Fresh from screening as part of the incredible roster of short films on offer at this year’s Glas Animation festival where it won the US Competition Special Mention award is Jack Gray’s short Menagerie, an animated paean to everyday routines. Gray’s short tracks an incredibly dense roster of characters going about their daily routines through a series of repetitive looping motions. In doing so, he cleverly positions the entirety of the action from a slow-moving macro perspective, giving an entrancing and vast look across his immense array of individuals. It’s definitely the kind of short that massively rewards rewatching, allowing you to pinpoint the exact behaviours and small comedic moments that Gray has diligently animated into his jam-packed frames. DN joined Gray after Glas Animation wrapped for a chat about his introduction to animation, the philosophical nature of loops, and the software he used to bring Menagerie to teeming life.
Where does a film like Menagerie begin for you? Was it an individual character or the broader concept of everyday routines?
The film started as a slow cathartic process after graduation from RISD in 2017 as a way to process the world around me. The film began with the individual characters created as quick studies while people watching in Los Angeles, New York and Philly. When making these studies, I was not only fascinated by the way these individuals look, but more importantly, the way each person uniquely moves and completes a task.
At what point did the project shift from individual character doodles into a film about collective routines? And did you work with anyone else across the making of the film?
As the number of characters grew, I knew I eventually wanted to turn the project into a film. From there, I began storyboarding and compositing to figure out how each character would fit together. Since the characters all revolve around looping motions, I felt the film itself had to be a giant loop. It wasn’t until the last few months of making the film that I started working with Judy Kim the sound designer who did an incredible job creating the soundscape for this looping world.
What intrigues you about the philosophical nature of loops?
I am fascinated by loops because they serve as the perfect allegory to daily life. They can exist as some simple practice to live our lives, like a daily routine or it can be equally as interesting to look at the way people walk, exercise or eat.
I was not only fascinated by the way these individuals look, but more importantly, the way each person uniquely moves and completes a task.
What software did you use to animate Menagerie?
The film is a digital 2D and 3D animation created mostly with Adobe Animate, After Effects and Maya. The process images show how I created some of the 3D architectural components for the film as well as how I started developing some of the character loops and scene ideas.
Could you walk us through your journey into animation as a practice?
When I was younger I was really inspired by some of the more visceral filmmakers like Jan Švankmajer and David Lynch. I was interested in making films like them. When I got to college, my first animation involved a fish that I got from the market. I animated it over the course of a few days in my bathroom, I don’t think my roommate ever forgave me!
While attending the Rhode Island School of Design for animation, I had the privilege of learning from some amazing teachers including Amy Kravitz and Steve Subotnick. Their lessons and resources were eye-opening to all of the amazing things animation could be. Because of this, I’ve always tried to be open, and not limit myself to any particular medium.
How did you develop your specific visual style of animation?
For Menagerie, I have been very inspired by Tango by Zbigniew Rybczyński. Specifically, the way the film starts out with an empty claustrophobic room and grows into a complex crowd of characters entering and exiting. I feel it is the perfect looping film. I also love creating weaving loops, which are a lesser known practice in animation that involves animating the same object, or objects, over a set number of frames. It creates a really incredible effect that is used in many of the loops in Menagerie.
Do you have a particular favourite character in Menagerie? Or one that you find people don’t often notice upon watching the film for the first time?
I don’t know if I have a favourite, but I like the characters that morph, for example, the person and dog by the pool who turn into each other. Since many of these moments are sort of hidden in plain sight, it may take a few rewatches to catch them all.
Since the characters all revolve around looping motions, I felt the film itself had to be a giant loop.
And last but not least, what can we expect from you in the future?
I am slowly working on several short films at the moment. One, that I am hoping to finish by the end of the year, is a series of 3D animated vignettes. The narratives for each vignette are taken from an online forum site and adapted into dark-humoured romantic stories.
I love experimenting with new styles and mediums and usually post my experiments to my Instagram account. I often get carried away starting new films before finishing the last. I will be attending the Tongue River Artist Residency in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming this year, where I am hoping to continue animating for my next film and applying for grants!