Interview by akka b for dragonframe
If you could peek inside Dan Ojari's childhood sketchbooks, you might very well find evidence of the same characters brought to life through his films today. Slow Derek, Ojari's graduate film project at RCA, Royal College of Art, London, is the tale of Derek, a common office worker struggling to come to grips with the fast pace of planet Earth. Ojari's attention to detail is evident in the careful use of light, sound, and poetic juxtapositions that frame his storytelling. Since its release in 2011, Ojari's award winning film has spun its way around the international film festival circuit, proving that Slow Derek — may not be so slow, after all.
akka b Were you always interested in the arts as a kid?
DO My brothers and sisters and I were home educated — we didn't go to state school or anything, and when I was really young I used to draw constantly. Everyone else would be sitting out in the garden and I would happily sit inside drawing pictures of whatever I could imagine. I don't know what it was about it... I came from quite a big family and I think I liked the fact that, well, I was the one who liked drawing. It was kind of like, my thing. I have always drawn, really throughout my childhood.
akka b Did you know at a young age that art was going to be something you were going to do in your life?
DO I never really saw it as a thing to do in life. I just did it because I really liked it and it excited me. When I got a bit older I actually sort of fell out with art when I did my GCSE, [General Certificate of Secondary Education], which is the exam you do when you are 16 over here. I did my GCSE in art and I really hated it .
akka b Why?
DO In Britain, you start preparing for the GCSE, your first formal exam, when you're 14. You take the exams when you're 16. To prepare there was a lot of course work and things. I'm sure at different schools it's taught differently, but the course that I did was quite rigid. It was like, okay we are going to make a papier-mâché face today, and there were lots of categories where you just had to 'go through the motions.'
akka b So it wasn't the way you were used to doing things.
DO My education up until the age of 15 was just so loose; my parents had the thoughts that they would encourage any interests we showed in a subject, and they really helped us pursue it and learn about it. So it was a really free, and I suppose quite natural way of learning and doing. Then when I went to GCSE and started studying, in a more organized way, I hated it. I thought I'd rather be a scientist if that's what art was really about. Then I realized I wasn't intelligent enough to be a scientist [laughs]. Once I stopped actually being forced to do a specific type of art, I got back into it again, and then followed that path through college and went to art school, which was great.
akka b How did you go from being the artist to developing an interest in film?
DO Well, I suppose it was around the same time, I started making little animated films on Flash and things like that; little stick men. I would take a scene from a movie —usually action films; like a particular stunt that I thought was pretty cool--then recreate that frame-by-frame on Flash. It would be a very linear profile: stick men on some things — a platform or something. Then my brother and I started making little films with a digital camera, which was low quality, but it took pictures at like 10 per second. He was always the actor and I would film him doing stuff.
akka b So you were shooting a series of stills? Was it almost like pixilation?
DO Yeah, yeah. I guess it was a bit like Super 8, where you have a low-frame rate. But I knew how to put images into flash, so then we would rotoscope over that. He'd have machine guns and stuff and I'd rotoscope in all the special effects. It was really good fun!
akka b So you were making films pretty young. How do you go from that to University?
DO There was another course I did before I went to University where one of the projects I did was a storyboard. I didn't really know what that was at the time, but I found it really exciting because it combined my interest in drawing, and also filmmaking. I liked the German expressionist films where the set is as much a part of the performance as the characters, and I wanted to make a three-minute stop-motion animation with these huge landscaping shots. But that project was never finished and I ended up just having a story board, coloring it in, and then using stills. So it was kind of like a glorified animatic with a bit of sound. But that's when I really got into the idea of storytelling, and it was definitely the first time I combined all the things I liked. I think it was a good decision that I didn't actually try and make it.
akka b What was the outcome?
DO My final piece for that was a film. I had the stills, like a silent movie would have, and plates of text coming up, and then the next shot. It was meant to be a bit in the style of a silent movie. Basically, it was a story I wrote when I was very young about a kid coming back from the library really late, and being scared by all the shadows and things. It was kind of written in rhyme, and the twist at the end is that he's a vampire and he's trying to get back before the sunrise.
akka b Ah yes a vampire! It all makes sense now.
DO It's one of those moments that blows the audience away, I imagine. That was definitely the first time I got interested in filmmaking. But then for some reason I went on to Wimbledon College of Art, where I completed a three year degree in designing sets and props for film.
akka b Did you get to help out on some productions there? Did you get to do some work?
DO Well, I worked on quite a lot of short films, helping out with stuff. But I realized being a set designer. But the majority of the work didn't really interest me, because someone else was telling me what they wanted. I had to collect stuff, bring it to the set, and then install it, and it just didn't feel as creative as I thought it would be. I guess at the high-end level where you're the designer for a feature film and you've got as much money as you want, and have a whole team of draftsmen and concept artists—then that's really exciting, but for me, it didn't feel creative enough. But in that program I started getting into model making. It's quite common, especially in theater, to make a textured and colored model of the set, like a scale model. So we did a lot of that in the course and I always thought it was a bit silly because we spent weeks on these models and then just showed them to each other at the end, and that was it, they went into storage. So I started photographing some of them and then I realized if I made them a little bit bigger, I could actually make a proper thing out of it.
akka b Were you beginning to think of stop motion at this point? Had you done anything with miniature characters yet?
DO I'd done a little bit. There was a stop motion module at the college run by Lizzie Oxby. She did a film called Extension 21, which was a really great, really beautifully made film. That was the first time I had made a little character. Then I collaborated with someone at the college who was into making autometers. We'd planned to make a film that was basically like, scale models and characters, but it would be live action and the autometers would be moving. So the mechanics in the autometers would be moving the characters in a certain way, then it would be one tracking shot through the scene. But again, I think we were too ambitious and it didn't really work. But it was funny: Because that failed, it made me in my final year focus on doing something that was manageable and that I was confident with.
akka b Was that Slow Derek?
DO No, that was Obscura.
akka b Tell me about that.
DO It was about obsolete technology and the loss of memory. It's set in a room that's kind of crumbling from the outside, in a black space, and there's a character with a camera for a head. The room is crumbling into nothingness and getting smaller and he's looking through his last few possessions. So all the images in the photos in his albums are blank and there are a last few glimpses of these memories. A photograph, a slide, and a video all come to life as he looks at them. It was meant to be a poetic way of illustrating how memory sort of fades and also how these technologies, like photographs, and slides, and video actually degrade over time — they are lost as well. Yeah, into the void…
akka b Interesting concept. Was it a satisfying experience for you?
DO I actually really loved that film because I was somewhere where literally no one else was in my year. I met Mikey Please on this at Wimbledon, that's where he studied, and he was a massive inspiration to me. I had seen him in his final year make really great films and I helped him on a little short he did in the second year. He was definitely a massive influence on me. He's the kind of person you want around just to kick your ass, because it's like, did he just shoot that film in two days and build the set too??
He's got really great work ethic. I remember, really clearly, the first time I said I would help him out with this short film, and you know, it was art school and loads of people were messing about and not doing that much work. A few people were very dedicated, but loads of people were quite flippant about it. I remember meeting Mikey and Ben Gerlis, who we made the film with, and they were just super professional and on the ball and already comparing themselves to professionals in the industry. It was a real jump in. The first time I walked up at 3 o'clock on a day when I was meant to be there at 10 a.m., and I was like, "Hey how ya doin'? Sorry I'm a bit late." And I remember them being like, "Yeah, if you want to help, you've got to really put in the time and dedication."
And it made me think, I've really got to treat this like a job; that's how you get the end results. But Mikey was great to have there. No one else in college really knew about animation, so it was quite nice when I was making my graduation film to have a little 'bubble' where I was really teaching myself. I also had loads of equipment that no one else wanted. It was great fun because of the year before — when I had failed to make this really ambitious thing — I made sure that I was making this one as simple as possible. So everything in the film happens in one room. I had to give myself boundaries to make sure that I could actually make it.
akka b Were you shooting on 16 millimeter, or were you shooting on digital stills?
DO Digital, but it had a really nice look to it because it was like an old web cam — a broadcast-quality webcam or something. I don't know what kind of lens it had, but it just had a nice quality to it.
akka b How did you capture the frames?
DO Back then I used Frame Thief.
akka b So that would grab a video frame and store it for you?
DO Yeah, it was one of those free applications that is super basic. But at the time I didn't know anything about aspect ratio. I didn't consider anything like that; I was just making a film. It was only when I got to the edit when someone was like, "Hey, ya know, you've shot it in 4x3 but you want it in widescreen." And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, I want it in widescreen!" But then he said, "You can't really…" But, it kind of worked out okay because the whole film is actually widescreen, like a vignette in the center of a widescreen. It worked with the idea behind the film as well. It was kind of lucky.
akka b Did you end up cutting the top and bottom off?
DO No, I just shrunk it down and actually the lens created a big vignette, so adding just a little extra vignette had it sitting in the middle of a widescreen quite nicely. So it worked. But, anyway, that was my first proper film and it was off the back of that, that I got into the RCA (Royal College of Art) to study animation.
akka b I notice your films have a pretty rich soundscape. Are you pretty proficient in sound design, or did you go to someone else for that?
DO Well, actually, I did give Obscura to a sound designer at first, and he came back with something that he'd put together very quickly and it just missed loads of details. When you spend so much time over all these tiny, tiny, little things, tiny little movements and making all the models, with all these intricacies, I felt I needed the same level of picking up on little tiny movements, with little tiny little sounds, so I did the sound design myself. That again, was really enjoyable. When I was younger I used to make music and records and loops; drum loops and things, sort of like break beat stuff, so I was familiar with making sounds and music and the programs needed to do that. Later on, when I made Slow Derek, I realized working with a sound designer is so much better because you get a fresh angle on the film. So I like both ways, but I guess it depends on the project.
akka b Tell us about the road to Slow Derek?
DO Right. [Laughs]. So the RCA is a two-year course, and the final year of that course is when I developed the idea for Slow Derek and filmed it. The starting point was when I read Bill Bryson's, A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's a really great book about the Universe and, well, it tries to cover a lot of things, as you can tell in the title. There are some brilliant chapters about the Universe, and planets, and the crazy size of the Universe, and also how it was formed, and other mind-boggling stuff. But the way Bryson writes, you can grasp these quite large ideas. So I really got into science at that point, because I'd never really studied it when I was younger. I knew I wanted to write something and develop an idea around scientific facts that could be used as a basis for a film, especially a fictional, kind of like, strange film.
akka b How about the character design. Are the characters drawn first the way we see them in the film, or was that just how they turned out when you built them?
DO It's how I draw them, and I do try to really accurately recreate them. In fact I drew that character over and over, and made sculpts, but often when I made sculpts they didn't look quite right, so I'd go back to drawing. A lot of the character designs actually came from years of drawing birds in suits, and ties, and smart formal wear. So the characters' have these drooping shoulders that are similar to the shape of a bird; so that became the profile of a lot of the characters in the film.
akka b Do you have to resist temptation to try and make things 'right' when you are doing a character design? Like say you have a drawing that's kind of stylized, but then as you go you think, oh, the shoulder should be a little bigger, or the arms, or the hands aren't the right size. Or does that not even come into play?
DO I know what you mean, because when you translate a drawing into 3-dimmensions you have to go with it. With Slow Derek, I drew out the character life size on a piece of paper and then drew the armature within that, then did a technical drawing of the armature on graph paper. So it was planned out and then I made the armature to fit, while constantly referencing the drawing. I do completely try and make it look like my drawing, but you still have to make compromises, with limited materials, and you can't get certain looks, or if you do, it restricts movement and things.
akka b What's it like to spend so much time with the same character? Do you begin to develop a relationship with him?
DO [Laughs] Yeah, it's sort of weird isn't it? I didn't talk to him if that's what you mean?
akka b I'm curious, because I probably would have…
DO Well he's sitting on my shoulder now [laughs]. It's kind of weird, because the whole film was centered around this character. I lost his shoes for a couple weeks, which held me up filming some bits, and I almost had a nervous break down — because they were like silicon and beautifully made. So I saw him very much like a thing that could go wrong, and that I had to constantly maintain. The character I wanted to make for the film was sort of a pathetic guy who hopefully you would have empathy for, but you know, off camera, he's a really nice guy! He's really confident actually.
akka b Does he show up ready to go?
DO He's a bit forgetful, [laughs], but I really enjoyed making him come to life. With every shot he became more real as a person, which was really satisfying.
akka b So your lighting and your composition for Slow Derek obviously came a long way from your days using a camera of unknown origin and scratching your head about composition of your aspect ratio. Is there a certain point you become really conscious of cinematography? And are you your own cinematographer in your films?
DO I am. I mean in Obscura, my previous film, I still took a lot of care of the composition of everything and although my storyboards were not really detailed, they had all the main parts in the right place. So, say there's a picture in the background: I'll frame it out roughly, and really try and recreate that in the film's composition.
akka b So all of your basic composition is in your boards?
DO Kind of, I mean obviously there are some shots where I actually thought, this looks more interesting, but most of it was built in camera to look like the storyboard. In Slow Derek, everything was pretty much built—to—camera to look specifically like a drawing I had done of that shot and I was just lucky enough to have access to loads of lights. I would light as I was building the set, so they both built up together. For example, I might see a nice shape that the light made when I put a bit of card somewhere, and that then would become a key part of the composition. So I'm really in favor of building up a set in front of the camera.
akka b It also seems like you emulate where the light would naturally be. What I like about the lighting in the film is that it's never lit like the over-lit "miniature" look that happens a lot in stop motion. So it's really excellent lighting I think.
DO Yeah, I spent a lot of time over the lighting. In terms of a lighting reference: I really love the stillness in the paintings Edward Hopper makes. That was a good reference to have for a film about someone who's very slow and static — he was definitely an inspiration. But sometimes it would take just as long to light something as to set it up. Some of the lighting rigs were crazy as well. In the bedroom scene, where Derek is on the bed, it doesn't look like a very complex lighting rig, but I had so many lights; one direction for coming through the window, one to fill the outside, a couple in the interior, and then a few lights bouncing off of mirrors to specifically light parts of his face that I thought made a nice silhouette. Actually, I went to The Brother's Quay studio in London for a visit; it's a really beautiful studio full of their stuff and things they've collected.They were showing us this rig that was like a bar with about 30 broken bits of mirror all connected to wire — which is how they light really intricate stuff. They shine one light into it and angle all these lights to pin point certain bits — which is a really great idea. So yeah, lighting was a big consideration in the film.
akka b Did you ever get the feeling, during production of Slow Derek, that you had gone back and done the thing you did on the film before, where you had made something that was too big to finish? Or did you feel like you could do it?
DO I felt really stretched by it, especially at the beginning. It was like going for a run where the first 10-minutes are quite painful and then you get into your stride and you just have your head down and keep working away. Actually, the first few weeks of filming I thought I couldn't do it and was trying to think of other ways to, maybe, make it into a drawn film. I'd made a very rough animatic which had a little bit of movement in it; sort of photo-shopped animated stuff, just to give a sense of movement in some of the scenes. So I thought, hey, I could just flesh out this animatic! That was me panicking. Obviously, drawn animation is no quicker than stop animation, but definitely the first month was worrying. I forget exactly how many set up shots there were. Maybe 70? So, you spend a week doing a couple of shots and because they are particularly difficult ones, you think, well if I carry on like this, it will take me two years to finish. But then as you get further on you realize, oh well these shots are going to be quicker. It was right up until the end that I was filming, but I really enjoyed the process. I really enjoyed stretching myself, putting so much pressure on that I had to be completely focused. I look back on it now and think it was just a brilliant experience.
akka b I find it interesting how a lot of stop motion people, especially if they make their own film, have had all these different experiences, but when you look at their film…the sets just seem to come together and you say, 'oh my god this is so much work, but at the same time it's just sort of right.' I can see how that experience with set-design helped you get in there. Your sets just seem right.
DO I always approached a set like it had to have weight in it. It was almost like you do one little thing right at the end, and it just clicks, and it's complete. I always try to get all of them to have that "click." I don't know how to describe it, but it was kind of bringing a bit of weight to them and it was mostly done through lighting. I find that I got to this point where it just seemed right.
"In terms of a lighting reference: I really love the stillness in the paintings Edward
Slow Derek, a short film
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