In Philip Thompson’s I’m at Home, the host of a children’s show, played by Thompson, enters the set singing the same song at the top of every episode. “Create, create, create!” he chirps—but, while the intros repeat, his energetic spark fades as datamoshing breaks down the footage, mirroring his psychic deterioration. The spot-on recreation of an analogue children’s TV program mutates into something quieter and depressed. By film’s end, the host is sitting catatonic, staring straight into the camera.
That feeling of burnout was real for Thompson, who made the film at the beginning of the pandemic, during his junior year at Ithaca College as a cinema and photography major. It also channels his formative television influences. Growing up in Boston, Thompson was very into TV. Speaking from his apartment, with a cathode-ray set visible behind him, he reels off a series of shows that shaped him—first, growing up “very religious,” a lot of VeggieTales; then, children’s shows like Blue’s Clues, succeeded by Disney Channel and Nickelodeon sitcoms. “I started to understand my social standing in school,” Thompson recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not getting along with anybody in school. But I like watching [The Suite Life of] Zack & Cody!’” Middle school brought him to sitcoms like Cheers and Seinfeld, while high school found him shifting his attention from TV to obsessive film-watching.
Alongside all this media consumption came a parallel engagement with the early days of online video content. When Thompson was eight, his mother bought a DSLR camera, and he started making films with his friends. A few years later, inspired by YouTube channels like Annoying Orange and Tobuscus, Thompson got a greenscreen and started uploading his own reaction videos and skits. “I would pirate editing software and learn how to edit on Adobe Premiere,” he recalls. “I ended up getting about a thousand subscribers, which, of course, isn’t a lot at all. But at the time, when I was a kid, I was like, ‘This is awesome that these people are watching my dumb little videos.’”
Studying under experimental filmmaker Joshua Bonnetta at Ithaca, Thompson had his frame of reference enlarged, especially by the canine-fixated videos of William Wegman: “The way [Bonnetta] treated it was like, ‘This is also art.’ For someone that high up to call a guy making videos with his dog ‘good,’ that blew my mind.” Then came COVID, rendering impossible Thompson’s original plan to make a documentary that year and placing him into a demoralized period where he was “just watching TV. I came into my fall year like, ‘I don’t feel like making a movie at all.’ So, I wrote something about how annoying it was that I was forced to make something.” For production, Thompson and his friends were lucky to find a still-operating studio space in downtown Ithaca, complete with a half-built set. The datamoshing was accomplished using the Avidemux software. “It’s not available on any Macs. You can’t even get it on new PCs,” Thompson explains. Instead, an older PC must be used: ”My friend had this shitty PC laptop, and it was the only computer that ran it.” The software was prone to crashing, and when the datamoshing kicked in where it landed couldn’t be controlled, but that mirrored the character’s disintegration nicely. The film premiered at the Onion City Experimental Film Festival and eventually landed online via NoBudge. Then, his friend Danny Motta promoted the film to his TikTok following and, “in the span of a month or so, it’s gotten over 32K views.”
Viewed in fine cut, Living Reality, which is aiming for a 2024 premiere, finds Thompson once again in a curdled TV scenario, this time as a depressed member of a Friends-esque ensemble. “People on sitcoms, they’re always so funny,” Thompson says. “But what if they were just watching TV? What if they were boring as hell? What if they had allergies? That’s something I’ve been fascinated with since I was eight.” Having graduated from Ithaca and therefore no longer able to draw upon the school’s resources, Thompson launched an IndieGogo to fund his effort at recreating the rhythm and humor of a throwback network sitcom. Even so, “We were about to cancel the movie because we couldn’t find a theater to shoot with our low budget.” Thompson’s father suggested he talk to his uncle, a pastor in Boston, who agreed to let the production shoot at his church. The ambitious production ventures off set and into the real world in heavily pixelated sequences whose look is partially inspired by Julien Donkey-Boy. With its dual TV-land and outside world settings, says Thompson, the short draws inspiration from the final two reference points he names: Garry Shandling and Harmony Korine.—Vadim Rizov/Image: Oliver Covrett