George DeChev About the Journey Making Pixilated Short “The Visitor” and Getting into Festivals
I met George DeChev last July in Bulgaria at the (excellent/must attend) Film Festival In the Palace where he was a Jury member. DeChev had been attending the same Festival the previous year with his first short film, the animated wonder The Visitor, that had then won Best Animated Film.
I was immediately intrigued by his story and bombarded him with questions about his journey and the learning curve attached to finding funds, shooting his first short, using pixilation and creating the illusion of a single take, and the pros and cons of applying to Festivals.
But before reading about DeChev’s journey, watch The Visitor, who has just been released online for the occasion:
About Finding the Right Story
“We got inspired by a story written by Daniil Charms, a Russian writer from the 20s and 30s who was part of this absurdist movement in Russia at that time. I really like their writing style, and their sense of humor, it’s kind of dark and raw. A friend of Kristina [Mirova, his producer] gave her this book and one late night, she read me the story and we had to laugh, and I just liked it and I felt “Wow, this is the one”. Because I was looking for something, I wanted to make a short film and I was open to find something that would inspire me and when she introduced me to this story I just knew that it was the one.
So, The Visitor is based on this short story.
About Finding the Right Filmmaking Style
I wanted to add to this technique is using one continuing shot and I wanted to use fluid camera movement as opposed to the erratic movements of the actors, because this is how I experienced Charmi’s writing style.
We didn’t know at the beginning that we were going to do an animation. I was trying to find a way actually to visualize Charmi’s writing style. I was trying to find a way to visualize this feeling that I got when I was reading this story, because he writes in a linear way – the story begins here, and it ends there- but what happens in between is very chopped.
Then I thought of using pixilation as a way to visualize it. Pixilation is maybe the oldest animation technique; they used to do it in film because you know every frame is a picture, then you take the next pose and take a picture again. It’s stop motion but when you use actors, then it’s called pixilation.
But what I wanted to add to this technique is using one continuing shot and I wanted to use fluid camera movement as opposed to the erratic movements of the actors, because this is how I experienced Charmi’s writing style, and this is also how I experienced the story.
To me this is like life in general, and like Time. Time is very fluid and unstoppable, but then whatever is in between in general, are all things that happen out of the blue.
About Finding How to Create the Visuals
We did a lot of tests. We were considering different options at the beginning, we thought maybe we should shoot it with film and pixilation and then to go and combine them both in posts. We also did some tests with video and tried to take some frames out, but it was still too fluid.
So we had to do everything using pixilation, and if you do it that way, because you move the camera continuously, if halfway through the shot you make a mistake, you can’t go 25 frames back, because you cannot never get the actors back their pose. So you have to do it all over again. We always had to do one takes basically.
About Working With Actors Doing Pixilation
We didn’t have money for a mechanical system so we used dolly tracks, we put centimeters from Ikea and we glued them to the pipes of the dolly track.
None of the actors had done pixilation before and it was a challenge for all of us. We had to find out the tempo, so we did some tests in a 3D program to see physically if you have 2m or 5m of camera movement, how fast you have to go to have your mise-en-scene at the time that you want, and before you run out of space for your camera movement.
We didn’t have money for a mechanical system so we used dolly tracks, we put centimeters from Ikea and we glued them to the pipes of the dolly track. Each movement was one centimeter on the dolly track for each frame, and if we wanted to do an ease in or ease out, we moved the camera by one millimeter. It’s very physical. I was dealing with the camera and directing the mise-en-scene, Erik Thijssen, who is also the producer was dealing with the dolly moves, and Kristina was dealing with the art direction and the actors as well. In this way actually, we kind of completed each other.
For instance with the main actor, we had different cycles of walk, because when you walk in stop-motion, you have to know in how many steps you’re doing one step for the timing.
In [the pixilation] case you’re staging a lot. You tell them what you’d like them to portray but at the same time, it’s very physical and computational. For instance with the main actor, we had different cycles of walk, because when you walk in stop-motion, you have to know in how many steps you’re doing one step for the timing. These kind of things, that we had to test in the beginning so we could know what worked and what was the tempo of the film, you had to think about pretty early on in the process because you cannot fix that afterwards and the whole film would be either too fast or too slow.
It was very interesting, we had to figure out how many steps it would take if the actor was to take a sip from a glass, and rediscover with the actors simple gestures from every day life, because of this technique and because of the tempo.
It was amazing also with the rest of the cast because they arrived in Sofia, we had one dinner and two days later we were shooting. They were really into it too. But it was a very strange way to work with actors, and because we had very limited time, all the shots were one-takers.
Basically I was telling my actors “Ok this is the movement you have to do, but what you do in between is up to you.”
About Location and Casting
Each scene was roughly a minute, a minute and half, and it took about 10h to shoot. We shot on location mostly in Sofia, Bulgaria. We wanted to have authentic locations, and we wanted to have a European feel but without being too obvious about where we were exactly, and in Amsterdam it’s too characteristic so it would have been too easy to spot. We didn’t want to have a sense of location and of time.
In Sofia we could find this kind of locations, which had their characters in themselves, because we also put a restriction on ourselves, we didn’t want to use any prop from outside the location, whatever was there, we would use. We allowed ourselves to move things around, within the location, but only things from the locations. This is also something we did with the actors, because we picked people who look very authentic with their own wardrobe. Actually we knew the main actor, I spotted him in Amsterdam at a Theater play. He is a friend of ours but I saw him once at a Theater play and that’s exactly the expression I wanted.
For the rest of the cast we asked a guy we knew and wanted to collaborate with for a very long time, he is a performance artist who is normally in Amsterdam but is currently based in Berlin. We invited him and we said “We want you, and we want you to chose another guy and two more girls.” We knew his work, we’d been following him for a very long time, but we didn’t know what to expect. We did the same thing for the clothing.
About the Timeframe
So the full shoot was 10 days in Sofia, then we did two days in Amsterdam in a green screen for the transitions and the running scene. The post-production took longer than we expected, it took about one year, but it wasn’t full-time.
About Happy and Less Happy Accidents
We had this moment where we wanted to have bubbles blown, and at that time, the main actor was not in the picture so he was actually doing this next to the camera, and the camera was connected next to the computer. And while he was doing this, he spilled some of the soap liquid on the laptop, which fell dead in ten minutes.
We only had this one day to shoot on this location. The data were on an external hard drive, so we didn’t lose them, but I couldn’t control the camera because we were using DragonFrame, a software written especially for stop-motion, and I needed this program. It was pretty much a drama because we were stuck and we had to finish this scene this day because the actors were leaving back to Berlin – half of them were coming from there…
Luckily someone had a laptop, but we didn’t have the serial number for the software, which you need to download the software, eventually we found it. At the end we just managed to finish this scene and it was such an adrenaline filled moment.
After we finished it we went to a bar and one of the other actors, Benedict, asked if he could play a tune he was working on, because he is a musician in his other life. And we knew more or less what kind of soundtrack we were looking for, but we didn’t have it, but when he played me, Kristina and Eric looked at each other and we knew that was the one. So the soundtrack also came out of this incident.
About Doing Things Differently
I wanted to have more time to rehearse with the actors before shooting, but I didn’t get it. I needed basically three or four more days, and these three or four more days resulted in probably a month of extra work trying to solve problem we could have fixed onstage.
About Applying and Attending Film Festivals
Both me and Eric sent the film to festivals, so I’m not sure of the exact number we sent it to, but I sent it to maybe 30 festivals, which I learned afterwards, going to Festivals that it’s really not a lot. In the Palace was the first Festival that programmed it. We had a few other festivals that had programmed it too, we won Best Animation in Balchik and after that, the film toured for almost a year in festivals, the last one being Annecy.
I found that each festival has its own reason to be. Some of the festivals are good to meet with people, others are better for meeting producers and fundings, or trying to get distribution for your film, and you have others that are interesting as an exposure, for yourself as an artist, just to showcase your work. We didn’t do anything special for The Visitor in terms of flyers or posters, until the very last festival, Annecy.
But for me, the controversial point about Festivals is this demand from them not to publish your work online, and this is something that I will really consider for the next film because we are now a year after completing the film and we still haven’t released the film online. Because to me, of course you want to promote your work, but mostly you want people to see this, you’re telling a story you know… It was kind of frustrating, this demand. We were discussing with Kristina and I don’t know if we’re going to wait next time or just publish it. You’re never going to make money out of it anyway.
The Visitor received a grant from the Nederland FilmFonds during pre-production. I didn’t have pressure from them to send my film to festivals, but then if you release your film online, you wouldn’t get selected to some of the more important festivals, and these selections is something that the Funds of course like and that increases your chances probably for your next funding. It’s somehow connected.
About What’s Next
We have two ideas that we are trying to develop hopefully in the very near future. I think they both are going to have something to do with The Visitor, technically speaking. I’m interested in this space between photography and cinematography so, you know, photographs that are moving in a way, or cinematography that has photographic elements into it.
I like this combination, this space in between, to me it’s very inspiring and if I see something that is made within that space, I react to it. I think it plays with Time and it plays with your perception of Time when you watch it, so they probably will both have something to do with it and elaborate on this style.
More about George DeChev: Sofia born, Amsterdam based, deChev collaborates with a selected group of artists from various disciplines and backgrounds. His work is a mix of still and moving images, 2D/3D animation, and sound.
The Visitor is his first short film.
I hope you enjoyed both The Visitor and George DeChev’s journey. (I know I did!)