Having followed the cut paper stop motion skills of Eric Power across the prolific amount of projects he’s produced over the years, we were mightily excited when he teased the prospect of a feature length version of his then new samurai short Path of Blood – Demon at the Crossroads of Destiny back in 2011. Well patience, in this case, is a virtue which paid off in elegant swordplay and copious amounts of stylish gore, as he finally released the feature length version of Path of Blood to the world on Vimeo On Demand last week. We caught up with Power to discover more about the perilous journey this Ronin animator had to traverse to complete his visceral tale of samurai, bandits, and deadly ninja.
As an animator you’ve worked with claymation and digital animation, but really seem to have made a home for yourself with cut paper stop motion. What is it about that technique which draws you back time and time again?
I had experimented with paper animation for some music videos I made back in 2007-2008. It was the music video for The Lovely Sparrows track Year of the Dog that marked a turning point for me. Not only was it a blast to create the film, but after its release, I started getting requests by bands to make their videos in cut paper. For the next two years a trend developed and I released less and less digital animation and more stop motion paper. Naturally, I started getting better in the medium and decided I wanted to pursue it further. The tipping point was probably during the production of Path of Blood. I learned so many new techniques that have opened up the medium in ways I thought were impossible. Today, I feel like I’ve still just brushed the surface of what can be done with cut paper animation and it excites me. You could say I fell in love.
I feel like I’ve still just brushed the surface of what can be done with cut paper animation and it excites me.
Path of Blood began life as a short back in 2011. How did that initial exploration of the world inform the production approach and techniques you ultimately used on the feature length version of the film?
I’ve always thought of the short film as a test for whether or not I could capture the mood of a chanbara film in cut paper. The short was over the top and often comical, yet I feel there are hints at a deeper narrative in there as well. The blue print of the feature film was already laid out. I wanted my film to offer a slice of life of this wild ronin who steely plows through his life in almost reckless abandon. He’s a force of nature. In terms of animation, I feel the pacing of the short was a big influence. At just over 4 minutes, I feel there is still an eerie calm to it. I knew I wanted to delve deeper into this world.
A big step up I decided to make for the feature was ramping up the level of detail in my cut paper work. I wanted to create a film where people start off appreciating the aesthetic and eventually get lost in it. I want the paper to “disappear” for the viewer, so that by the middle of the film they are thinking of the characters as real and breathing. I also needed the film to have depth to it and break free from the 2 dimensional plane. This was incredibly tricky. I ended up trying out several techniques, including multiple planes of glass and shooting on green screen. What I’ve learned in making this film is a game changer for me. The next step is characters that can rotate in 3 dimensions and burst out of the confines I thought were holding me back. The future is bright.
You’ve described the making of the film as not unlike, “A walk down a treacherous path. Full of danger, uncertainty, and excitement.” What were the biggest hurdles when it came to making the film?
The first hurdle was the story. I had never written a screenplay this long before, so the whole thing was a huge learning process. I second guessed myself quite a bit. I’m pleased with the end result, but it leads me into the next hurdle which was budget. I simply didn’t have enough in my budget to expand on the film any further. I ended up cutting a good chunk of scenes due to this. If I ever get the opportunity to return to this world and expand on Kazuo’s story, I have a lot to draw from.
It’s also just a lot of work. It’s difficult to wrap your brain around the amount of shots needed to tell your story. I didn’t want to skimp on the variety of shots, so I paid special care to include the details of the world from bugs and animals doing their thing, to weather and light. It was daunting, but luckily I am a patient man.
Speaking of budget, I know the Kickstarter you ran was unfortunately unsuccessful (although you did raise over $10K in pledges). How did that setback impact your work? In hindsight would you have approached the crowdfunding campaign any differently?
After the Kickstarter ended unsuccessfully I thought the film was doomed to be just a concept. I spoke with a lot of people and got some good advice. I decided if I couldn’t raise the full amount I would use what I had to work on the film regardless, and hopefully create a compelling vision of what the full film could be. Luckily, I was shocked by the amount of people who still believed in me and invested in the film anyways. I ended up raising most of my planned budget and jumped head first into the film. I think if I was to go back and redo the crowdfunding campaign, I would have asked for less. It was a lot to ask for. I had no track record of making feature films, so I was asking strangers to gamble on my dream. That’s always difficult to do.
Some days you just want to kill a ninja.
You’ve been working on Path of Blood for the past 2+ years, how did you keep things consistent over such a long period?
I made the decision early on to animate scenes from the film out of order. I did this in order to keep things fresh for me. Some days you just want to kill a ninja! Other days it’s a rain scene over a cup of coffee. By shooting it out of order, new animation was mixed with old and it gives a more consistent feeling. I also held back on a lot of the trickier shots until I gained more experience. If I was to start over right now, there’s no doubt it would be a stronger and better animated film. Still, it’s a snapshot of my skills during this crazy period in my career where I risked it all in order to make a Samurai film. At this point, I still am unsure whether it will hurt or help my future as a filmmaker.
Could you walk us through the process of preparing materials and animating a scene using the cut paper technique?
It all starts with paper, xacto blades, and glue sticks. I begin production preparing foliage, background elements, and characters. Basically, build the world. Once it is all ready to animate, I look at the shot I need and make a decision on how to achieve it. This can get quite complicated as no two scenes are the same. Often, the background layer is placed on the table and I put a giant and heavy piece of glass on top of it. This way I don’t have to glue down all the elements and I can re-use materials. The moving elements are animated on top of the glass. It gets tricky when you need multiple layers of background and foreground. I shoot with a tripod pointing my digital camera straight down. The camera is attached to my computer where I capture the images using Dragon Frame Stop Motion software. I love that program! I fine tune the edit in Final Cut Pro, and if I need to composite in other animated characters or elements I do so there.
Having the characters speak subtitled Japanese throughout lends to its Eastern authenticity but could also alienate some of your potential audience. Was that trade off a concern?
This was a concern for sure. I made the decision to have the characters speak Japanese mainly for authenticity purposes. I always knew it would alienate some people, but it was really important to me to stay true to what I love about the genre and this meant sticking with the spoken language of these characters. I may still do an English dub though, if there’s a demand and the means to do so. 🙂
Directing voice actors to deliver their dialogue in Japanese from a twice translated script couldn’t have been easy. How did you ensure you were getting the nuances of performances you wanted? Do you know how the film plays to native Japanese speakers?
I have no idea how it plays to native speakers. I would love to hear if it works. I am lucky enough to be good friends with Sarah Luce, who translated the screenplay. She also acted as the voice acting director. I had several Japanese speakers read the script and give notes on the dialogue. Lines were altered several times in the proceedings, but the feel of the dialogue seemed to stay pretty close to my original script. A lot of it comes down to trust. I found a great group of voice actors, and their performances helped model the characters in a very real way. When I recorded dialogue I wasn’t finished with animation. The character of Toranosuke, for instance, wasn’t even cut out. Originally he was going to be quite a bit older and more of a sagely Zatoichi type guy. After finding my voice actor I made him a bit more punk rock.
John Dixon and Sarah Luce of Many Birthdays created the film’s music which feels like it sits somewhere between the samurai film and the spaghetti western. How did you come to work with them and what references did you direct them to when discussing the score?
I’ve had an amazing collaborative relationship with Many Birthdays ever since I first met them in 2004. We’ve gone back and forth on projects since then. They’ve allowed me to use their music in my previous films and I’ve done some fun music videos in turn. It’s always felt very organic and I think it comes down to a mutual trust and respect for each other’s art. I wanted them to have a lot of creative control over the music in the film.
We definitely spoke about what the overall feel should be and listened to a bunch of great soundtracks from 70s chanbara films. I feel the music in the film has a wide scope of influence. There is Kazuo’s theme, which is that spaghetti western guitar with giant drum notes. It fits his style. Then there’s a piece of music during the rainy hut scene that feels organic and nature driven. It’s one of my favorite tracks and moments in the film. Then there’s the ninja stuff. Man it gets nuts! John is a mad genius. It’s 99% him. I had little notes here and there, but he consistently blew me away with the stuff he was making.
I will eventually release the film in other places, but Vimeo feels like home to me.
Path of Blood has just been released exclusively on Vimeo On Demand. What was the draw of putting the film out on that platform as opposed to any of the other options now available to indie filmmakers?
Vimeo has been so kind to me over the years. It is, by far, my favorite online platform for video. The quality and aesthetic of their site and embedded videos really drew me in the beginning. Over time, I’ve come to know the people behind the site and it just feels like a community that is driven by a common goal of making great art. I will eventually release the film in other places, but Vimeo feels like home to me.
You have a video for ”Path of Blood – The Game (kinda)!” – any plans to turn that tease into a reality?
Haha! I would LOVE to have a game version. I feel the story lends itself well to a game world. It would be a dream come true. I have no idea where to start on a project like that though. Except of course to make an animated demo!
As well as the Path of Blood feature, you’ve continued to make music videos (and the cutest of personal films too). What projects do you have waiting in the wings for us?
I’m still making music videos. I’m working on a really cool one right now actually. I also am hoping to launch a web series called Life on Paper all about life as a new parent and the trials, joys, and craziness of raising a kid. It’s an autobiographical project. I already have scripts complete and most everything cut out. It’s a passion project though, which means I can only work on it between paying gigs. Freelance is tough, so it’s hard to tell when it’ll become a reality.
I also am mostly finished with a screenplay for my next feature animation project. It’s ambitious and probably even riskier than Path of Blood, but man it’d be cool. It would be a silent film with musical accompaniment done entirely in shadow animation. Very artsy, but also an exciting and action packed adventure. It’s tentatively called Sorcorer of Shadows. I hope I can make it a reality. The dream is to have live musical accompaniment. The type of event you wear a suit and tie and take a loved one to go see. Fun times!