Monday, September 21, 2020

Indie Features, Part 2: The Orbit of Minor Satellites

In the last posting on "Scribble Junkies", I talked about "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" by Lotte Reiniger, which was probably the first independent animated feature film in existence. 

Today, I want to discuss Chris Sullivan's feature film "The Orbit of Minor Satellites", an animated feature that Chris has been working on since 2017. He told me that he first got the idea for it in 2010 and really didn't get serious about it until a few years ago. 

If you think his name sounds familiar, that's probably because he did another wonderful feature a few years back, called "Consuming Spirits". 

Now, there are a lot of animated features in production right now, but I really want to focus on Chris's film because his style is very creative - 2-D animation with 3-D puppets and claymation - and it's very adult noir. So, it's the kind of film I love to watch. 

Chris told me that "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" is an independent animated feature about a psychiatrist, Derwood Richards (played by T.J. Jagodowski) and his long-time patient, Rosemary Hamm (played by Sylvia Abelson).  The narrative unfolds through their last sessions, during a period of healing and breakthrough where the patient is ready to leave her doctor's care, and both are negotiating this triumph and loss.  Rosemary is a Hebephrenic schizophrenic, her condition showing signs after a family tragedy that claimed the life of her younger sister.

In her condition, she has conjured a fantasy world which is a Soviet/American space station, located on an undiscovered moon of Saturn.  This hallucinatory world of her mind is in fact 2/3 of the film and includes the Giant Buffalo, voiced by Boris Karloff. 

The film is a conversation between these two parallel narratives, the psychiatrist's office and the Moon Maelstrom.  The film is black and white, created with hand-drawn animation on paper, digitized and composited, with three-dimensional sets and live-action scenes as well.  The running time will be two hours, with an expected release in 2021 or 2022.

Chris said, "The film was first funded by Creative Capital, then my own finances, and in 2017 we ran a Kickstarter campaign - of course, all of that money has been spent, and we are seeking funding to continue production.  At the moment, my partner Laura Harrison (also an animator) and I are keeping our productions afloat with our paychecks from teaching."

Chris created the story, storyboards, character design, did the casting, directed the live-action scenes and is now directing all of the animation, doing about 1/3 of the animation and most of the body keys.  The primary production team is Chris, Olivia Rogers, Sara Payne, Guillermo Rodriguez and Pablo Lorenzana, with about 12 other people who have worked on the film, off and on, over the last 4 years in his garage studio - although presently they are all working remotely.  

I asked Chris why he spends so much time and money to make this film, when now it's very difficult to get distribution and make that money back.  He told me that his income is from teaching, and although he hopes the film will do well financially, this is what he does, just like a writer would sit in his garret and write a novel for 8 years.

Also, Chris says, "I prefer making features because that's the way my mind works narratively, and also that long-form animations are viewed as feature films, and therefore are part of a much larger viewing community, and, to be honest, the critical community.  After the release of "Consuming Spirits", I went from having zero reviews of my work to over 40.  I also love the reality that in a feature's festival or theatrical screening, the audience is film watchers, not all people who make animated shorts." 

The world of short films is a wonderful one, but it has its limits - so here I agree with Chris.  That's one of the big incentives behind making animated features - being able to reach wider audiences, and give them two hours of dark and luminous emotions.  Of course, I still make shorts myself, too, because I love them - they're a beautiful art form, and one can tell terrific, beautiful, funny stories in five minute films. 

Chris talked to me about the experience of working on a film for multiple years, and the pros and cons of that.  He said, "When you work on a film for years, there is a dark side to it - it gains importance, as a chunk of your career and a chunk of your life.  You are also pulling your employees along on this ride without an end easily nailed down, they are also spending a part of their life on the piece.  The more years added, the more wait for the boat to float when launched.  One thing I do to help me through this is to make it my fault.  My fault and my responsibility to get the film right.  Its failure is only survivable if I feel I did everything in my power to bring it to people's eyes, and hold them in the theater with what unfolds. 


On the positive side of long-form productions, the film starts to guide you, and it becomes its own complex structure, you are dwarfed and lost somewhere in it, and you become more of a film shepherd than a carpenter, you have to follow it.  Just this year, I added a character and about 4 minutes of animation that galvanized some very important missing links in the narrative - it took time for this to make itself obvious to me.  I also am actually enjoying drawing these days, it does not feel like labor, but as an activity in itself - it's funny that took 40 years to happen.


I also feel good that I am a place of employment for some very talented artists, and they are making this feature, "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" instead of waiting tables. 

This spring and summer, I have been watching a lot of other feature animations that are made for adults, and being interested in visual inventiveness, I also love watching  the "making of" videos for these films.  They help me realize I am not alone, knowing that Anca Damian, Fernando Cortizo, Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane, Tomáš Luňák, and even historical figures like Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, Michael Arias, Mamoru Hosoda and Masaaki Yuasa go through these same struggles while creating independent features. 

In the end, I hope "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" speaks to people and is meaningful for all the years put into it.  To quote Mamoru Oshii, from an interview about "Sky Crawlers": "I did my best."  It will be exciting to see how this film lands, and what audiences think about it.  Corona has slowed us down, but I am pretty confident that it will be hitting the screens in 2022.  Check out our progress on:

The Orbit of Minor Satellites website

You can make a donation to the films production there as well, if you are so inclined."


Chris and I are part of a strange group of maybe 100 people on this planet who make films the way we do.  For my part, there's nothing quite like presenting your feature film at Sundance, Cannes or Telluride, where you can hear the gigantic applause from thousands of people, for something you spent three years (or more) making. It's one of life's greatest experiences - and it's as addictive as heavy drugs.  

Next issue, I'll talk about Signe Baumane's work in progress, her animated feature "My Love Affair With Marriage".  But before I go, here's this week's gag cartoon!



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