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An Interview with Tom Schroeder

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews

Tom Schroeder’s work as an animator and director has earned him much industry kudos and over thirty festival awards, having been actively producing animation work since 1990. His commercial work includes projects for Hertz, Kashi and Samsung, produced alongside an impressive filmography of animated shorts that explore the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction storytelling, making full use of animation’s uniquely expressive qualities. One such recent example of his exceptional film work is Marcel, King of Tervuren, a film about territorial dominance that proved the talk of many major festivals during its time on the circuit, – including Sundance, Annecy, Edinburgh, LIAF – and earned a spot as part of the 15th annual Animation Show of Shows. The story, a true tale of an indefatigable rooster told by its owner, is beautifully rendered using a combination of rotoscoping, abstract animation, and richly textured environments, with a perfect interplay between visuals, narration and score.  Now online, the film sits amongst other sterling work such as The Yellow Bird (2008), Bike Ride (2000) and Bike Race (2010), the latter two parts of an ongoing trilogy, due to be concluded in 2020. His latest film is Isola del Giglio – an observational “animated sketchbook” created from time spent at the titular island – which debuted in late 2014 at Seoul’s Animpact festival in South Korea with subsequent screenings including the Holland Animation Film Festival. Tom was gracious enough to give us some insight into his working process and how his newest work has been informed by that which came before.

How did you come across the original story of Marcel?

I married a Belgian in 2003 and began to spend time with her friends in Belgium. Each time we visited Ann Berckmoes in Tervuren on the outskirts of Brussels, we would drink Belgian beer and Ann would give the latest update on Marcel her rooster, chain smoking and drinking and punctuating each section of the story with her throaty “cuculurucoo.” (Ann is the archetypal bon vivant and reminds me of Jeanne Moreau in the 1960s.) During May of 2011 Ann visited Hilde and me in St. Paul, Minnesota and I took the opportunity to record her telling Marcel’s story. She recorded the story in English, Dutch and French. I speak Dutch and my wife Hilde helped with the French, so between us we edited three versions of the story in the different languages.

What elements of the story drew you to it as a filmmaker and appealed to you as something that could be depicted through animation?

At some point during the development of Marcel’s story, as Ann episodically told it, I thought Ah, Greek tragedy enacted by Belgian roosters, and I also remembered a specific line from Camus’s essay on Sisyphus. I’m paraphrasing now, but it’s something to the effect “There is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn.” I saw in Marcel an attractive, willful defiance, but also the comic possibilities of contrasting the grandiosity of “King of Tervurven” with the ordinariness of the backyard setting.

What sort of processes did you go through when developing the visual style for the film, and what was it about the chosen style that you felt best complemented the story?

Technically, it’s the first film I drew directly into the computer with a Cintiq, a computer screen upon which one can draw with a stylus. And, somewhat ironically, the loose, painterly style of the film developed from working digitally rather than drawing on paper. The animation was about half rotoscoping from live action footage I shot and half traditional character animation. I gravitated to the rotoscoping initially because I was still a little uncomfortable drawing with the tablet.
As for the abstract transitional sections, these came about as a formal expression of the main theme of the film. As Marcel fights to stay alive, his representation in the film struggles to fight against the forms breaking into an abstraction of line and color. Form and abstraction, life and death, matter and energy. I’ve always felt that the most successful animated films demonstrate an awareness of the relationship between the technical aspects of the production and the narrative content. My sense of this really comes from modernist literature rather than graphic design, from having read James Joyce at a formative age.

Can you talk through some of the digital/software processes you’ve used in your work?

Both “Bike” films were drawn and rendered on paper, scanned into the computer and composited in Adobe After Effects. Between Bike Ride and Bike Race I was gaining experience with the software as a creative tool in making the films and in the storytelling. For Marcel and Giglio I’m drawing directly in Photoshop with a Cintiq. At first I found the feeling of working this way alienating, but now I like it a lot. I can still get the illusion of naturalistic media but with the advantages, versatility and speed of working digitally.

You’ve described your latest film Isola del Giglio as an observational sketchbook film. How did this idea come about and why this location?

Around 2000 an exchange student from Florence named Lisa Paclet came to MCAD for a semester. She had a French father who grew up in Annecy and thus had been going to the festival there for many years. She knew a lot about the history of animation and was already a good animator. (She works and lives in Paris now after studying at Gobelin.) I got to know Lisa and her parents Elena and Philippe. My wife Hilde and I visited them in Florence and then went on to Giglio with them, where they have been spending their June vacations as a family for 25 years.
The little town of Campese on Giglio immediately reminded me of the resort in Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances du M. Hulot. I know a lot of animators who are attracted to Tati’s films. There’s something about the stylization of his character movement and use of post-production sound design that makes his films akin to animation. Lisa and I said “let’s collaborate on a film, an animation M. Hulot set on Giglio.” Lisa got very busy, however, in Paris and wasn’t going to be able to participate in the film, but I felt strongly about it and made it myself.
It should also be said that Giglio is the end of another trilogy of films, which I think of loosely as the “water vacation films.” Desert Dive-Inn (1995) and A Plan (2004) are the other two films in that group. These are films that I imagine to be in the Tati mode: no dialogue, purely visual storytelling, no non-diegetic music and a slightly melancholic detachment in the film’s point of view.

Can you go through the process of your approach to the film, such as how visual ideas developed? Were all the shots originally based on sketchbook images, and how were your observations ‘recorded’ to be made into animation later on?

On the first trip to the island I took a few pictures, but wasn’t really specifically researching for a film. Then I went back to the island two years later for about 10 days with a sketchbook and an audio field recorder. I sketched people and backgrounds, devised vignettes, observed the mannerisms of the people on the island and recorded a lot of ambient sound. All of this became the raw material out of which the film organically emerged. I also talked to and hung out with Elena Brizio, Lisa’s mother, who loves Giglio and knows a lot of the locals and history of the place. Also, through Elena, I met Gina Magnani who lives on Giglio. I wish that I had had more resources with the film to include some of the stories that they told me, but I was really restricted to working with just a few characters and settings. And it felt more appropriate actually to present the material from a point of detachment with the “sketchbook” character as my intermediary in the film.
In drawing the animation, I began with the workmen characters and just began to generate shots. Then other characters began to enter and they would start to do things I didn’t originally imagine, which led to the introduction of other characters and ideas. It developed very organically, again without plan or storyboard of any kind. When I ran out of money and patience with the process, I took all the footage I had generated and started to find an order and organization for it in After Effects. I’d always conceived of the film occurring in the pages of a sketchbook, but that metaphor allowed me to condense 15 minutes of linear footage down to the 12 minute running time, by using the idea of multiple panels within a single page.
There’s no narrative to the film obviously. But I did find thematic points of logic and motifs to create a slight feeling of development with the material: the recurrence of the fish, for example, to his conclusion on the plate of the little girl. This sort of structure might be more appropriately described as “musical” rather than “narrative.”
The one holdover stylistically from Marcel is the metamorphosis of the faces underwater, which occurs twice in the film. These are stylized drawings taken from the pictures I found on graves in the cemetery. I imagined these as the ancestors of the place still present in the atmosphere. There aren’t many people who live year round on Giglio anymore, so you feel the weight of the past there.

Isola de Giglio (Dir. Tom Schroeder)

Isola del Giglio (Dir. Tom Schroeder)

As well as your own independent film work you’ve have a strong body of commissioned work, are there any highlights of your career you regard with particular fondness?

Bike Ride and the subsequent commercials made in that style would definitely be a highlight. That was the first moment when my films started to get wider exposure and I had more opportunities offered to me. It also became easier to raise money to make my own films after that point. Marcel has opened up additional doors for me, but not in terms of commercial work yet. I joined with Global Mechanic in Vancouver for representation after Marcel played at Sundance. I initially thought that the style of the film would be well suited for commercial spots, but I think that 2D animation is slightly difficult to sell to agencies at the moment.

Which projects, in terms of production and response, have you found to be the most satisfying overall, and why?

I think that I’m probably best at making 6 minute animated documentary films. Bike Ride and Marcel have been my most successful films and they both fit that description. I think the combination of music, story and style in those films is aesthetically successful and accessible to an audience interested in something slightly adventurous.

To see more of Tom Schroeder’s animation work you can visit his Vimeo channel Tom Schroeder Animation

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