MFA Animation: Spider

“Spider” is an animated short that I am currently developing for my MFA Body of Work at the VIZ Lab at Texas A&M. The original concept for Spider came from an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with a friend of mine, Jay Jackson. Frustrated with the type of animation projects we were often forced to work on in school, we began brainstorming unconventional ideas for animated shorts. One of the ideas concerned a spider who had set up his web in the middle of a desolate desert. On an intellectual level, the audience realizes that there probably isn’t any food for the spider in this environment, no flies buzzing, no insects scurrying, but the spider just sits, and waits, and tends its web. The result is a film about a spider waiting…and waiting…and waiting for a fly that will surely never come. This subtle form of dramatic irony appealed to us at the time, but it would be several months before I picked up the idea and ran with it.

“Spider” is several ideas rolled into one. First, it is a firm rejection of the “30-seconds and a punch-line” format that student animations often fall into. Spider is dark, existential, open to a lot of interpretation, and long in comparison to other student animations (about 6 minutes). Spider is also an experiment in duration. Spiders spend most of their time sitting very still in one place so the short has lots of long, quiet shots that in my mind test the audience and my visual storytelling abilities. I take my timing cues from directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Andy Warhol who each have their own way of playing with time and stillness in their work. In a lecture from John Cage, the American composer and pioneer responsible for the piece 4’33”,  he asserts that between the composers Beethoven and Satie, he considered Satie to be superior because while Beethoven composed by planning its harmonic structure, Satie composed by planning the lengths of phrases. To Cage, silence and sound, absence and presence, were the most important things to think about when composing. Therefore the duration of musical phrases, the duration of the silence between the notes, and how they relate to one another was what music was all about. I try to take those ideas to heart when I work on Spider and I hope that when audiences see the short they are just as interested in the tense silence of a long, slow push-in as they are with a series of quick, emotionally-charged cuts.

Another thing I wanted to make sure of was that I did not try to dress up the spider in any way or make it more appealing than it should be. When I started the project I wanted to it to be a test of my layout and storytelling abilities: could I make this inherently ugly and unappealing character sympathetic? Could I get an arachnophobic audience to care about the spider’s plight? Could I do all that, not with the design of the character or by manipulating the mood of a scene with color or light, but with the camera and the story?

Spider is currently going through modeling revisions and a final rigging pass before I move into animation. Along the way I will be refining my color script and other art style related issues. The initial layout passes are already accomplishing my main objectives, but many test audiences have made connections to the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard and the absurdist play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Some have even pointed out that as an observer they feel complicit or responsible for the Spider’s plight and wonder if the piece is a targeted accusation of the previous generation and their failure to safeguard and improve the world for their children.

Not bad for a layout animatic.

Spider will be a major part of my MFA body of work and I hope to finish it by May of 2015.