The sea has always been a cinematic space rife with possibility; a place of isolation, a liminal space between lands. This is what makes the cargo ship setting of Tom C J Brown’s BIFA nominated animation Christopher at Sea the perfect location for its story of inward reflection and self-discovery. The plot concerns a young man aboard a transatlantic voyage and the chance encounter he has one night with one of the ship’s engineers. It’s a beautifully rendered animation with a delicate, painterly style that depicts the bending reality of Christopher’s perspective in a brilliantly fluid manner. DN spoke with Brown in the wake of his BIFA nomination to talk over his own personal journey of self-discovery that occurred during the making of the film, the melodramatic realist tone he sought to achieve, and animation’s ability to push your imagination into uncharted territory.
What inspired you to tell a story of a young man travelling at sea on a cargo ship?
It started as a love story, I really wanted to tell a more realistic love story in animation and while I was ruminating on this idea I heard about an insane artist residency called 23 Days at Sea. Then I was obsessed with cargo ship travel and had this great setting for a film, the beauty of nature juxtaposed with industrial design, and the two ideas folded into one another. Somewhere during the concept phase, when I was staring at pictures of beautiful boys ripped out of fashion magazines pinned above my desk, I realised that, probably the real reason I was telling a queer love story wasn’t because it fit better in the scenario, but because I was gay. So then Christopher’s story became entwined with my own journey and experiences, including a dramatic retelling of the communal showers from my first trip to Sundance in 2007.
How would you describe your screenwriting process? Does screenwriting for animation differ from live action for you?
Screenwriting for film or animation is the same it’s just story, but of course, animation as a medium for the story means you can dive into the depths of your imagination. I started writing scenes, mostly fantasies, the fun stuff, but I didn’t have an emotional thread that held them all together and I also didn’t know what it was like on a cargo ship. So I booked myself as a passenger on a 21-day voyage across the Atlantic which I used as a research trip and writing retreat, feeding my daily experiences into the story. I also worked with an amazing Script Doctor turned co-writer who helped me admit to myself what the core of the story was and create that emotional thread.
I booked myself as a passenger on a 21-day voyage across the Atlantic which I used as a research trip and writing retreat, feeding my daily experiences into the story.
I love the colourful, detailed visual style of Christopher at Sea, is it hand-drawn? What software/tech did you use to bring it to life?
It’s based on my illustration style, but I wanted something that had texture and an almost painterly quality to the look of the film. We used TVpaint which is an amazing cel animation software developed in France, using Cintiq monitors to draw directly into the program, like drawing on a piece of paper but with an undo button.
There are points where the animation shifts from a more grounded style into something much more fantastical, was that something you established during pre-production? And were those sections challenging to render?
One of the advantages of being an Executive Producer on your own projects is that you can have anything you want, as long as you can pay for it. So this enabled me to collaborate with some amazing artists like Jack Wedge, Raman Djafari, and my whole team of animators to figure out these sequences. But they were still the most challenging and impossible to create. In the film I experiment with Melodramatic Realism, to create a tension between the ‘real” and a heightened version of the ‘real’, one that better expresses emotion. In animation, you can take that one step further and I wanted to use animation’s ability to transcend reality into the fantasy of Christopher’s mind. So in a way, I set up the hyperreal almost live-action approach to the animation as a trojan horse to lure the audience into my reality before I broke it apart.
I wanted to use animation’s ability to transcend reality into the fantasy of Christopher’s mind.
Who composed the score and how did you collaborate with them? It gives such a reflective yet melancholic texture to the short.
I worked with Composers Brian Mcomber, Judith Berkson, and an amazing team at Antfood who were able to fold the musical score into the soundscape, including an aggressively homosexual track from Casey Spooner. The majority of the score is Schubert’s 1823 song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, the tale of a journeyman’s unrequited love that ends in despair. I’d been listening to the music a lot at the beginning of 2020 and wanted to use one of the songs in the film. After reading the libretto I realised the journeyman’s story was similar to Christopher’s and cherry-picked the music, pairing similar moments in the narratives together enabling the score to give voice to Christopher’s unspoken emotions. Brian and Judith created the piano score early on in the production so that the animators could sync their movements with the music in a holistic way.
What has attracted you to animation as a storytelling form?
In 2001 I went to the National Museum of Science and Media in Bradford, and hidden behind the sets of Wallace and Gromit I found the puppets to Barry Purves films. Something about them, I’m not sure what, awakened something inside me and as I watched the naked Adonis figures from his film Achilles fighting, wrestling, kissing, and it was right then and there that I mistakenly believed I wanted to be an animator! Animation is a great medium for exploring your character’s inner world, for luring your audience into an alternate reality. You can push this as far as your imagination can imagine, warping, squashing, and stretching the fabric of the reality you have created, you can do anything and that’s what always makes it so exciting to sit down and watch an animated film, strutting down the catwalk of filmmaking and showing how you slay.
Animation is a great medium for exploring your character’s inner world, for luring your audience into an alternate reality.
How do your other artistic pursuits inform your direction, if at all?
For me, it’s all part of the same and cross-pollinates into my work, I play, and sometimes I work, and all of it an endless stream of my own insanity.
Looking ahead, what are you working on next?
I’m developing a couple of features, all musicals of course; one is a sequel to Christopher that starts three years later and chronicles my ten years in New York, another is my triumphant return to England’s Peak District rising to the top of British politics, and one a timeless romance set in the not too distant future at my cousin John’s queer utopic hotel amid climate catastrophe. I’m trying to get a job at the local Palace Hotel for a little research but alas, they won’t take me. Luckily I am writing all of these from a shed at the end of my parents’ garden, so if anyone has a job for me… I’m available.