Welcome to the bizarre and wonderful psychedelic animation of Gerhard Funk. His latest short film A Goat’s Spell began development as a straightforward day-in-the-life type story about a child’s typical circadian routine. Just prior to production, however, Funk had a change of heart and decided to alter the direction of his short towards a more experimental route. The result is a truly trippy and wild ride that remains slightly tethered to that original concept, just now with a completely warped sense of reality. It was fascinating digging into the film with Funk for the in-depth interview featured below, learning why he decided to take the concept in a more experimental direction, how Virtual Reality-based editing became an invaluable tool during post-production and the extensive amount of time it takes to create such bold and fascinating work.
A Goat’s Spell is such a wonderfully bizarre short, how much of it is formed during pre-production and how much of it evolved as you were making it?
At the end of preproduction, the look and the plot of the film were very different from what became the final result. Originally it was planned to be a 2D hand-drawn animation and the plot wasn’t psychedelic at all except for the very last bit showing the dream of the sleeping main character. There was no goat either. The look was inspired by references like the Calvin and Hobbes comic books for example and the plot’s sense of humor was aimed that way, too.
What caused you to shift from the original concept?
My problem with all that was the fact I had to wait for about two years till the production started. After so much waiting time, I became incredibly bored with the original, straightforward plot about some little adventures in the day of a little kid. Until the moment I could start the actual production, I was about to cancel the whole project. Animation is an incredible amount of work and animating something you find boring is quite literally a torture. But my Co-Producer Karsten Matern and an animator from my crew didn’t want to give up the film.
I always wanted to try Virtual Reality and that was the main swing around on the technical and visual levels.
Therefore, to reanimate the dead idea I said, “Ok, but I want to play around”. I always wanted to try Virtual Reality and that was the main swing around on the technical and visual levels. We switched from 2D to 3D and used VR as a working space to create the characters and a big part of the environments. On the level of the plot, I decided to play around with narration and the audience’s expectations. Since I enjoy watching psychedelic animation, I went that way in my film too. The idea was to get into a way of playful storytelling you get with some children when you just let them fantasize freely. The plot should go along the same main turning points as planned originally, 24 hours in the life of a child, but the whole thing should have a completely different feel.
And how did you develop the scenes? Was there anything you were inspired by whilst making the film?
Most of the scenes are loosely based on ancient myths and fairy tales, while the goat is the only really random thing in the whole story. As a child, I lived in the countryside and once had a very weird encounter involving a goat. An absolutely unimportant but very strange childhood memory. The song Keçi (Goat) by Ya Tosiba brought up that memory and I thought it was perfect to put in the middle of the whole thing. This is the way a cute and harmlessly humorous 2D animated short ‘mutated’ into a psychedelic, absurd and somewhat creepy 3D trip. Creating the latter was definitely way more fun than what the original thing could ever possibly have been.
What was it like working in VR?
The most interesting about the equipment is the fact we used Virtual Reality and drawing tools within that technology. Working in VR is still a rather exotic thing and there are not that many tools/apps you can use in a professional production. Some apps for drawing in VR worked very well, and we used them, mostly the app Quill, for asset creation instead of the classical 3D modelling techniques. All characters are drawn in VR and all interior rooms.
How challenging was the process of animating with a VR headset on?
Animating in VR is still a very difficult thing, since the headsets are very heavy and spending hundreds of hours working with the headset on isn’t healthy. Still, I was too curious to not try some fun things. Many camera movements and POVs were done in VR. The blackbird, in the last bit of the film, is drawn in VR frame by frame and the teacher is played like a virtual puppet using the VR controllers. The teacher was the most fun, but also the most complicated setup. Professional tools for animating that way don’t exist yet therefore I had to build something on my own using the game engine Unity for hacking my headset and programming what I needed.
I was too curious to not try some fun things.
The main 3D tool used for rigging, animation and rendering was SideFX Houdini, which is a well-established industry-level software, primarily dedicated to creating 3D visual effects. I wanted to learn how to work with it and therefore used it for my experimental ways of animating in 3D. It was very helpful indeed, as the high professional level of Houdini could compensate a lot for the young and less developed tools currently available for VR.
How much time have you been working on A Goat’s Spell, from that initial idea you ended up moving away from to finalising the edit in VR?
Preproduction was a couple of months. Then settling down the budget and waiting for all the film funds to confirm or reject was two years, that is when I got bored by the original story and looks. Production and post-production took three years. This timespan could have been one or one and a half years if I could afford to work on the project full time. But since this kind of independent filmmaking doesn’t bring any money in, I have a regular part-time job teaching at an art college, this way having only half of my capacities for such non-commercial artistic projects.
You mentioned that you teach part-time at an art college. I’m curious to know if you find that benefits your craft as an artist/animator at all.
There are many benefits to working at an art college and being a teacher for those kinds of students. In short, it helps me to survive financially while simultaneously keeping my artistic interests and technical skills rolling. A permanent part-time position providing at least a small stable income is a great plus for an artist. Even more so when it’s not just some kind of job, but based on personal artistic and technical skills. I have tried all kinds of jobs so far, most of them in the creative industry, obviously. But even if the creative industry positions ask for your artistic and/or technical qualifications, they tend to put you into conditions which kill all motivation to do anything personal. Unfortunately, the whole area of creative business seems to have become rather toxic and for the most essential freedoms you need to create something more or less original instead of reproducing things existing. Neither is there any room for failing which means you can’t really try any experiments.
On a greater level though, working with young people pushes my curiosity a lot and makes me learn way more interesting stuff than I ever could afford time-wise in any other job. I am quite interested in all kinds of technologies. My students constantly come up with new tools they picked up somewhere and we need to figure out whether one can work professionally with them or not. It is very motivating to have young, enthusiastic folks around and learning about their ideas. Applying at such a college the candidates have to pass quite a tough preselection and the competition is strong. Therefore, we have a relatively high percentage of really motivated talented students and motivation is contagious.
Is there anything you can tell us about your next projects?
Yes. The preproduction of the next animated short is far enough along to see where the whole thing is going. The next film will be about virtual robot prototypes which look like creatures with randomly placed arms and legs. They are created automatically in large numbers, each looking differently. Then they have to find out how to walk and complete other tasks all on their own using machine learning. Finally, the best performing ones are picked pair-wise to make offspring.
This all might sound weird but that’s the documentary part of the film, showing nothing but a computational scientific experiment run in 2021 and published on nature.com. The other part is extending that factual scientific scenario by a rather absurd fictional dimension. So in one line, the film is about machines capable of having babies and the purpose of existence. From a technical perspective, the most interesting aspect is probably the animation technique. Like in the scientific experiment I’m using machine learning to let the protagonists find out how to move and do things on their own. So it’s strictly speaking not even ‘animation’, but much more ‘machine training’.