It takes constant work, self-motivation and CG is a symphony of headaches. Tobi and I met in 2017 at a studio called Animation Cafe in Tokyo. We’re both compulsive filmmakers and we’d both just finished making our own animated shorts. Tobi’s was called Noseman and mine was Dirty Pool.
We started talking about doing a film together. Tobi showed me these storyboards he did with a six foot phone walking around with a boy on a leash like a dog. I really loved that concept so we decided to run with it.
We worked on the story for 3 months, stripping away everything that wasn’t needed and cutting it down to the bare minimum. Early versions played up on the “dog walking” aspect, and the boy had this whole part with a girl near the end. But we stripped it away to keep the running time short. It was important to keep things economical because we had no budget, and animation is hard. We incorporated the idea of walking through fog – that way most scenes are in a misty field and that reduced the number of sets to build.
The 2 minute film took us one year to complete.
That’s a strict after hours effort split up between Tobi and myself. We boarded it, timed it out – built our sets and rigs – The Phone is an original creation, but the boy is based on the “Kylie” rig from Josh Sobel which we heavily modified both inside and out. We went to the park to batter Tobi over the head with water balloons. And then we started animating. Animation was split up between us, with Tobi handling the acting shots and me doing the technical ones – we directed each other. FX is my area so that got done, and finally it was time to render. We had help with the rendering from Mohammed Hamid. He stepped in when the project got into trouble due to a rendering package that shall remain nameless, and he saved the entire film. Then of course there’s music and the award-winning score which was done by my old high school friend David Arcus
When the film was done – that was only the first step – it was time to get the thing seen. We started our guerilla marketing campaign. In total we played at 160 festivals and garnered 30 film awards. The main ones were Siggraph, Giffoni and Annecy. The Annecy screening opened up a lot of doors – and when we were selected for the “Best of Annecy Kids'” catalogue that got us into talks with some industry people and distributors. The idea of the short got a very positive reaction during the festival run. The popularity of the phone character surprised us and we found ourselves being asked about our plans for series / feature. We were being asked a lot of questions we didn’t know how to answer.
I did some work for Sean O’Reilly, the CEO of Arcana studio a few years back, helping out with his upcoming features Ultraduck and Howard Lovecraft. I called him for advice – I should mention that Sean has produced eight feature films like ours in the past. Sean was kind enough to do a deep dive with me on the ins and outs of independent film, and how the hardest part is building the financial structure. He wasn’t kidding. Sean’s guidance got me on the path to making this massive, insane undertaking a reality. I will forgo the details, but building finances is tough and you’ve got to be able to provide value to your investors. The last thing any sane investor wants to do is throw money into an independent animated film from two nobodies, so we had to be creative and resourceful in the extreme.
Pretty early on Tobi and I were talking about how to expand this into a series or a feature, so we had the rough story. We’ve spent most of the last 6 months writing and rewriting the treatment. We’ve gotten help along the way from industry pros like Ed Hooks and Golan Ramraz – both godfathers of the silver screen.
Story wise, the main problem was the short is so simple. It deals with a sensitive topic with a comedic twist. How do you expand on that without losing appeal? We could go down the road of making a “phone bad” film, (exactly what we wanted to avoid). We could go the other way and make a “phone great” feature but that also goes against the core idea.
The solution lay somewhere in the middle. We keep the heart of the short but find the themes beyond it. Our story is not about the phone but about the boy, about relationships, about our dependence on smart technology and what happens when all that gets taken away. I wanted to do a cross country adventure – something akin to The Goonies, Stand By Me. We asked ourselves questions like, “In this world are all the smartphones alive?” , “Why is he 6 feet tall?”, “Who is this kid and why do we care?” The story took shape, and we had our logline:
A reclusive boy and his giant malfunctioning smartphone find the courage to journey across the continent to prevent a national catastrophe.
Tobi and I took turns trying to write the screenplay, but that wasn’t really working – we’re not screenwriters. A month ago we took all the materials we’d assembled, trimmed it down to just our favourite ideas and wrote a 26 page synopsis. At the same time I sent the word out on Linkedin and Stage32 that we were looking for a screenwriter willing to work within our budget.
We had 85 applicants.
That’s a lot of scripts to read, but read them I did – or as much of them as I could. On the train, at night, at the gym… We made a spreadsheet of candidates and pared it down to one: a Canadian screenwriter and director by the name of Angie Cavallin. I liked her because her dialogue was really genuine, and beyond that – she just ‘clicked’.
Now there’s a lot more to tell to this story, as it is unfolding as I write this – but suffice to say our festival run made us a lot of unlikely friends. And friends are what you need when you take on something as bananas as this. It’s too soon to drop names, but we’ve got some people attached who we’re really excited about – and these days every actor and his dog has a decent mic and a pop filter, so the record-from-home model is really helpful, especially for the members of our cast who don’t have a lot of spare time.
Our short film is live and we’re trying to get as much press coverage on it as possible. The first draft of our screenplay should be ready in a few days so we’re close to delivering the materials to the interested distributors. Meanwhile I’m on the phone and writing letters constantly, trying to secure talent and negotiate music rights.
To say that Tobi and I have our hands full is an understatement, but luckily we’re both equal measures of organised, focused and insane. Along with bringing our film to life we also have three new “Phoney shorts” in production and a second short film about a samurai in the works – but that’s an entirely different story.