The Thomas Beale Cipher

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The Thomas Beale Cipher is the true story of an unsolved code, animated in a gorgeous blend of analaog textures and digtal techniques. The film itself contains 16 hidden messages -- and no one has solved all 16 yet. In this interview, the director of the film, Andrew S Allen, shares some of his thoughts on the creative development the film and strategies for filmmakers looking to build an audience online. 

The Atlantic: How did you discover the true story of the Thomas Beale Cipher? Have you ever been tempted to go searching for the treasure yourself (or do you think it’s a hoax)?

Andrew S Allen: I had an interest in cryptography from an early age. But it wasn't until recently that I came across the Beale Cipher on Wikipedia. The more I dug into the story, the more fascinated I became. It was such a rich story, and I was surprised to find that no one had told it yet.

Is it a hoax? I feel like the film's protagonist, Dr White — whether the treasure is real or not, I don't really care. The cipher is real, and it stands as the ultimate challenge for the best cryptanalysts out there — a sort of sword in the stone. I'm hopeful that one day someone will solve it.

The film has a truly unique look and feel, thanks to the combination of rotoscoping and real textures — fabric, wood, paper. John Pavlus at Fast Co Design called it “tweed noir,” which is a fabulous concept. Can you talk a little about the way you developed this look, and in particular, how you evoked that noir style with light and shadow? How did you bring these digital and analog elements together?

I don't really understand filmmakers with a "style", because to me, the look of a film should reflect the mood and atmosphere of the story. I was looking for something that was both suspenseful and playful. We blended aesthetics from different sources — the flat, graphical look of pre-war advertising with the cinematography of classic films. People back then put so much love into crafting things with their hands, and I wanted to make a film that captured that same devotion. I like visuals that you can't pin down to one method. When you combine a number of techniques it makes a film more interesting and less about the mastery of a craft and more about a beautiful story. We primarily used rotoscoping, but I we did it in a way that no one has really done before. I think we brought it to a more human place. We also used a range of techniques from stop-motion to hand-drawn animation to 3D to round out the film's atmosphere.

The music reflects that mashup as well. Eric Goetz did a fantastic job of doing a remix of the classic Hollywood brass score that combined a live brass orchestra and electronic instruments that were sampled and remixed together.

Your production strategy was also unique in that many of the artists involved were designers, rather than animators. Did having this design perspective shape the creative process?

If you put talented people in new situations, they'll often surprise you. They don't know the rules, so they wind up breaking most of them and interesting things come out of it. I worked with a talented crew of designers to animate the film who knew nothing about animation, but they brought a unique perspective around the framing of shots and a level of detail and richness in the scenes that I never would have gotten to on my own. When you're trying to tell a big story in a small space, a certain visual clarity is needed — that's something you see often in advertising design — we're just taking it to the film world.

You’ve written about the process of releasing the film online, in which you share some great advice for independent filmmakers looking to reach an audience beyond the festival circuit. You were initially apprehensive about posting the film on the web — what changed your mind?

I always knew I'd put the film online at some point. But I was apprehensive like most filmmakers to just put my baby out there and watch it sink in a sea of mediocrity. I've seen great short films with a pitiful number of online views. It's sad, but the online world is not the meritocracy it once was. I knew there had to be a way to give the film a better chance. It took us awhile to figure out. Once we did—I took the leap. The article was my way of passing that map on to other filmmakers.

The story has an interactive twist; 16 messages are hidden within the film, and there’s something delightful about poring over every carefully crafted frame to discover the clues. Was this a conscious decision to change how viewers watch the film? Has anyone solved all 16 messages?

No one has yet solved all 16. On the film's Facebook page, there's a discussion thread of people who have discovered some of the messages. The ciphers were hidden in the film from the beginning, but at the festival screenings, they just flew by. Online, people could pause and scrub through frame by frame, so people started to interact with the film in a way they hadn't done before. I think the greatest stories are ones that you enjoy watching over and over again — entertaining on the surface, but rewarding the deeper you go. This was my way of going deeper.

Can we look forward to a feature-length Thomas Beale?

There is a larger story worked out in my head. One day I'll flesh it out.

What’s next for you?

I launched a website with my co-producer, Jason Sondhi, called Short of the Week where we help filmmakers launch their films online. We've had a fair bit of success so far and want to keep expanding the options for filmmakers. The role of filmmaker is changing—it's no longer just a person who directs feature films. Filmmakers are storytellers at heart, and stories are permeating every area of our lives: fashion, brands, products, and politics. We now have the chance to not just tell stories but to tell them for a reason. Short of the Week is about creating a platform for filmmakers to tell those great stories and get them seen.

For more video from Andrew S Allen, see http://www.andrewsallen.com/.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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