Interview with Michael Langan, creator of Doxology, by Sung-Joo Kim, head programmer for Seoul International Animation Festival
Sung-Joo Kim: What would you like to tell to audiences through “Doxology?”
Michael Langan: Learn to adapt to and find contentment in your surroundings.
SJK: What was your motivation for making the film?
ML: I set out to create a film, having no idea what the end product would be. The only rule I gave myself was to trust my intuition completely. I began by creating tons of animated “sketches,” very quickly-executed ideas, which accumulated into a bank of loosely-associated short films. I rushed the entire process, not allowing myself to censor or judge each idea before it had been executed. Eventually the pieces began to speak to one another, and I started drawing lines between them and shaping them into a film. The overarching theme that developed is an account and commentary on the relationship between Heaven and Earth, incidentally connected by tennis balls (which I like to think of as prayers.)
SJK: Could you explain your proprietary techniques used to make this film?
ML: I used a combination of stop-motion and pixilation in “Doxology,” with a little altered live action thrown in for good measure. There is one scene featuring 3D-animated snow, but nearly everything else in the film is photographed from life. I developed a number of original techniques for the film. The recurring image of the earth from space is in fact a time-lapse panorama of the sky from below, which I flipped upside-down and warped to simulate the curvature of the earth. The climactic scene at the conclusion of the film involves a combination of visual techniques which alter the original footage into a new interpretation of space and time. First, I shot image sequences out of plane windows with a digital still camera every time I flew in a commercial jet over the course of a year. Then I stabilized these shaky sequences on a focal point, like a church steeple, so it appears as if the viewer is rotating around this central point. Next I simulated a narrow depth of field by blurring the background and foreground, thereby miniaturizing the subject to call attention to the relativity of scale. Finally, I duplicated the footage several times and wove these sequences into themselves, creating an animated Shepard’s Scale in which time and distance appear to pass, but are in fact perpetually rooted to the same moment and place.
SJK: What was the most difficult point in the production of “Doxology?”
ML: The most difficult scene to animate in “Doxology” was the bathroom sequence, in which I appear to be brushing and flossing my teeth, combing my hair, cleaning my ears, lathering, and shaving all at the same time. This scene was shot using pixilation–that’s stop motion animation with actual people and places–one frame at a time, for two hours. Like some other effects that appear in “Doxology,” I had to first take out all drifting motion before I could connect the elements. Compare it to trying to assemble a puzzle on a boat in rough seas; you need everything still before you can put it together. After stabilizing each arm and the corresponding section of my face, I carefully pieced together every action so that they could all take place at once without interfering with one another. The last step was to re-introduce the motion I removed in order to assemble the puzzle. Shifting the head with the combing motion and including sideways bumps from toothbrushing and shaving makes the illusion seem more natural. The finished composite involved hundreds of layers and over three months of editing to reach completion.
SJK: Any notable memories?
ML: Perhaps my favorite part of filmmaking is designing the sound and music for a film. “Doxology” involved extensive original recording, for which I enlisted the help of a choir, two organists, a box of corn starch, and a mariachi band. The song which plays over the climax of the film is called “The Doxology,” which is an English hymn sung at the close of many church services. To achieve the full sound of an enormous church congregation, I had to multiply the sound of a single choir many times over. This required animating a sing-along video of sorts, from which the choir and organist could take their cues and sync up when joined by editing. I recorded the Higher Keys of Brown University in a large dance hall, asking them to sing the song ten times, changing their voices and positions after each take to add as much variety as possible to the recording. They sang like grandparents, children, opera singers, bored teenagers, and hopelessly tone-deaf churchgoers. On a separate day in another hall I recorded the organist playing the hymn with no choir. I then layered all of these sounds on top of each other, creating the illusion that the audience is listening to a single, gigantic congregation being led by an organist.
A little trivia: The music playing during the credits sequence is an old German klezmer tune, “My Hat, It Has Three Corners,” which is the theme to Jan Svankmajer’s film “Etcetera.” I adapted the song for a Mexican mariachi band and recorded it as an homage to one of my favorite filmmakers.
SJK: What is your purpose in creating animations? For commercial success or indie animation or what?
ML: My ultimate goal is simply to continue exercising my artistic license to the fullest extent possible. That said, I’m definitely not limited to independent filmmaking. So far I’ve been very content creating bizarre, commercial short films for a clothing label in San Francisco called Upper Playground. You can see these shorts at youtube.com/walrustv.