Friday, March 27, 2015

Timothy Reckart's inventive "Head Over Heels" may be the first film with a featurette about film scoring that's longer than the film itself

This house is crazier than the Jamiroquai house, where everybody walks around like they're on a treadmill.
It's been such a long time since I've written enthusiastically about a short film that I've forgotten how my own blog style guide's policy goes for when I have to type out titles of short films. So I've had to go back to older material from my blog and verify that policy. It turns out that I'm supposed to bookend titles of short films with quotation marks instead of italicizing them, just like with titles of short stories or TV series episodes.

Stop-motion animator Timothy Reckart's 2012 short Head Ov... "Head Over Heels," which Reckart just recently made available to watch in its entirety online for free, is so good I kind of wish it won the Best Animated Short Oscar in 2013 instead of Disney's "Paperman." (In 2013, "Head Over Heels" and "Paperman" also happened to be up against the Simpsons theatrical short "The Longest Daycare," which I love for both its jab at Ayn Rand and the adversary "Longest Daycare" writers James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, David Mirkin, Michael Price and Joel H. Cohen chose to pit Maggie against.) Like "Head Over Heels," "Paperman" is a clever short about a man struggling to communicate his feelings to a woman he adores. But "Head Over Heels" is about adult problems--like how do you salvage a long-term relationship that has lost its spark, and how do you do that when so many obstacles to communication are in the way?--and that makes it the more intriguing of the two Oscar-nominated 2012 romantic shorts.

The Annie Awards ceremony is my favorite award show named after an orphan who was born without eyeballs.
Timothy Reckart, accepting his Annie Award for "Head Over Heels" (Photo source: Animation Magazine)

An Annie Award winner for Best Student Project (it was made at the National Film and Television School in the U.K.), Reckart's 10-minute film is both a dialogue-less and surprisingly affecting comedy about a strained marriage and a nifty sci-fi short story set in a bizarre and unexplained reality where the laws of physics are different from our world's laws of physics. So because of the reality the short takes place in, the biggest obstacle to communication between middle-aged Walter and his ex-ballet dancer wife Madge isn't the increasingly common problem of smartphone addiction. Instead, it's gravity.

Walter and Madge live in a floating house where Walter's ceiling is Madge's floor and her ceiling is his floor. We don't know what exactly caused their marriage to become strained or why they no longer share the same gravity. All we do know is that it's entertaining to watch them go about their day as if everything's normal in their topsy-turvy world.

Meanwhile, in our topsy-turvy world where special features, which, for a long time, have been the best part of a DVD or Blu-ray, are unfortunately becoming an endangered species because younger viewers prefer to stream movies instead of watching bonus-filled physical copies of them, Reckart's strategy of getting viewers to watch his short online is noteworthy. It's not just because of his wish to keep special features alive by treating viewers to a bunch of fascinating little extras about the making of "Head Over Heels" ("On the one hand, the death of DVD is great, because the physical production of DVDs has been a barrier to entry for short filmmakers like me. On the other hand, what happened to special features?," says Reckart). It's also because one of those bonuses is an audio-only featurette about film scoring--and it's almost three times longer than "Head Over Heels" itself, like how the documentary about the making of Superman Returns is much longer than Superman Returns itself (and a slightly more enjoyable film too, simply because of the moment when Kevin Spacey cracks up the film's crew with his Brando impression while audio of Brando as Jor-El is being played aloud on the set).

Any featurette about the film scoring process is worthwhile to me because I put strictly film and TV score music into rotation on my radio station, and I'm always interested in hearing about how that kind of music gets made. Film and TV scoring is a process not a lot of people understand or are aware of, even after the release of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, whose main character was a struggling (and way-too-frequently-naked) TV composer, so the audience saw a few scenes of him at work. Featurettes like the scoring discussion Reckart recorded with Jered Sorkin, his short's composer, are invaluable because they get those outsiders to understand the process.

I had only five questions for Reckart--whose prior stop-motion shorts include 2009's "Token Hunchback," a mockumentary about a Hollywood actor born with a hunchback--when I interviewed him over e-mail. That's because in the extras or in other interviews, he goes into so much detail about the animation process and the music that he basically answers all the other questions I had about the making of "Head Over Heels."

This is what every episode of Star Trek should have actually looked like, but a zero gravity setting would have been too difficult to film on a soundstage. Also, Shatner would have needed much stronger glue for his toupee.

Jimmy J. Aquino: The only other Oscar-nominated 2012 animated shorts I've watched besides yours are "Paperman" and "The Longest Daycare." All the nominated animated shorts from that year, including yours, contained no dialogue. What made you decide to go without dialogue for "Head Over Heels"?

Timothy Reckart: Yes, that's true--all five of the nominees that year were done without dialogue. For "Head Over Heels," I had an instinct that it shouldn't have dialogue, probably because the premise already said a lot using just an image and no words. So in order to be true to the spirit of the premise, I felt that we needed to find nonverbal ways to tell the story. It wasn't easy, actually! There are drafts of this movie that do have placeholder dialogue because I couldn't figure out how to boil it down to just a visual. The biggest breakthrough was creating that wedding picture, because it tells us that they used to be on the same level when they first got married, and it also becomes a prop where the disagreement can manifest visually, instead of verbally. We don't need to hear an argument if we can see them rearranging the photo on the wall.

JJA: Your short is only 10 minutes long, but it took about six months to animate the stop-motion puppets. What materials are those puppets made out of?

TR: The puppets are made of foam latex, the same material used for the puppets in The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's a look I really love and wanted to have for "Head Over Heels." Underneath the foam latex is a metal ball-and-socket armature, which holds the puppet in position and allows it to be animated. And then the heads are hard pieces made of Fast Cast--the only parts of the faces that move are the eyes, eyelids and eyebrows. The mouths change via a replacement mouth system--we had various options for smiles, frowns, open mouth, etc.

JJA: I love how Madge still moves like a ballet dancer even when she's vacuuming, a character detail I wasn't aware of until I watched the "Heels Over Head" version of the short, a.k.a. the same story told from Madge's point of view, right after the original version. Did you refer to ballet footage from a tablet or phone while animating those scenes, or did you refer to animatics of Madge?

TR: It's great to hear that you found new things in the "Heels Over Head" version! I think it's really interesting how the eye just can't register certain things when they're upside down. This is exactly why I wanted to make the upside-down version public. So, the only ballet reference I used for Madge was a Skype chat with my little sister Liz, who is a really talented ballet dancer. We talked through the moves that could be suitable for various moments with Madge. But then, as an animator, you have to internalize that movement, and so it wasn't so much about referencing outside footage as it was about teaching myself to move in that way, and then passing that movement on to the puppets. When you're animating, you're really acting, only you're doing the performance frame by frame. And so you have to get a physical understanding of the weight and strain of a particular movement, and the only way to do that is to do the movement yourself.

JJA: The most interesting part of your featurette about the short's score, other than Jered Sorkin pointing out that he actually recorded his guitar riffs under his kitchen table, is the explanation of temp tracking [layering footage of a work-in-progress with music that won't be used in the final cut] and how that shaped his score. I've never watched Paris, Texas, but I'm familiar with Ry Cooder's minimalist score, which you suggested to your composer as a model for the score.

What I like about "Head Over Heels" is that it's affecting without being sentimental, and so is the Paris, Texas score. Do you have any other favorite similarly minimalist film or TV scores?

TR: Yeah, the kitchen table thing was a surprise to me!

The Paris, Texas score is really amazing, and yes, like you say, it's not sentimental. It doesn't dictate the emotions of the film, but it suggests the depth of those emotions. I think of two other film composers who seem to have the same approach. The first is Carter Burwell, especially his score for Fargo. It's pretty much just one melody, but that melody is so key to the tone of the film. It's the only part of the film that's mournful, that actually suggests the tragic side of the story. Without it, I think the film would be too light and funny, and wouldn't have the same painful impact. But it resists the temptation to follow the emotional contours of the story. It's just there, this implacable voice telling you that this story is sad.

The other composer I think of is David Julyan, who I first encountered through his score for The Prestige, which gets you lost in this murky, dark, ambient fog. But the score I discovered later, that I like even better now, is his score for The Descent. It's one of the scariest movies I've ever seen, and I think part of what works so well about it is that David Julyan isn't just scoring horror cues to get your pulse up. There's a real deep beauty to the music, that mirrors the subtext: the main character's descent to a primal state. Just like Carter Burwell and Ry Cooder, David Julyan is adding depth to the film, rather than just emphasizing the emotions coming through the picture. The music is its own voice.

JJA: Studios are cutting back on DVD or Blu-ray extras. I have a million favorite DVD or Blu-ray extras, but because we're discussing animation, I'll cite the footage of the Fantastic Mr. Fox cast recording their dialogue outdoors and any deleted scene from classic-era Simpsons as examples of my favorite DVD or Blu-ray extras. What are some examples of your favorite DVD or Blu-ray extras?

TR: I was the perfect age for The Lord of the Rings--late high school, pretty sure I wanted to be a filmmaker but still very hungry for my own generation's Star Wars to inspire me. And so when the extended versions came out on DVD, my two brothers and I devoured that content. My youngest brother actually insisted on looking at every bit of data on the disc, including every image in the image galleries and the credits for the DVD production! But yeah, I loved those special features. It gave me a feeling of owning the film in a special way. I could watch it on two levels: the story level, and the level of a fellow filmmaker who knew "how they did it." It made filmmaking feel within reach for me. Another favorite is Henry Selick's commentary track for The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I must have watched like 10 times during high school. I can still recall parts of it. Personally, I'm a huge fan of commentary tracks, even more so than "Making Of" featurettes. And they're so easy to make that when a DVD or Blu-ray comes out without commentary, I can't help feeling like the filmmakers just got lazy.

More "Head Over Heels" extras can be found on Vimeo or the short's official site. The "Head Over Heels" score album is available via Bandcamp.

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