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The Art Must Fall: An interview with Tomek Bagiñski

by Pablo Hadis

Welcome to Atoll, an old, forgotten military base somewhere in the Pacific. In this self-contained environment, where the only rule of law is that of obedience to the chain of command, art, for art’s sake, still finds a way to flourish.

After watching "The Cathedral" this movie definitely comes as a surprise. Tomek Baginski’s second animated short marks his debut as team director and is a clear and intentional departure from the style of his previous film. The use of a vibrant color palette, faster and more functional editing, lighter music and immersive visual language helps shape this movie into a dark comedy that successfully manages to transmit characters’ traits and provoke true emotions in the viewer. "Fallen Art" is no doubt a visually stunning piece (yes, even more than expected), and it manages to distance itself so much from the sanitized look of CG renders that some of its shots look like beautiful paintings. The sound design of the piece follows this same logic by helping to convey a sense of texture, atmosphere and space.

To say that "Fallen Art" is an excellent dark comedy with a substantial dose of cynicism, however, does not provide a close enough definition. The film effectively smashes the principle of hierarchies and blind obedience in the military through the use of humor, and this very sense of humor along with the way in which the subject is approached necessarily reflect to a degree current values of Polish culture (with everything that implies).

Once again, we have the great pleasure of joining Tomek as he takes another step in his filmmaking career, and ask him questions about his latest short film.

What was your main motivation for embarking on the “Fallen Art” project?

The Doctor character, originally designed by Rafal Wojtunik, ready to take a picture

“The Cathedral” was quite a big success for me. Especially locally, here in Poland. I’ve done many interviews, many articles were published by the press, we may even say that I became a little popular here. It was cool of course, but after a year or so, when I was still known only for “The Cathedral”, I realized that I had to start another short. Journalists’ brains work in simple ways (Ed. note: thanks Tomek). After “The Cathedral”, even months after the Oscar ceremony, when they wanted to write something about ANY upcoming animation they called Tomek Baginski. I became an expert in animation after making one six minute short. In some ways it was funny, but in some ways it started to be scary.  Being an expert after one short film? It is ridiculous!

So I was beginning to be scared of the future, when in 20 years I would still be known only for my first short. I was worried about the idea of a future when people would still be asking me again and again what it was like during the Oscar Ceremony when I was nominated for "The Cathedral".

That was the first reason. The second one is that I really enjoy making films. I’ve returned to making commercials for a year or so, but it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was just a way of making money. I realized, that even though I ended up exhausted after finishing "The Cathedral", I kept thinking about my next possible short, and the next one, and a lot of others after that one. I had a lot of ideas left from the period when I was working on "The Cathedral". I returned to some of those ideas, fine tuned them, and ended up with the story for “Fallen Art”.

“The Cathedral” was based on a story written by another person (i.e. science fiction writer Jacek Dukaj), what prompted you to work on your own script for this film?

As I said before, I had some old ideas that I had written down. ( This is certainly a good method. If you have an idea for a short or story, and you don’t have time to work on it or to create a storyboard because you are making something more important – then it’s good to write it down somewhere. It’s a great feeling to return to these ideas after a few months. The brain really has a habit of forgetting things and this is the only way to save ideas for the future. )

After “The Cathedral” I wanted to try a different mood, a different approach for the characters. I just picked one old idea that was really different, a dark comedy short about soldiers. I worked on it a little, made a storyboard, and realized that this idea was good enough for the next short, and different enough to surprise the audience.

I still work with Jacek Dukaj. I still have some future plans connected with his stories, but in this project he only helped me with the title.

According to the “Fallen Art” website, the movie was produced by a “group of people for whom the army has always been only an unfulfilled dream.” Why did you choose the army as one of the main subjects?

A view from outside Atoll base – no need for a ‘keep out’ sign

I don’t think that there are any deep meanings. The first sketches of the story were very simple. I’ve changed some details after the Iraq war, because I realized that pure comedy is not the best approach these days. I realized that potentially the story has a lot more meanings than I thought before, and it should be much more wicked because we live in wicked times. But as I said the idea wasn’t like that at the beginning, it evolved with time.

In “Fallen Art” you’ve chosen to work further on a stylized, painterly aesthetic. Why did you choose that style instead of a more realistic approach usually linked to 3D renders?

There are several reasons. First of all, I don’t see a reason for doing photo real 3d graphics unless you are working for the SFX film industry. The tools for reconstructing reality will be better and better every year, and one day we will see that doing photorealistic 3d will be the easiest thing ever. Like making a photo now. I don’t want to be an artist that can be exchanged for some kind of 3d camera in future. Take a look at what is happening with 3d tracking artists – they are still needed, they are still working, but the software is evolving so fast that the shots that needed 10 artists working for days now can be tracked by one guy with some new software in a few hours.

To put it briefly – stylized pictures look better to me, and I have a lot more fun making them. Another reason is that if I’m not working on a realistic film, then I don’t need to use all the fancy shaders, billions of photons; I don’t need to make super fine, super realistic cloth and dynamic simulations – I can make a film faster and for the less money.

A well known French filmmaker once said that “making a film on your own is about as hard as playing tennis alone" (due to the lack of feedback during the process). “The Cathedral” was mostly a solo effort, but this time you worked with many other artists. How much do you think this influenced the final shape of “Fallen Art”?

Extremely. From concept art to models, through textures and animation, everything was influenced by other artists. It was quite hard for me to make the switch from solo to teamwork, from the role of an artist to the role of some kind of administrator… and finally to the role of director. But, the improvement in the final look of the film and in the amount of time it took to develop was enormous.  Even if all people work just after hours and in their free time, it is still a big improvement. It’s many times faster than solo work.

There’s also another factor to take into account. If you work with a team, then many of the pictures and shots are no longer “yours”. They are different than your original “vision”; the picture is no longer such a personal creation. It’s made by “the others” ;-) It may be a little painful at the beginning but it’s really the only way of making films.

How did you feel in the role of directing other artists? What lessons did you learn?

As I said, it was painful at the beginning. You have to forget that you can do it all by yourself, the way you want. At first you always try to make things yourself because you don’t believe that someone else can do it as well as you can. Of course this is just an illusion but one that is very hard to dispel. Another thing is that the work that people do for you is always a little different from the work you originally imagined.

The main lesson I learned was acceptance of these two things. Of course that I can do it myself – but it will take a lot more time. Of course that the final look is a little different than I imagined – but it’s not worse! It’s just different, and sometimes even much better.

When I realized this the rest was simple.

The call of duty: a soldier listens attentively to Sergeant Al’s words

How do you feel about the prospect of dedicating your time once again to interviews, workshops, traveling, etc.? Would you prefer it if the media (we) left you alone?

Yes, I would prefer to have some quietness, but it’s part of the job. Most people think that working on a film ends when the film is finished. But in fact it is just half of the way. After finishing a film the director and producer have to show the film to the public, and reach an audience as wide as possible. You cannot forget about this part. I don’t really like it but it has to be done. The team and the public expect it from the director.

How much did you intervene in the different parts of the process? What did you enjoy the most?

I did all the script, storyboards, a few models, textures and animation, all rendering, and lots of compositing. The rest of the work was divided and assigned to the team. I did a lot of work for this project, but it was more of an obligation than a choice. My team simply couldn’t work with me full time – they had to think about their lives, my project did not have a big budget and many things I had to make alone, even if I didn’t really want to.

When I was working with the team I tried not to intervene a lot. The people who made this film are all very good artists. In their domains they are much better than me. I just tried to provide them with a clear vision of the picture I wanted and that’s all. I learned a lot about the process of accepting different artists’ visions. If it’s good and it fits the overall style of the film then I accept the work without problems.

How was Max used?

All texturing, some animation, all rendering ( with the Brazil renderer ). Max was the core software for this project, but a lot of the work was done in other 3d software. The project was developed mainly by my friends and volunteers. Everyone worked on the software he likes best. I did some work collecting all these formats and scenes together. It was easy because most of the environments were painted, so we had to convert only characters, animation and sometimes: the camera.

Mark Owen’s mdd importer was very helpful here ( it’s an importer for Messiah:animate mdd format files which is something like the point cache feature in max ). We also used a lot of Kaydara .fbx format which is I think the best for importing and exporting textured models. Most of the conversion was between Max, LW and Messiah.

How well did it integrate with the other 3D programs?

Quite ok, but you have to remember that we had a pretty simple situation. I was rendering mostly the characters so I didn’t have to worry about scale problems, or other problems of integration with the various environments. We just baked an animation into mdd vertex animation file, then opened the model in Max, then imported the baked animation and finally imported the light sets. After that we just rendered the shot. That’s all. Putting characters into the environments was done mainly in the compositing stage.

One of the most visually impressive sequences of the film is that of General A and his projector. How was the lighting achieved? How was camera and editing approached?

That was probably the most complicated sequence of the film. Technically, the toughest part was the beginning of this sequence, when the projector warms up. We had to build the projector in 3d instead of just painting it because three very important shots needed the 3d camera movement. This three shots together took I think 6 or 7 weeks to complete, and that was the longest amount of time needed to complete a single piece in the whole production time.

Let’s hear that tune again…

The General’s dance was also quite difficult – we were nearing the end of production and the dance sequence had to be created very quickly. Greg Jonkajtys who animated all of the General’s long distance shots was working all nights on the animation in order to stay on schedule. And it was all in his free time – because during the day he had to fulfill his regular work duties. Most of the lighting effects were created in compositing so it was quite fun to do, and it wasn’t very tough. The editing was quite tricky ( because it is always tricky when you are filming a dance ), but we had the music months before the end of the project so we could make a detailed animatic for this sequence, and it made many things easier.

Any improvements in Max that you think could’ve made your work easier?

As I grow older, and as I move towards the role of director, I’m using less and less 3d software, so at this moment I cannot say what else can be improved. In fact I’m not even familiar with all the new features included in version 7. But I think that it is time to move Max to the new core now. Comparing it for example to XSI or Messiah of even Modo – Max is really, very slow. Deformations, particles, animation, everything works very well but it is also very slow. And releasing another version which is based on a similar core but with a lot more plug-ins doesn’t help this situation.

Also, after months of working on exchanging information between different software packages, I really hate the .max file format which is very hard to import into other software. It’s not even possible to export camera movement without using third-party formats and even if you manage to export it there are always problems. And another thing is that all rendernodes for Max had to be installed on Windows and had to have Max installed too. When the renderfarm grows it starts to be a problem. I really love the choice of renderers available for Max. We have used Brazil for “Fallen Art”, and there is also the very good V-ray, and others, but it is really a pain that it is not possible now to write a stand alone renderer for Max – because of .max format limitations.

Any particularly interesting or funny anecdote regarding the conception/making/screening of the film that you’d like to share?

Well, for the creation of the dancing sequence I first danced all choreography ( with my fiancée Monika ) and recorded it on DV – it looks really pathetic but quite funny. Looking for the music was another interesting thing, because my brother ( who was looking for it ) heard hundreds of the worst pieces ever composed in order to find this one good piece. We were looking for cool music for small money – and this two words together “cool and cheap” are not very common in the world of music. He spent 6 weeks with headphones and was very exhausted after this process. One last anecdote, we had a lot of fun making the blood splats – all this was done with water and paper towels. Paper towels get darker when they are wet so we did all the splats that way, just scanned them in and moved the hue to reds.

Thanks much to Tomek Bagiñski for sharing with us once again, we hope he enjoys his time at the festivals and promise not to contact him for an interview for at least half a year’s time. With "FA" as a snapshot of Tomek at this moment of his career, and as a glimpse of his filmmaking future, we’re confident that the best is yet to come.

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For more information on "Fallen Art" visit:

http://www.fallen-art.com

Full movie credits:

http://www.fallen-art.com/eng/ekipa.html

Tomek Bagiñski:

http://www.platige.com/katedra/eng_/tomek.html

Platige Image, the studio that helped produce "The Cathedral", "Undo" and "Fallen Art":

http://www.platige.com

Music by Fanfare Ciocarlia – "Asfalt Tango" song from the "Baro Biao" album (1999):

http://www.fanfare-ciocarlia.com

Note: “Fallen Art” is Tomek Bagiñski’s second animated short for theatrical release, but it’s actually the third film in his filmography. Before working on “Fallen Art” and “The Cathedral”, Tomek made a student short film titled “Rain” (1997, created using an earlier version of 3D Studio) that was not distributed as widely as his later films.

Document published: June 6, 2005.

Images courtesy of Tomek Bagiñski and Platige Image.

(c) 2005 MaxUnderground