Drew Christie’s work is timeless. His films, rooted in history, juxtapose the past with a sense of discovery. Click play, and immediately unearth an artifact from an older time, filled with stories that feel handcrafted straight from the source.
A long-time Vimeo member, today Drew debuts his 10th staff pick, The Emperor of Time, a film that’s lauded with laurels from Sydney to Sundance, and offers a break of form from his hand-drawn animation work. In it, he explores live-action narrative in his own tactile manner as he tells the story of Eadweard Muybridge, the founder of modern cinema … and a murderer/psychopath. To mark the occasion and to share a phenomenal film with all of you, we chatted with Drew about his inspiration, and how to make a living through putting historical curiosities to paper.
Your films often choose interesting mediums. What about these tangible forms are important to you when telling stories?
My feeling is that if you’re going to tell a story, [then] the way in which you tell it, the style and mood and feeling evoked, is just as important as how good the actual story is itself.
I always strive for the visuals to seem perfectly tailored to the story. In animation, this [can] mean:
what does the color palette of the story look like? Whose point of view is the story told from? What would their world look like? What sort of typography fits the story or mood? Is it black and white or vibrant, psychedelic colors? I love being sucked into another world, [so] it feels like once the movie ends, those characters keep existing because it’s so rich and vividly realized. I had that feeling very intensely after watching Blade Runner for the first time.
In the case of The Emperor of Time, what actually is the device you use? As I understand, the film began as an animation project and then shifted to its current state. What called for the shift and how did you pull it off?
That thing is a mutoscope, which is an early cinema device that essentially flips a bunch of cards in rapid succession to imply motion. [It’s] very similar to a flip book, [and] it was usually used for peep shows and other adult entertainment. The one used in this film was just a kit I bought online from a company called FlipBooKit. I had been thinking about making this story of Eadweard Muybridge into a short animation since at least 2010. I was just waiting for the right time off in between commissioned projects and client work to make it.
But as I was getting closer to making it, I was drawing all these pictures of horses and trains and Muybridge himself and noticing, ‘This part really needs the actual photographs … so does this part.’ It dawned on me that the entire output of his work is black-and-white photographs and this thing needs to fit in seamlessly with that. I have always been a fan of frames within frames. Akira Kurosawa was probably the master of this, but I always have liked miniature worlds, and the Quay Brothers film Street of Crocodiles was an enormous influence on me. That whole film takes place within some type of contraption and I think I may never have outgrown that fascination.
As a filmmaker with an illustration and animation background, are we to expect more live-action films from you?
Hmmm, good question! I would indeed like to explore more stories that work better in live-action filmmaking. In general, I like to be open to all forms in which a story can be expressed, whether that’s a book, a film, a song, a drawing, an animation, or a carved piece of wood. Although, I would need to find the right story for another live-action film, and one has yet to present itself to me. Usually, stories that I am drawn to tend to be historical period piece stuff, which would be ridiculously expensive if I were to try and shoot them live action. But if someone wanted to fork over the dough, I would be more than happy to make them.
How did you find this story and what compelled you to bring it to life?
I had seen the horses running and they are sort of ubiquitous, especially for art students and animation students. Sometime in my early twenties, I bought a big photo book called Eadweard Muybridge: The Father of the Motion Picture. I got it mainly for the pictures I’m sure. But in the middle of the book, there is a small picture of an older man sitting on some farm equipment, wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief. The caption identifies the man as Florado Muybridge, the son of Eadweard Muybridge. Then there’s a photo of the Protestant Orphan Asylum, where little Florado was placed by Eadweard after his wife died because Muybridge suspected it wasn’t really his son. That immediately grabbed me. When I read on and found out his wife died after he shot and killed her lover, then was acquitted — I knew I had to tell this story.
It’s those stories of obsession that really intrigue me. How someone could be so brilliant and yet so deranged? Here’s the big shiny thing everyone knows, and then there’s this strange little footnote down here at the bottom. That’s my favorite part, the odd little footnote. Also, the fact that the guy who invented movies was a murderer seems like a perfect thing to remind people that think there’s too much violence in movies.
That footnote alone deserves to be widely known. Such an interesting fact. To bring it all to life, who narrated and acted in the film? How did you go about finding them?
I knew I wanted Hugh [Ross] to narrate it even before I had written the script. Hugh narrated a wonderful and absurdly underappreciated film called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His narration throughout that film was so affecting and perfectly understated that I knew I could really only do this one if he could be the narrator. Next came the even more difficult task of figuring out who would actually play Muybridge on screen. On [the] island [I live on], there lives a legendary actor who is known to fans of television Westerns. His name is Richard Evans. Lucky for me, he also liked my script. I liked the idea that my film has all these components of the Western: the train, the gun, the horse, etc., but it’s actually not a Western at all. It’s just about a son coming to terms with his dad who was a psychotic man who happened to invent a transformative technology.
This is your 10th Staff Pick. How does it feel to look back at your older films compared to where you are now? Are you at a place where you hoped you would be?
It’s really fun for me to look back. The first one I got a Staff Pick for was ‘Song of the Spindle,’ and I always tell people how much that one really launched my work out into the world. That got me doing stuff with The New York Times and Sundance and really opened a lot of doors for me. It’s nice to be able to see a progression and in particular, I feel very thankful for the love and support Vimeo has given me over the years.
In the end, I’m always doing things for fun to see if I can achieve a certain mood, and I guess I’m always trying to challenge myself. Am I at a place now that I hoped to be? Yes, I would definitely say I am, but only for STAGE 1 of the plan. STAGE 2 includes an animated series, feature films, illustrated books, and museum exhibits. STAGE 3 involves an underwater compound, a treetop compound, and an amusement park. STAGE 4 has yet to be developed.
Stage 3 sounds like the life. You’ve done some awesome work with The New York Times as well as have had films play at festivals around the world. Do you have any advice for aspiring animators that are hoping to make filmmaking their full-time gig?
That’s difficult to answer because everybody’s path is so different. But I will just say [this]: unless you are sleeping, be working on your ideas, your projects, your film, your script, your drawings. At all times be creating. And try to think of the most common way of telling a story, then do the exact opposite of that. Approach your story from the complete inverse of everyone else. Explore stories no one else is. Interview people that are being ignored. Try and give someone or something a voice who isn’t being listened to. I think that’s the whole purpose of making any kind of art is to get people to reexamine how they view everything around them. Because I suspect that the only way to change the world is to change how people view the world. To get a viewer unstuck from the usual ways of thinking is a marvelous thing — even if it’s only for a few minutes.
That’s great advice. In terms of trends within your work, it seems that your films are often rooted in history. What do you look for in a subject? Have you noticed certain themes that unconsciously emerge from your work?
Oh yeah, I look for a couple things in subject matter. I want it to have a compelling character. I think if you’re taking up the viewer’s time, you should reward them somehow: you should make it relevant to them, or something they understand. Emperor of Time follows this formula, so does ‘The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Lincoln,’ ‘Some Crazy Magic,’ and a bunch of others. I also look for interesting facts or anecdotes that I can extrapolate out into an entire story.
Although, I try not to examine my own work because it just seems like a waste of time and I’d rather be concocting something new. In general, I find myself extremely boring and everything else in the world extremely interesting.
Well, what’s a typical day in the ‘boring’ life of Drew Christie when you’re working on a project? Any secrets to the craft that you’ve learned over the years?
I live on an island that was originally called ‘Tscha-kole-chy’ by the Coast Salish, [now] written on maps as Whidbey Island. It’s a lovely place to live. A typical day for me consists of our cat waking me up very early, then me feeding her, going back to bed, waking up again and making oatmeal, then making a to-do list for the day and texting with Dane Herforth, who is my second-in-command about what we’re working on for that day and what order we’re going to do it in. We usually are working on anywhere from two to five projects at any given time.
I don’t know if I’ve found any secrets, but I will say to-do lists are very, very important. Sketchbooks are very important as well. I like small ones that can fit in any pocket. They also keep you from making too-detailed storyboards. The legendary Russian animator Yuri Norstein once told me to never do detailed storyboards because people get too bogged down in making the art pretty and forget what it’s purpose is. I would also say listen to every type of music that exists on the planet while you’re working. I think this is extremely important in stimulating different parts of the brain and creativity. Listen to West African Kora music, Isan Thai folk and pop music, North Indian classical music, Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs from the British Isles, Victor Jara from Chile, Michael Hurley, Abner Jay, Hala Strana, LAKE, and Kate Wolf from the U.S.
Other than that, I say, give your family hugs.
Sounds interesting to me. What are you hoping to work on in the future?
I have another short animated series I want to do about cults (also known as new religious movements) in American history. Mainly, I’m interested in juxtaposing how these nineteenth and early twentieth-century cults have strong similarities with certain cultural behaviors now, such as sports team obsessions, brand loyalty, and partisan politics. I also have an idea for a live-action feature film that would essentially be a post-apocalyptic buddy road trip movie involving a secret society, the history, and future of recorded music, and Bobby McFerrin.
Thanks for chatting, Drew! To find more conversations we’ve had with filmmakers and to take a peek behind other Staff Picked videos, head to our archive.