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Filmmakers come and go at FXhome.com, as different projects capture people’s attention. Over the last few years a new arrival has gradually made a name for himself with a series of impressive projects, culminating in the FXhome Award-winning double-bill of Mr Fox and Mr Pike in 2009.
Max ‘swintonmaximilian’ Swinton plays cards close to his chest, letting his short films speak for themselves and resisting requests to explain the abstract visuals that define his work. More recently he’s made his development process more public, chronicling the complex ‘Red Death’ project on the forum in intricate detail.
We wanted to know more about this mysterious artist and thought you would too, so we sent a bunch of questions his way. Here’s what Max had to say about taxidermy, flying perverts and avoiding “strangeness for the sake of strangeness...”
1. You joined FXhome in mid-2007, which is relatively recent. How did you first discover us?
I was looking for some way to do muzzle flashes, for a film that never got made, and I found FXhome that way. It was exciting because I didn't really know you could do that sort of thing at home. From there, I became really interested in the possibilities for grading footage that VisionLab offered, and that became my main interest in it. So, I bought it, and joined the site, and it was really interesting and exciting and just opened up a whole new level of possibilities in terms of what I could do at that point.
2. You didn’t actually submit a movie until May 2008, with The Corpse Film, which in itself was an older movie from 2006. What led you to create a new cut of that movie?
Well, when I made that film originally, I didn't have any means of grading the footage, other than really basic stuff like saturation and contrast in Premiere elements. So, I decided to re-edit it because it was difficult to get another film made at that point, and I knew that I could improve it visually.
3. In October 2008 you followed it up with Maze of the Blind, which went on to be nominated for best cinematography in the 2009 FXhome Awards. Where did the idea for that film come from? Was it ever intended to be expanded into a longer version?
The idea for Maze of The Blind actually came from my friend Michael Taylor, who is the captive man in the film. We were coming up with high concept ideas, trying to find the most ridiculous premise that we could present in a serious manner, and Michael suggested a single sighted man trying to escape from a maze full of blind people.
Originally it was meant to be a full short film, the idea was that the maze was a kind of blood sport set up by a tyrannical Scottish Laird. Basically, the blind people in the maze were villagers who had been dehumanised through terrible treatment, blinded, and thrown into the maze. The game was that any passing traveller was captured, thrown into the maze, and had to try and escape, all for the Laird’s amusement. This was to be set in the 1700s or so, and was of course impossible.
Then, it was going to be set in a post-nuclear apocalypse future, and involve two men who picked up a distress signal, isolated the location, went to investigate, and found themselves in a maze full of mutated hungry blind people. We were going to go for a futuristic style similar to what you see in a lot of future-set 80s films, particularly aliens, where the characters wear hi top trainers and tracksuits. Again it was impossible.
So, in the end, we decided to make a trailer that revealed nothing what so ever in the way of plot, was fundamentally really stupid, but was presented in such a serious, weighty way that it was funny, without being a joke.
4. The bizarre And Time Will Not Age Them was released at the same time. What was the genesis of that movie? It seems more overtly slapstick than anything else you’ve done, while retaining your unnerving visual style.
Again, that film was meant to be a full short, but it was just much too difficult to do at that stage. The idea was that a town was overrun by sex pests with supernatural powers. Basically they were our equivalent of zombies, except they had an element of humour to them because they were so ridiculous. It was actually filmed a year or more before Maze of The Blind, and then I did the effects on and off over about 8 months or so, when I had some time to work on it.
The trailer came about because we realised very quickly that we couldn't make the film we wanted, so we decided to make a trailer instead. That way, it didn't have to have a plot, or make any narrative sense, it could just be a collection of shots. I liked the idea of making a trailer that felt quite epic and dramatic, but didn't have any real content, made very little sense, was ridiculous and funny, but again not an outright joke. It didn't go to plan, we couldn't do a lot of we wanted to do even in the trailer format. I think that on a technical level, the whole idea was beyond us at that stage. I had never done any digital FX work before, I had no idea how to do any of the things we were planning on having in the film. I just kept telling everyone it would be fine, and in some cases it did work out, but in others I had to admit that actually, I couldn't make 50 sex pests fly over a river and disintegrate a canoe with magical energy.
All the FX were done in VisionLab Studio, and they took me a long, long time, because I was figuring it all out as I went, and trying to make it look as good as possible. Some of it I think holds up quite well, like the shot of the sex pest's face with smoke and fire coming out his nose, other parts are not so good. It was my first attempt at grading as well, an experience that I found, and continue to find, incredibly rewarding and frustrating at the same time.
5. Mr Fox hit in April 2009 and was the first movie to get you major attention on FXhome.com. Did you anticipate such a positive reaction?
I didn't think it would go down as well as it did, but I didn't really think about. I was really happy with the film because it was the first one that I was totally in control of and didn't have to compromise with anyone else on. And also, it was at that point that I really firmly decided that I wanted be a filmmaker. I'd always wanted to, but it was more of an abstract sort of idea, with Mr Fox I made a conscious decision to commit to it because I realised that I really love doing it and that everything I do is sort of centred around filmmaking in some way.
With filmmaking, I feel like I understand how to do it, how to work with images and express my ideas that way. It's something that I understand, I can see ways of doing things with the medium that haven't been done before. I see it as being a very open platform with which to do new things. To put that into context, I sing, and I'm good at it, and I've been in a few bands and performed a fair bit, but, as much as I love music, I could never understand how to do something new and original with it. The possibilities in music aren't apparent to me, so I couldn't write a truly original song even if I tried for years. But with filmmaking, I have complete confidence in myself, and I don't see any restrictions.
That probably sounds horribly arrogant, and maybe it is, but I think it's important to be completely dedicated and confident in yourself and what you do, because you can't do anything creative from the middle ground, you're either in it or you aren't.
6. What techniques did you use to create the unique visual style of Mr Fox and Mr Pike?
Well, visually I went with a natural looking colour scheme very much inspired by the look of older films, where the colours are rich and vibrant and natural. I wanted everything to look quite normal and natural, not stylised. The grading on Mr Pike went wrong because I was working to a really tight deadline and I just didn't have time to get it looking how I wanted it. It's much too blue for me. Mr Fox looks much better to me, although looking at it now there's so many things I would do differently, in terms of the grading and how I went about it.
I tried to get a good balance between static, long shots, and fast moving, energetic shots, like lots of little zooms and very quick cuts. I was using a DVX 100 for those films, so I would zoom in as much as possible and open up the iris as much as possible to get a more filmic, shallow depth of field.
It was really hard to get a lot of the shots in those films where the taxidermy head is the focus and fills the frame, because the heads are so small and the camera was so zoomed in that any tiny movements translated into huge movements on camera. It was a challenge, and very frustrating for the person who had to hold the head while I tried to get the shot.
Also, there's some stop motion in the films, which was fun to do. I wanted it to look a little rough, without looking incompetent. Although I did try and make the stop motion at the end of Mr Pike as smooth as possible, and I spent a lot of time in After Effects adding various blurs to try and make it look real.
7. What gave you the idea to use taxidermy in your short films?
Mr Fox went through a lot of changes, it was originally really serious and much more disturbing. It had people in it as well, Mr Fox was quite a minor character. Anyway, he started out as a man who wore an animal mask, and basically lived in the woods, like an animal. There was another character who lived in a loch, but of course this was really impractical, which we soon came to realise.
So, after a lot of days spent filming trying to make it work, I realised that the original idea had become lost and I was pretty much making it up as I went along, but I had no idea what I was actually trying to make anymore. It wasn't working. By this point I was quite frustrated with the whole thing, and so I decided to take one character and have it be more about him. So, I chose the animal man, and the film was going to be about a man watching the animal man try to catch the moon, with the animal man eventually realising he never could and just fading away.
Originally the taxidermy head was going to float in front of his face, instead of being held, and it was going to be animated to move its mouth and eyes. The idea was that the animal man was a contradiction because he wanted to be like an animal and free of human emotion and thought, but ultimately that was what drove him, his human desire, and he couldn't turn it off, he shouldn't really exist and he was a tragic character. The taxidermy reflected the idea that he was a shadow, like a taxidermy animal head is just a shadow and a memory of the animal. Eventually, the animal man became Mr Fox, and the tone became a little lighter, but the tragic aspects of his character remained.
8. You cite A Clockwork Orange and Evil Dead 2 as the main inspirations, not films usually referenced in the same time sentence. How did those films play into the creation of Mr Fox?
Well, Evil Dead 2 is one of my favourite films, and I never fail to enjoy it just as much as I did the first time I saw it whenever I watch it. I love how energetic and fun it is, and how inventive it is in terms of how it's filmed. I also love the old school effects, where everything looks obviously fake but it has a presence and charm that I really like. So, I think the main thing I always take from that film is its manic energy and sense of fun and it's creativity.
A Clockwork Orange is another favourite of mine, and I watched it again a little while before making Mr Fox and it just got me feeling really inspired and energetic. So, I used brightly coloured title cards like the ones in A Clockwork Orange because I wanted to obviously reference that film and particularly the idea that people can't change, and the theme of anarchy that runs through it. Also, I wanted Mr Fox to feel on the surface like a children's book and the coloured title cards worked with that idea. And of course the long shot at the beginning of Mr Fox mirrors the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange. I did that because I liked the shot, and I liked the idea of nothing happening for almost a minute while the sound effects build into a horrible crescendo, suggesting that something's going to happen at any moment, and then there's just a sort of anti-climax when the next shot comes because it's unrelated. Also, it relates to the idea that Mr Fox lives in an interior world that is as much a fantasy as it is real, which is the same as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, but the characters are completely different. I thought it was a funny and appropriate introduction to the character of Mr Fox, because, when you look beyond the surface there is nothing to him, he's just an empty character.
9. On the forums you stated “I hate strangeness for the sake of strangeness”. How do you get the balance between your films having purpose while remaining abstract?
What I meant was that I don't like films or art or anything where the whole objective is to make something that's strange and inscrutable. When that's the whole point of something, that it's superficially surreal, it's boring and pretentious because it's vacuous. With Mr Fox, it's all about a situation that I went through during that year, which was quite difficult for me. So, the themes of the film relate to that situation, but they aren't necessarily so personal that they would only resonate with me, because a lot of it's quite broad and I think that most people could relate to it. But, it's addressed in an abstract way, so you get those ideas in a visual way and you do have to think about it and look at it in a certain way to understand what it's about.
10. You seem quite reluctant to explain the meaning of your films in detail. Why is this?
Well, it's for a number of reasons. With Mr Fox>, like I said, it's about certain ideas and emotions that came about because of a personal situation, and I put all that into the film. But, it isn't important that you know what that situation was in order to understand the film, because the theme is pretty universal. Also, I always thought, and still think, that it's pretty obvious what Mr Fox is about, or at least it's easy to understand it on an emotional level.
The thing with film, I think, is that the story is secondary to the emotional experience. I think that you can understand a film on emotional level, without needing to understand it in terms of its story. The meaning of a film can be expressed in an abstract or ambiguous way and be very powerful. I would say that the films that stay with me are the ones that resonate on an emotional level, like songs. Also, I think that film is the perfect medium to explore ideas that you can't articulate, ideas that can only be expressed visually.
11. Mr Fox won Best Movie and Best Cinematography in the 2010 FXhome Awards, confirming it as an FXhome classic. Has your work ever featured in other competitions/festivals, or do you have any plans to promote it wider?
Well, first off, thanks for the wins everyone who voted, it was really nice. I actually won another award for Mr Fox on the same day I found out about the FXhome awards, so it was an exciting day. Mr Fox and Mr Pike have been in quite a few exhibitions over the past year, which has been good. I hope to put my next film into some festivals, as well as premiere it somewhere, and then have some screenings of it in various places. Basically I'll try and promote it much more heavily. That's the plan with that. Also, I'm aiming to make some Blu-Rays and DVDs of the next film, with ‘makings of’ and all that. And hopefully sell a few. We'll see, have to actually make it first!
12. Next up you have the ‘Red Death’ project, which you’ve been chronicling in detail on the forums. What prompted you to make its development so public?
I wanted to show people what I was doing, and try and generate some interest in the film early on. I really enjoy seeing behind the scenes of other people’s projects, it's interesting and I think it can be quite inspiring. Hopefully there might be something in my production thread that inspires someone and gets them feeling excited and motivated about their own project.
13. The project seems to have undergone several major changes in concept and title. What drives your creative process?
Yes it has, it's been through a lot of changes. I started the thread back when I had a very definite idea of how I was going to do it, and it was much more of an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Masque of The Red Death'. But that wasn't working out, and it mutated by degrees to the point where it had almost nothing to do with Poe's story, but was still trying to cling on to it. So, at that point I decided to just completely drop the adaptation idea and make it up completely. The one thing I've kept from Poe's tale is the idea of the 'red death', a plague where people bleed to death, but otherwise it's a different concept altogether.
The title is now The man who met death with all his eggs in one basket, which is a bit long for some people, but I like it and it sums up the main theme of the film pretty well. My creative process is driven by thinking about the film constantly, writing down ideas, drawing ideas, acting things out by myself, listening to music that gets my imagination going, looking for locations. Also, on this film, I've been doing a lot of research into medieval life and clothing, and the medieval, Christian attitude to death and god, particularly during the period of the plague. So, the film has been constantly evolving and developing as my knowledge of that time expands. I now know all there is to know about chainmail, for example. I am the life of the party when I get going on that.
14. What’s the latest status of the project?
It's getting done, but slowly, because it's expensive and I want to do it right. So, it's going to be a while, I'm not sure exactly when it will be done, between 6 months and a year I would think.
15. Other than that project, what else do you have planned for the year?
I'm making a less expensive film, which I've been thinking about for a while. Because The man who met death with all his eggs in one basket is pretty much ready to go when I have the money, I thought it made sense to make something else between now and then. I'm looking forward to getting going on it, and I'll make a thread for it when I've started actually filming it.
Also, I'm going to be doing more drawing and hopefully freelance illustration work, and I'm making a children's book with my sister, not suitable for real children, featuring a fox that terrorises a toddler.
Thanks to Max for letting us into his unique imagination. If you want to continue to follow progress of The man who met death with all his eggs in one basket, don’t forget to check out the official development topic. Meanwhile, here's another look at Mr Fox in this year's FXhome Awards:
Next week we’ll be catching up with FXhome developer extraordinaire Jack Everitt about what he’s working on and his iPhone app projects.