Jonathan Langager has spent a decade working on his animated short about a man stuck alone on an asteroid in space. Just months after premiering “Cosmic Fling,” his story about isolation and the desire for human contact that has suddenly become more relevant than ever.
“We released our film just a few months before everyone went into quarantine, but it’s going to be interesting seeing how people react to it now,” Langager told TheWrap. “We have it set to screen for some virtual film festivals but also some socially distanced outdoor festivals in Europe, and I think people there will really identify with it after being stuck in their homes for so long.”
“Cosmic Fling,” which is one of the finalists of TheWrap’s 2020 ShortList Film Festival, follows an interstellar garbage man picking up trash floating through space, etching the days, weeks and months that go by on a billboard attached to his asteroid home. But one day, he spots a woman floating by on a passing comet and begins plotting a way for them to meet with the help of his trash-catching harpoon.
Starting in 2010, Langager spent years not only tweaking the story of “Cosmic Fling” but also figuring out what would be the best medium to film it in. It was originally conceived as a CGI-animated film, and live-action was also considered at one point. Instead, Langager tried something else: marionettes.
“I’m interested in whatever medium allows me to express my weird fantastic sensibility, but on a budget, there’s something charming about the scrappiness of puppets,” he says.
With the help of master puppeteer Phillip Huber, who worked on the famous puppet scene from “Being John Malkovich,” and a team of crafters and VFX artists, Langager used a mix of practical and computer effects to create the 10-minute short over three days of shooting. Since marionettes do not have the expressiveness of stop-motion puppets, Langager used live-action actors to play the two astronauts, using digital effects to splice their faces into the foggy helmets of the two puppets. While losing that facial expressiveness was a downside of using puppets, Langager says that their ability to easily tell a story through detailed design and physicality without the need for high-tech rendering software makes it worth the trade-off.
“With CGI you can tell the difference sometimes when the animation has a high budget vs. a lower budget. But with our puppets we could express physicality with the characters and the sense of loneliness in the setting on a lower budget. There’s also a bit of a connection to actual space exploration as well because puppets were used on TV when explaining the Apollo missions in the 1960s, so there’s always been that history of using puppets to make space relatable.”
Langager also got some help from the most famous family in the craft. He applied for and received a grant from IBEX Puppetry, a company founded by Jim Henson’s daughter, Heather, to preserve and expand puppetry as an art form. After it was completed, “Cosmic Fling” was screened at the Jim Henson Company headquarters in Hollywood and will be released by the company as part of Heather Henson’s showcase series “Handmade Puppet Dreams.” The film has also received an award for best animated short at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and has also screened at festivals in San Jose, New York and Montreal.