First watching Matt O’Donnell’s sensitive and moving animation Runelight, I was reminded of the video game Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which similarly tells a quiet yet profound journey about growth and optimism through a mostly non-verbal protagonist whose environment is almost a manifestation of the psychological challenges they find themselves working through. O’Donnell’s short stands on its own two feet though through the power of its world building, every part of his frame is filled with life and character and through the use of a sombre score and intricate sound design it all comes together to tell a powerful story. DN caught up with O’Donnell, as Runelight makes its way across the festival circuit, to discuss the process of creating the short as a sole artist, animating it in 3D with Blender, and filling its world with a hopeful mood and atmosphere.
How did Runelight first take form as a project?
What really drove the film was my desire to create a particular feeling. At first I didn’t set out to make a film, I just started sculpting a character that came into my head. My mind then immediately wandered to what her world would be like. From here I started sensing this mood, this atmosphere, and that was what drove me to create the film. There were a lot of moving parts that came together for that feeling: the characters, the story, music and sound, but the thing I always came back to was the world building. Where would the audience live for the duration of the film, even if it’s just five minutes?
This is a film with no dialogue or narration so the environment, in collaboration with the character, has to tell the story.
That’s one of the aspects of the film I was drawn to, how you fill out each shot with detail and character. Was that one of the motivations for the film having no dialogue, to get the audience invested in the world?
I absolutely love films that use world building in an immersive and emotional way. Films that use the environment to move everything forward. This is a film with no dialogue or narration so the environment, in collaboration with the character, has to tell the story. For example at the beginning of the film, to create the feeling of grief not only does our main character’s world change to night, but she moves to the darkest place she can find in the night: the cave. Here she is able to live away from any light. Suddenly, the forest brings the light to her, forcing her to face it. By the end of the process it was almost as though the world was as much of a main character as the mother.
Could you talk about designing the mother, what went into the process of developing her as a character?
The main character is a mother who is struggling to cope with her grief. The environment plays such a huge part in conveying her emotional state, but her design was equally important. Anyone who loves and watches films typically is very empathetic. They watch a film and, hopefully, feel connected to the character, feel what they feel, even if they haven’t experienced that particular struggle themselves. Keeping that constantly in mind was helpful when making the main character. She had to be vulnerable, scared, and ultimately courageous. Someone that audiences would hopefully resonate with.
What software did you opt for to create the 3D imagery?
To create the film I used Blender. It’s just such a fantastic 3D software for creating and animating. I then did all editing and sound mixing using Adobe. I’ve worked with 2D animation before, which I love, but I always find myself drawn to 3D instead. The depth you can get with 3D is just so incredible for creating worlds. I really thrive when I’m able to immerse myself in the space when creating it. Thinking what’s around this corner, what’s above the camera, etc.
Was Runelight something you were able to focus on or did you find yourself working on it more as a passion project?
The film took around two years to make. I work full time so unfortunately I had to work on it in any free time I got. It was also an entirely solo project. However the time did allow the story to develop a lot as a result, and it changed a few times before it became what it is now. The main theme of the film is coping with loss and, during the two years, I went through a really painful loss myself. My outlook on a lot of things changed. Everything felt very dark but it wasn’t a static darkness, it influenced me a lot and pushed and pulled me in different directions. That intensity I think probably influenced the film in ways I haven’t really processed yet.
I really thrive when I’m able to immerse myself in the space when creating it.
Could you break down what you mean when you say you made the film as a solo project? Does that mean you were involved with everything right down to the score?
It was a solo project, so I did everything from designing, modelling, rigging and animating, right through to the editing and sound mix. I sourced the music from music libraries. That’s something I probably wouldn’t do again. I’m delighted with the final score, it really hits the tone but I went through a lot, and I mean a lot, of tracks before landing on my final choices, and with each version I had to readjust the storyboard and the pacing so that they would flow together.
Watching Runelight, I was reminded of the video game Ori and the Will of the Wisps, do you draw from other artistic mediums like games, books or art when animating?
That’s such high praise, thank you! I absolutely adore the Ori games. Generally, indie games have always been a huge inspiration for my animation work. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Arise: A Simple Story are a couple of others. The way they use their own unique art styles to create a very emotional experience is just incredible to me. Another place that I get a lot of inspiration from is children’s books. Often all it takes is one page with an evocative illustration combined with a few beautiful, carefully chosen words alongside it to spark my imagination and creativity.
What can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
I am actually in the early stages of my next short film just now. I’m still tweaking the script but I know that, much like Runelight, the world building will be crucial. I’m going to take this one to a completely different environment but one that can be hopefully just as immersive.