WORDS: ARIEL JACOBSON ('15), FILM EDITOR
When I asked Raphael Linden, filmmaker extraordinaire '15, to come over to my house so I could interview him about his amazing stop-motion work, it was really just an excuse for him to bring his ferret Oswaldo over to meet my cat Picklez. What we found out was that cats and ferrets don't really get along. Regardless, I got to learn a lot about the man behind the animation, plus we still forced Picklez and Oswaldo into a few dozen cute pictures (see below.) Check out his latest works, Homunculus with Milk and Orifice with Flora, and if you're wondering "how does he do that???" read our chat below and you can thank me later.
AJ: So when exactly did you start playing around with stop motion?
RL: I made my very first stop motion film when I was 13 years old.
AJ: Wow, real back in the day. What kind of camera did you use?
RL: Like a shitty, tiny little camcorder. I literally took little pictures, like clip pictures. I never finished it. It was actually the video that I ended up remaking with the pocket knife video during my freshman year of college.
AJ: So what got you to think about stop motion? Was it animated stop motion films like Chicken Run or something like that, or was it sort of just the idea of it?
RL: I loveWallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, but it’s almost like a completely different process for me because playing with clay and the tone of those movies are just so different than what I’m going for.
AJ: Absolutely, but in the form there’s an influence, no?
RL: Yes, definitely with the form. So I don’t know what got me to initially play around with this pocket knife, but I guess it was more just thinking about objects that I thought would be interesting to animate. I remember just opening up all of these little pieces of this pocket knife and thinking it was just such a fun little thing to play with.
AJ: I can't even imagine how long these videos take you so tell me.
RL: Homunculus took really fucking long. It took about 2-2.5 weeks, but that partly was because I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started. Also, there was a lot more of visual experimentation than I did with Orifice. With Orifice, I decided on these two concepts- filming my mouth in these different ways and animating these flowers, so it was much more directed. And also, the fact of the matter is that picking flowers and animating flowers is like the laziest form of animation, so that one took about 1-1.5 weeks.
AJ: Can you tell me a little bit about the process that goes into making these babies?
RL: The whole writing process, the coming up with the concept process takes about 3-4 months. It all starts with the song. I’ll pick a song that I feel like I can play with visually and then I will usually come up with 1-2 main strong images that I want the video to center around. For example, in Homunculus I picked my mouth, using it as an inanimate object of sorts, and flowers. With Orifice there were a few more ideas and visuals.
AJ: I'm impressed by everything, but I just can't get over the quality of your images.
RL: Well yeah, that’s the thing. Getting the perfect lighting and composition is half of it.
AJ: Do you have any help? A friend?
RL: Yeah, my dad. He snaps the pictures.
AJ: Wow, you win the award for most creative father-son bonding activity. Does your mom join in?
RL: My mom is a very visually creative person, but when it comes to technology she shies away from it a little bit. She's a visual artist; the metallic background in the first shot of Homunculus was actually made by my mother. Other than that, I animate a lot of the stuff she's collected.
AJ: What do your parents do?
RL: Both of my parents are screenwriters and my mom is a visual artist, but also primarily a writer.
AJ: So all of the objects you use are from your house?
RL: Well with the flowers I went to this flower shop 5 minutes away from my house and there were these really nice little women there. I basically asked them for flowers that they were throwing out-- they had little imperfections that I didn't care about, but made the flowers unsellable. So yeah I got all of them without spending any money.
AJ: What's the relationship between music and images in your films?
RL: The song always comes first. I think that editing around the song just makes things a lot easier; the way it works is I’ll find a song that I really like, that I think would work well visually with whatever I make and then I just listen to it on repeat over and over again until different ideas pop into my head at different times. Then I’ll sit down and dissect every little like rhythm change in the song and decide, for example, at second 5 and at second 10 there will be a specific shot or image. So yeah I basically edit it out in advance. I don't storyboard usually, but I have to for my thesis.
AJ: What do you want to get out of these? What do you hope people see from them?
RL: I don’t think I want to get any specific emotion out of a person watching, I don’t think that the videos really work that way necessarily, but I think that for me it’s about, especially for Homunculus, it started out as me trying to figure out how to mix special effects, things out of the ordinary, with very little. Like I didn’t have any money at all to make this- I wanted to find a way to make DIY special effects, basically. And you know, creating images that you can’t just film straight through. I don't know if that answers your question.
AJ: Well what I think is interesting is that as film majors it’s almost hammered into us to understand each image as a decision to evoke a specific emotion from the viewer in relation to the narrative of the film. What’s different about your films is that that’s not really the goal. instead, I think it's more abstracted that that.
RL: Yeah, that definitely resonates with me. For the first movie it was this very basic idea that this person is sitting at his kitchen table and things around him are jumping out at him and acting in ways that they shouldn’t really, so it really only had a basic 1 line story concept behind that. And that sort of jumped off into further experimentation with inanimate objects.
AJ: Tell me a bit about your thesis film.
RL: So I spent like a month in Olin over the summer just reading tons and tons of folk tales. I worked at the library too. I finally settled on this Italian folk tale called “The Snake” and I’m not going to tell you too too much about it. I changed it around quite a bit, I rewrote it into my own of story, although it’s still loosely based on this folk tale. Then my friend Eriq Robinson introduced to me to this Tuvan Choir and Bulgarian Choir playing music together. Anyway, I just devoured their music and listened to them non-stop in the library when I was shelving books or whatever. So I took music from two different albums and I cycled through the albums and tried to imagine where could this track fit into my story- does this song capture the tone of this particular scene? So it sort of all seamlessly, naturally coincided and fell into place. And right now it seems like it will be more than 12 minutes, but I’m really trying to cut it down.
AJ: Does your thesis have a firm narrative or is it still sort of loose and abstract like your shorts?
RL: There is a firm narrative. There’s actually even a narrator.
AJ: Huge game changer! Are you going to narrate it?
AJ: So you’re not going to be in it all? It seems like you've made appearances in all of your other shorts.
RL: I’m definitely not going to be in it- I’m just not an actor. For my other movies I really try to think of myself like an inanimate object. I use my mouth as an inanimate object, I used a surprised expression like an inanimate object. I am going to use actors. I can tell you that they will have to hold still for a very long time and things will be happening to their bodies.
AJ: Are you nervous about anything in particular?
RL: I’ve never used actors in this particular way. In the past, I’ve really just animated myself. So that’s gonna be the challenge of the movie: animating things that are already animated.
AJ: Is it nerve-racking to work on a project without your dad?
RL: No, it’s actually really exciting to be working with new people. I love my dad and he is a very helpful person, but at the end of the day, although he was definitely a mentor, just working with my DP and Art Director has been amazing. I feel so much influence from then and feel like I have 5 or 6 different mentors as opposed to one. My Art Director is Dandara Catete. She’s a studio art major and very talented. And my DP is Dat Vu and he is also very accomplished and talented. So I count myself very lucky to have these people working with me on this project. They’re both very on top of their stuff.
AJ: So comparing your shorts with your thesis, do you see any big differences besides the music, story and more hands involved?
RL: I think the biggest challenge so far has been really realizing what I’m doing hereis making a story and not a “music video.” I’m dealing with a very different medium and it’s been a little bit of a struggle to realize that even though I want to bring the essence of this very “pure cinema” where it’s just image and sound, there’s no dialogue. I want to bring the spirit of that into my thesis while also acknowledging the fact that there’s narration in my film, to follow a story, and follow the different rhythm that comes with storytelling. I want to bring those two things together.