “Trick” techniques such as those Méliès used are fundamental influences on modern cinema today.
CC: And Muybridge’s still shots of a galloping horse strung together for the illusion of motion.
TP: Yep. The animatograph wasn’t it? The thing where you would look through a hole and see animation.
CC: What distinction do you make between that, animation, and VFX? Is it that there’s no attempt to make it look like something it’s not?
TP: The distinction I would make is that animation is one technique: putting a bunch of still/movement/images in sequence to create “life”; the illusion of movement. Visual effects is a combination of different techniques: photography, painting, animation, computers, etc.
CC: Is fantasy important to you as a way to tell a story?
TP: Not necessarily. But I do like abstraction, so if it’s magical realism, fantasy, or fairy tale, I tend to lean in that direction.
CC: The mix of reality and fantasy in “Sometimes the Moon Is Velvet” is interesting; the world seems real by day, fantastical by night. Is that contrast important?
TP: Yeah, I guess. The night seems inherently magical anyway. That’s why films like Sleepy Hollow, ET, and film noir, etc., are in the dark: it’s more cinematic; allows for the imagination to wander. But that’s not your question exactly. The complement is necessary I think to allow the audience to “believe” at the same time as “dream.” If it’s too far in the realm of fantasy, or magic, it doesn’t.
CC: The distinction between the frame tale and the actual story: you make it clear, with the puppets, that this is going to be something of a fairy tale.
TP: I did. It was very much an intention to use the prologue as a “storyteller” kind of introduction. Remember Jim Henson’s The Storyteller TV series? Brilliant. I loved John Hurt with his puppet dog sitting by the fire introducing the journey. A lot of my favorite films have something in the first half that say: “This is where we’re going now.” But the idea of starting with a small frame and pulling out to wide was a last minute idea. It works really well on the big screen.
CC: A window into a different world.
CC: It’s also a comment on film itself.
TP: In what way?
CC: The smaller rectangle expanding to the edges of the screen draws your attention to the medium.
TP: I see. Yeah, it does, you’re right. It’s still very much a part of the storytelling though, the “illusion.” It’s not so commentary as, say, Godard.
CC: Right, not so blatant; no breaking the fourth wall, etc. More of an acknowledgment that film is another way to tell a fairytale.
TP: Yes, as I said, I like abstraction, mythology.
CC: So where did the story come from?
TP: The story came from a poem I wrote when I was about 17. The image of the a velvet moon stuck. Then it grew into a story about longing, sadness—love, but the sad kind. I loved the idea of a diorama world, but on a large scale. The City of Lost Children was a big influence in that sense, visually. And the idea of jumping to the moon I stole from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics—which one person picked up at Denver film festival. It’s a whimsical idea.
CC: So you mention Calvino, Jeunet. Can you talk about some of your other influences? Other artists, any medium, whose art inspires you, or informs your films?
TP: I’m working on a book adaptation at the moment, for a feature, similar in the sense that it’s a fictional world, with real characters. A realistic fairy tale. Magical realism of sorts. So, I’m not entirely sure what took me there. One is that of pure escapism. For me that’s what movies are about. I’d rather have my unconscious stimulated than my modern conscious, if you get me.
Tim Burton: I worked on Sweeney Todd as a VFX artist, which was a longtime dream. His films have always inspired me. To watch Beetlejuice now—it’s insane that it was a studio film—a movie like that would never get made by a studio today.
Lasse Hallström as well: his treatment of nostalgia and sentimentality is tonally perfect. My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Those films would be completely different with a different director.
Jan Švankmajer, he’s alright too.
I also always loved the Looney Tunes stuff. I used to always try to emulate the sitcom element to them. I was obsessed with cartoon-ness when a student. Like what’s his name, the Aussie guy—Baz Luhrmann.
CC: Yeah, Luhrmann’s best stuff has that antic not-quite-real feeling.
CC: You mentioned Tim Burton.
TP: Edward Scissorhands is awesome. I’m doing a short next that is quite referential, about a girl who is turned into a puppet. And I worked on Sweeney Todd. Big influence. He lives down the road actually, I keep hoping to bump into him at the pub.
CC: What did you do on Sweeney Todd?
TP: I did the layout, the design of the Thames in the opening shots on the boat, setting up the camera projection techniques for rendering, and lit and rendered the water. The environment that is; the boat was on green screen. Also lit quite a few other shots.
CC: I noticed the opening: the introduction of the atmosphere. It was very strong. That’s essential in such an atmospheric film; the tone is like another character.
TP: That’s a very interesting point. The landscape is a character in this book I’m adapting, and in “Sometimes the Moon Is Velvet.”
CC: Some of the classic Westerns use the harshness of the environment as an essential part of the story. I like that, when the setting is so strongly integrated with the story.
TP: Yeah, exactly, it’s very important to me. It becomes reflective of the characters, and they of it.
CC: Burton always pays attention to that. Sweeney Todd wouldn’t have worked at all without it: the darkness and filth of Victorian London is as much a part of the story as any other character.
TP: True. I absolutely cannot wait for Dark Shadows. It ooks like a return to Ed Wood/Beetlejuice/Edward Scissorhands kind of absurdity. I’ve got a bunch of friends working on it—I’m a little jealous!
CC: So what about you, do you have any dream projects?
TP: This will sound a little odd. But you may have heard of James Cameron doing Alita, i.e. Battle Angel: Alita the manga comic. When I was about 15 I decided I wanted to make that into a movie. Bastard stole my idea. Also I would love to do G-Force Battle of the Planets. An ensemble sci-fi cartoon epic. I loved Battle of the Planets when I was a kid. I’ve heard rumors there’s reasons why the rights are not being released.
CC: I had a similar thought about Avatar: wouldn’t it be great if they put the same huge budget, the same over-the-top art direction, etc., into a story that was just about the next few years in the hero’s life? Married life, kids, home—no huge battles or epic anything. Never happen.
TP: I’m thinking sort of Jetsons, but Woody Allen style. Awesome. Live action.
CC: That would be great. But even “Sometimes the Moon Is Velvet” is pretty epic.
TP: Yeah. It’s a problem I’m coming up against at the moment. It’s difficult to get a feature off the ground without several credits. Don’t ask me why. Financiers want proof. But my film is like five shorts in one.
CC: I think that’s part of its power. Small story: two people meet cute (she’s burgling him! best meet cute ever!) . . . and then the actual moon comes into the frame. Literally.
TP: —And that was the idea—to shoot it as you would a feature, to do it as best as we can. I’m not a fan of guerilla filmmaking.
CC: Yes, your style seems much more considered; crafted; guerilla style wouldn’t fit.
TP: Cool. That’s a nice observation. Yeah, I think it works in that way. It doesn’t feel like 15 minutes, because there’s essentially five sequences in it. It has “movement.” For obvious reason, a lot of shorts don’t do that. But anyway that was the intention: to not hold anything back. But for that reason it took nearly two years to make. The VFX took a year. Budget constraints.
CC: Five sequences?
- There’s the prologue, the puppet show.
- Then fishing, jack’s world, the pub, his problems.
- Then the cute meet, the bedroom, the beginning of the dream.
- Then the storm.
- Then the moon.
The journey, eh?
CC: Each setting is so fully immersive, it’s clear you took the time to consider all the details.
TP: Actually it’s interesting how much comes from planning and how much is organic. We did some concept art, and the scenes below the moon are very close. But then going to the location and shooting in Scotland, before doing the green screen, gave everyone a strong sense of place. Which you can’t really predict.
CC: That would add a lot to the sense of a dramatic whole, the actors’ sense of place.
TP: Yeah that’s right, re: the actors, but also in terms of how memory serves to inform art, photography, etc. There were things that evolved like that.
CC: How big was the moon surface set?
CC: Was velvet your biggest budget item?
TP: Single item?
CC: A facetious question—“Sometimes the Moon Is a LOT of Velvet.”
TP: No, I think the dress. We had a hero dress and a stunt dress. I think it cost a few grand. The boat was only £500!
CC: Interesting. I like that you pay attention to the things that need attention paid: it’s important to the story get the dress right.
TP: Velvet in general though . . . yes we spent a lot of money on it. Something you don’t realize till you start doing it. “Hang on, velvet’s expensive!” The dress was all velvet. The moon was made out of old furniture velvet, off cuts from factories. I think that sort of planning is essential. When working in VFX it’s insane how much money is wasted.
CC: Wasted how?
TP: Once upon a time, say even with Star Wars, the VFX team worked for the production. Now it’s a client-based industry, so the VFX company needs to make a profit. And the studios throw money away. Some shots on some films I’ve worked on, I can’t say which, are very very expensive—for 2 seconds of screen time. That’s fine. But then the director changes his mind? or they change the edit? It’s ridiculous.
The reason why Spielberg is awesome is because he works such that, for example, Jurassic Park, one of the most challenging shoots of the era, finished 10 days under schedule. Why? Cos he knew exactly what he wanted. That’s a director’s job.
If the director knew what they wanted, understood the VFX, cut the sequence, locked the cut, delivered the shots, knew what he wanted to see—it can be done for a fraction of the time and price. It doesn’t happen like that surprisingly often.
CC: We touched on the actors. How important is casting, especially in a film where the setting and atmosphere are such a huge part of the story?
TP: Casting is always one of the most important things. Joseph, the guy, is awesome. He was my first choice, and Rachel turned up and I knew she was perfect. It doesn’t matter what sort of film it is, the actors carry the entire thing. I was watching Shadowlands the other day. Hopkins is awesome, if you think about how the script can be interpreted.
CC: Joseph was in Game of Thrones after he did your film. I’ve been instructed to ask you if you have any info on Season Two.
TP: Well . . . all I’ve heard was that his character might be in it more. He’s doing very well. He’s in the upcoming film The Cold Light of Day as well as some good stuff coming up.
CC: And Rachel, she’s in another film we distribute, “The Red Balloon.” It’s a bit of a BOO! film, but her performance carries it.
TP: Yeah they’re friends of mine. I introduced them to the producer and to Rachel. They also have a VFX background. Actually Damien, one of the directors of “The Red Balloon,” works as a matte painter and concept artist in VFX. And he did the concept art for my film. He’s very talented. Yeah “The Red Balloon” is a great movie. I think they’re working on some cool stuff. I’ve been meaning catch up with them.
CC: Do you have other short films?
TP: Not other film festival ones. I did a second 2D/3D animation shot the old-school way on film back in the day. Working as a VFX artist is all comsuming!
TP: It’s hard to say; most VFX is excellent these days.
CC: I just watched The Adventures of Tintin, which is 100% CGI. Is that VFX, or strictly animation?
TP: There are elements of both. But it’s animation. The producer on my short, for example, just finished VFX supervising on The Lorax. In other words, effects elements (water, trees, fur, etc.). The animation is considered animation; everything else is VFX. So Tintin is an animated film I would say.
Sunshine—which I worked on—is an example of great VFX! Not just cos I worked on it, but the look of that film is amazing.
CC: Yeah, Danny Boyle rocks. He hops from genre to genre and almost never gets it wrong.
CC: Sounds like you have a pretty fulltime gig: any VFX film that’s shot in England.
TP: No I’m not doing VFX anymore. Not as an artist anyway; I’m concentrating on movies. A lot of big studio films are shot here in England: Sunshine, Sweeney Todd, Harry Potter—a lot of them shoot here. Clash of the Titans, Dark Shadows, Prometheus, the Batman trilogy, John Carter—shot in the UK.The first Star Wars was shot here so it’s not uncommon.
CC: I’m glad to hear you’re concentrating on your own films, I’d like to see what you do next. Anything you can talk about?
TP: I can’t talk about the feature. But I have finished the script. Or can I? I dunno, fuckit. It’s called The Girl with Glass Feet. I have the option, so not the rights, but I’ve finished the first few drafts and have spoken to a few UK production companies/financiers who have shown interest. It will definitely happen at some point. In the meantime I am doing a short film called “Inverted World” referencing the idea of the art form “le monde reversé” (“the world reversed” in French), depicting normal life turned on its head. Such as a fish catching a man in a lake, or a mouse chasing a cat. It’s the story of a little girl who loses her parents and is forced to live with her uncle, in his antique shop. There she encounters a life-size female puppet, who turns out to be real. They form an unusual friendship.
TP: Could be, yeah. But I want Rachel to play the puppet. Hence the Edward Scissorhands reference. No great VFX. But of course I’m already starting to think of putting something in there like the Paris flood of 1910!
CC: Thinking small.