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The Making of MORE, Part Two
Writer-director Mark Osborne on his award-winning stop-motion short subject.
By Steve Biodrowski
November 29, 1999
Whatever the difficulties of working in the large screen format, writer-director Mark Osborne also found himself the beneficiary of several donations, including a motion-control rig. 'The year that I got to Cal Arts as a teacher, I went back to some professional motion-control places, one in particular, Image G, that I had been working with, and asked them to consider donating,' he explained. Image G owner and Cal Arts alumnus Tom Barron was happy to oblige. 'I just got him on the right day at the right time, and he donated a whole rig and a 35mm camera. This rig was in really good shape. A year earlier it was in use, shooting STAR TREK; normally stuff donated to schools is forty years old and dusty. I got a crash course in the software and basically was learning while I was going. I think it allowed for a lot of nice subtle drama in the film. Of course, I couldn't move the camera very quickly, because of the strobing, but I knew I was setting up this moody dramatic tale anyway; it helped create a live-action feel which I always have in my work, where I just have these subtle camera moves that help tell the story without being too overly visible.'
The result is some smooth tracking shots through the monochromatic cityscape. Surprisingly, even these motion-control shots, without any animated characters, were shot in stop-motion. 'Everything had to be shot single frame--even the merry-go-round, which is basically a kinetic sculpture with a little mechanism so that everything moved when you turned it--because our only camera, the camera we got on loan to shoot the 65mm neg, was a single-frame camera. It made for some real boring shots! But those are the quickest.'
When animation was required, Osborne didn't simply sit back and direct; he jumped in and took a hands-on approach: 'Mainly because I have such a small crew and we were working around the clock trying to get things together, I just started animating, assuming I was going to hand off some of it later down the road. The set up was so impossible and the conditions were really rough, so I didn't feel I should ask anyone else, for the amount of money I was paying! Once I had it set up--the lighting and the camera moves--the animation was the easy part, almost. So I jumped in, and once I started with the main character, everyone on my crew thought I should continue. I did hand off shots later on; everyone helped do the factory shots and the bigger shots. But a lot of the singular character shots I did a lot of that, almost all of it myself. I like every stage of production, so it's kind of sad to have projects get bigger, because I can't do it by myself. Early on I realized this film was going to need a lot of collaboration because it just got too big.'
Of the meticulous process of stop-motion, Osborne said, 'I like it. Originally, I wanted to be an actor while growing up, but I had tremendous stage fright. I think I bagged it because it was just too stressful. But I really liked performing, so I was really happy when I found animation, because it allowed me to perform again, while hiding. I could convey emotion and perform through these puppets, and not have to talk about it till afterward.' He added, 'It's like a love-hate kind of thing: I do it, and then I hate it afterward for a little while. But I came off this being really happy with it; I liked the way a lot of it came out. We didn't have too many reshoots because we didn't have time. There were some shots I wasn't really happy with, but we just couldn't redo them. The time crunch was really crazy on this. There were shots that had lots of animation planned that ended up becoming quite limited. Like the bus: it would have been great if everybody had been looking around and blinking, but in the end we just panned by the bus. But once I got people to buy into this world, we could take some liberties, and I think some of it comes off pretty seamlessly.'
In one of the more startling bits of imagery, the film switches to cell animation to convey the view scene through the unnamed lead character's invention, a pair of mechanical-looking goggles that transform the drab world into a breathtakingly colorful landscape. Why the switch from three-dimensional puppets to two-dimensional drawings? 'Actually, originally it was supposed to be stop-motion,' Osborne admitted, then went on: 'In GREENER, there's this dramatic change in mediums to drawn animation when it goes underwater. I always thought that was really appropriate, and I wasn't being just showy with it. When I started MORE, I was working with the same species of characters, so I had some reservations about not making it too much like GREENER. So early on, I was going to do it all in stop-motion. Then we got into a huge time crunch. The way that I was conceptualizing the fantasy sequences--I had ideas, but I couldn't figure out how to achieve them through stop-motion and have them look fanciful and different and otherworldly, so it came out of necessity, because once school started I had to finish shooting really quickly. So we had to figure out another way to do those segments. Once I started thinking of cell animation, it just seemed perfect; it seemed like an opportunity to use another medium and have it be for a good purpose. So it was not intentional, but it worked for the best.'
There is a perhaps too subtle element to the animated scenes: the film's inventor periodically checks inside a small hatch in his stomach, which emits a pulsating glow--apparently his spiritual essence or life force. In order to complete his invention, he inserts a few drops of this philosopher's stone, which is supposed to be apparent in the cell animation that follows. 'I don't know how evident it is, but there's this pulsating color, and it's actually the same color and light that comes out of his stomach, because it's using the same replacement cell animation. We actually had little replacement elements that went into his stomach that projected different light each frame. So it's sort of like 'How do I take this light in this 3-d world and bring it into this sequence without having it look the same,' so it was a cool way to bring in this other element, and it also made it not look like regular 2-d.'
Despite the planning and storyboarding, not to mention time and budget constraints that prevented shooting lots of excess footage, there was a lot to do once the film reached the editing phase. This is a bit surprising, because the arduous process of stop-motion doesn't usually allow for covering a scene from multiple angles that have to be sorted out in the editing room. 'I was surprised at how much editing I did on this,' said Osborne. 'When things got so crunched, we stuck to the boards, but we had to change on the fly a lot of times, so there were scenes where we couldn't stick to the boards at all, and we had to change and combine things. We were doing three shots a day, and even that wasn't enough to get us back on schedule. All along, I was dropping our dailies into the animatics, just to make sure things were working. That was the first time I had edited while going along, so I could really see how it was coming together and change upcoming shots to fit in with previous shots. Toward the end, I ended up cutting a bunch of stuff and using stuff I didn't think I would use. We had to edit around problems and eliminate things we didn't have time to reshoot, so there was a certain amount of creative problem solving in the editing phase, which is weird for animation because usually you don't have that much footage to work with. Luckily, we had some alternate stuff and some extra stuff that we were able to throw around and come up with some solutions.'
One of the last elements to fall into place was the source of initial inspiration for the film: the music rights to use New Order's 'Elegia' as the soundtrack, did not come through until last minute. 'I think I always figured they would go along with it,' said Osborne. 'It's no big deal to them, but it was worrying me that it was hard to get in touch with them and get them to sign off. I figured at worst I could buy the sheet music and have someone perform it. But I was in denial, because I did not want to think about the possibility of not having it on the soundtrack, because there was no time to do anything else, anyway. When we found out about that, it was a big relief. It was literally two days before the end of shooting; it was so ridiculous. Whenever anyone would ask me about it, it was off limits; everyone knew not to ask.'
However hectic the experience, it was all worthwhile, if only for the experience of finally seeing his work's debut on the Science Center's IMAX Theater. Addressing the appreciative crowd after the applause had died down, Osborne exhaled in relief, 'Wow, that was weird!' Looking back on the moment, he explained, 'I was pretty burned. I was really happy. I couldn't believe we had pulled it off. The situation was so intense; no one involved could believe it all came together. The mood that night, the electricity--it was such a cool experience. I was reeling afterwards; I really felt like I had been beaten up--it was really weird.'
In the film, the inventor creates something that brings beauty into the world, but his success turns out to be a hollow victory (reminiscent of the last line of The Who's 'Won't Get Fooled Again': 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss'): The character is now ensconced in a high-rise office, the fire of his life force burnt out, while a new generation of factory workers toil at mass producing this new invention (called Bliss). Of the downbeat message, Osborne said, 'The first time I heard the song, when I was coming up with the structure, I heard that hit of the music, where it changes to intense and that image was totally there: you realize this guy is now the evil boss. To me, it was ingrained in the music, and I felt I had to stay true to that. What came to me was almost a cautionary tale. Here I had this opportunity to make this film; I was making my invention, so to speak, that would hopefully make the world better and give me some success; but at the same time, I knew what the downfalls of that were, and I think I was a little bit afraid. I had seen other people around me, people I'd worked with, who made me feel I wanted to be different from that. It was really like, here's this sad story I'm going to tell about what could have been great but ended up going sour. In a sense I didn't get too bummed out, because I was trying to get this out so it was in the film instead of in my future!'
The prospects in Osborne's future do seem to have been improved by the film and its Oscar nomination. Although a win would have improved chances for distribution of 35mm prints to regular theatres, the film went on to numerous festivals and IMAX engagements, including showings in November at the Hawaiian International Film Festival, the Stockholm Festival, and the St. Louis International Films Festival (where it won an award for Best Short Subject). The film also took the audience Grand Prize at ResFest, beating out its Oscar nemesis, BUNNY. Next, it will appear on Broadcast DVD's Cannes Filmfest disc in December. Meanwhile, Osborne has signed with International Creative Management, one of the top talent agencies, and is on the verge of completing his first full-length, live-action film, a black comedy called DROPPING OUT. Still, Osborne is careful to listen to his own warning, as presented in MORE.
'I did feel the beginnings of the film were relevant to my life,' he continued. 'But then I felt like, this second half could happen--but won't, I hope! Let me make this clear to myself that this is something to be concerned about. He comes to this crossroads. He finishes this invention, and it is using his spirit, his essence. He does finally finish it, using his dream or whatever you would call that life inside of him--that passion. It's almost like the invention has virtue, but it's a way to hide from the world, too. So even though he finishes it, it's not like a perfect thing. What I found was his main reason for finishing it was his anger at his boss. That's the thing that sent him over the edge: he gets so mad at his boss that he finishes the invention to become the new big boss. It's almost like he forgets why he was doing it, and it sends him off in another direction. So it's sort of like you think you can change the world, but you forget, so it's reminding everyone not to forget.'
If there is a ray of hope at the conclusion, it resides in the repeated image of the merry-go-round. The inventor has dreamed of it on several occasions: it's either a childhood memory or wishful thinking for a past that never was; in either case, it provides the inspiration for his invention. Once that inspiration has given way to greed and power, a glint of color catches his eye through his office window. Looking out over the towering city buildings, he catches a distant glimpse of a real merry-go-round spinning happy children around, indicating that the source of inspiration is still out there, somewhere. 'It's sort of like an invention in his mind, this mechanism he's made that can only exist in his imagination...until he realizes these images do exist.' Osborne explained. 'It's just outside of his experience, at that stage. It's almost like he dreams about this youth, and at the end he sees it really far away. I'd rather worry about what it means later and try to be true to the images that are coming to me. What I sort of pull from it--after the smoke clears and I'm looking at it and going 'What was I thinking?'-- he realizes that he was looking within and he was really seeing clearly. This difference he was looking for still existed in the innocence of these children in the playground, where it didn't matter that the world was in black and white and the city was depressing; they still had this youth and vitality. So he realizes that it wasn't to be manufactured. He should have just paid attention to the light and the dream and the color. When people worry that it's too dark, I think the children at the end are the glimmer of hope. Also, this new factory worker, looking up at the boss, instead of being angry he's just in awe, wondering how could this man be so cruel. So he's a glimmer of hope, and these children are a glimmer of hope, so maybe the cycle can be broken next time.'
So, the somber ending is not a reflection of Osborne's true attitudes, which are far more optimistic. Then where do these dark undertones come from? Osborne offers a theory that has been suggested to him 'A couple of my students said, 'We've been trying to figure out why your films are so dark and you're such a happy guy. We decided you're so happy because you get all your negative stuff out in your work.''