2014 UWE EUROPEAN NEW TALENT ANIMATION AWARD WINNER CHRISTIAN SCHLAEFFER

Christian Schlaeffer's Royal College of Art graduation film, 'The Dewberry Empire' won the hearts and votes of the animators and non-animators among us at our 20th anniversary last year, picking up the 2014 UWE European New Talent Animation Award in the process. His mesmerising depiction of social class and powerful notions of rebellion, as visualised through the eyes and ears of a young boy and girl in the woods, harmonise beautifully in this dazzling hybrid animation. We've tracked him down to speak about his motives, Mark Twain and more.

Everyone fantasises about running away when they’re young and starting their own empire, but you’ve actually done it (in a sense), how did the whole project come around?

There are two major things I try to cover with every new project, one is trying something new in my approach, be it technically or stylistically, and the other is getting a few basic themes in, that interest me as an artist.
So, on the technical side, I managed to do watercolour backgrounds, something I wasn’t too sure I’d be capable of, having had practically no experience with it. I also hadn’t worked with actors in quite a while, my animated shorts had all been without dialogue so far, and on top of that, even considering I had experience with actors, I had not worked with children before. I just figured it was about time to try.
In my stories, I use my characters very much as pawns, which is a bit of a dangerous method of approaching stories, because you can easily be found out or draw characters so flat they become stereotypes. So, this time I wanted to add something to that recipe, and ended up showing up to the recording day with the children with only my plot points written down, and I relied on the children bringing in their own characters, filling in what I couldn’t, or rather, refused to. I’m Austrian, how would I write believable dialogue for British children anyway?
So, after the one-afternoon recording session, I started to cut and paste what I liked and filled my very planned and a bit sterile structure with what the children had contributed. That, also, was pretty new for me- as an Animator, I tend to be very controlling over every aspect of a film. But I think it went great this way, and truly believe that, to create new experiences, one has to think about changing the method of creation. Improvisation and recording sound outdoors, in a real live setting for example are things rarely done in animation, but they give so much more life to your project.
On the downside, after making one film in this way, I’d very much like to do more like it, but largely imrpovised dialogue and action along a rough plot outline is a bit of a hard sell in the animation world, especially today where there’s little ambiguity allowed in stories anyway, and major films are more or less based on oft copied story outlines, freshened up with explosions and in 3D.

The film encompasses the whole spectrum of a new civilisation, fundamentally from start to finish! What were your motives behind this piece?

I always saw it as a largely political story of a revolution that eventually fails. In the vein of the Mark Twain quote ‘True horror is waking up and realizing that the guys you went to high school with are running the country’, I don’t believe politicians are any more capable of running a country than anyone else. And when I came to the UK and was confronted with the strange way the British class system works, I was wondering about what makes social hierarchies work. In this film I’m proposing the idea that, for a class system to function, each participant has to act like it, and be able to do so convincingly. So, a member of a lower class can rebel and rise up against the ruling class, but once he has taken power, he must himself become a new ruler, and he must be able to create this illusion, the illusion of a state-like unity and that things are now as they were supposed to be- unlike before the revolution, when things were ‘wrong’.
The boy in this film is capable of rebellion, but after the revolution he is not able to create a sense of stability and normalcy, and so, in crisis, has turn to the former leader for help. The girl shows her capability of being a ruler in how she integrates the dead cat into their make-belief government. The illusion of order is reestablished, and the children can return to playing, now with everyone in his place again.
Thankfully, the improvised dialogue and the children’s own characters made it less wooden and sterile than this structural analysis makes it sound.

Did you ever manage to escape the clutches of civilisation when you were younger?

You probably have figured out by now, that, rather than going out to play, I would stay at home and spend time in the company of Jean-Luc Picard. Outside, in the forest, that’s where the other children are, where civilization is.
I’ve never been much of a an enthusiast for people, and children often are as raw and straightforward people-ish as it can get.
But I very much escaped civilization and the trial and error of socialization as a child, in my own way.

Congratulations on winning the ‘UWE European New Talent Animation Award’ last year, how has the award helped progress your film-making career?

Sadly, not too much, but to be honest, 2014 was a turd of a year for me in almost any respect, most of all healthwise, but I also had a pretty pretty bad experience working in tv-animation for a few months. So I’ve not had a chance to profit from it professionally, yet.
More than anything, this award was important for my psyche in an otherwise bleak period (and I’m very grateful for that).

I found that ‘The Dewberry Empire‘ animation style, specifically the background shots, shared similarities in some ways to the previous work of Studio Ghibli. Was this a concious decision?

Very much so- I learned to paint in watercolours by repeatedly watching a DVD of Kazuo Oga painting. And when I presented the project to my tutors at the RCA, I introduced it as ‘Gummo meets Tonari no Totoro’, style-wise. I was aiming to evoke the feeling of a well crafted children’s film- and break that impression now and then for some alienation.

What are the processes behind your short films, would you say  you have a particular style?

Well, much to my surprise, a lot of people keep changing things and story elements right up until the end- I couldn’t work like that. I like to deal with the story first, and then do everything step by step, not having to worry about the steps completed anymore.
That needs some foresight in planning, but eventually allows you to deal with each phase of production in a much more focussed way. When my tutors at the RCA wanted to talk about story, 3 months into the final year, I wasn’t up for discussing it anymore, as I had started animating at that point, so I guess, my process is a bit different from the average in that respect. It sounds rigid, and I guess it is, when you’re happy with one thing, it’s time to move on to the next, and when you’re through with all the things, your film is finished- otherwise, you’d never know when you’re done, would you?

What can expect from Christian Schlaeffer in the near/not so near future?

I’m currently hoping for a Bostonian Company named Principle Pictures to get funding for their interesting documentary project ‘Son of Saichi’, for which I’m to provide quite the chunk of animation. Apart from that, I’m curently writing a script for an animated children’s feature that’s … it’s not going to be in 3D, that’s probably the worst about it. I’m planning for one or two explosions though, so maybe not all is lost.
And of course, I’m working to pay the bills and experiments- if anyone reading this is interested in my skills, please feel free to contact me-
visit my blog if you feel like it: http://mmaybeitsnothing.tumblr.com/

 

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