Interview: Writer-Director Mike Pappa Talks About His Time Travel Short, FRANKIE
A couple of months back, I brought you information about the short Frankie. Written and directed by artist, animator, and game developer Mike Pappa, the short is making the rounds at film fests and the like. Full disclosure: Mike and I are friends and we've worked together in the past. Still, I'm happy to say Frankie is some of the most interesting work he's done since we met seven years ago.
Anyway, with all of that in mind, I decided to ask Mike a bit about the production of one of the key scenes in the film, what he calls the "Test 22" sequence.
Twitch: First off, tell us how Frankie came about?
Mike Pappa: I come from an animation background, but have always wanted to get into "live action" film. After freelancing in animation and various film related art department jobs, I decided the best path to achieve my goal- was to write and direct a short film. I found myself drawn to the tone of old Twilight Zone episodes and subsequently Richard Matheson short stories. My short film was starting to take form.
Exploring different directions, I began to write a film about the obsession of time and its effect on ones life perceptions, particularly focusing on the relationship between time, age, and career. At that time, it was a mindset I was all too familiar with. With that theme in mind, time travel was introduced as a device to test the main character's morals. It was a great opportunity to play with a fun yet complicated Sci-Fi genre.
I used my animation background for character inspiration, visual direction, and overall tone. When writing, I focused more on physical action and visual storytelling rather than dialogue. The result was a few speaking lines, in the early drafts. It was then a stylistic choice to remove any dialogue and rely only on expressions and actions, to tell the story.
I wanted the look of the film to be highly stylized, one with bold and simplistic characters and environments. I also wanted to play with aesthetics of Film Noir and the old Twilight Zone.
Twitch: Now, we're looking at a sequence called "Test 22." Tell our readers what happens in this approximately two minutes of the story.
Pappa: We come in on the second half of Frankie's daily routine; working on his science experiment. He has been struggling to complete this machine, also known as an "orrery." An orrery is a device displaying a Heliocentric model of the solar system and driven by a clockwork mechanism. Basically, it is a space clock. Each night, Frankie tests a specific gear, hoping it will perfect the planet's timing around the sun. He looks up to his scientist father's wall memoriam for inspiration and to remind him why he must succeed. Once the orrery is a success, he will hope to win the Annual Science Competition and honor his father's memory. But unfortunately, this gear doesn't work, and test 22 is the latest failure, furthering his frustration and disappointment.
Twitch: At about what point in your shoot did this whole sequence take place? Did you feel like you had a pretty good grasp on the shooting schedule and working with the crew by that point?
Pappa: This sequence was shot between two weekends. The stop motion sequence was done on the second weekend (out of four). Brian Haimes, a good friend and collaborator, came to the set and animated the Orrery as well as other stop motion sequences in the film. You can see more of his stop motion and animatronics work on his blog, Brian Haimes . The rest of the "Test 22" scenes were shot the following weekend.
Frankie had a very small cast and crew, which made it easier for the scheduling and building relationships with the crew. Speaking of relationships with the crew, my wife served as the assistant director/executive producer and did a wonderful job scheduling and keeping us on track. I had also storyboarded and created an animatic for the entire film. I wanted to be as prepared as possible. So yes, by the 2nd weekend, I feel I had a pretty good grasp on the shooting schedule and working with the crew.
Twitch: Were you responsible for the contents, sketches, etc. in the notebook?
I collected printouts of astronomical diagrams, drawings and etchings, as well as many typed out documents on the subject. From there, I redrew or pasted these diagrams into the notebook, then handwrote all of the written information and created a log of 21 tests. To create the illusion Frankie had taken all of these notes. The end result was 65 pages of filmable material. It took time, but it was worth it, as it provided several options for shooting the notebook, as well as adding a great character detail.
Twitch: Walk us through the environment and the cramped little space that you set up for Frankie. What were some things you were looking to get across when you put this space together?
Pappa: A lot of effort was put into the production design on Frankie. What we are seeing is one side of Frankie's apartment; his work area. He surrounds himself with astronomical inspiration, reference material, and his orrery diagrams. The calendar, flip clock and smaller desk clocks are there to be a constant reminder of time. The apartment set continues the film's overall simplistic style and bold design, thus drawing your eye to the important pieces. In this case, it is his work desk and the orrery. The sharp lines of light and shadow further direct the eye, while at the same time creating the desired mood. The color palette of ambers, light and dark browns was intended to heavily contrast with that of his watch shop. It also gives it a more urban night feel, with a drab and worn quality.
Twitch: How long was the stop-motion sequence part of your vision for Frankie?
Pappa: The idea for stop-motion came when Brian Haimes and I began designing the orrery. We both agreed that the motion of the Orrery would work best in stop motion for practicality reasons, and would give the device's movement an "off" feel. As an added bonus, stop motion gives the orrery, a handmade quality, making it believable Frankie could have made this machine. This style choice carried over into the time travel sequences when portraying the flip clock and wall calendar. I tend to lean towards thinking in practical effects first.
Twitch: How long did the stop-motion segment take to shoot? Any particular challenges?
Pappa: Brian animated all the stop motion sequences in one day. This included the orrery, the flip clock and the wall calendar sequences. The following weekend when we did the rest of the scenes, we shot the apartment wall background plate with Frankie in the foreground. The stop-motion and live action plate was then composited in post.
Twitch: What are you up to now?
Pappa: I am currently the Production Designer on two short films. The first is Brusier, directed by Mattson Tomlin, which has just wrapped and is currently in Post Production. The second is Cause of Death, which will be directed by Brian Ronaghan (who worked & acted in Frankie) and will be shot in April. I am also working again with Brian Haimes on a commercial spec, that he is directing, which will be using puppets and stop motion. And lastly, I am planning a sci-fi short that will serve as a proof of concept for a feature I am hoping to shoot.
You can find out more about Frankie as well as watch the entire short film on its site as well as Mike's personal page. If you want to check it out, Frankie will be heading to the following film festivals:
Chicon 7 Film Festival, Chicago 2012
TCIF3- Tri-Cities International Fantastic Film Festival, WA 2012
Bootleg Film Festival, Toronto 2012
Firstglance Hollywood:Online Short Competition 2012
Garden State Film Festival, NJ 2012
Int. Sci-fi & Fantasy Film Festival of Athens 2012
37th Boston Science Fiction Film Festival 2012
RADCON 6 Sci-Fi / Fantasy Convention 2012
St.Louis International Film Festival 2011
Big Apple Film Festival, NYC 2011
Moving Image Film Festival,Toronto 2011