Created us part of Animation 2018 – a funding scheme launched by the BFI* and BBC Four to support emerging animators in the UK, Jordan Buckner’s debut short //_sleeper employs a distinct black and white aesthetic to tell the tale of a man stuck in a dying industrial town. Inspired by the town he grew up, Buckner joins us to explain how he hopes his short will help people understand some of these misunderstood locations and take us through his production process.
*For UK Viewers – the film is available to watch on the BFI player
//_sleeper was made as part of the BFI & BBC’s Animation 2018 talent scheme, how did you get involved with this and what did their backing mean for your film?
I saw the application for funding on Twitter about a week before the deadline. I’d been thinking about making a film for a while so I quickly scrambled some work together to apply and waited, fully prepared for the usual arts funding rejection. Low and behold I received an email a few weeks later – “If you are receiving this email then unfortunately you have not made it to the interview stage.” Oh well, it’s happened before, it’ll happen again.
And then strangely, the BFI called a day later saying there was a mix-up. They wanted me to come for an interview and that in fact, I’d made it onto the shortlist of candidates. I think I was an admin error that they felt bad for. But I’ll take any chance I can get to make a film so I didn’t complain. I went for the interview, didn’t screw it up too badly and then got accepted. It was weird and wonderful all at once.
The backing was a huge confidence boost – I’ve spent years trying to pay the rent with creative work and personal work always has to be put to the back burner. So getting the chance to concentrate on making something of my own was utterly amazing – and the fact that anyone cared about my strange idea was surreal. It is obviously a huge privilege to create work for two leading British institutes in the BFI and BBC. I’m really proud of that. And now I’ve made my first film, I can’t go back. It’s kickstarted a phase in my life where I just want to make interesting weird things. I want to just do this until the sun burns out.
The story of //_sleeper revolves around Frank, a recluse who wakes every day to a strange anomaly on the horizon – can you tell us a bit more about your story and where the inspiration came from?
The primary inspiration for the film was the small, industrial towns like the one I grew up in. The kind that exist at the fringes of the UK, often with big industrial areas or support networks for bigger cities. After all of the political chaos in the past few years, I felt very few people cared about figuring out where it had all gone wrong. Like much of Great Britain at the time (and still now), these towns felt troubled, lost and dying. I’d seen them neglected throughout my childhood, and watched as they became something complicated. They had been unloved and underfunded, often rich in anger and bigotry. But they are the towns that many people still must call home. These are not Soho streets, or Shoreditch bars, but perhaps more complex places. And although these landscapes seem harsh, they still have their share of romance and poetry. I wanted to explore the beguiling nature of those places in Britain.
Beyond this, the work of Raymond Carver was a really big inspiration. I’d read a few short stories by Carver at the start of the project and have since fallen in love with his ability to express so much through such small moments. His work provides a mirror that reflects back onto the reader – you are invited to bring your experience to the work, and in doing so, its abstractness has great power. I really fell in love with that style of storytelling. It had a profound effect and felt so poignant at a time when there seemed no clear answers.
I’d like to think that everything in the film is meaningful – there are motifs and clues that hint at what the work is about.
Narratively, it feels like quite an open, abstract piece, what are you hoping a viewer takes away from a viewing?
Abstract is a term I’ve been hearing a lot lately, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. I’d like to think that everything in the film is meaningful – there are motifs and clues that hint at what the work is about, but I’m keen not to say too much. My hope is that audiences will find their own truths in the work and the imagery will linger with them long after the film.
I’m also a firm believer in expression as a mode of affecting the audience. Even if you leave the film feeling confused and bewildered, I’d like to think the atmosphere of the thing stirs something and makes you wonder about this world, this character and its relation to us. So many of my favourite films are still so vague to me years later – I don’t remember them as narrative arcs or character stories, I just remember the feeling of them or the mood of them. That stuff is really potent. Context is everything too, the work means something in the world we currently live. It has a specific reading in 2018 and 2019. And who knows, it may mean something else in 50 years time.
Along with its narrative, I’m equally fascinated by the aesthetic of //_sleeper – how would you describe the look you’ve gone for and why did you adopt this particular approach?
I work with CG animation, which naturally has a very antiseptic and dead aesthetic. It often feels lifeless as a medium. We associate it with John Lewis Christmas adverts and kids TV. Despite this, it is a medium that feels so ripe with potential. I wanted to make something wonky, handcrafted and lo-fi – the opposite of how I’d always approached CG for freelance gigs. I just wanted to subvert the traditional digital animation techniques I’d been using prior to this. The models, textures and animation all share a rather wonky, imperfect construction.
I’m constantly reminding myself not to be lured in by the 3d tools that software offers. There are always cool new shaders and things that get people excited, but those things always lead to a really dull and useless outcome. It just always looks a bit like a knock-off Pixar film.
If you knew everything you were doing, it would be very fucking boring. So more scrappy weird filmmaking in the future, for sure.
The art style was also chosen as a production constraint. I’m one person, making a film in a basement. So, the fidelity of modelling, texturing and animation all have to be rather sparse. This can be a beautiful thing. I’m not trying to be a Disney animator or put my work alongside Dreamworks. The rough and scrappy approach can be beautiful. So many amazing indie filmmakers out there do insane things with wonky CG. So much more powerful than the visuals we are used to seeing on TV or in the cinema. It is something I’m still exploring and figuring out, but that’s the fun of it. If you knew everything you were doing, it would be very fucking boring. So more scrappy weird filmmaking in the future, for sure.
Why did you opt for a mainly black-and-white palette?
The choice of a black and white aesthetic was a slow forming thing. When I first started thinking about what the film was going to be, I actually produced a range of colour paintings that really felt bold and visually engaging, but the world I was trying to create didn’t fit. Black and white just captured the bleakness of the landscape so well. When you work in black and white, you are forced to think about different things. Suddenly an image is all about the texture and forms on the screen. It makes composition so striking, which is really helpful when you only have a few minutes to tell a story.
This is perhaps an alternative England in 1982, or equally, this could be South East England in 2055.
Additionally, I wanted to create a world that felt unknown. This is perhaps an alternative England in 1982, or equally, this could be South East England in 2055. By working in black and white, the age of the world suddenly felt more ambiguous. I kept thinking about The Night of the Hunter throughout production too so that probably had an effect.
I was impressed with the atmosphere you created in your film and the world your story exists in feels very well considered, how important do you feel tone and universe are in telling your story?
That’s really kind. The mood of the film is hugely important to me. Narrative beats and character arcs obviously have an important place, but I feel we underestimate just how powerful atmosphere and image are. I often leave a film not really remembering the plot, but having a profound sense of emotion about the characters and the world depicted. I’ve always been inspired by filmmakers and photographers who just let you into the world and allow you to take it in. Filmmakers such as Tarkovsky, or even photographers like Gregory Crewdson, who evoke so much without ever revealing too much. There is a magic to that quality, a moment when the audience is invited in to feel for the situation, rather than being told about how they should think or feel.
Can you explain a little about your production process – how long did it take to make //_sleeper and what equipment did you use?
The project was 22 weeks long, which in animation terms, is basically no time at all, especially when you are working independently. I had some early ideas and concept art for the film at the very beginning of the project, but I essentially had to go from the writing and storyboard stage, all the way to final rendered film in those 22 weeks. I was also teaching at the University of Portsmouth during that time so it was hectic. It was a tough, tough ride – I don’t necessarily recommend it. But that timeline was really helpful to get the film made. It forced me to get a personal project finished and out into the world. Despite the panic attacks and stress, I’m glad I put myself in that position.
The pre-production process is such a tricky aspect of animation. You want to have time and space to explore and experiment, but you are also very aware that time is ticking and things need to be on schedule. Despite this, I always start with lots of sketching and painting. In the case of //_sleeper, I made a series of character and landscape paintings that began to prod at the world and mood I wanted to create.
Frank needed to look worn out and tired. I wanted to make him look old and young all at once so the drawings and paintings of Egon Schiele were a big influence. I tried to capture that fraught energy as best as possible within the 3d model. There are boiling lines over his face and hair to express some of that.
During this early stage, I’m also figuring out the storyboards and animatic for the film. Unlike live-action film, the edit of animation is made at the start of the project by timing out storyboards to create what is known as an animatic. I produced about 20+ versions of an animatic. I send these to my amazing Producer Phil Gomm, who gives advice and critique throughout the project. Phil is another talented git who I was super lucky to work with. He basically keeps me on track and helps ensure I don’t lose my mind in animation. His advice and guidance allow me to get out of my own head and ensure I’m not making something utterly insane.
Animation of any kind is kind of an act of madness. Every object in the frame, every character movement, every texture and surface are all handcrafted and built. In this case, they were made by me. I think a lot of people assume CG animation is just a few button presses and then hey presto, you have a film. But the truth is that I spent weeks and weeks modelling the character, making a rig and skeleton so that he could move, adding textures and assets to the world to create an environment. Everything you see in the film is crafted. The benefit of this rather insane production process is that every object inherently expresses something. It is all handcrafted – even though digital – I’ve moved every vertex of those models to make sure they feel appropriate to the world I am trying to build. The textures on Frank’s face, the shape of his car, the movement of the grass are all adding to the atmosphere of the film. It is precisely what makes animation unique from other approaches.
With such tight time pressures, I was really keen to nail down the look early on.
The film is made largely within a software called Autodesk Maya – a 3d software package that allows you to make 3d worlds within the computer. In a simplistic way, I approach Maya a bit like a stop motion animator. I make sets and characters, add some textures, and then move them 2 frames at a time to create the illusion of life. Most of the film is made through this process. I did also use some 2d animation in parts – the anomaly was created as a 2d animated sequence by 2d animator extraordinaire Diana Buzea. Although we only did a small amount of 2d within the film, I really enjoyed the flexibility of fusing 2d and 3d approaches.
As production begins, I try to render lots of little art tests as a way to ensure the art aesthetic is heading in the right direction. With such tight time pressures, I was really keen to nail down the look early on. The art test below was just one example of the art direction taking shape.
The animation stage itself is an entirely separate can of worms. I’ve always loved the Brothers Quay and their animation style was a big inspiration. I spent weeks just moving the character, trying to get him to feel alive, but also keeping him vague and strange. I didn’t want the facial animation to give away too much. He needed to look unknown. It was a big job, but I had some amazing help from Emily Clarkson, who provided additional 3d animation for the project.
The other aspect of production that I really cherished and learnt from was the sound design. I’m amazingly grateful that I had a chance to work with Nainita Desai. She crafted a beautifully evocative and haunting soundscape that brought my wonky little shots to life. This part of the project took on a life of its own and in the end, I came to really cherish the collaboration between my images and Nainita’s sounds. Since then, Nainita and I have worked on a new project and I can’t wait to continue the collaboration in the future. Nainita is insanely talented and positive – she just makes everything seem possible when you are in the depths of the project
What are you working on next?
I’ve just finished working on another short animation for the BBC, titled When the Tides Went Down. It uses animated paintings and interview excerpts to explore our different responses to climate change and the impending crisis that we face as a planet.
Somedays I think I’d like to make something really bloody horrible, and others I feel like making a love letter to everyone on the planet.
I’m also beginning work on a new film project. I’m not too sure what it is at the moment, but I’ve been painting and writing a lot. I’d like to make something about suburbia and the panic of our modern condition. Somedays I think I’d like to make something really bloody horrible, and others I feel like making a love letter to everyone on the planet. I guess we’ll see which emotional state wins out.
Outside of that, //_sleeper recently played Margate Film Festival and will be screening at London International Animation Festival on the 29th November, so I’ll be popping by to see the work alongside some amazingly talented filmmakers.