‘The Backwater Gospel’ dir. Bo Mathorne

As long as anyone can remember, the coming of The Undertaker has meant the coming of death. Until one day the grim promise fails and tension builds as the God fearing townsfolk of Backwater wait for someone to die.

Director: Bo Mathorne
Technical Director: Mads Simonsen
Key Cast: Lucien Dodge

Presented in association with Encounters Short Film & Animation Festival 2013

C8: Where did the idea for ‘The Backwater Gospel’ come from?

BM: I don’t know if it came from any one place, but there’s certainly elements and events that has played into the origin of the original idea. I had for a good while been into dark American country music like 16 Horsepower and The Denver Gentlemen whose music all feature strong religious notations as well as stark, bleak imagery. I had more recently acquainted myself with the bands Sons of Perdition and Those Poor Bastards, both of which would eventually become major influences on Backwater. A song by Those Poor Bastards called “The Dust Storm” compelled me to attempt to build a 3D character that would match the raw style of the music visually. Using a rough and dirty approach to 3D modelling I had been cultivating for a while I ended up with a character that sparked some interest amongst my classmates and eventually the Internet when I posted it on forums. I wanted to do another character in the style and decided to do an Undertaker. I had this idea that he would be riding an old bicycle (an idea I’ve managed to track back to the music video for Godsmack’s “Voodoo”, check it out if you’re unusually curious) and in a conversation with a friend I mentioned that he’d always arrive shortly before someone died. That was the initial idea.

I soon realized that it would be really interesting to play with this concept of omens and prophecies and especially the music of Sons of Perdition played a major role in further developing the story.

C8: Do you have any advice for animation directors on working with actors?

BM: Not as much as I would have liked. I had a fairly easy time with the actors, the two main actors both being really able and keen on the style of the film. In fact I did both recording sessions over the Internet, which perhaps isn’t desirable, but worked out alright in the end. The advantage is that you focus solely on the voice when that’s all you hear and that of course happens to be all you need for animation.

But attempt to be open and don’t be too set on what you think you want be try to listen to what they’re giving you. But there’s many excellent books out there about directing actors and I think it would more beneficial to seek advice from them.

C8: You worked with a lot of different animators on ‘The Backwater Gospel’. Do you feel that the more people involved allows for a greater end product?

BM: Ideally I would have worked with a smaller team, but it would have been nearly impossible for us to hit the deadline if we had been fewer. Generally however, I strongly advocate for small, close-knit and above all talented teams rather than larger teams. It’s just a much more manageable and ultimately more satisfying experience.

C8: The music was composed and performed by Sons of Perdition. How did this collaboration come about?

BM: As mentioned, I had been listening to their music for a while before Backwater existed in any way. When I felt like I had an idea about the story I knew I would eventually need someone capable to write music for it, which I wanted to be a major part of the short film. I also felt I needed someone who had a closer relationship to the part of the world where the film would take place and so I thought that I might as well give Sons of Perdition themselves a shot. I wrote down the story and bundled it with the visuals I had made thus far and send it all to Zebulon Whatley, the man in charge of Sons of Perdition and asked if he’d in any way be interested in a collaboration. The next day, he replied that he’d be in on it in whatever extent I wanted. That turned out to be the beginning of a very fruitful partnership and eventually a friendship to boot.

C8: From beginning to end how long did the whole process take you?

BM: The actual production of the film, after the team had been assembled, spanned ten months. Before that I reckon I’d spend around three month’s time on and off working out the story and doing some initial designs.

C8: If you did the whole process again, is there anything you would do differently?

BM: Pretty much everything story related. I had a fairly rough treatment of the story when the team was assembled, which contained the basic outline of the story and the main beats but with little to no consideration of the actual story telling. We almost immediately began storyboarding the film, but with up to eight people participating and only a vague idea of how the story should actually be told, it quickly became a confusing and frustrating experience where most of us were shooting in the blind. Eventually we narrowed down the story team and I took the necessary time to flesh out the story - in writing! - and that helped us focus our efforts. It turned out that even if the basic storyline remained intact and all the beats were there from the beginning, a lot of details were necessary for us to be properly informed about what we needed to storyboard.

So to sum up, I’d spend more time fleshing out the story before anything else and really making sure that I knew what and why before I drew anything.

C8: Is there an artist or film that has inspired your visual style?

BM: ‘The Pearce Sisters’ by Luis Cook is a film I hold in very high regards. Mike Mignola’s work was also a pretty big influence. Even Gorillaz had their part to play.

C8: If you could give young filmmakers a piece of advice what would it be?

BM: Be conscious of your choices! Whatever you do, know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Everything you put on that final frame is a choice and you should do your utmost to make sure that those choices benefit the story you want to tell.

C8: What do you think is the essence of a good collaboration?

BM: Positivity and openness. I’m part of an improvisational theatre group and much of the work we do is all about accepting offers and be open to suggestions. If you fail to do so, there simply won’t be a scene. Collaboration is much the same. There are times when criticism is needed and appropriate, but there are times as well when it’s not. Don’t block your teammates or yourself and let your imagination and creativity do what they’re best at: creation. Once you have a body of ideas you may begin to cut heels and toes, but don’t do it too early. It’ll kill the energy.

C8: What’s next for you? Any plans for the future?

BM: I’m cautiously working on expanding the Backwater universe into a full animated feature film. It’s an extremely fascinating process where I constantly struggle with feeling of being “unworthy” but at that same time I feel like I’m growing along with the story. I think there something in there worthy of a full film and I’m determined to find it.

Besides that I’m working on a freelance basis on a number of small projects and I’m teaching a few classes at the school I went to, The Animation Workshop. I’m also art directing a couple of upcoming mobile games, which marks a return to my old interests and ambitions and I’m happy to note that I’m still enjoying it.