Convergence: Interview with Tommy Pallotta

Posted by Anna Husted on 9.27.2012


Tommy Pallotta

In 2001, Richard Linklater's Waking Life turned animation on its head and shook up what we thought about dreaming. Its success was due, in large part, to the immersive experience created by artist Tommy Pallotta, who says, "animation is really good at expressing a subjective reality." Pallotta met Linklater at the University of Texas, and since then he has created his own worlds with the documentary American Prince, about Martin Scorsese's lost doc American Boy and its subject Stephen Prince, and most recently his transmedia thriller Collapsus, which illustrates what could happen when the world runs out of oil. From his Los Angeles home, Pallotta discusses Collapsus, the influence of movies on dreaming, and how animation changes our perception of ourselves:

Why focus on the oil crisis in Collapsus?

Collapsus was a project I stepped into that was already in development. It started with a Dutch broadcasting company that was making a documentary for television about that subject. They found that the viewership for that type of programming has been decreasing and the age of the audience has been increasing. They approached Submarine, a production company in the Netherlands, about creating something that was somehow related to the television show that would attract a younger audience and was made specifically for the Internet. That's when I got involved. When I heard it was about peak oil, something I was interested in already—the post-apocalyptic world, which is looming right around the corner—my first thought was: It almost doesn't matter. We're imaging a dramatic scenario where things just stop working. That was my emotional hook.

When you got involved with Collapsus what were your first actions at that point? Was it your idea to do something with transmedia?

I don't really think about those things. There's a certain challenge presented to me, and it's a story form challenge and I think: What would be interesting to try? In retrospect it makes sense, but when you make this stuff it's plain instinct. This started in 2009, and Collapsus came out in the end of 2010. When I look back at it, transmedia wasn't much of a buzz word, but I'd been dealing with cross-media for almost a decade and Submarine had been doing it for even longer. Basically it's storytelling using technology. In retrospect the thing about Collapsus that is interesting and caused some controversy at the beginning was that there are strict guidelines on what is considered transmedia. I looked at Collapsus and thought: What hybrid genres could I create—mix documentary with fiction, animation with live-action, gaming with narrative? We talked to a lot of people and started going down roads and if we went down a road that didn't work we'd pull back and try another one. In terms of the interface with that we had a multiple platform experience jettisoned with destination. The problem I see with a lot of transmedia narrative storytelling is going to different websites and applications. I want to be able to play with it in a boxed in scenario. If you go to Collapsus.com you get this multiple platform experience through one interface. In that sense, the user interface and user experience becomes another storytelling tool, like a camera or editing. In terms of people who are interested in this space you have to think about UI [User Interface] in how that story is being told.

You said that you are interested in peak oil and that crisis. Where does that interest stem from and how do you balance that with your own carbon footprint?

I compartmentalize it. I don't have any doubt that the way we live our lives is going to drastically change in the next 20 years and, in many ways, fossil fuels have advanced civilization in a highly accelerated rate. There's going to be an adjustment period, which will probably have turbulence, but will be necessary. Every day I go turn on a switch and a light goes on and I'm amazed. I turn a faucet and water comes out. I have to think about how much fresh water I waste using the toilet. (laughing) There's embarrassment in the excess that we live in in this part of the world and we have to know that we're the minority. The majority of the world does not have those luxuries. We're still at the point where these things are expanding and increasing and more and more people are getting access to this, but there will be an adjustment period and that may decrease eventually. We don't know what is gonig to happen at that point. I certainly take advanteage of my carbon footprint and I'm guilty, as we all are, but if that all goes away then it's not the end of the world for me. I don't think we're necessarily happier because we have all these luxuries. I think about it a lot with my daughter because when you have a kid you really start seeing how many resources you're wasting. There's this little being and all of the sudden you're going through so many more resources than you could've imagined.

Getting into the technology of rotoscoping and your influence there, what has changed from your first experience working with rotoscoping to now?

No one's ever asked me that before. (pausing) Well, I've changed. At the core root of it, I'm not enamored with technology. I've never been bound by the rules of animation or filmmaking. My interest is in telling stories and I saw technology as a way that you can tell stories that didn't necessarily have a wide reach. If you do something unique with technology people will pay attention to it. The technology aspect to it is a tool. As for animation, I like for things to be beautiful and eye-catching and to help tell that story, but I always disliked how laborious it was. I started out rotoscoping because the idea was we could tell simple stories, quickly, and in a visually interesting way. Over the years we had pitted ourselves in a corner because of how much time it was taking. By the time we got to A Scanner Darkly, that was taking 500 man hours per minute, which, all of the sudden, was the exact opposite of how we started doing rotoscoping. So ever since A Scanner Darkly I've been trying to work in ways that maintain the design sensibilities, but make it a lot faster.


A Scanner Darkly. Image courtesy of WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

How have you made it faster?

Well, Collapsus was basically drawn frames that we put into motion with After Effects. That was a lot faster. When you rotoscope, every single element and every single frame is hand drawn. I've also been working on more and more technological programs that will look at animation in a much more egalitarian way. I want to give people tools that allow anyone to animate quickly and easily.

How do you think that animation changes how we perceive ourselves? What sort of impact does animation have versus live-action?

I like the first part of that question a lot. (pausing) I don't know. I'm making a hybrid movie right now that's a documentary—half animated, half live-action. When you go see a movie, you don't realize how much of that movie is animated. That's just a normal, live-action film. With any Hollywood film there's just so much more animation than what people are aware of, and they're trying to hide it. The stuff that I'm doing is hybrid, but I'm not trying to hide it. I'm doing a documentary on Somalia and survival in failed states and about the piracy and a lot of it is un-filmable. One of the problems with documentaries is you want to tell a story, but you don't have access to visuals of the whole story. How do you tell it? Do you do recreations? In this particular film I'm using animation to express subjective realities of the characters in the movie. For some reason it becomes really believable when you tell that graphically. If I did recreations of the film, in your mind you's think: It's recreations, they're trying to make it something that it's not. In animation somehow the mind accepts that, because it's so removed from the live footage, you understand that this is a subjective reality and you can enter into that person's mind. Animation is really good at expressing a subjective reality.

I'm trying to process that.

Me too. (laughing)

I also feel like animation creates barriers, though, because it's not how we see the world.

My dreams are like movies. I'll be able to edit my dreams. I'll be having a dream and I'll think: Oh no, that wasn't the best way to do the scene, let's go back and do that again. Movies are affecting the way that I dream. Movies are affecting the way that I see. Reality is affecting my subconscious in that sense—this is the power I have, and what's scary about that responsibility is that you can change the way people think about things or the way people see things.


Waking Life. Image courtesy of DETOUR / INDEPENDENT FILM / LINE RESEARCH / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

I wonder if there's any way of knowing how people dreamed before movies.

I mean, my daughter dreams and I talk to her a lot about it and she completely understands... and she's two. I'll say: "Hey, were you scared in your dreams?" She'll say "yeah" and then tell me about it. Wow, how young can you do that? They know the difference between real and pretend in a really intuitive way.

Do you have any other thoughts?

I have lots of thoughts. (laughing) One thing I'm really grappling with, because I need to write a keynote for this, is I don't think technology and platforms are very interesting.

It's funny that you say that because I think a lot of people are interested and in love with the technology side of things, but are grappling with the storytelling side.

For me, technology is intuitive for me, but I'm 44 years old. I didn't grow up with technology and I'm not in love with it. Sometimes I'm so glad that Facebook wasn't around when I went to college and I feel sorry for people. The real issue is that the promise of technology was that it would make life simpler and bring us closer together. It hasn't done either of those things. Earlier I said technology is a way to tell stories and I grew up during the 70s experimental film era in America. It was huge explosion in American cinema at that time. People were pushing the envelope and making experimental films and the first wave of American independent cinema. We saw people like Martin Scorsese arise out of that. Right now, it's hard to do that. You will probably never be able to do that in the same format. With these new technologies there are no rules in terms of storytelling. Now is the time that people need to be experimenting with storytelling. It's really the only place that you can do that because you're not going to get the kind of money, resources or audience in the traditional platforms. We want to push the envelope and now is a great time to look at technology, transmedia, convergence or whatever you want to call it and find a new voice.

Experience Collapsus for yourself and don't miss our Keynote Conversation with Tommy Pallotta, which will kick off NYFF Convergence on Saturday, September 29.

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