Faces come to life in Sderot with animation master

The soft-spoken American-born, Canada-based animator won an Oscar for his 2004 short film, Ryan, a movie that has won over 60 other international awards, including three at the Cannes Film Festival.

 CHRIS LANDRETH: One of the messages is that it is ordinary and OK to have those broken parts of you. (photo credit: Paula Bristot)
CHRIS LANDRETH: One of the messages is that it is ordinary and OK to have those broken parts of you.
(photo credit: Paula Bristot)

Chris Landreth, who was a guest of the Cinema of the South Festival at the Sderot Cinematheque this week, is a brilliant animator known for a handful of innovative films and he was enthusiastic about meeting the students who attended his Master Class on “Making Faces.”

“It’s an interesting group here,” he said and was not fazed by attending a festival in a location that many Israelis find off the beaten path. Those who study at the School of Audio and Visual Arts at Sapir College in Sderot (which sponsors the festival, along with the Sderot Municipality, the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council and Cellcom) and others who made the journey south were treated to a class that no one else in the world could have given, by a director who also develops cutting-edge software to animate faces in a realistic way.

The soft-spoken American-born, Canada-based animator won an Oscar for his 2004 short film, Ryan, a movie that has won over 60 other international awards, including three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, which, along with all his work, can be viewed on his website http://www.chrislandreth.com/ This film is stunningly original and although I first saw it 15 years ago and it runs fewer than 14 minutes, I remember it the way you remember a dream that you can’t get out of your head. It is both a portrait of Landreth himself and of an older colleague he admired, Ryan Larkin, a Canadian animator whose works were groundbreaking. Larkin made the Oscar-nominated short, Walking, that is considered one of the most influential animated films of all time. Larkin created this at a time before the computer era when a filmmaker had to make thousands of drawings and painstakingly capture them on film to create the illusion of movement. But Larkin battled alcoholism and cocaine addiction and in the film Landreth encounters him in a cafeteria filled with damaged, kindred spirits. As they talk about Larkin’s life, Landreth reveals some of his own demons as well. But this summary does not begin to describe the experience for the viewer of watching the film, which uses imagery to show the mental states of both characters in a way that is both beautiful and horrifying. Larkin passed away a few years after this film was made.

LANDRETH SAYS he was “quite pleasantly surprised and delighted” by the reaction to this film. “I wanted to show the world the way Ryan sees it,” he said. “You look at it and see that part of his head is missing and you realize, ‘Oh, that means something,’ and you get to see a representation of his mental state. You see him and the other people in the cafeteria as people rather than freaks.” He calls the technique he uses “psycho-realism,” saying, “There are strange anomalies the way we perceive the world, I was exploring a way to make visual anomalies that represent the broken parts in all of us... to bring people into empathy with the characters rather than to set them apart.”

After a screening of the film, “One guy told me he was contemplating suicide and seeing my film made him not want to do that, it saved him... One of the messages is that it is ordinary and OK to have those broken parts of you.”

THE 2013 short film ‘Subconscious Password.’  (credit: Courtesy)THE 2013 short film ‘Subconscious Password.’ (credit: Courtesy)

Landreth has an unusual biography for a filmmaker. He received a master’s degree in Theoretical and Applied Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois in 1986 and helped develop a fluid measurement technique but soon after that discovered computer animation and made a short film called The Listener, which was shown on MTV. In 1994, he joined Alias, Inc. (now called Autodesk Inc.) as an in-house artist where he created new kinds of software. He was a driving force in developing Maya, now the most widely used animation software, which received an Oscar for technical achievement in 2003. In 1995, he created the short film, the end, and in 1998, he made Bingo, which was nominated for an Oscar, using Maya.

“Bingo in particular was done in lockstep with the development of this tool,” he said. “I used film production to work out all of the bugs in Maya... Bingo and Maya are conjoined twins.”

MAYA WORKED so well that “there were and are a lot of things that become possible with it, it makes it more democratized” because it does not require such a large team of CG animators and a huge budget to make movies. With Maya, “you can use the software on an intimate scale and in an ambitious way.”

In recent years, he has worked in improving and fine-tuning facial animation and cofounded a company called Jali Research which works with a “very specialized part of Maya... and made it accessible for and powerful for animators, and writers and directors and designers” and allows them to create more natural and realistic responses to speech and eye motion. “The sense that a character is present and aware comes through the character’s face.”

The startling results of his work with Jali can be seen in his 2013 short film, Subconscious Password, which starts out as a simple story of a guy named Charles forgetting the name of a friend he meets at a party. But it gets wild and crazy very fast and once again delves into the ways that he experiences anxiety, through a surreal game show featuring contestants that include Yoko Ono and Dick Van Dyke (who gave permission for their likenesses to be used), as well as horror-fantasy writer H. P. Lovecraft and some of his terrifying creations. These animated characters are so realistic they have to be seen to be believed. “These characters come from the subconscious mind of Charles... Lovecraft was more of an influence on my morbid 25-year-old mind than he is today.”

Lately, Landreth has been having “too much fun developing software” to work much on movies, but he does have two short stories he hopes to turn into screenplays in 2022.

He is an aficionado of current animation and is an admirer of the work of Israeli director Ari Folman. “When I did Ryan there wasn’t anything around that was an animated documentary like [Folman’s] Waltz with Bashir,” which was released four years later. In films like Ryan and Waltz with Bashir, he said, “You can add to the authenticity of the story by using animation, not as stylized element, but as a filter that purifies and shows it through subjectivity.”