Seven years in the making, the epic tale of unrequited love and self-discovery embraces the flamboyance that audiences have come to expect from Brown.
Tom C.J. Brown makes a splashy return to the film festival circuit this year with his new short film, Christopher at Sea. The British filmmaker first turned heads in 2007 by winning a Sundance Short Filmmaking Award with his animated short T.O.M.. He later went on to earn a dozen festival awards, from AFI Fest to SXSW, with his 2015 animated comedy short Teeth.
Christopher at Sea, well-received at such film festivals as Venice, Seminci, Uppsala, and Bucheon, is a transatlantic co-production between Psyop, Miyu Productions, and Temple Carrington & Brown. The short spotlights a lone passenger on a cargo ship whose grip on reality unravels as he dips his toe in the warm waters of his heart’s desire.
“Isolated and alone in an industrial and hyper-masculine world, it’s the story of someone’s struggle to discover their truth,” Brown explains. “The film uses melodramatic realism to explore Christopher’s inner turmoil and yearning against the backdrop of a monotonous sea voyage, creating tension between the real and a heightened version of the real to amplify emotions – just like opera, which plays a sonic role in the film.”
Feeling he had the melodrama down but hoping for more realism, Brown convinced production company Psyop to book him as a passenger on a cargo ship for a research trip, traveling 21 days from Southampton to New York. “Probably one of the worst experiences of my life,” says Brown. “But watching the sunset in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and listening to the Act 3 prelude of ‘La Traviata’ is a vibe, and the trip provided a wealth of needed first-person experience and reference imagery for the project.”
Brown’s operatic inclinations flow through the film in the form of Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die Scöne Müllerin,” performed by Judith Berkson with contributions by composer Brian McOmber, giving voice to Christopher’s unspoken emotions.
“At the beginning of 2020 I’d been listening to this music repeatedly, searching for a way to make the project relevant to who I was then, and again in 2015 when I started the film,” Brown explains. “When I realized the similarities between the song cycle’s protagonist and Christopher’s journey, I knew I’d found the key to the film’s emotional core in my new obsession, the opera.”
The final song of Schubert’s cycle plays a pinnacle role in the music as well as the film. “It’s composed in E-major, which traditionally denotes joy. Schubert wanted to leave his audiences with a happy ending, despite the tragic ending to his story. That’s what I wanted for my audience too, to leave them with a feeling of hope.”
The short began after the rumor of an artist residency onboard a cargo ship. “I just became obsessed with this idea of a passenger in that setting, the juxtaposition between the beauty of nature and bleak industrial design. It was a perfect environment for a love story which I’d always wanted to tell.”
But an unexpected discovery took the project into unchartered waters. Brown explains, “I felt the setting of a cargo ship was too predatory for a heteronormative love story and realized this all-male environment was the perfect place to explore a queer relationship.”
Exploring that theme, and staring at the reference photos of beautiful boys he had ripped out of fashion magazines and stuck on his wall, “I realized that the real reason I wanted to write a gay love story was that I was gay. Which was news to me.”
With this new unexpected awakening for Brown, the love story evolved to incorporate his personal journey and became entwined with his own struggle for identity, “discovering my truth, which involved a dramatic retelling of the communal showers in a hostel at Sundance, and the rewriting of a prophecy from my mother’s nightmares.”
Dodging Brexit, the U.K Variant, and after being quarantined twice, Brown arrived in Vendôme, France at the beginning of 2021 to start production at Ciclic Animation Residency which he had gained through presenting the project at Annecy’s Mifa Pitches along with support from Arte and CNC.
Between visiting 37 chateaux in the Loire Valley, Brown spent five months working with a team of five animators. “Using 2d animation was the perfect medium to have total control and enable us to break the illusion of reality we are creating.”
Among the visual challenges of making the film, Brown says, “I really wanted Christopher’s sweater to have a certain feel to it – ethereal, almost floating. You can feel the slow melody of the air flowing through his sweater. When drawing it, if we had to choose between what was correct and fashion, we chose fashion. So each frame of the film is a totally unique drawing of the sweater. We used a large fluffy brush to color it and finally added a boiling paint texture that we also used in the sea, so there was this visual link between the two.”
“There’s also a lot of body hair that my brave team of Hungarian cleanup artists took on,” he adds.
Another challenge Brown encountered was the ocean. “The problem with setting a film on a boat is there’s a lot of water to animate, for this film 62 shots. Luckily, Psyop was able to create all of the ocean sims, onto which we then painted waves, white caps, reflections, and sparkles. All that combined in comp with animating textures to create the final look of the sea.”
The fantasy sequences were an ideal opportunity to collaborate with some of Brown’s favorite animators. He enlisted the help of Raman Djafari and Jack Wedge to visualize the perspective-melting fantasies. Working with the pair, alongside the team of animators and cleanup artists and designer Rebekka Dunlap, the team was able to successfully create “psychedelic smears” to depict Christopher’s psychological unraveling.
Casey Spooner, who Brown collaborated with in 2018 on their music video TopBrazil, provides a new solo track, “Unsistered,” for one such moment, taking audiences out of the melancholy of Schubert into the technopop of homosexual desire.
Christopher at Sea is available to watch on Animation Showcase, alongside a fleet of upcoming festival screenings.