An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It Director Lachlan Pendragon Talks About Stop Motion Animation and More in This Interview

Filmmaker Lachlan Pendragon’s animated short An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It is a meta-comedy where a call centre employee gradually discovers (thanks to a mysterious ostrich) that he might be living in a stop motion universe. Lachlan’s work as an animator is joyfully expressive, full of life and vibrancy and embracing the joys and possibility of the format.

In this interview, Lachlan talks about his journey to becoming an animator, the distinction between the role of an animator and a director when it comes to animation, and about the difference between CG animation and stop motion animation.

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It is screening as part of the Animation Shorts showcase at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and is well worth the journey down the path of the absurdity of life.

Make to visit Lachlan’s website to view his previous works, including a delightful short called Beethoven: live at Roma Street Parkland where a bumblebee stages a concert in a park.

When did your interest in animation start?

Lachlan Pendragon: I had an interest in it without really knowing that I was going down that path. I wouldn’t be the one drawing like flipbook animations in like textbooks and things like that. It wasn’t until the end of high school where we did an animation assignment, and I was just very good at it. And even then, I didn’t think that that was where I was going. I thought I was gonna go the live action route of going into film. I left it up to like OP [Overall Position] scores. I applied for a Bachelor in Film and then my second option was Bachelor of Animation. I didn’t get into film, and I’m so glad that that happened because I don’t think film was the right choice for me.

Why stop motion as a branch of animation is another good question. It’s one of those mediums that doesn’t make a lot of practical sense or financial sense, but it’s a much different experience making a film [as a filmmaker]. It’s one that I prefer, [it] feels a bit more tactile, you get to use your hands. The problem solving is more in line with the general like filmmaking, whereas something like computer animation is a lot more technical, that I just wasn’t able to click with as much.

And then the other thing was [there were] not many people were doing it. When I was studying, there [were] very good facilities for stop motion that the university had that not many people were using. “Okay, I’ll stick my hand up. I’ll take that.” It just felt right. When you start a Bachelor of Animation in the first year, they take you through like every single media. You’ll do 2D, you’ll do 3D, and you’ll get a sense of every single type of animation. And just nothing was clicking with me the same way that stop motion did back in high school days. It wasn’t until a second year that I finally got back to stop motion [and] I was like, “Yes, this was the right thing. Okay. I’m back where I should be.” And I haven’t really wavered from there since.

What films would you look to as an influence as you’re growing up?

LP: For this film, there’s quite a bit of Aardman-y kind of influences. There’s the Wallace and Gromit, and there’s definitely a bit of British style humour in there. I think my favorite film at the moment is Greta Gerwig’s Little Women [2019], which I thought that was fantastic. Growing up, there was a film called Son of Rambow [2007]. It’s about a bunch of school kids making films. And it was it’s very fun, and there’s a bit of drama in there as well. That’s probably one that’s more like a personal favourite [that] doesn’t really have any influence. I would love to be able to say I made a film like that.

With An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It, where did this idea come from? Talking about I guess a fortuitous move from possibly doing live action to now doing animation, this blends the two quite comfortably.

LP: You’re still using cameras. You’re still using the lights. You’re [just] doing it a lot slower. It’s sort of the best of both worlds.

And the thing about this film is that it comes from a research perspective. I don’t think I would have arrived at this kind of idea if I hadn’t come from trying to innovate or push something or experiment with something. And so it started with the idea of ‘why stop motion?’ Why should I be doing stop motion as opposed to something more practical or efficient as CG? And with CG becoming much more advanced, we’ve seen films that can emulate a stop motion aesthetic. What are we still getting out of that extra effort of doing something in stop motion?

There’s also some stop motion films out there that are very polished, almost too polished, that almost questions whether they should made it stop motion. It’s almost like you need to realise that it’s been made, or you need to see the imperfections in the handmade craft of it to kind of appreciate it, or to give it a reason to go to all that effort. So, I wanted to showcase that as much as possible. And then make sure that I don’t push it too far that we can’t suspend disbelief, so we can still connect with the characters and connect the story. It was about bouncing those two by still pushing the reflexivity of it to the extreme to where it almost breaks. Which I think I did a good job of that.

I use a lot of 3D tools, I use a lot of 3D printing, that kind of thing. And as I keep improving my skills and getting better and getting more experienced that there’s nothing in the way of achieving any kind of aesthetic. And so, there’s more responsibility about “Okay, how much of this handmade quality do I want to retain?” Because it’s more and more possible to eliminate it or to edit it out or to make or any kind of artistic decision you want.

Some of the stuff that Aardman does nowadays, there’s some really interesting workarounds that they do to retain their kind of classic plasticine look. Like in Early Man [2018], they had plasticine looking limbs, but they had very furry costumes. Actual plasticine would be a nightmare, but they still want them to look like plasticine. So they modeled [characters] in plasticine, cast it in silicone, and went to this extra effort, so it looked like plasticine but it’s not actually plasticine. Using advanced techniques like that, or even with 3D printing, the consideration for me was to make sure that it looked as if I could have done it by hand, or like it had that look as though it could have been had made, but it was actually 3D printed up like that. I think that’s a better way of staying with the handmade, but still utilising these new tools that can speed up processes and make it more accessible.

That’s what I love about stop motion is that tactile feeling you know. Especially now with 4k screens, we’re getting to see thumbprints on faces, and it just adds that reality to it. But as a viewer, I get this feeling that there is a kind of push and pull against the dominance of CGI in the world of animation. We don’t see hand drawn animation really any more, it’s been surpassed by CGI.

LP: Or it’s been integrated with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was an example of kind of marrying them, which was interesting to see.

And then, as you’re saying there is this kind of push of having stop motion being replicated, or at least, accentuated by digital effects. Do you want to push against that in some capacity to kind of re-establish the world of stop motion in Australia?

LP: Push against it, I’m not sure that’s the right word, but I do think there’s something different about stop motion. There’s a different goal for stop motion. I think it’s copying the model of CG, where it’s kind of chasing this hyper realistic vision or something. Whereas I feel stop motion is never going to get there. It’s never going to be able to be better at it than computer animation. So the goal has to be something else. And I’m not sure what that is.

That’s what kind of excites me about is that it is something different that has so much potential that I feel hasn’t been explored too much. There’s definitely other examples out there of this sort of reflexive stuff in animation. I definitely wanted to be part of it and see how it would affect how I make films moving forward. As I improve and use different tools and stuff that I’m still understand what I want to retain aesthetics wise, in case it gets lost. or in Yeah, yeah. But definitely I would like to make an imprint on the Australian animation industry in some small way. That would be amazing.

This is almost like a one man show. You’re directing. You’re writing. You’re voicing characters as well. I assume that your hand in there, too.

LP: That’s my hand.

I keep on thinking of comic strips where the characters are yelling at the artists going, “Why are you making me do this?” We rarely see that in animation on screen. And so it was wonderful to get to experience that there. What’s it like pushing back at yourself creatively?

LP: It’s weird. Especially because you listen to your voice, [listening to] the dialogue over and over and over, and you’re just sick of it. I did have other voice actors, and that was nice to be able to just be able to stand back from it and see it. Collaborating with myself is difficult in that sense, if I was animating, I would be only be able to see what I animated. And it’s very difficult to then be the director stand back and go, “Okay, is this working?” I was seeing every tiny little thing.

But I kind of knew that from the previous film that I made. And so I was aware that I would need to know that it was working before I started animating. So there wasn’t a lot of time spent with the animatics and storyboards where I was just focusing on the on the director role. And then I could relax a little bit when I got to animation and just be the animator for that part. It was difficult to be both the animator and the director. I feel like they’re just so different.

Can you define what the two roles are? I think that for a lot of people, they see a director’s name on a film, and then they go, “Oh, so they did all the animation”, forgetting that for most animated films, there is a team of animators working on it.

LP: The director is like the conductor, like the person who the buck stops with them in terms of everything working cohesively together. Sort of the big picture stuff, and little stuff, but mostly it’s to make sure that everything ties together and works.

As the animator, usually you focusing on one shot at a time and focusing on the performance, the micro expression, especially in animation, you have to consider every little thing. And then in stop motion, you’re spending a lot of time with a very small moment. And that does something to your head. And so then to be able to jump out of that for a second and be “Okay, I’ve got to be the director now I’ll think about the whole picture”, is a bit tricky to switch back and forth and see it with fresh eyes. I don’t know how to get around that. Maybe with more experience, I’ll get better at it.

But it’s a very different role with the animator. When I’m animating, you’ll spend so long with one moment that you’ll watch it and notice a lot more than in what the audience would end up seeing. So it’s hard to then jump back to the director and be like, “Oh, actually, all that stuff that you think they’re seeing is probably not coming across.” For the animator, you moved it, so you know that you moved it, and that’s what you’re seeing. Whereas the audience or the director should be able to see it and just see the character and what the character is performing. Towards the end of animation, it was getting a bit like that, like I was just channeling it into the puppet a bit more, and it felt more intuitive that way. And hopefully that it goes more that way if I keep animating, that it doesn’t consume me a bit too much.

I’m curious for you, [if this] was a live action film, [the director would] be able to go home and look at the rushes for that day, and then have an idea of “Okay, no, got to do this again tomorrow.” But for stop motion animation, time is such a big part of it. How do you know when you’ve got something right then?

LP: [With] the storyboards and the animatics, basically that’s where we’re editing the film. The editing is pretty much locked up in that stage. And then, before we animate a shot, or before we animate a scene – I say ‘we’, it’s weird, I have been doing that the whole production, making it seem like I have a big team – I would shoot a lot reference footage of myself acting out the scene. And then we’d edit that, so it’s essentially a live action version, but it’s just not lit, or there are no sets or anything. And so that gives us a great indication of if it’s working.

It was pretty nice when we first got the audio locked up, then that was the moment where “Ah this is working really nice.” Because it kind of just worked as a [radio drama], there’s a lot of dialogue. And then when we got into shooting reference footage, we were able to add in those moments that were more about the acting of the visual moments. That was really fun. And so much of that influenced the decisions that were made during animating. I shot the reference first, and then from that I was able to be the director looking at it as a director would, and then sign off on that. And so when I was animating, and I felt like if I didn’t know if this was the right call, I would rely on that reference a little bit more, because I knew that I had previously signed off on it. “It was working back then, it should still be working, I think you’re overthinking it.” So that helped.

What was animating the ostrich like? Was that always the choice of an ostrich?

LP: No, I read earlier scripts the other day, and I forgot that it was we were talking about his lunch would come to life and start talking to him. It was an early idea I forgot about. But it was written out and a different way to go. With the ostrich, we wanted something bigger, more weird and out of place in an office setting. We wanted like a big gangly bird we thought would fit the bill. That’s the ostrich.

There’s so many moving pieces to it. It’s got wings, it’s got layers. I imagine there’ll be so much more than just a changing face to keep track of.

LP: That’s why it’s sitting down for a lot of it. The ostrich reference footage was me with balls on my hand and just sort of like doing this [moves hand like an ostrich], to get an idea of the blocking of it, and how that was going to work. It wasn’t too useful. I didn’t really use that reference. It was something for me to show my supervisors of like, “Yes, this is what this is what I’m doing for this scene.” The ostrich had replacement mouths, it had eyes that can move, and the neck was all sculpey, that was a malleable, sculptable. And there was maybe one shot where it did have a full body animation, but everything else was more selective in what I showed to make that work.

When you’re getting into stop motion animation, is there like a book or something that says ‘these are the tools that are best to work with’ for introducing yourself to the world of stop motion animation? Or is it literally just discovering it as you go and feeling what kind of material or tools work best for animation?

LP: I feel like it’s different for everyone, but for stop motion, there always seems to be “You learn how to make a puppet before you can animate”, it’s always in that order, which it shouldn’t have to be. In CG, you can just get a rig and then just be an animator. With stop motion, it’s harder to do that if you just want it to be one. I feel like it’s more common for stop motion animators to have some experience making puppets and things like that. And there’s always going to be an infinite way of going about it, it’s kind of up to you in terms of what materials you want to use. It’s just a collection of things I’ve learned from various places, things I’ve learnt from different people along the way, [and] I’ve just selected the bits that worked for me, and cut corners where I’ve had to. I’d say generally I’m using techniques that are more of less used by stop motion students. I know there are resources out there, there isn’t like a ‘go to’ place. Maybe there should be.

I’m just thinking, I’ve talked to filmmakers who’ve grown up and they’re like, “I’ve got a phone so therefore I just point and shoot”. The entry point to filmmaking is something I always find fascinating. Like for stop motion animation, if you’ve got a 3D printer, like you’re saying that makes the world so much easier because then you can create it.

LP: Like an Assistant. Tell your printer to go and print this. Really nice. You can tell it exactly what to do. You can definitely do the same thing. You can get a phone and animate objects. I did that for a while. There was one where I got a stack of Jenga, and just animated that. It’s probably the best sort of training tool for animating stop motion, because you imagine a Jenga stack isn’t designed to stay still. Animating it you become very good at playing Jenga as a byproduct, but that was one that I enjoyed doing. I made a Jenga stack and all the pieces would move in time to music. That’s a ramp for people who I guess aren’t interested in the fabrication side of things.

I’d say that that’s probably me. I did all of the fabrication stuff, but I would say I’m more interested in the animation side of things. To get to that, there needs to be fabrication. I cut a lot of corners in the fabrication, because I knew that extra time I spent there was going to eat into animation time. And that’s always the case. I was very cautious of that and making sure that I had a big block of time that I could focus on mainly because I would prefer the animation to be more polished than the fabrication.

And now you’re hitting film festivals with it as well. What’s that experience like?

LP: It’s crazy. When we finished the film, I showed it to my supervisors, and we were honestly thinking we were gonna have to really hunt for some niche festivals that we’re gonna want this. I’m very surprised that it’s been picked up by the festivals that have been selecting it. Also, [it’s] the best feeling to sit in an audience with your film and hear their reactions is amazing. It’s really good. It’s great that I did a comedy, so there is a reaction that is happening. But it’s a great feeling when it has that response from an audience.

Going forward, do you have an idea of what kind of works that you want to create and what you want to explore in the world of animation?

LP: Stop motion in some way, shape or form. Idea wise? I don’t know. I don’t think I need to explore the sort of meta narrative space again. I might, but I don’t think that’s my thing. I would be just as happy doing a different kind of story. But I’m not sure yet. I’m excited to get back into it. I am currently just finalising the research write up which accompanies the film, so I’m still in the process of getting that finished and then it’s back to the ideation phase.

It’s interesting, one of the festivals, I won an award for screenwriting, and it was weird moment where it’s like, “Oh, I guess I am a screenwriter.” Because it’s something that I only do like at the beginning of the project. And then there’s like two years between then and when I will then write again to do something else. So I’m excited to be a writer for a little while I figure out what the next the next thing will be.

I’m really excited to see where your work goes and what you do. As we’ve discovered, stop motion animation isn’t a huge thing in Australia. I know there are other people, I talked to the Lost and Found crew a few years ago, beautiful stop motion animation there. That’s a different kind of film. It’s exciting to see another person emerging into that field and working in stop motion animation in Australia. Talking to you, it’s given me a bit of hope to be able to put this out into the world and [for] people who might look at stop motion to go, “Oh, I can actually do that, it’s a possible path forward.” Trying to remind people that this kind of filmmaking, it’s not exclusive. Everybody’s got things they can do it with. And your answers have really kind of leant into showing that it’s possible for anybody.

LP: This film was a lockdown film. It was shot in my living room with whatever I had. It’s a great medium for making the most of very little. And for me, I want to see that happen as well, [to have] more people interested in stop motion so one day I can gather a big team to tackle a big project or something. I want to see that happen.

I’m curious, when your doctorate is finished, what will you be a doctor off? Is it a doctor of animation.

LP: A doctor of visual art.

That’s really cool.

LP: Thank you.

That’s so exciting. How do you feel about that?

LP: I never took it up for the title. Or thinking about what use it would be afterwards. But it’s there. I’ll be a Doctor of Visual Arts. It was an avenue for me of how I could continue doing what I do, was how I looked at it, and still look at it. It has a degree attached to it.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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