Animation and Poetry Meet in 'Heliotropes'

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In the words of filmmaker Michael Langan, Heliotropes "documents the parallel goals of man and nature, through the most primitive and sophisticated means, to simply stay in the light." Based on the poem by Brian Christian, the short film is an inventive blend of animation, live action footage, and poetry. Langan discusses his creative process and the making of the film in an interview below. 

The Atlantic: How did you get into filmmaking and animation? What was the RISD film program like?

Michael Langan: I arrived at RISD expecting to graduate a full-fledged graphic designer, making concert posters and logos and whatnot. At the time, I was attacking all kinds of media: writing music, performing in musicals at Brown, DJ-ing, painting, shooting photos, and designing posters, and I didn't plan on giving up any of these things to pursue just one of them. One of my professors suggested I look into the film program, and I realized that film combines all these media into one delicious little time-based package. It was like I'd been working toward filmmaking for years without realizing it, and I immediately loved it.

The couple of years I spent in RISD's animation program were incredible, and jived with what I now understand to be the school's overall approach: they focused more on discovering your voice as an artist than technical training. Which is great, because the tools will change, but having that broader skill (being an artist) endures.

What was the inspiration for Heliotropes?

Heliotropes came about during a very intense summer. I'd just shot four commercials in a span of a couple of weeks and was burning the candle at both ends completing post-production, when the Venice Film Festival asked me if I had anything new they could consider for a premiere. I decided to quit sleeping altogether and make a film.

The film is based on a poem by my friend (and recent best man) Brian Christian, who published it in a 2008 issue of Ninth Letter. We'd been looking for an opportunity to collaborate on a project for years, and I leapt at the chance to adapt my favorite BC poem. It was going to happen eventually, and Venice provided the incentive to start the project. I should mention that Heliotropes didn't make the cut, but that allowed me several more months to revise the film before its premiere at SXSW.

The sequence where the still images of the birds are animated to create a continuous movement is really cool, and there are a lot of inventive visual twists in this piece. How did you develop your signature blend of stop motion and live action imagery?

There's a little movie theater inside my head. When an idea comes about, it usually starts in the form of words (say, "a man dancing with a car"). I then feed those words to the movie theater, and my brain plays back a completed film. Then I go out and shoot what I saw in my head. The technique that my brain subconsciously uses in the head-movie usually turns out to be the most efficient means of expressing the given idea. I just do what my head tells me.

Langan's 2007 short film, Doxology, does in fact feature a man dancing with a car:

How do you balance commercial work with your more experimental projects?

Very luckily, my experimental films advance my commercial career, and vice-versa. Mekanism signed me based on the success of my independent films and my quirky style, and expect me to deliver this when I direct a commercial. When I make a new film, I'm also defining my voice as a director and demonstrating new ways of depicting ideas, which helps the commercial world to see what I can achieve in that sector. And depending on the commercial project, I'm developing new techniques for an ad which I can then use in my independent work. Case in point: the fast-paced replacement animation and stabilized images I created for this Upper Playground ad became a crucial study for my subsequent short film, "Dahlia." So I can pour passion into both departments and each one doesn't get too jealous of the other, knowing that what's good for one side is good for both of them.

Thanks to sites like Vimeo, it seems like more experimental filmmakers are finding an audience for their work online, beyond festivals, museums, etc. Has showing your work on the web changed how you approach experimental video?

The Internet hasn't changed the way I make films. In fact, I'm afraid my films are getting more and more suited to giant screens and large, festival-going audiences. But being able to reach beyond festival audiences, into the homes and offices of people literally worldwide, has been nothing but a great thing for me.

There's a fear of the Internet in the experimental film world. That exclusivity should be treasured, and the ultimate inclusiveness offered by the Internet somehow cheapens a film. Perhaps that's true of a limited-edition gallery DVD at $10,000 a pop, but beyond that, I don't see the harm in increased exposure. In fact, the Internet provides a much greater opportunity for work to be discovered by media buyers, making independent film financially sustainable, even. And with the streaming quality of online video increasing every day, the arguments against going online grow weaker: not all festivals can screen HD, but Vimeo is streaming HD to anyone with a decent Internet connection, 24/7. It's relatively new and scary, and it's bound to change the game, but it's definitely a good thing in my mind.

What's next for you?

For the past year I've been shooting a new film entitled "Choros," a visually wild, experimental dance film collaboration with Harvard animation professor Terah Maher. It's just a matter of weeks away from the final edit, and I can't wait to get it out there.

In October I'll be traveling to the Loire Valley to begin shooting "Butler Woman Man" with Paprika Films, Paris. It's a bizarre account of a chateau whose inhabitants transform into one another when we're not looking.

For more videos by Michael Langan, visit http://langanfilms.com/. Brian Christian wrote a story "Mind vs. Machine" for the Atlantic in March 2011.

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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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