Eyes at the Specter Glass

Eyes at the Specter Glass is a film that’s easy to describe but hard to explain, a sci-fi light and audio show that gathers its power through subtle manipulations of the frame. Starting in black-and-white before introducing colour in fascinating ways, it shows off the ways in which animated film can be used for striking abstract expression. Feeling both like a memory and a fever dream, its starscapes beguile and confuse in equal measure, begging to be watched on the biggest screen possible. Making its Online Premiere here today, we talk to director Matthew Wade about starting the film as an experiment that got beautifully out of hand, being inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Enter The Void, having more interest in form than narrative and the use of disintegration in the frame.

I don’t want to ask what it’s about, because with abstract film I feel like that’s asking the wrong question. Rather, what was the genesis behind the project?

I had been working on an idea for a while that was supposed to meld with a live action film. I was trying to come up with this idea about technology that you could use to look at people’s dreams or memories if they were recorded in some sort of archaic format and degraded over time. I was experimenting with how to implement it. This project became a test for that. I was just going to do one or two scenes to see if I could get this particular look that had this kind of grainy, overblown, oversatured effect.

I just did a couple of abstract planet things with a starscape but every time I would work on a new scene, I had an idea for a scene that should follow it. I starting playing it against music and was interested in this purely cinematic idea of a film where there are no people or audio cues that tell you where we are, what’s going on. It really sprouted organically while developing the feature film.

I really like degrading things as they go.

It’s interesting that you talk about the representation of a dream through technology, because this reminds me of how in 2001: A Space Odyssey the aliens try and represent what humanity is like through these spellbinding sequences…

That is by far my favourite movie of all time. I saw it when I was pretty young. I’ve seen it countless times since. The first time I saw it, I was really mesmerised by the scene that my friends found the most boring: Dave travelling through the wormhole and all of the stuff where he’s encountering versions of himself. I’d never seen something like that in a movie before. It didn’t even really register as cinematic language until I saw that. I became fanatical about that movie. I think there’s a lot of that kind of thing in cinema where there are long moments of exploration, films like Enter the Void which play with time and aren’t concerned about exposé in that moment, but are more about an aesthetic mood.

Eyes at the Specter Glass

The other potential influence I jotted down is Peter Tscherkassky. He uses found footage, but I felt a similar vibe when it comes to this sense of degradation and how images melt into each other. What other influences did you have?

I think you tapped into something. I was definitely trying to make a film that felt like found footage or an old archive of images that would make no sense for somebody to have captured or seen in real life. A big part of that is the way that memory is used in film and science fiction in particular. Tarkovsky movies are a big one for those who are into slow cinema and big expanses. Another movie that had a big influence was Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. I got really into how it messed with memory and time. It deals with time travel but it’s also more about the psychology and brain damage that comes with time travel. All of my stuff deals with memory and perception, especially over time.

I really like degrading things as they go. This one got way more degraded than I had planned on, but I thought that was cool. Another inspiration wasn’t film, but The Disintegration Loops. I listened to that a lot when I was working on the movie, just to keep the pace going. So I think it’s a mix of those sort of influences where there’s a repetition and an acknowledgement of the way our perception changes over time.

Walk me through the animation process.

I did all the animation in Toon Boom Harmony and I built all the layers and artwork assets in Photoshop. I imported them into Toon Boom and used it in a way a lot of way people use After Effects. I’m really familiar with Toon Boom as it’s what I use in my job professionally. I like that you can build layers like a multi-plane, then you can move the camera in and out on the X and Y axis. Even on the digital space I had stuff miles and miles apart so it had that look when the camera moved where you could really feel the space. So like the starscapes in the back, they barely move at all, but then you have the little bits of cosmic glass, which was fun to move, play back and feel out. The original version was in 6K, so my old machine took a long time to spit it out. But that was part of the experiment: I would let it render for a day, then I would look back at it and not try to tweak it too much because I wanted to have these imperfections and a handmade feel.

Eyes at the Specter Glass

Peter Greenaway once said that Bill Viola was a more important filmmaker than Martin Scorsese, as this is a man that wants to liberate cinema from text. Do you have a similar hope for animation?

Yeah, I’ve always been drawn to movies that embrace dream logic. When I was a kid, I didn’t really care what the plot was about. I saw Blade Runner as a kid and had no idea what it was about. I just remembered being obsessed with the way it looked and sounded. Aesthetics have always been more important than story. I’ve done a few narrative features but they have a hard time playing anywhere because I hear they’re too experimental. After a long day, I like to watch a structured movie as much as anyone else, but I don’t feel like it feeds me in the same way when I watch something like The Tree of Life.

I would look back at it and not try to tweak it too much because I wanted to have these imperfections and a handmade feel.

Talking about Blade Runner, part of what make it such a classic film is Vangelis’ score. Your film also has a suitably atmospheric soundtrack. Tell me about creating the music?

That was a weird one because I had made all the footage and had the final cut. I was happy with it, I locked it and I didn’t edit it to any music or anything like that because I wanted the visuals to play out as they were. It was exactly 11 and a half minutes when it was finished. I put it away and was doing freelance stuff. But then I was like: “I should come up with some sort of sound design so I can finish it.” I decided that because it was in space, I didn’t want there to be any sound. I also thought it would be more interesting if you were looking at a dream or a recording where the sound wouldn’t necessarily make any sense or be in sync or anything. I just set out to make an 11 and a half minute score from beginning to end. I didn’t even reference the movie when I made the score.

There was a mix of software and hardware. I build the sound in Logic Pro and then my buddies got a bunch of old synthesisers that we did our scoring on. We started running that stuff through Moog synthesisers then we ended up running the whole thing through various tape loops on an old NAGRA system that we had. Then we cleaned it up and matched it in Pro Tools.

What are you working on next?

I have a feature called A Black Rift That Begins to Yawn that played at Slamdance earlier this year. It played in Texas last month and it’s got a few more dates that we haven’t announced yet. That’s the next big thing and also deals with the cosmos, time, memory and stuff like that. But that’s a little bit more of a narrative feature and has some actresses to carry it forward. Specter Glass was sort of a warm up into that project.

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