What if a character in a stop-motion animated film gained awareness that he was a character in a stop-motion animated film?
The premise is so wonderfully simple that you can’t help but believe it. And that’s what transpires in director Lachlan Pendragon’s Oscar-nominated “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It.” Pendragon, a 26-year-old Australian animator, also voices the role of Neil, the office-bound telemarketer who questions his own existence after the event of the title. (More about that title in our interview below.)
Pendragon made the 10-minute short over the course of a year while in COVID lockdown. In an even deeper self-reflexive twist, his real human hands are sometimes visible in the film.
In fact, almost the entire story plays out on a camera monitor, with all of Pendragon’s meticulous, frame-by-frame labor visible in the margins, like so:
Pendragon, who won a Student Academy Award for this film last year, talked to TheWrap from his homebase in Brisbane about his effort to strike the perfect balance between “meta” and “pure” storytelling, who he’s hoping to meet at the Oscars on March 12, and about how the short got tagged with a very long title.
There’s an existential crisis in the film, which has echoes of Kafka or “The Truman Show” or “The Matrix.” Did you have points of inspiration while you were developing the idea?
Yeah, there were influences from live action films that deal with an alternate reality. But in animation, there’s a long history of deconstructing the process of animation itself. Usually it’s for the sake of comedy. You can see that in Chuck Jones’s “Duck Amuck” or Tex Avery’s films. There are jokes in those where we see the humor of poking fun at the fact that these characters are constructed, with ink and paint.
In my case, they are hand sculpted. So it started for me as a research project. And thinking like a researcher, forced me to think of justifying everything I was doing. And so I wanted to do something in stop-motion. That’s what I was practiced in and I was also interested in exploring what it was about stop-motion animation that appealed to me.
For you, what is the greatest appeal of stop-motion animation?
I think it’s to do with the tactile qualities of it, the imperfections, and the recognizable materials that we see come to life.
It’s almost kind of thrilling when you see the way that hair, like the coat of an animal, moves in as stop-motion film.
It moves that way because the animator has touched it. Yeah, exactly. It’s like seeing a painting and then going in close to look at the paint brush strokes.
I was then asking myself: How aware of those things can we be without losing the connection to the characters, while also being entertained. And that led me into thinking: OK, let’s be incredibly meta and not let the audience forget – in fact, constantly remind them – that what they’re watching is constructed. But still trying to do all that in a way that’s engaging and entertaining. I really crammed everything I could into a 10-minute short film so that it was consistently interesting and fun.
Stop-motion is achieved in the camera, but you take it a step further but showing us almost the whole movie through the camera’s monitor. It’s an incredible conceit but did you hesitate with that idea?
It was written in one of the early drafts of the script, but it was worded in a way that showed I was still kind of exploring what that would actually look like. But I was always thinking that I need to do something really different, something I haven’t experienced before in a film. I wanted to give a sense of how it would feel to be an animator. To be in the workspace and the environment. And bring that to the audience, so they feel like they’re there, looking over the animator’s shoulder.
Were there debates with your producers about how far to go with the reflexivity?
I had two supervisors who I’d meet with to bounce around ideas. And there were a lot of conversations about how much was too much, whether this or that was too distracting. You go down this rabbit hole and can start overthinking things. But in our discussions, it always came back to, “This is a 10-minute film. Try not to overthink it.” This film took about three years to make and about 10 months to animate, so I was with it for a very long time but I had to remember: The audience is only with this for 10 minutes.
The ostrich says to Neil, the protagonist, “Question everything, young man. The world is not what it seems.” That’s a much larger and more profound commentary. How did that idea impact you?
It can mean a lot of things, yeah. For me, I see it as creativity. That thing of thinking outside the box or exploring things that perhaps you have never thought about. Question everything, explore, be open to new ideas. Whatever you want to do, try not to get locked into the status quo or what is being taught or what is deemed acceptable.
Speaking of thinking big, do you want to make a feature film eventually?
I do. That’s the big shining dream. I’d love to be involved in a feature film. I didn’t think it be something I’d be considering so soon. I’m in the process of exploring those options. I really enjoy stop-motion feature films like “Wallace and Gromit” and “Chicken Run,” which have an amazing sense of humor. I also really enjoy writing and development, but I could see myself continuing as a pure animator.
There’s a fearless quality in your work that also applies to this film’s title. How did you decide on that?
That was one of the last things we were trying to figure out. We had a long list of ideas for the title and a lot of them just weren’t working. We were going through the film, thinking maybe there was a line of dialogue somewhere that we could use as the title. And sure enough, it was suggested by one of my supervisors to use this line from the film: An ostrich told me the world is fake and I think I believe him. I thought he was joking at first, but it turned out it was a perfect title for this kind of film and it was definitely eye-catching. I think it had the desired effect.
How soon will you be leaving Australia for Los Angeles and the Oscars ceremony?
I’ll be headed there in early March, ahead of the ceremony.
That 13-hour flight is a good opportunity to watch some movies or TV?
Oh, for sure. I’ve got to watch “Severance,” which is one that has been recommended to me.
It’s so good. And yes, without giving away spoilers, you’ll understand why so many people have recommended it to you, specifically, as the director of this film.
I haven’t seen it yet but I need to. I’m excited for it.
Who are you most hoping to meet at the Oscars?
I’d love to meet (co-directors) Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, and the whole team on (the stop-motion Best Animated Feature nominee) “Pinocchio.” It’s going to be such a thrill. Like, there are going to be so many people – I mean, Steven Spielberg is going to be there! That just doesn’t seem real. All of these legends and icons are going to be in one room.
“An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It” is currently showing in select theaters as part of the “2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films” program via ShortsTV.