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Ryan is not only a masterpiece of computer animation, it is a masterpiece of the human form. Having already won more than 60 international awards since it’s 2004 release, including the coveted Oscar for best animated short, the taking out of Best Film at this year’s Melbourne International Animation Festival (MIAF05) was probably not a surprise. Being in the privileged company of Steven Hoban, producer of this amazing work did, however, bring many a surprise when the layers of the story unfolded.
Header images: Ryan Larkin, Ryan (2005) Directed by Chris Landreth, NFB
Original publication: Design Graphics: DG Magazine 2006
Republished with permission
The festival circuit is a flourishing breeding ground for innovative and breathtaking filmmaking – but not all of it happens on the screen – a lot more happens in the foyers, lounges and usually the bar across the street. It’s here that Ryan began, when a last minute withdrawal from the judging panel meant the folks of the Ottawa International Film Festival (OIFF) needed to scramble around for a replacement.

Ryan Larkin, former star animator of the NFB and Oscar nominee (Walking, 1968), was touched by serendipity when Lesya Fesiak of the OIFF came across him panhandling in the streets of Montreal. Some gentle persuasion and a few rounds of beers in various bars, and Larkin, who had accepted an offer to attend the fest as a low profile guest, became the perfect choice to fill the now vacant panel position. Fate stepped in again when the committee held a small screening of works of the panel members. Larkin’s mesmerising and melodic Walking was held til last, and the room became awash with jaw dropping admiration.

Chris Landreth (Bingo, The End) probably saw more than most in that screening. Known for his own mastery of animating gestural nuance, Landreth’s work is almost protégé to the ground breaking human forms animated by Larkin. Ryan is not only “a homage to Larkin’s artistry”, as Guy Dixon professed in the Globe, it is a behemothic leap in understanding the human form, inside and out, which blends Landreth’s talents with Larkin’s legacy.

Another one of those chance meetings brought Landreth together with Steve Hoban (CopperHeart Entertainment). Hoban’s passion for innovative story telling fit snugly with Landreth’s drive for pushing the emotive boundaries of the human form on screen, and they quickly made a pact to find a way to work together. It was Hoban who first recognised the powerful impact that Ryan would have, promoting the films’ Academy Award potential if Landreth was allowed to create the piece in the style that he calls “psychological realism”.

Behind the scenes of the Anima Mundi festival in Brazil, Hoban met up with several students of Seneca College, Toronto, who helped close the deal that made the production team possible. In exchange for having Landreth on hand as a resident artist, Hoban arranged for the team to include postgraduates from the college – one of the most prominent animation schools in the world. For Hoban, this was an important component of the production and one he would recommend for any non-commercial venture that requires numerous commercial resources.

The opening sequence of the film lays the foundations for our understanding of Landreth’s complex character portrayal. It begins with Chris introducing his own physical deconstruction and brings him into play as a narrator as well as a key personality. It is hard to believe that this was not the original opening to the film. Hoban explains “about four months prior to the final release this sequence was positioned post the emotive climax of the film, which is the catenation of Chris confronting Ryan on his alcohol abuse”. Reordering of this plot sequence added a dramatic spark to the film, ensuring the audience was well in tune with the characters, and maintaining the psychological balance of the piece.

Looking at the surface of Ryan we are confronted by characters who display their psychological torments and challenges as external disfigurements, which places us in the company of twisted and broken forms. It is difficult not to be confronted by your own buried demons as you watch these characters challenge each other on their reasons for being. Hoban explains, “there’s more to all of us than we let people see absolutely, this film breaks down all those physical barriers”.

One of the surprises of the film for Hoban was the ratio of character prominence in the final product. Indeed Landreth had seen a great deal more in Larkin’s story than anyone first understood. It is Landreth’s emotive inclusion of himself and his relationship with his alcoholic mother, Barbara, which builds to the psychological peak. Chris and Ryan are equal partners in the dialogue at the spine of this emotive arc, as Chris confronts the intellective drama of his appeal to Ryan to give up his alcoholic crutch on the subtext of his own mothers demise.

The bridge to this conflict is established with Chris mediating an interview between Ryan and Derek Lamb, NFB Staff Executive Producer. It is this sequence that illustrates one possible set of circumstances, Larkin’s courtship with cocaine, that lead to the incredible flare and subsequent demise of his undeniable talent, and illuminates Landreth’s own link with substance abuse – that the tragedy of Ryan’s potential personal destruction may be a mirror of Landreth’s experience with his mothers affliction and devolution under the influence of alcohol.

Ryan was animated by hand within the powerful 3D animation software Maya (V4). Landreth perfected his talent with this tool on the film Bingo (1998) when on staff with Alias, and has maximised every improvement to the software since that initial release. When I asked Hoban about Landreth’s use of this powerful software tool he explained how some of the look and feel of the film came from the symbiotic relationship between ‘the master and the pen’, he expands, “there are a couple of times when the background images start to feel like they’re being mashed, they start to become streaky and sort of blurred around. That’s just a particular thing in Maya that Chris was playing around with and thought “oh this is cool”, and he used it to reflect the kind of reality he wanted to reflect”.

Maya handled the modelling, rigging, animation, lighting and rendered 3D effects. In addition Discreet Combustion V2.1 was used for all compositing and 2D effects, Adobe Photoshop V7.0 for painting and texturing, and Adobe Premiere for creative development and editing.

Looking beneath the surface of Ryan we go far deeper than software tools alone can be used to create. This is truly art reflecting life. In this world Ryan receives the love and reassurance he craves throughout his day from elongated hands reaching up to him and happily chanting ‘I love you’ from the flask that holds his poison of choice. And as Chris’s thoughts turn to care and redemption as he attempts to save Ryan from his alcoholic ways, a halo appears above his head, and later a switch turns it on like a fluorescent tube illuminating his benevolence.

The shiny insides of the twisted and disfigured heads of Landreth’s characters become another canvas for the story. At times these surfaces swirl and sparkle with shapes and stars, and at other times they are grey and dark, or painted flat with monotonal preciseness. But if you watch close enough, maybe on your second or third screening (as we discovered at MIAF) you will see another story evolving on these surfaces when the characters are in conflict.

Landreth is a master of weaving complex threads. The story of Ryan is not a celebration or a reflection of Larkin. There is no happy ending. Instead there is an understanding and a truth. This is a film that relies upon accumulation, and one of the elements that Landreth has successfully incorporated into this web is something that touches all of us – an element that is hard to articulate, but we all feel it stir deep within. Ryan displays human emotions in a way that provides insight to the audience – isn’t that what film making is all about!

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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Ryan Larkin (original image)
Ryan (2005) Directed by Chris Landreth, NFB
Ryan (2005) Directed by Chris Landreth, NFB
Ryan (2005) Directed by Chris Landreth, NFB
Ryan (2005) Directed by Chris Landreth, NFB