A fixture of the independent animation scene in America, Sean Buckelew is a creator already well known to us at Directors Notes, having followed his career closely since we first featured him on the site. With a number of impressive short films to his name and his involvement in the GLAS animation festival it’s hard to understand why it took us so long for a follow-up interview, but we’re excited to have him back on DN to discuss his short film Drone. A 16-minute short centred on the CIA’s attempts to rebrand a Predator drone after installing it with an ethical AI, the film has already impressed audiences at Annecy, Fantoche, Ottawa and more before coming online. Watch the film and then read our interview with its creator, as we discuss the unusual inspiration behind Drone’s premise, the lack of animation funding in the US and the importance of collaboration.
Welcome back to Directors Notes Sean, somehow it’s been almost 10 years since we last featured you on the site with Another. With so much time passed since we last spoke there’s a lot we could discuss, but we’re going to focus on your latest short film Drone, which is released online today. Can you tell us about the storyline and what compelled you to tackle these subjects?
I read an op-ed in The Guardian in 2013 titled “Predator and Reaper drones are misunderstood, says manufacturer”. I thought this phrasing was funny, and it sparked an image of a misunderstood predator drone, flying through a romantic sunset. Unpacking that initial spark led to a lot of the other ideas, like “what if there was an AI installed in the drone that was programmed to be ‘good’, but then the drone thought it had killed a civilian?” and “what if the whole thing was live-streamed and became this big, disastrous spectacle?”.
Can you tell us a bit about the logistics behind getting Drone made? I know in the US there is very little government funding for independent animation, so how did you go about getting the money for production?
I was very lucky to get financial support from some grants here in the United States, specifically the Berkeley Film Fund and the Guggenheim Fellowship. But this isn’t really a substitute for any kind of actual government funding. On my next short, I’m back to square one, and I can’t get the Guggenheim a second time. Dire stuff for independents!
Technology, at its worst, is just a reflection of our own fears, insecurities, and worst impulses.
Your last three films – Lovestreams, I am not a Robot and now Drone – all centre around technology, but the themes have evolved, along with the machinery. What is it that keeps drawing you back to stories about computers, automation and their continual development?
I’m really drawn to questions in contemporary culture that don’t have definitive answers, which often involve technology. I think for Lovestreams, there was this question of whether the internet is making us feel more or less alone, and for Drone, I was thinking about the inevitability and convenience of destructive technology. I think in my recent films, my cynical opinion on it is pretty clear, but I also think it isn’t strictly about technology, and more how technology functions in our daily lives, in society, etc. I think all three of the films you mentioned are about complicity: that technology, at its worst, is just a reflection of our own fears, insecurities, and worst impulses. I guess there’s also an aspirational aspect to technology, but I think it’s more fun to unpack the unintended consequences than the utopian intent.
There’s a lot to unpack in Drone and emotionally, when watching the short, my reactions were so mixed – from fear and concern to hope. It feels like a film open to interpretation but I wondered if there were any particular real-world questions you wanted your audience to leave the film with. Did you want to change the way they look/think about technology?
I wouldn’t presume that an animated short would actually change anyone’s opinion about anything, but I like the idea that it would be a snapshot of a fantastical interpretation of the very real fears, anxieties, and banal ubiquity of living in the present moment. I’m looking forward to screening this film in 20 years when all of the hyper-specific elements feel totally ancient and nostalgic, and I hope that it’ll be a nice representation of what it was like to be alive right now.
I’m really drawn to questions in contemporary culture that don’t have definitive answers, which often involve technology.
Along with the themes in your film evolving, your aesthetic feels like it’s taken on a sharper and more lifelike look for Drone, was realism something important when thinking about the visuals for the film?
I don’t think realism is super important to me on a formal level beyond the fact that I think an average viewer’s understanding of live-action cinematic language is so sophisticated, and I think realism makes it easier for me to play around in that space. It’s also a little bit practical: when Wes McClain (the background designer) started giving me finished backgrounds, the animation had to take on a slightly more realistic look just to make the characters feel like they existed in the same space. The other element that’s extremely practical is when you animate the first shot in a few days, call it finished, and then have to stick to that aesthetic for the rest of the film. So a decision got made early on that characters would move and act in a certain way, and then I just had to be consistent.
I remember for Another you animated 95% of that film yourself on thick Arches paper with coloured pencils and watercolours, can you tell us a bit about your animation process for Drone?
I moved to full digital a few films ago. It makes some complicated things more possible, especially with character acting and lip-sync, but I do sometimes miss how meditative it is to make a film on paper. So this film is digital, I still use Adobe Animate as my main tool because I’m really comfortable using it. I did end up doing a lot of the animation myself, and that was all done pretty traditionally. I take photos for reference, I always try to go from rough keys/breakdowns straight to a clean line for in-betweens to save time. But unlike Another, this film had a lot more creative collaborators on the production side. Vincent Tsui did some amazing character animation near the end of the film, Nicole Stafford did all the effects animation, Kyle Brooks assisted me a lot in cleaning up and coloring.
You mentioned his work earlier, but one of the elements of the animation I was really taken with was the background design by Wes McClain, as they have a very ‘natural’ feel and again amplify the realism in the film. How did you come to work with Wes and what were your guidelines for his work on Drone?
Wes was a complete godsend on this film. I was sent his work by my friend Charles Huettner when I told him I was looking for a background designer. I saw this digital watercolor on his website and knew immediately he was someone I wanted to work with on this film. We did a background test and were off to the races. I can’t sing Wes’ praises enough, his work forced me to really up my animation game, and best of all, he was really great to work with. I’ve worked with him a few times since Drone and hope to work with him many more times in the future.
Another name that stood out to me from the credits were sound designers Skillbard Studio, a name I recognised from working on other animated shorts, including your previous film Lovestreams. Their input on Drone feels both unobtrusive and essential, in equal measure, what do you think their work adds to the film?
Skillbard are also the greatest collaborators. I knew music was gonna be a huge thing in this film, and very different from Lovestreams since there were a lot of music cues with different tones, but I also wanted a strong thematic throughline. It was obvious it was gonna be great when they sent me the very first demo – total bullseye. They took it to the next level when they brought in their colleague Finn McNicholas and the Budapest Art Orchestra to actually record the final music. It was all very exciting for me to watch happen, working with such talented people is such a privilege and makes the whole experience a lot more fun.
Drone had an impressive festival run, with the short now released online, do you see this as the end of the film’s journey? And if so, what’s taking up your attention now? Can we expect more short films from you?
It’s still submitted to some festivals, and it’s much better on the big screen than your computer, but yeah, I’ve definitely moved on to other projects. I’m working on a feature that probably has the most direct connection to Drone (although there are no drones in it) called No Glory in the West, but it’s still very early days on that (features are hard to get made, as it turns out). I just released a trailer I animation directed for a podcast called Operation: Tradebom about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I also re-teamed with most of the Drone crew for a new short called I Am A Robot for FX that will hopefully have a festival premiere sometime soon. I’ve spent a lot of the last year and a half working as a co-executive producer and writer on Scavengers Reign, which is coming to HBOMax sometime this year. But all these projects involved a lot of waiting around and approvals and stuff, so I’ve recently been hard at work on a new, totally independent short that I’m really excited about but can’t talk about yet.