Needless to say, it’s a rare moment when an avant-garde, non-narrative film wins a major award at an animation festival. And by avant-garde cinema, I mean experimental films that defy the normal conventions of commercial cinema. Often lacking linear narrative, they tend to invite viewers into an abstract, impressionistic or poetic cinematic experience.
Yet, that’s just happened when Thomas Renoldner’s Dont Know What, his poetic cinematic experience, took home the Nelvana Grand Prize at the 2019 Ottawa International Animation Festival. Standing on stage to receive the award, Renoldner’s shock was quite apparent; awarding his film, a crowd favorite, with the top short film award was a bold and welcome jury decision.
After seeing Dont Know What in competition and, impressed with the way Renoldner marries slapstick and avant-garde cinema, I had arranged to speak with him prior to his surprise awards ceremony win.
An artist and musician since the mid-1970s, Renoldner has made approximately 40 experimental and animated films. Seven years had passed since his 2012 short, Sunny Afternoon, and the process of finding his way from that film to Dont Know What raised three critical questions for him: how much of an artist’s work is planned rational concept, and how much arises purely intuitively from playing with materials? what kind of moving imagery makes us laugh? and lastly, can one break the conventions of avant-garde cinema and actually make a successfully entertaining avant-garde film? Exploring these ideas, the filmmaker and I enjoyed a long chat between screenings.
According to Renoldner, the concept for Dont Know What originated with the making of Sunny Afternoon. He began that short with no plan, no expectations at all. The original footage used in the film had been based on a song and was shot when he was a student some 20 years previously. “I couldn’t finish the film as a student for some reason”, he recalls. “But the song kept spinning around in my mind. So, 20 years later I decided to finish this student project. I still had the photographs from that time, which I use in the animation. I scanned them [and] put them on the computer. It was really difficult, long work to clean the photos up and make them available for editing. This took a lot of time, and when I had them available, I discovered this joy of playing with them.”
As a concept, Sunny Afternoon presents Renoldner himself in the simple, everyday act of sitting down. “That’s an everyday movement,” he explains. “It has no special meaning, just standing [then] sitting down.”
Bringing the scans into non-linear editing software, he twisted and mirrored, copied and pasted the images, a process that quickly becoming intuitive and playful. With frame-by-frame editing of the stills, new meanings began to appear. “There were sexual connotations,” he laughs. “When the bell is vibrating, people think about sex. And when I’m in that [crouched] position shortly before sitting down, I guess people have anal associations; they think about shitting, or sitting on a toilet. They have to laugh about this, so there is a new, completely different meaning to what the original footage was. It’s really twisting the meaning of the images to an absolute contrast of what it originally was. Only editing can manipulate the meaning completely and can generate new meanings which absolutely never were a part of the original material.”
When Sunny Afternoon screened at festivals in 2012, Renoldner felt like a rock star. “I was receiving questions from people for two or three hours,” he remembers, still with surprise. “I had to constantly speak with people who gave me their comments and their compliments. I’ve never experienced something like that. I must say, this experience of audience reaction of Sunny Afternoon was a strong motivation to do Dont Know What.”
The initial strategy for Dont Know What was to shoot 15 video takes of himself gesturing while speaking the words, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Asked if the title reflected the truth, he shares, “Of course, I know what I’m doing. But I find it very rewarding and nice when you discover things which you didn’t expect. In the artistic process, I think it’s always about this balance of having a concept and knowing what you’re doing, but then having the freedom and the possibility to discover something new in the process. This is really what happened in Dont Know What.”
Dont Know What, a sophisticated and elegant film, has the same slapstick sense of humor as Sunny Afternoon. One key difference between the films is that the audio in Dont Know What was edited in sync with the video. And frame-by-frame editing of audio can lead to some very bizarre and amusing sounds.
At the film’s OIAF 2019 screening premiere, the audience began laughing after only a few short moments. “This was the earliest moment any festival audience had begun to laugh while watching this film,” Renoldner reveals, clearly amused. “It was really surprising for me. In some countries, like Finland, they don’t laugh at all. Or, just very late. I’m interested a lot in that. How does the audience react? Yeah, I must confess, in Dont Know What, I play with this… I play with audience expectations. I pretend to be very serious at the beginning. I want to make them feel like they’re watching a very serious avant-garde film.”
How did Renoldner achieve the film’s uncanny humor? He set up some rules to dictate how he would edit the frames. One of the limitations was to create sequences from only two consecutive frames. For example, even though there were 15 takes of the action, the rapid fire blinking of the eye is made up of only two neighbor frames from the same take.
“It was kind of a surprise for me how quickly the eye can close,” he notes. “From open to closed is just really a glimpse. In a twenty-fourth of a second, the open eye closes. I didn’t know that. This was a discovery. I used this open and closed eye [sequence] and copy pasted.”
“When I saw it, I had to laugh, intuitively and without controlling it, without being able to control that laughter because it looks so… why is it funny if you see something like that,” he continues. “I can’t really 100% say. A part of it is the surprise effect, that you don’t expect something. Or I think because you see a human, but it doesn’t behave like a human anymore. I just can say that there were many moments when even if you are a really controlled person, you cannot hold back from laughing. You have to laugh about certain situations without knowing why you’re doing it.”
But this wasn’t the kind of avant-garde film he was used to seeing. “Avant-garde film, or experimental film, has its own rules, its own set of conventions, I would say,” he says. “I want to question the conventions of experimental film. Is it possible to make an experimental film, which at the same time entertains the audience?”
“Historically, with avant-garde film or experimental film, the idea of it was to be against entertainment cinema, because entertainment is combined with Hollywood and with Disney, stuff like that,” he adds. “From the history of avant-garde film, it was a counter position to that. That generates the rule that you should not entertain your audience. As cynical as it is, you should rather torture your audience. I mean, at the same time, [you] don’t want to ridicule avant-garde film.”
Which brings us back to his process and the simplicity and austerity of the setups.
“I really enjoy experimenting,” he states, “But sometimes people who don’t like experimental film so much, they maybe say about you, ‘Hey, these people don’t know what they’re doing, they’re just experimenting’ as a negative criticism. I wanted to take this comment about experimental film, about artists not knowing what they’re doing, and just twist it around and say, ‘Okay, I pretend not to know what to do. Of course, I know what I’m doing!’”
Renoldner is now heading into his next avant-garde adventure. Slowly. Knowing what he’s doing. And being open to playfully not knowing what he’s doing.