Christopher Sagovac is an animator, painter, and Assistant Professor of Animation, Electronic and Photographic Media at Webster University. His new short film newscaster/dragon/maggots will be featured in the 2013 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, which runs from July 14-18 at the Tivoli Theatre. The film is included in the Showcase’s Fantasy Shorts program, which begins at 9:30 p.m. on Monday, July 15. Gateway Cinephile spoke with Sagovac about his filmmaking methods, surrealism in cinema, and television reception in Hell.
Gateway Cinephile: You describe the found footage utilized in newscaster/dragon/maggots as "randomly selected" and the foundation of the work as "based in mathematics". Can you elaborate a bit more about your process for finding and selecting the short's videographic raw materials?
Chris Sagovac: I looked through a lot of public domain footage and picked out segments that I thought were visually interesting. I then compiled all of the found footage into a folder with no indication as to what they were. At random I drew three files out to serve as my foundation for rotoscoping (newscaster, dragon and maggots). I then did some very quick editing without regard for content and I was very careful to only edit in segments timed out in triangular numbers. I basically chopped up all three timelines and then shuffled. I wanted to be surprised by the strange roadmap they would unravel.
GC: The "playful manipulation" of pixels is a vital part of the finished film's aesthetic, which feels unmistakably digital and yet somehow degraded. Do you see such intuitive decision-making as an essential component of the film, notwithstanding its numerical foundation?
CS: Yes, this is where more of a personal experience was brought into the work. When I was a kid, I had an old black-and-white television set. I would stay up late and watch monster movies. The old analog sets would sometimes ghost or bleed together. For instance I would be watching Creature from the Black Lagoon and a hockey game would be bleeding through from another channel on occasion. I used to imagine that this is what it must be like to watch television from or in another dimension. This was about the time when they were taking the old 1950s monster movies and adding the 3D element, so my mind was very open to looking at television in a different way. Looking at my piece now with that idea in mind, I like to imagine that the reception is really bad in Hell but the demons are trying to watch the news anyway.
GC: It's a bit uncanny how effectively these otherwise random clips work together to create the film's unsettling atmosphere. The juxtaposition of Big Media imagery (e.g., a information-dispensing talking head) with the grotesque, organic forms brings to mind several iconic science-fiction and horror features, including Videodrome, The Hidden, and They Live. Do you see any thematic affinities between your work and that sort of more pointedly allegorical or satirical genre filmmaking?
CS: I would say that consciously I am very much influenced by Big Media and how it can be associated and manipulated by the grotesque literally or allegorically. When bridging the imagery, I worked intuitively considering how each form would interact within the given circumstances, but on some subconscious level with all the brain sucking and head removing I think some of my real world frustrations may have come out. I am a big John Carpenter fan and in my comic book art, I'm very much at home with creating horrific imagery in general.
GC: The "television with poor reception" description is apt, but for me the visual effect of the rotoscoping brought to mind another familiar image: looking through an old optical microscope in a high school biology class. What was it about the final look of the animation that appealed to you?
CS: That is most likely directly related to the mosquito maggots floating around. I believe that footage may have come from an old biology film. Now that I think about it (in reference to an earlier question), maybe all the sucking in this film might have to do with the fact that the maggots were mosquitos. That would be a great tagline. "This film sucks." I do have a sense of humor. I didn't fully fall in love with it until I saw it on the big screen. I was experimenting with a number of end products including one that is literally an old black-and-white TV look. I actually manipulated the horizontal hold smudging to give it that feel by going in frame by frame and painting the distortions in manually. The method gave it a bit of a digital edge in its degradation that melded with the harshness of the sound. I actually added the sound after 90% of the work had been completed. When I put the sound to my piece (at that point) I just intuitively knew that had to be the look.
GC: Merzbow's track 1998 "Intro" plays an integral role in establishing film's tone: aggressive, overwhelming, almost alarming. At what point did a noise music / avant rock soundtrack become an essential part of your vision for the film?
CS: When creating I like to have some sort of a soundtrack going in the background because animating is such a time consuming process. I also have a ringing in my ears that drives me nuts in a quiet room. Ironically, I received that ringing from being in aggressive, overwhelming and alarming bands in my youth. I listened to a lot of soundscapes by Merzbow and Sunn O))) because I felt distortion-heavy, abstract compositions would put me in the right place to create this particular animation. I had a loose idea of what the sound would be like in the end, but nothing set in stone in the beginning. In Merzbow's work in particular the erratic distortion and lack of conventional structure inspired and helped me to break out of the process that I had set before me by melding these three very separate layers together. After awhile, I couldn't see the soundtrack being anything other than one of his pieces, so I thought, why not track him down and work something out?
GC: Cinema St. Louis has placed newscaster/dragon/maggots into the Fantasy Shorts program in the Showcase. Does that seem a fitting categorization to you?
CS: I think this film could fit in a number of places. It is nice to know that specific categories are broadening to more experimental work. When categorizing films, one usually thinks that if it isn't in the experimental category, it is a narrative. You do not have to have a traditional narrative to be fantastic. Surrealism can go hand in hand with fantasy quite easily.
GC: Do you see that shift from "surrealism as genre" to "surrealism as method" coinciding with any wider acceptance for experimental works? Animated music videos with a surrealistic bent seem to be thriving in online spaces right now.
CS: I have never really considered surrealism as a genre, but it can certainly exist within any of them. It is an artistic movement that has influenced me greatly and I feel it is an element to mix into the creative process. I'm very against the idea of animation as a genre. Now, don't let me shoot myself in the foot here. I like that there are animation categories and sidebars devoted to the art at almost every film festival, but animation is just a method. I have personally witnessed a lot of frustration in the industry over the idea that animation is for children. Try and sell that idea to Ralph Bakshi. I agree, animation thrives in the music video short format. I think it serves as a gateway for the general public (brought in by the music) to experience the art form. I wonder how many people were exposed to the Brothers Quay because they saw Adam Jones' numerous stop motion animated videos for his band Tool?
GC: Looking back at your filmography to date, does each project naturally bleed into the next, or have you ever initiated a new work as a palate cleanser?
CS: I like to hop around a lot to keep things fresh, but one thing that is very apparent from project to project is my attention to concept and process in my fine art work. I do hop back and forth from fine art to commercial. Right now I'm just working on some character animation and drawing a comic book (in the fantasy genre coincidentally) in my down time as I prepare for the next project. So yeah, the commercial work is kind of a palate cleanser between developing concepts from my giant tome of undone things.