M dot Strange on his new feature-length animation about a samurai marionette fighting for love and hate in a dark fantasy world of puppets.
Heart String Marionette is independent filmmaker M dot Strange’s second feature-length 3D animated film. And like it’s predecessor, We Are the Strange, which opened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, it defies definition, opening wide the opportunity for fans and critics to ponder what is weird and wonderful about the film.
There's nowhere you can't go in a film—if you think of it, you can go there. — David Lynch
Strange, who collaborated with experimental composer Endika on the soundtrack, spent two and half years making the darkly elegant film in his basement apartment using Maxon’s CINEMA 4D. He describes Heart String Marionette as a dark, CG, animated fantasy starring actor Ricky Grove and several musicians, including JP Anderson from Rabbit Junk, Jimmy Urine from Mindless Self Indulgence and Peter Mohamed from Sweet Noise.
In his words: “It is the story of a samurai marionette fighting for love and hate in a dark fantasy world of puppets.” It is also, he says, the product of his imagination being allowed to run free of movie studio constraints. “I think everyone is creative. But people put limits on us, and we put limits on ourselves, telling ourselves we can’t do something before we’ve even explored our options.”
Strange’s inspiration comes from many things: the countless movies he watches, books about David Lynch and his creative process, and paranoia. “I think creativity is about improvising, so you have to just let your mind go where it wants to,” he says, adding that being paranoid pays off too. “If I’m sitting somewhere, I sometimes just think things like what if a plane crashed here right now, and I just let that play out. I’m always saying to myself: ‘What if this happened? What would happen then?’”
A New Kind of Filmmaker
Strange uses the term “Uberector” when talking about himself and his work. He coined the term because director, animator and other narrow definitions just don’t cover all of the things artists like him do when working on a film. “Uberectors are people who do just about everything, and we make movies by any means necessary,” he says.
In high school, Strange enjoyed making video skits with friends. But it was David Lynch’s Lost Highway that shifted his interest toward serious movie making. He taught himself how to use After Effects and worked with live actors until his ideas got “too weird,” and he turned to animation. “People don’t really want to work with you anymore when you start saying things like: ‘Okay, so you’ll be wearing a cocktail dress and then I’m going to strap two hams to your waist,” Strange says, laughing.
In 2005, while working on We Are the Strange, he was just about to go to Hollywood to attend film school when he heard about CINEMA 4D and decided to try it out. “I started using it and I’ve never stopped,” Strange says, explaining that he’s learned everything he knows from Maxon’s Cineversity tutorials, online artist forums and C4D Café.
In 2007, following the success of We Are the Strange, he founded M dot Strange, Inc., and has worked only on his own creative projects ever since. The key, he says is keeping his overhead low. “I live like a “shut-in, animator, monk dude,” he says, explaining that he doesn’t have a car, rides his bike everywhere and eats a lot of oatmeal.
Even Strange’s methods of promotion and sales are outside the norm. Rather than submitting Heart String Marionette to film festivals or trying to woo distributors, he is selling the 120-minute film in HD, along with the soundtrack, on his website for five dollars. Fans can also sign up for Strange’s affiliate program and make a dollar from every sale he gets through their promotion.
Making 3D films “is pretty much the best thing ever,” says Strange, who admits to being easily bored and says filmmaking is the only thing that has ever fully engaged him in his whole life. Still, while making Heart String Marionette, the obsessed Uberector managed to carve out the time to write a couple of e-books about filmmaking and his creative process; create eight episodes for his BADassery series and make three episodes for his animated series, Darksided.
Strange figures a lot of people would like to make their own films, but they get hung up on workflow. When he has an idea for a film, he starts by writing an outline that includes all of the main events. Next, he looks over what he’s written to see if there’s “something interesting enough to be exciting.” The storyboards he draws include detailed lists of what needs to be modeled in 3D. That list is broken down into smaller lists of characters, props and sets. Sets are assembled first. And though Strange pre-lit the sets for Heart String Marionette, he’s now thinking he’ll save lighting for last on future films.
Using C4D, Strange makes everything in order based on location. Animations are done during the day so everything can render overnight. After Effects is used for compositing. Strange handled all of the sound design, including Foley sound effects, for Heart String Marionette. “I made these special shoes for walking and I used a bike tire tube for the monster sounds,” he recalls.
The do-it-yourself director appreciates that C4D offers him the tools to “make anything I can imagine at a really high level and make it really cool.” But all of that freedom can also feel daunting at times. “It’s extremely exciting, but it’s scary too because it’s as if you’re taking a boat out to sea and you find all of these holes and you know you are the one who has to plug them,” he says.
Always up for a challenge, Strange just started production on his next film, God Lives Underwater, and he plans to push himself to finish it for release in December 2013. “I want to see if a single artist can put out a movie every year,” he says. Asked to explain what the film is about, Strange describes it as only he can. “It’s a retelling of the story of God and Lucifer,” he says. “Only with dolls, and it takes place underwater: It’s like Toy Story only made by the devil.”
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis.