In a world of features, short films rarely get much attention. Yet the best five-minute shorts usually contain more originality and creativity than your average Hollywood blockbuster. That’s why we launched Short Stuff, a weekly profile on a promising short-form filmmaker and their newest piece of work. Think of it as an investment in the talent of tomorrow.
The times they are a-changing, in After You, a seven minute computer animation from Irish director Damien O’Connor. Set on the doorstep of a Dublin Hotel, the almost entirely dialogue-free short tells the story of a loyal doorman who attends his post for six long decades while watching the world change around him. Amongst the most significance evolutions is the advent of the revolving door; an invention that our silent hero fears will render him obsolete.
The design of Connor’s doorman, like a little Lego man, is wonderfully endearing, and suggests a simple, child-like innocence in the pleasure of a job well done. As the seasons pass – communicated via montage backed by a simple, elegant piano score – we watch him remain steadfast; dutiful in the face of unstoppable progress. The misty cinematography imbues the film with a beautiful sense of nostalgia, but a bittersweet ending suggests that a life lived worrying isn’t really lived at all.
Check out the film’s trailer, and my conversation with writer-director Damien O’Connor, below.
Movie Mezzanine: How would you describe your film in one sentence?
Damien O’Connor: The only constant is change.
When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
From a very young age. I remember seeing Star Wars as a child and complaining that the space ships should have been painted black with white spots to camouflage them. From that day on I decided I would one day make a science fiction opus with black and white spotted space ships. In hindsight it was a probably a little ambitious to take on Star Wars at six years old, but that was pretty much the beginning of my filmmaking obsession.
Did you study film and/or animation, and if so, where?
I studied animation at IADT in Dublin. I was extremely lucky to get in. I dropped out of school at 17 with no qualifications. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker but had no idea how to start. My neighbour at the time, Joe Wilson, was a fine art teacher and painter. He heard I could draw and helped me get a portfolio together. I applied to IADT and got called into an interview. The guy who interviewed me explained I could never get into college because I had not completed school and asked if I would consider going back to get my qualifications. I told him I wouldn’t. Then something amazing happened. He explained he was emigrating to America, he believed I should go to college, so he put me on the accepted list right there and then. And that was it, I was officially enrolled.
Of course once the college found out they freaked and spent the next 3 years trying to kick me out, but I was young and arrogant enough to just keep going back. I eventually graduated with a dash as my final mark. To this day I have no idea what a dash signifies but I’m guessing it’s not good.
Tell me about some other projects you’ve been involved with?
We’re really lucky in Ireland, the level of support from the Irish Film Board for short films is amazing and I have been fortunate enough to have had three earlier films funded by them. Mutt, which tells the tale of a young boy who finds the body of his younger brother, Ledog, which tells the tale of a man who falls in love with a stray dog, and Dick Terrapin, which is about my dead pet turtle. You know, the usual Hollywood fare.
After I made Dick Terrapin I decided I wanted to try my hand at live action. In an astonishingly stupid move I decided to travel to the ‘official’ worst place on earth, which was then listed as Angola. I ended up going there with a camera crew just as the war was ending with a loose idea of making a documentary. We traveled across the war torn country, talked a lot about landmines and saw some genuinely horrifying things. It certainly lived up to it’s billing as worst place on earth. I came back to Ireland and got a job filming horse races. I worked my way up to directing – in as much as you can ‘direct’ a horse race. Given that they run in circles it was pretty much a case of going from camera one to camera two to camera three etc etc etc. I did it for three long years and was well out the animation world by then.
Just as I had given up on everything animated, I got a call out of the blue from Brown Bag Films, one of Europe’s biggest animation studios. They had heard I was a traditionally trained 2D animator who could also edit (I had learnt editing in an attempt to finish off the proposed Angola documentary) and they wanted to know If I would like to work as an editor on a series of Noddy. I jumped at the chance. Haven’t been near a horse or war since. I’ll be forever grateful to Brown Bag Films for giving me a chance to get back into animation.
Where did the idea for After You originate?
A distant relative died. No one really knew him but somehow my auntie ended up having to look after their funeral arrangements. The whole arranging thing kind of stopped when she heard how much funerals cost, so she had him cremated instead. The cemetery wanted some sort of payment to house the urn, so another family member sneaked into the graveyard at night, put the ashes into a grocery bag and buried it in the family plot. That left them with a now empty urn. No one was too keen on keeping it, probably the guilt of lashing the fella into the ground in a shopping bag, so I took the urn into my house. After a few months it ended up holding a door open. One day it dawned on me, I knew nothing about the guy. For all I knew he could have been a doorman when he was alive. So that is pretty much how it came about.
From that initial idea, what goes into getting the film made?
The Irish Film Board, our National broadcaster (RTE), The Arts Council and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland run a short animation scheme called ‘Frameworks’. Anyone can submit and they fund about four to five short films a year. I wrote a draft of the script about five years ago. At that stage it was about a man who hated working as a hotel doorman. He gets so stressed out by his dislike for the job he dies and the hotel use his urn as a door stop. The problem was it read pretty much as a joke and it kept getting turned down for funding. I worked out the script and resubmitted. I got called into a short list meeting, after pitching the idea they turned it down again on the grounds that they thought it would be too difficult to convey sixty years of a city in seven minutes. I waited a year and resubmitted. This time I pitched it with a full animatic (timed out storyboard with music, sound effects etc). That convinced them it could be done within seven minutes and they gave me the grant.
Your based in Ireland, but your animation director was based in New Zealand. What is it like trying to coordinate with collaborators on the other side of the world?
It was brilliant. I had a great crew, the guys at Brown Bag Films were just fantastic. Even though the animation director, Matthew Darragh was based in New Zealand it still worked out great. We used Dropbox to upload/download files and Skype to communicate. Matt was working with some of the students from South Seas college in NZ, and again, their work was fantastic. Having the production in two time zones also had the knock on benefit of making it a 24 hour a day production.
What inspired the character designs and the overall look of the film? Were there any films or filmmakers that were of particularly strong influence on you for this project?
My characters are usually a lot darker. That wouldn’t work for this film…I knew the lead had to be cute. After that it was a question of sketching and trying different things till I got the current doorman character. I used him as a jumping off point for the others. I love the Studio AKA adaptation of Lost And Found so was influenced by the look and feel of that film. The dream-like opening of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit served as a sort of mood template. Live action has always had a huge influence on me and now that CGI has made it possible to mimic the camera moves and set ups of live action in animation, it really is the best of both worlds.
To me, the film seems to have a lot to say about the things we lose as time passes; how technology has made us busier, with less human interaction. Were these themes things you were specifically interested in tackling?
The only permanent things in life are love and friendship – and even they don’t come with any guarantees. Everything else is fleeting. Possessions get lost or destroyed, jobs come and go, success is cyclical and yet we all (myself very much included) march on worrying about the nonsense. I met people in Angola who had absolutely nothing, not even limbs. Now it would be patronising and ridiculous to suggest they were happier as a result, but they were a lot more tuned in to what was important. So when I hear someone complaining that their Z260000 E phone upgrade isn’t working 100% it annoys me. Technology is brilliant. We are extremely lucky to have it and I disagree that it causes less human interaction. I interact with hundreds more people now then I did a few years ago.
We also romanticise the past to a terrible degree. If anyone wants to know why technology is so great I recommend they use their iPhone to Google polio. So ultimately the doorman in the film was wrong to worry about progress. By all means love your door, knock your self out opening and closing it. But if it goes, it goes. You want true happiness, shut your door and go to the Woman In The Hat. Above all else just try to leave something behind that improves the world. Even if it makes one person happier, it has been a life well lived.
How much time have you spent with After You in total, from conception to production to having it screened?
I met a director recently who told me I mumbled something to him about a doorman film idea seven years ago. So it was probably knocking around in my head for that long. I spent maybe about three years trying to get money. Once we got financing the production was actually really fast, about eight months in total. Contractually I had to show it first at the Galway Film Fleadh and I missed the first year’s festival by about a month, so it had to literally sit of a shelf till the next Galway fest came around. I was allowed screen it a month early at the Annecy Film Festival as part of an Irish retrospective though, but it was officially released at the Galway Film Fleadh last July.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing emerging filmmakers at the moment?
The amount of noise out there. Everyone can make a film now, which is a great thing. But we’re now swamped with films. Someone starting out has to convince others that their film is worth watching. The upside is they have a film, the downside is so does everyone else. It’s a catch 22.
As a short filmmaker, how does the Internet affect the way you market and distribute your movie?
Hugely. On my last film I made badges, actual badges that you would convince people to wear. They wore my badges, people would see my badges and ask about my film. That was my marketing strategy – human billboards. If the billboard wearing the badge liked my film enough to and convinced the other person to watch it, they would email me and I would post them a DVD. It was so antiquated it was like something from Gone With The Wind. Now I put the film online with all the other noise (see above) and then annoy people on Twitter to watch the trailer, or worse, like the Facebook page. But is also allows me compliment other peoples’ work and to send them my own. It’s great, I love it. I also love the idea of creator going direct to consumer. Cut out the middle man. I love how people put out things for free and people pay them if they like it. It’s a lovely old fashioned concept in a very modern setting. We’re all buskers now.
What other projects do you have you got coming up in the future? Would you like to make the transition into features at some point?
My day job as a storyboard artist at Brown Bag Films allows me be involved with great projects on a daily basis. The Octonauts, Henry Hugglemonster, Doc McStuffins, Peter Rabbit are all brilliant and I’m very fortunate to be involved with them. I’ve written two live action feature scripts. One has been optioned, the other one is just finished so I’ll be tentatively sending that out soon. If the traditional funding route takes too long I long I am seriously considering the DIY approach. An executive at the Film Board said something great to me recently; he told me to focus on Damien O’Connor Inc. So I guess I’ll be doing that; I’ll be subtly focusing on Damien O’Connor Inc.
Where are some of the places After You has been screened so far, and where can people catch it now?
It has screened at Annecy, Galway Film Fleadh, Cork Film Fleadh, Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival to name but a few. It is due to screen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Dingle Film Festival, Animate Exeter and Cinequest which I am really looking forward to (if anyone is in Cinequest this March please say hello). It has also just been nominated for an Irish Film and Television Award which is a huge honor.
Where can people find out more about you and the film online?
Are you a short filmmaker interested in being featured in ‘Short Stuff?’ If so, please shoot an email to tomdclift[@]gmail[.]com