The Short Cut is a new column on Under The Gun that showcases the careers of short film directors. Shorts are often overlooked when it comes to the entire spectrum of film, and by including interviews with the directors themselves and information about their creative efforts, this column will highlight the work of some of the category’s dignitaries that we feel deserve your attention.
Bo Mathorne may not be a household name now, but if in his future efforts he can manage to display the creative prowess found in his debut animated short, The Backwater Gospel, it’ll be only a matter of time before he’s revered among the elite short film makers of our generation. I’ll spare you my version of the details regarding the film as Mathorne took some time to speak with me about The Backwater Gospel in depth and to discuss his inspirations and future plans as a film maker which you can read in the exclusive interview to follow.
I suggest watching Mathorne’s ominous, nine-and-a-half-minute short film and the accompanied video of its making immediately after the interview and be sure to follow the film link provided above to check out some impressive concept art and prop ideas for The Backwater Gospel!
For those that may not be familiar with your work, can you state what it is exactly that you do?
Well, I do a number of different things, mostly working as a freelance artist for animated films and computer games. I teach every once in a while and work on my own projects as often as I can. I am mostly known for having directed the animated short The Backwater Gospel, my graduation film at The Animation Workshop, an animation school in Denmark. The short has been noted for its dark story and gritty atmosphere, but mostly for its visual style which utilizes 3D in a distinctly “low tech” manner and is more loose and sketchy than computer generated imagery is usually considered. It’s been well received at festivals, winning several awards, and on the internet at large with more than a million view across YouTube and Vimeo. The religious themes of the short film have been debated quite intensely on YouTube and Reddit and I’ve been giving presentations about the vision behind the style short and the methods we used to achieve it with.
What first inspired you to become a film maker and how did you get started?
I actually set out to do computer games but during my time at The Animation Workshop (which is traditionally more film oriented, although it is now also including games in its curriculum) my interest in animation films grew and when we had the change to pitch ideas for bachelor projects it felt like the right time to try out the short film world.
What do you feel is the status of short films in a predominately full length world?
I wish there was more financial interest in short films (so we could spend more time doing them), but as it is right now, shorts are either promotional, part of a show or you don’t expect to make any money with them. I think they’re a great platform for experimentation though and I especially feel like that the animation medium works very well in this format. You can be incredibly precise with an animated short because you literally have full control over every pixel in the final image and as such you can utilize animation to deliver small, concentrated punches full of story and feeling. Even quite abstract themes can be delivered in an intuitive and interesting way that’s hard to achieve in other mediums. But it’s a shame that there’s so little exposure to much of the great work that is being made by animation teams around the world.
What led you to animation as opposed to live-action film making?
It played better off my strengths as I’m a classically trained draughtsman and educated computer graphics artist, but it’s mostly a matter of the freedom and the degree of stylization that is achievable with animation. It’s two quite different worlds but it seems the ideas I get are mostly suited for animation as they often revolve around some kind of simplification or stylization of the world. And I enjoy the thought that you can create so much out of nothing, you don’t need very much in terms of inputs.
Do you have any future plans for live-action or full length features?
I’m kicking around ideas for a Backwater Gospel feature film at the moment, but not beyond that.
Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of The Backwater Gospel?
Here’s a full synopsis with spoilers and all:
The town of Backwater is a small, isolated community in the Dust Bowl of depression era America. The town is lead, both spiritually and practically, by a minister whose Old Testamental Christianity celebrates the fear of the Lord and the damnation and destruction of sinners. As a constant source of irritation for the minister there is a tramp in the town who refuses to submit to his preachings and is therefore considered a threat by the minister to his relentless rule. During a Sunday sermon, the town is visited by the mysterious undertaker whose coming has always been an unerring omen of impending death. The tramp interrupts the sermon to bring the news and much to the displeasure of the minister, the tidings of death causes the townsfolk to flee the church and seek refuge in their homes. However, death does not strike and the undertaker lingers on in the town, causing an ever more tense atmosphere of fear and desperation to rip through the minds of the townsfolk. After seven days the minister calls to another Sunday sermon and to the bloodthirsty crowd he proclaims that the Lord wants them to prove their faith by destroying the blasphemous tramp. United by a common enemy they leave the church and stone the tramp to death, but when the undertaker doesn’t react, they turn to themselves in an act of desperate self defense and a bloody fight lays waste to the entire population of Backwater. When the dust of battle has settled, the undertaker walks around measuring the corpses, humming a pleasant tune.
How did you get the idea for the film?
I was toying around with a couple of 3D characters built in the style that is now known as the “Backwater style” and one of those was an undertaker. In a conversation, I mentioned that he should always come before death and that idea got me going. I thought the character would be an interesting vehicle for suspense in a story but it wasn’t until later I realized that the truly interesting thing would be if nothing happened. The tense silence his presence would create would be a great possibility to reveal the true nature of the people who awaited his actions and then it was a matter of shaping the world around him. I was listening to a couple of bands at the time, Those Poor Bastards and Sons of Perdition and their music inspired a lot of what takes place in the short. The latter ended up being quite involved in the project and wrote the entire score for the film.
How many people did you have working on TBG and what was your budget for the film?
We were eight people on the short for ten months but as we were all students, we didn’t really have a budget as such. But if one were to consider that we should all have been paid, plus the the consultants, plus studio space, computers and licenses, it can be considered a fairly well budgeted short film. Probably in the ballpark of a million US dollars.
What message do you hope viewers will receive from The Backwater Gospel?
Mostly that one should be mindful of his own actions and the consequences there of. That there’s no excuse to go along with the crowd if you feel they’re going the wrong way.
What have been the challenges for you as a film maker?
With Backwater we had a lot of issues I imagine many first time film makers have. Mainly it was very difficult to communicate the story and all the character relationships in a way that wouldn’t require several viewings to be comprehensible. There’s many things that seem very straight forward when you describe them in a script or in a conversation but to tell them in a medium that’s mostly visual can be a very different and challenging task. I try as much as I can to make things immediately legible; I don’t want the audience to question what happened, but why and for what reason.
Are you currently working on your next film or any other projects?
I’m in early, early days of writing a script for a feature version of Backwater (as previously stated), but otherwise I’m taking it one step at a time and making sure I have room for any smaller project or opportunity that may arise down the way. I’m doing a fair bit of teaching at the moment and I’m sharing an office with a bunch of my good friends and we like to kick ideas around for small projects like comics, shorts and computer games. I can’t overstate the value of these small, informal projects and the positive impact they have on your creativity.
What directors or film makers have been an inspiration to you?
I enjoy the work of The Coen Brothers as well as Paul Thomas Anderson, especially There Will Be Blood. Sergio Leone’s classic westerns were an inspiration for the particular project and Danny Boyle’s films have some qualities about them I really like. Animation-wise there’s not a lot of feature length films I’m truly mad about, but short films like The Pearce Sisters by Luis Cook, Crater Face by Skyler Page and The Eagleman Stag by Mikey Please have made a big impact on me.
What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
Backwater has certainly been the highlight. I’ve mostly been involved in much smaller projects since that have been equally rewarding for me but certainly not of the same grandeur as Backwater.
How do you feel about sites like YouTube and Vimeo and how they’ve helped in recent years with the advancement of the short film genre?
I think they’re great, really. There’s no way so many people would have seen Backwater without them. It just makes so much more sense to make films when they can actually get to an audience and I like how democratic film making has become; everyone has a much better chance of putting something out if they’re committed to it.
What is your ultimate goal for the future of your career? What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
That’s hard to define. I would love to work on things that feel meaningful to both me and the audience and that I would enjoy working on. Perhaps even inspire someone. There’s plenty of relevant issues in the world and I think there’s a good story to be told about most of them. I hope to get into a greater degree of finesse and subtlety and explore some territory that’s not too well charted.
Written & conducted by: Brian Lion