2010 / 3 min
HELIOTROPES documents the parallel goals of man and nature, through the most primitive and sophisticated means, to simply stay in the light. Based on the poem by Brian Christian.
"I love this. Michael Langan, in this beautiful interpretation of Brian Christian's "Heliotropes," perfectly demonstrates the time, energy, and resources mankind expends in seeking the light."
"A fascinating and beautiful short film about nature
and humanity's shared need to follow the sun, with everything
from sunflowers to airline flight paths."
"An inventive blend of animation, live action footage, and poetry."
"Langan enhances the philosophical musing with surreal vignettes, demonstrating a visual narrative skill that belies his 27 years."
Fast Company Co:Design
AS SEEN ON
Palm Springs International ShortFest / USA
South By Southwest Film Festival / USA / World Premiere
Ottawa International Animation Festival / Canada
Ann Arbor Film Festival / USA
Sidewalk Film Festival / USA
New Orleans Film Festival / USA
Southern Screen Film Festival / USA
Wild and Scenic Film Festival / USA
Maryland Film Festival / USA
Short & Sweet / UK
Aurora Picture Show's Extremely Shorts / USA
Rural Route Film Festival / USA / Opening Film
Crossroads Festival, S.F. Cinemateque / USA
New England Animators, ICA Boston / USA
Rooftop Films / USA
Mountainfilm in Telluride / USA
Curt.Doc Short Documentary Festival / Spain / European Premiere
Cinemambiente Int'l Environmental Film Festival / Italy
Artscape / USA
Greentopia Festival / USA
Photoville / USA
Poetry Foundation / USA
INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTOR
Animation and Poetry Meet in 'Heliotropes'
Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is an associate
editor at The Atlantic. | SEP 7 2011, 1:06 PM ET
In the words of filmmaker Michael Langan,
Heliotropes "documents the parallel goals of man and
nature, through the most primitive and sophisticated means, to simply
stay in the light." Based on the poem by Brian
Christian, the short film is an inventive blend of animation,
live action footage, and poetry. Langan discusses his creative process
and the making of the film in an interview below.
The Atlantic: How
did you get into filmmaking and animation? What was the RISD
film program like?
Michael Langan: I arrived at RISD expecting to graduate
a full-fledged graphic designer, making concert posters and logos
and whatnot. At the time, I was attacking all kinds of media: writing
music, performing in musicals at Brown, DJ-ing, painting, shooting
photos, and designing posters, and I didn't plan on giving up any
of these things to pursue just one of them. One of my professors
suggested I look into the film program, and I realized that film
combines all these media into one delicious little time-based package.
It was like I'd been working toward filmmaking for years without
realizing it, and I immediately loved it.
The couple of years I spent in RISD's animation program were incredible, and jived with what I now understand to be the school's overall approach: they focused more on discovering your voice as an artist than technical training. Which is great, because the tools will change, but having that broader skill (being an artist) endures.
What was the inspiration for Heliotropes?
Heliotropes came about during a very intense summer. I'd
just shot four commercials in a span of a couple of weeks and was
burning the candle at both ends completing post-production, when
the Venice Film Festival asked me if I had anything new they could
consider for a premiere. I decided to quit sleeping altogether and
make a film.
The film is based on a poem by my friend (and recent best man) Brian
Christian, who published it in a 2008 issue of Ninth Letter.
We'd been looking for an opportunity to collaborate on a project
for years, and I leapt at the chance to adapt my favorite BC poem.
It was going to happen eventually, and Venice provided the incentive
to start the project. I should mention that Heliotropes
didn't make the cut, but that allowed me several more months to
revise the film before its premiere at SXSW.
The sequence where the still images of the birds are animated to create a continuous movement is really cool, and there are a lot of inventive visual twists in this piece. How did you develop your signature blend of stop motion and live action imagery?
There's a little movie theater inside my head. When an idea comes about, it usually starts in the form of words (say, "a man dancing with a car"). I then feed those words to the movie theater, and my brain plays back a completed film. Then I go out and shoot what I saw in my head. The technique that my brain subconsciously uses in the head-movie usually turns out to be the most efficient means of expressing the given idea. I just do what my head tells me.
Langan's 2007 short film, Doxology,
does in fact feature a man dancing with a car.
How do you balance commercial work with your more experimental projects?
Very luckily, my experimental films advance my commercial career,
and vice-versa. Mekanism signed me based on the success of my independent
films and my quirky style, and expect me to deliver this when I
direct a commercial. When I make a new film, I'm also defining my
voice as a director and demonstrating new ways of depicting ideas,
which helps the commercial world to see what I can achieve in that
sector. And depending on the commercial project, I'm developing
new techniques for an ad which I can then use in my independent
work. Case in point: the fast-paced replacement animation and stabilized
images I created for this
Upper Playground ad became a crucial study for my subsequent
"Dahlia." So I can pour passion into both departments
and each one doesn't get too jealous of the other, knowing that
what's good for one side is good for both of them.
Thanks to sites like Vimeo, it seems like more experimental filmmakers are finding an audience for their work online, beyond festivals, museums, etc. Has showing your work on the web changed how you approach experimental video?
The Internet hasn't changed the way I make films. In fact, I'm afraid my films are getting more and more suited to giant screens and large, festival-going audiences. But being able to reach beyond festival audiences, into the homes and offices of people literally worldwide, has been nothing but a great thing for me.
There's a fear of the Internet in the experimental film world. That exclusivity should be treasured, and the ultimate inclusiveness offered by the Internet somehow cheapens a film. Perhaps that's true of a limited-edition gallery DVD at $10,000 a pop, but beyond that, I don't see the harm in increased exposure. In fact, the Internet provides a much greater opportunity for work to be discovered by media buyers, making independent film financially sustainable, even. And with the streaming quality of online video increasing every day, the arguments against going online grow weaker: not all festivals can screen HD, but Vimeo is streaming HD to anyone with a decent Internet connection, 24/7. It's relatively new and scary, and it's bound to change the game, but it's definitely a good thing in my mind.
What's next for you?
For the past year I've been shooting a new film entitled "Choros," a visually wild, experimental dance film collaboration with Harvard animation professor Terah Maher. It's just a matter of weeks away from the final edit, and I can't wait to get it out there.
In October I'll be traveling to the Loire Valley to begin shooting "Butler Woman Man" with Paprika Films, Paris. It's a bizarre account of a chateau whose inhabitants transform into one another when we're not looking.
For more videos by Michael Langan, visit
Christian wrote a story "Mind
vs. Machine" for the Atlantic in March 2011.
Flights to the American east coast from the west
coast often depart at nightfall; travelers lose three hours, resulting
in a shortened night. Flights westward tend to be in the morning,
with travelers experiencing the three-hour gain as an extended afternoon.
Likewise, many "heliotropic" plants--notably sunflowers--"track"
the sun through the sky by bending westward slowly as the sun goes
westward in the sky. At night, these plants "reset"
by tilting back eastward in anticipation of the next day's sunrise.
In essence, the behavior of the planes and the behavior of the sunflowers
manifests the same pattern: west in the daylight, east at night.
And both attempt to maximize the exposure to sunlight: plants need
it biologically, and humans need it psychologically.
"Heliotropes" offers a glance at how
certain patterns repeat themselves at different levels of nature,
whether we know it or not. Sunflower seeds and petals are
known to follow the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical formula that
makes their structure maximally efficient--but they don't "know"
they're doing this. Likewise, humans go to such lengths to
mathematically optimize flight patterns to maximize profit for airlines,
but perhaps we don't realize that what we are doing, when one stands
back and looks at that flight data statistically, is simply trying
to stay in the light.
"Heliotropes" illuminates the ways that
certain patterns recur throughout nature, some very sophisticated,
some very primitive--the sophisticated Fibonacci sequence occurs
in the primitive flower, the primitive urge towards the sun occurs
in humans' sophisticated air travel industry--and in so doing, suggest
a sense of the fundamental unity of life.
- Brian Christian