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“With Animation I Can Reach Beyond What’s Just in Front of Me”: Writer/Director Geoff Marslett on his Sundance Animated Short The Phantom 52

Phantom 52

A restless trucker (credited as the titular “Phantom”) tugs his wheels across the highway and calls out to fellow drivers over his CB radio. No one else is on the road and no one reciprocates his cries via electronic airwaves. Eventually, the endless road gives to an endless ocean and the big rigs of the freeway morph into the whale varieties of the water. Whale calls, clicks, and songs reverberating over long distances in the ocean stand in for the Semis CB radios. But our Phantom’s whale calls out at a 52hz frequency, and no whale hears at 52hz, so no whale ever returns his call.

For this weary Sundance ‘19 animated short, writer/director Geoff Marslett compensated for a low-to-no budget with “human hours.” He wore many hats, and is credited as having been an animator, editor, producer, and rotoscope actor on the film. As there was initially no moneyed interest there to support the making of the film, Marslett knew he’d have to put in the bulk of the labor. For many long and sleepless nights he drew and animated alone a sleepless and lonely trucker from his own likeness. But as external elements were added, i.e. sound design and the voice of Tom Skeritt in the lead role, the film ascended its self-reflexive entrapments to become something Marslett could watch and experience from afar — it had taken on a form of its own.

Filmmaker: Who did the sound design on The Phantom 52?

Marslett: It’s really exciting to look at the the sound folks to start! Beth and Bob Kellough, they’re out in L.A. They did Mars for me, and Bob did Loves Her Gun. He and his wife do sound design out in L.A. now for a lot of stuff (Radegund, Ant-Man, etc.), so I went out there the last week of 2018 and did the undersea sounds and all that.

I built the initial sound with sound I found for free online in sound libraries. I gathered sounds to make sure I had something there to guide them and also to give programmers something before we were able to finish the film — which I’m happy worked out enough to get it in to Sundance. For me there was a — not embarrassment — but I would kind of watch it wondering if it’d be good enough. I knew it could be polished more.

It was really exciting to be out there in L.A., or at least the Mount Washington part of L.A., working on the sound with the two of them. I think about a day into that felt like the first time I was watching a film. With animation you don’t get anything for free. The strength of animation is that you can micromanage. You can create every bit of the image exactly as you want it and every bit of the sound exactly as you want it. The downside to that is that you don’t get anything for free. There’s no actual swimming sounds of whales. There’s no sounds for trucks. You have to go in there and create it. Sounds an elaborate process just like the picture and ends up being hundreds of layers. I could do that, but I really wanted someone who specialized in it. Getting Beth and Bob to do that was quite frankly amazing.

We actually started with the transition [between the street and underwater]. We wanted the under the sea sound to be totally immersive. We really have the sound crescendo when we get to that world. Beth did most of the undersea design, and we came in and started that first. We completed the second half of the film and then went back and actually tuned down some of the trucker sounds so we’d have somewhere to go to from the beginning. The sound is subtler in the beginning and grows towards the end.

Filmmaker: How exactly does it become less subtle?

Marslett: Well for the first part we tried to keep it very present and realistic. We even tried to do some stuff to place the trucker’s voice so that it sounded more like he was just in the cab. Less like a narrator. But the film’s so short that that became sort of schizophrenic — the quality of the trucker’s voice would change at every turn of the wheel or when he’d bounce inside and outside of the truck with his face. We backed off on that and kept it pretty narrator-[like] with a little bit of change for his location. Something very real and natural for the truck’s space. There is some reverb when you get in the cab == we wanted to give it a real engine noise, and we didn’t want it to be fantasy world just yet. More the mundane universe of the trucker. As we move and transition to underwater that’s when we wanted to bring all of the various echoes — and the way water basically brings all sounds close to each other, just like the getty and the CB [radio]. You can speak at these [long] distances. So we wanted to really sell that idea that those creatures in the ocean hear things from hundreds and hundreds of miles away. And to do that we worked with reverb, sonar-type repeating sounds, a whole lot of actual whale and dolphin recordings, sounds taken from the ocean and backyard pools to get underwater, the most important thing was the idea of transferring the sound across distance which is sort of hard. The analogy between the whales [echo-locating] and the truckers using their CB — these lonely creatures that communicate across vast distances.

In live-action if I have footage of my actors running into a room and slamming the door, you already have the sound of the slamming door and the feet on the hardwood floor. You get them breathing and the sound of the traffic outside the house. In animation, when you draw your cast running through a door, you get nothing. You just have silence. So then you have to get your Foley artist to practice running on the floor for five actors’s feet, run and slam a door, a door that weighs about the same, and slam it at just about the right speed. Then you decide what’s outside the house. Is it birds? Is it traffic? Is it boats? What other sounds are there in the house? You have to think about all those pieces and try to create them in a way that doesn’t sound like the expected canned version of those, because, just like with images, if people hear the same exact sound over and over again it’ll grate them.

Sound can’t be overestimated in animation. It’s possibly even more than half of what you really take in. If the sound is bad you just won’t be engaged in the animation.

Filmmaker: Is Phantom 52 the result of passion work and favors? Is there any money out there for short narrative animation?

Marslett: It is. If you’re going to make a live-action film and make it look good you have to have a certain budget for camera, wardrobe, makeup, sets, and locations. You just can’t get it without money on a live-action film. In animation you can trade off a little bit if you’re willing to put in hundreds or thousands of hours. You can draw, and create in computers, some visuals that can often rival much more expensive projects. But it’s a matter of having enough time. The human hours necessary to make animation is the killer. On this project alone — I don’t know why I decided to, but I decided to track my drawing hours this time — I did about 580 something hours of drawing. I probably did three quarters of the drawing for the film, and then I had another five animators work with me. They all did at the very least dozens of hours, and some of them much larger numbers. And I basically paid for this thing out of pocket. Years ago, when I was still teaching film at the University of Texas, I applied for a small grant, and that helped out for a little bit of it.

Then, in its very last stages for sound we brought in an executive producer. Warren Etheredge, who helped with the finances toward the end of this. So we were able to hobble some money together. The lion’s share of the expenses were charged to my credit card, and then I’d teach at CU and CMU to pay the bills. So we didn’t really raise money for the film, and that’s why this movie is coming out in 2019 and not 2016. I wrote the script in 2014 and spent about a year trying to get a producer on board who would help me raise money and try to get through agents and managers [for the voice actors]. I was unable to get any traction at all. Everyone said, “Sounds great, but not for me.” So I was left thinking I could make it any which way I could, knowing that that wouldn’t make it as good as I knew it could be. So, slightly demoralized about the whole thing, but still really believing in this particular script, I ultimately shelved it for a couple of years. It wasn’t until, basically, Warren saw it  and connected me to Tom Skerritt [that it got made]. The irony of the whole thing is, when [Warren] called me back after seeing a very lo-fi animatic version of it, he said “This looks really great. What are you doing with this film?” I told him it wasn’t even close to done. It’s temp voice. The animatic I did in flash. I told him about the challenges of getting money to fund it and find an actor who could pull it off. He asked me if I’d be interested in Tom Skerritt, and the irony was that Tom Skerritt was on that original list of five-to-six voices that I thought really matched this character. It sounds like I’m just saying this, but the truth is when I first imagined the story years ago I thought of Tom Skerritt and his voice.

Then I went out to Seattle to record with him, wedged between his many commitments. We got an open window one weekend and recorded with him, and then I took that back and that was the fire that really put a spark to get us through the rest of the project. Once we got his voice in there I spent a couple of weeks editing and got it to a place where I really liked it. We recorded in July and edited in September/August, and then I suddenly realized we had a lot of animation to do if we were going to make the Sundance deadline. I’m glad that we pushed through and that we persevered, even with no assumption that we’d get in.

I was teaching full time and drawing pictures for the film, most nights, til around roughly 4:30AM or 5:00 AM in the morning. I tried to make it to bed just before the sun came up so that I could sleep three or four hours before I had to get up to work. I was very tired and sometimes I was feeling like a zombie, but when I got the notification that we got accepted into Sundance, it certainly made all those sleepless nights feel a little more worthwhile. This is something I’ve wanted for 18 years. It’s been a personal and professional goal to show work at Sundance.

Filmmaker: What’s the chief expense during production for an animation project like this?

Marslett: The chief expense certainly would have been paying animators for long hours. But again, most of this was called in with favors. Very early on there were some animators that were able to put in a little more work and that I was able to give some money to — but an amount of which that would really be described as an honorarium [laughs]. No one got close to what they would’ve made working hourly. But I’m also proud that a bulk of the other animators, with the exception of a couple of them, were actually my ex-students — and some of them started helping when they were my students. I’m very proud that we were able to get this thing to Sundance with animators that were just a couple of friends and students of mine. As they helped me on this project I will certainly help them on theirs. A lot of independent film works that way.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about your animation process in detail? How did you go about shooting the reference footage with yourself and Amy Bench? How literal does your reference footage get/how far from the real thing does it get?

Marslett: So the reference footage we shot way back in 2015, back in the beginning, when I had not lost hope yet [laughs]. If anyone watches the film and possibly sees a photo of me, they’re going to realize that the trucker bears an uncanny resemblance to myself. That was primarily because, again, I thought I might have to do this entire thing on my own. With that in mind, I knew that a reference model that I would always have access to for this trucker, was me. Johnny Morris is a trucker in Texas that a friend of mine named Carlos Martinez connected me to early on. He had a big rig that was nice and shiny and fancy looking. He was nice enough to let us come out and sit in his truck for a couple hours and shoot what was basically me pretending to drive a truck. I’m not actually a trucker, so he did some of the reference things for shifting and other things. We wanted it to look really accurate. Some of the film is rotoscoped and some of the film is just hand drawn based on stills and the positions of things. But we tried to use real references and we used that footage of Johnny and I in the truck for about 60% of it. Once I jumped back into the animation in 2018, I’d just set my camera up on a tripod and shoot myself as reference for the rest of the reference footage.

So it ended up being a really good idea that I used myself as a reference actor [laughed]. It really helped us nail the timing, and, you know, it’s a time honored method that goes back to Snow White and a lot of other classics. Seeing those real motions can really help you draw things that feel real in that animated world.

Filmmaker: And was there an intensive shotlist and storyboards at this point?

Marslett: Very much so. I animated the entire film back in 2015 to a temp track. I did it all in flash, which is just like these black-and-white sketchy drawings. So if there was ever any reason for a DVD extra I have the original animatic.There are a couple of shots that changed in the final project, but at least 80-90% of the film is timed out and basic composition matches all of the key frames and animatics that I created for it years ago.

Filmmaker: Despite rotoscoping much of the animation, Phantom 52 is not limited to the laws of the camera. Are you still using reference footage for some of the looser animations that present themselves when we go underwater?

Marslett: There are some things. The above-ground waves I did go ahead and rotoscope again. I used an oil paint brush in the computer to trace over and draw little waves. That shot took a little while [laughs]. That happens with any of that more detail-oriented stuff. But I wanted to keep the things that looked rotoscoped on the outside of the water. So we rotoscoped the above the waves shot. Once the trucks go underwater we even rotoscoped some of the trucks, but we tried to keep the whales and the undersea creatures — that whole universe — hand-drawn. It’s all hand-drawn, but for that stuff we didn’t rotoscope. I think it shows. “Cartoony” is the wrong word, but it felt like a slightly more unrealistic fantasy drawing universe underwater vs the realistic rotoscope animation above water.

Filmmaker: Were there any scenes that you animated that didn’t make the cut? Or didn’t fit those two realms?

Marslett: There were no real scenes that we animated that didn’t make the cut, but there were a lot of scenes that I animated one way that I decided the quality wasn’t good enough or that it just wasn’t fitting. So I reanimated them. There was one scene in particular where I tried several different things. It was one of the scenes that wasn’t in the original animatic. But the hallucination scene on the hallway with the snake playing guitar. On that I tried several different things and scrapped some previous iterations. They were other hallucinations, that were mainly based on trucks and the trucks transforming into different things, that were great but didn’t feel different enough from the rest of the trucker world as I would have liked. The snake felt more different and added another element to how it feels to be on those lonely roads at night. We already knew about the trucks out there and we hadn’t quite nailed the nature yet. So bringing out the owl and the snake in the desert was late development. So that was a shot that we lost. That was the biggest one. Most of the changes were alterations made to an existing scene. I’d try it in a different style or even with a different artist.

Filmmaker: This has what might be one of the strongest metaphors for what — at least ends up being — a loner’s vicious cycle into farther loneliness. How did you conjure this up?

Marslett: I’ve been interested in that whale for years and years really. Probably when it first got discovered in ‘89 is when I first heard about it. I thought it was this crazy lonely creature, and then you have all of these fantasies. But they found this real whale that the one in Phantom is based around. This whale spoke at a different frequency that no other whales could hear. So I’ve had that in my head for a long time. In 2014 I guess Lauren [writer Lauren Modery, Geoff’s girlfriend] had brought it up again. Maybe it was mentioned in an NPR story or something, but we were talking about that whale, and we happened to be talking about that whale while we were stuck in gridlock traffic. Somehow those two ideas connected in my head. That that whale, being around all of these other whales, fish, and other creatures of the sea, is shouting out and no one ever responds. I tried to think of something in the human experience that was most similar to that kind of loneliness. And one of the ideas that came to mind was the idea of the CB radio — calling out, knowing that you’re saying words and that people should be able to hear them — they just never say anything back to you. You can hear their responses to everyone else around you, but that response will never come back to you. So I thought about different elements of our life where that happens, and the sheer massiveness of these semis barreling down next to my little Prius made me realize these trucks were really the whales of the highway. These whales of the highway are also equipped with these long distance communicators.

One thing or another fired in my head and that analogy began to grow. When I started writing the script I started realizing that this whale was like a ghost of the ocean. Because it drifts through, at least through audioscape, invisibly. And there are so many stories of these ghost truckers that died in a car crash on the highway — [who] pick you up for a ride and vanish. So I sort of melded all these ideas into one character, regardless of whether you think he’s just a trucker that no one’s responding to or think he actually is a ghost that no one can really hear, or is this whale that no one can hear, they’re all painfully lonely characters. So I created this lonely entity, and I figured animation was the best way to do it. I did want to blend identities together without a clear answer. Live action sort of forces you into some clear, obvious decisions. In animation I could morph and bend these characters anyway I wanted to.

Filmmaker: And you could pull off more in animation at this budget range.

Marslett: Certainly. If I wanted to pull off this level of fantasy or strangeness in a live-action short it would cost $400,000 or something. I’d have to do massive special effects, green screen, and a dozen trucks, just thinks that I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on. But with animation I can reach beyond what’s just in front of me. I can use sheer perseverance and creativity to create something bigger. When I made my first feature Mars… If I wanted to make a feature film about going to Mars, without animating it, I’d need two million dollars at least. My micro budget of $100,000 wasn’t going to get my movie to Mars [laughs], so I animated it. And I love animation. Everytime I do it I’m reminded it’s so much work that it shys you away from doing it again too soon. But I’m also reminded of how much I really enjoy the zen of sitting down and creating something that only looks like what your own hand can do.

Filmmaker: Did you record with Tom remotely at all?

Marslett: No I flew out. Tom’s Seattle based these days. His company Hey You took the masthead with this and Swerve Pictures. Hey You is Tom and Warren. You never know when you’ve got one day to record voice. You don’t know if it’s going to go well or if you’re going to get everything you need, or if your actor’s going to be a diva and hard to work with. All of the possible things. But Tom was honestly a pleasure to work with. We sat there and we talked for a little bit. He told me a story from when he was in the army. Him and an army buddy were driving cross country. They were driving from California to New York and they got a flat tire. They’re both strong and healthy army dudes, you know? They’re struggling with it. But this trucker pulls over, pulls out a giant jack, takes the tire on and off, and drives off into the darkness again.

I think that’s what he had in his head when he started to create this character. It was one of those magic moments where an actor does everything you hope them to do. They take everything you created and add even more — their experiences, and skills as an actor. I wanted this voice to sound really weathered, old, broke-down out there and alone, but strong. Tom was great at taking direction and trying lines in different ways. We had to go through the script a few times for him to get the swing of it, and then we’d go in and make tweaks and adjustments. He’s got 60 years of experience doing this and has worked with the best director’s out there, Altman, Redford, etc. He’s a well functioning and sharp tool when it comes time to direct him. He really dialed it in until we got what I was trying to find. By the time you’re in the edit it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. It starts to become Tom Skerritt. You start to forget you even wrote these lines. Animation takes that one step farther. It’s this drawn face that is kind of me and kind of him, it looks like me and sounds like Tom. It steals both of our identities. Those words, that voice, and that face don’t belong to me, Tom, or the original script, they belong to this phantom character on the screen. That happened on Mars and the same thing happened to everyone I’ve met that’s been the voice of an animation I’d been watching. Their identity gets stolen by the cartoon.

That’s one of the markers that an animation might be working. When I watch it and I go “Well. They stole my identity.” That’s when you know you’ve done something kind of right.

A side note: getting to work with Tom was even more giddy because Alien is one of my favorite films. When I saw that film I must’ve been 10 years old. It was scary, it was sci-fi, and it was awesome. It’s Sigourney Weaver’s movie if you were going to ask me, but the supporting cast made that world for her. So getting to work with Tom, who I’ve watched in that film a million times in addition to M.A.S.H, Harold And Maude, A River Runs Through It, Picket Fences, etc. It feels unreal to work with someone who helped shape you as a kid.

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