Stumbling across the work of animator Michael Frei on Vimeo earlier this year, I was instantly impressed by not only the filmmaker’s playful visual style, but also his abstract approach to narrative and storytelling. Conceptually and tonally, Frei’s work is experimental in nature but more importantly, his films hold that rare quality we’re always searching for here on DN…uniqueness. In this on-going series, in which we explore the minds and processes of our favourite animators, we speak to Frei about filmic vocabularies, setting rules and his finger obsession.



At the age of 15 I began an apprenticeship as a building construction draughtsman. For the next four years I was mainly drawing straight lines. I liked to fiddle around with software in my spare time and eventually started to record myself playing with instruments and my voice. I find recording something magical: you feed a box by expressing things and the box speaks back to you. So I started to record drawings as well.

After one semester at the animation department in Lucerne I left and joined the Estonian Academy of Art in Tallinn, where I created the animated short ‘Not About Us’ in my first year. After this, I returned to Lucerne to work on PLUG & PLAY. Both schools offered me a space that helped me make my own films. Switzerland does not have an animation school or tradition like in Estonia – who have their very own, self-conscious approach to animation, which certainly made an impression and encouraged me to develop my own filmic vocabulary.

“There is still much to experiment with”.

There are many great artists out there that are inspirational. I like the peculiarity and visual simplicity of independent Japanese animation and I enjoy the ingenuity and dark humour of Eastern European illustrations and films. I appreciate challenging work that cannot be squished into a certain genre, works that push the medium in a new direction. Animation as a medium is incredibly complex. It can incorporate so many artistic disciplines, while still being crafted by an individual. Every aspect of it can be controlled by its creator and this enables uncompromising work. This is exciting – and there is still much to experiment with.



For me, the most interesting ideas are usually the ones I struggle describing in words. My process is closer to designing a film as a construct that should feel consistent by experimenting, than developing a film around a question or a genre. I try to find something I find interesting – something I would like to watch myself.

My work is very much about reduction. I usually ask myself first what I could get rid of and not what I could add to something. For every film I set certain rules and restrictions that differ from project to project. Restrictions due to given limitations can make you inventive in dealing with lack of time, infrastructure or talent.

During the production of PLUG & PLAY I traveled quite a lot and I had a very tight budget, so I decided to get rid of paper and pens and drew the film entirely using the integrated touchpad on my laptop using my index finger. The word digital originates from the latin word digitus (“a finger or toe”). Hence it made perfectly sense to draw a digital film describing a binary world of female and male plugs with my digit turning on or off pixels, right?

The binary world of PLUG & PLAY is playing with a very similar, but slightly extended vocabulary than ‘Not About Us’. Both films try to build tension through contrast and opposition. To create the films in black and white is a decision that ties in the dualistic concept. I strive for graphical clearness and clear description.

MichaelFrei-animation06What I especially like about hands is their expressiveness. When we read a character, we first scan automatically its head / face, just after that we examine its hands. The communication of emotions in films often functions with facial expressions of the characters. To shift the focus toward the hands is one of the reasons why I avoided drawing faces in my films. It is also very practical to draw hands because you have a life model with you at all time.



The first time I screened one of my films at a festival was in the beginning of 2012 and since then I have been traveling to festivals quite regularly. My films play a lot on the viewers’ anticipation and there is no other way to test these things out than by showing it to an audience. It’s very interesting to experience how the same film is perceived differently every time. The cultural differences manifests themselves not only in language or food, but also in the behaviour of the public – in some countries you will get a large audience response during a screening, whilst in others it seems impolite to make a sound.

“I was prepared for a disaster”.

Just before PLUG & PLAY premiered at the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival in the beginning of 2013, I showed the film to a group of Latvian film-experts – They didn’t react to the film during the screening or after. I was prepared for a disaster sitting in the cinema in France a few days later and I was terrified even though I remained anonymous, hidden in the audience…it all turned out to be alright in the end.

The digital revolution in media is happening. Watching films in cinemas as part of a social event will not disappear – festivals will probably continue to increase in importance. The point is that films outside of cinema are consumed completely differently than a few years ago. The web is an interactive medium – but watching films is a passive experience. Every viewer using a computer becomes a user. Many filmmakers see the challenges of the online-age as a threat to the art of filmmaking. I believe the loss in control on part of the authors offers the chance to tell stories differently.

“Nobody can give you advice. Find out yourself what to do”.

Currently, I am collaborating on a project that will be finished in autumn 2014…It will involve fingers.

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