Animation Post-Mortem: Making Films about the Real World in Slow Motion

Sean Buckelew

I wanted to write something about an animated short film project called DATASTREAMS that I probably won’t finish (at least not in its current form). Not finishing a film is often considered synonymous with not starting it, and I basically agree with that; but in this case the reason for abandoning the project had less to do with a lack of motivation, and more to do with the world around the project changing faster than I could keep up. I’ve talked about the difficulties of completing an independent animated short film in a previous post, and it’s a common enough stereotype that animation is extremely time-consuming and labor intensive, but I also wanted to focus this post on trying to make animated work that is responsive to the real world and time-sensitive, and the challenges of navigating a mountain of quicksand while moving in slow motion.

DATASTREAMS started in 2013 as my thesis project for the Experimental Animation MFA program at CalArts. In a grant application I wrote at the time, I described the project this way:

The main character takes the stage for his speech.

Darcy DiNucci coined a new term when assessing a shift in the nature of the Internet in 1999 when she said in her article Fragmented Future that “The Web we know now, which loads into a browser window in essentially static screenfuls, is only an embryo of the Web to come. The first glimmerings of Web 2.0 are beginning to appear…” The emerging idea of “Web 2.0” wasn’t popularized until 2004, when Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media hosted the first ever “Web 2.0 Summit”. The idea really took hold in 2006, when an average Internet user began to feel the effects of the way the web was evolving, with the pervasive expansion of social media, the launch of YouTube, and the spread of user-generated content. During this time, the ideology of the Internet began to change as well.

Glitches and corruption from the opening titles of the film

We began to see a shift away from an open, anonymous Internet with few regulations to a controlled, centralized Internet, with sophisticated algorithms moderating social behavior, a new market for advertising, and a safe space for you to share your real identity and personal information, with only a handful of websites dictating these regulations. At the same time, the rhetoric about the Internet as a great liberator for the oppressed, smashing old forms of tyranny and control, became steadily more pervasive.

DATASTREAMS is a film about the opening night of the third Annual “Web 2.0 Summit” in San Francisco, CA in 2006. The film follows a fictional CEO of an Internet-based company (in an extremely non-fictional world) and his wife, a well-known lifestyle blogger, as their actions blow open the tension between conflicting ideologies about our increasingly digital lives and the future of the Internet.

The film took place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The hotel bar has a painting called “The Pied Piper” in it. After the HBO Show “Silicon Valley” came out, everyone asked me if this painting was a reference to the company in the show.

The impetus to start the project came from observations of how the web was changing in 2013. The Internet was beginning to consolidate around a shrinking number of websites, most obviously places like Google, Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. As these sites began to create a more stable commercial platform, they also began policing more free and creative aspects of what made the Internet an exciting place, and effectively managed to erase the influence of sites that existed outside their platforms (standalone websites and blogs). The focus of my research was tracing the invisible ideologies and politics that birthed this new phase of the web. Specifically, I was interested in locating the root of the utopic enthusiasm surrounding shifts that reached their zenith around 2010 with the Arab Spring (and a general sense that Democracy would flourish without violence all over the globe, if only we were connected through a network).

Early color/concept work.

I was also interested in how this escalated to ideas like Transhumanism and the Singularity, and how quickly it could spiral into a fever of alienation from the world around you and your physical body (at the same moment that it was, in reality, primarily working to build a much better profile to better serve you advertisements). I was also interested in the role of identity, and the effort by big companies to bring accountability (and commercial stability) to the web by forcing people to merge their offline and online identities.

Character/color designs from preproduction

In the film, this played out across a group of characters over one night at a conference in San Francisco (originally it was based at the Web 2.0 Summit, a real conference, which eventually changed to the Net 2.0 Summit because I didn’t want to get a cease and desist) and their conflicting ideologies of what the Internet was and could be.

Similar to some of my other films, I wanted every aspect of it to be extremely specific and realistic to the time period. I got a huge kick out of this aspect, since the world of 2006 was essentially the same as 2013 when it came to almost everything except technology. There was a funny irony in characters on the bleeding edge of technology, effusively spouting ideas of how our devices will save the world, and then seeing that they’re using bulky PalmPilots that can barely check email and updating their Myspace Top 8.

Bleeding edge tech.

In early 2014, work began on the second anthology of films for the Late Night Work Club, an online collective of animators. I needed to come up with an idea that fit with the new anthology’s theme of “Strangers”, and since I was already so steeped in ideas of identity and an earlier phase of the Internet, I conceptualized a new film, set a little bit further back in time, called LOVESTREAMS. Although thematically similar, LOVESTREAMS had an entirely different tone than DATASTREAMS, with the former dealing more with the Internet as an emotional space, and the latter dealing with it more as a political, academic space. Although the ideas felt separate, aspects of DATASTREAMS began to get strip-mined and re-purposed as LOVESTREAMS rolled into production. When the second anthology started, the initial deadline was set for November 2014, so it took priority (I also thought having the two films come out in a chronological sequence sounded cool). At the time, I had a six minute cut of DATASTREAMS that I had completed to pass my graduation review.

DATASTREAMS and LOVESTREAMS chat conversations side by side: some inevitable asset strip mining.

LOVESTREAMS was finally completed in November 2016, and the world had completely changed. First, I felt I had gotten better overall as a filmmaker, and on the technical side as an animator/compositor, so the whole film definitely needed a dusting and polishing. But that was okay, I was still excited to dig back in. I also felt like I could restructure some of the story beats to make it more exciting, which also felt okay since, at the time, I was much more intuitive with how I structured films and most of the storyboarding from 2013 was extremely rough and for my eyes only (and easy to change). I was a bit nervous, having just made a film about an esoteric technology, that the reference points of the film, coupled with the length (it was originally envisioned to be about 20 minutes), would alienate most audiences and lead to it performing badly at festivals, but a bit of editing could probably solve that. What made me feel stuck was thinking about what the film was actually about, and how that had aged in the intervening three years.

Zuck testifies before Congress.

The internet had not stopped developing, and the issues that felt bitingly important in 2013 suddenly felt a lot less urgent. After the 2016 election, many of the ideas in the film had come under a lot more public scrutiny, and my analysis didn’t feel nearly as fresh. The “too big to fail” sites of the internet had accelerated their influence in such multi-faceted and complex ways that to meaningfully address anything relevant would manifest for me as a completely different film. One of the characters in the film was drawn from an Amazon executive who lived full time on a boat. This seemed like a novel concept, and inspired an arc about the building of cloud storage and how we could be free from reliance on any fixed geography. But now you have Peter Thiel, when he’s not busy teaming up with Hulk Hogan to sue Gawker into bankruptcy is investing in Libertarian lawless Seasteading communities off the coast of Liberia. I felt like the dilemmas my characters were facing didn’t speak in meaningful ways to the world we live in now.

2018, yikes!

In May 2017, I went to a screening of Laura Poitras’ film RISK, a documentary about Julian Assange. The film had screened the previous year at the Cannes Film Festival, but had a delayed release after Assange’s role in the 2016 election required additional editing that skewed the movie towards a more critical position on Assange and Wikileaks and away from a reportedly more positive tone, showing Assange as a maverick. I was very curious to see the movie, especially since public opinion of Assange had so thoroughly soured.

The movie opens in 2010 during the leak of the State Department cables. There was obviously some fresh irony in watching Assange trying and failing to get then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the phone, but something in the opening of the film struck me even more. The fact that Poitras had been in Assange’s company for so long, before the rape allegations and other indiscretions surfaced that led to a tarnishing of Assange’s reputation, makes you really feel the tone shifting as the movie progresses. Poitras is obviously enamored with Assange as a prophet for the shifting landscape of digital media and a principled advocate for institutional transparency, but in the middle of the movie, she addresses the fact that the story was unfolding in ways that she hadn’t anticipated:

“This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong, they were becoming the story.”

The movie, while interesting overall and an important primary source on Julian Assange and Wikileaks during this period, doesn’t quite come together as a cohesive portrait (certainly not in the way that her previous film CITIZENFOUR had) or present a clear ideology about the role of Wikileaks in politics. I mainly took solace in watching a filmmaker I greatly admired struggle with the speed of the world, and trying to make a film that engaged with a constantly shifting present.

Timing is an important aspect to the entire spectrum of art-making, but it can feel especially searing when you’re drawing things out frame by frame as the world zips by you. I also think, whether we like it or not, no film ever truly escapes the time period it was made in. So this isn’t meant to be discouraging, hopefully the opposite: you should try to deal with the world around you, even in the imaginary world of animation. I’m just trying to be honest about the difficulties of making that kind of work, and the challenges that I’ve faced. I also purposefully kept the details of the movie vague, because you never know when the pendulum of relevance might swing back again. In the meantime, I’ve got lots of other ideas cooking. Hopefully some of them will see the light of day.

Thanks to Jeanette Bonds for editing help!

Thanks to Jeanette Bonds

Sean Buckelew

Written by

Animator based in California / Programmer at GLAS Animation Festival

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