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Peter Chung created the original animated series Aeon Flux more than a decade ago, but its style and eccentric story lines are just as much a take on our current political and sociological landscape as they were back then. Chung spoke with Terri Dentry from his home in LA recently on the development of the beguiling Aeon.
Header images: Aeon Flux
Just under the surface of the sexy and seductive Aeon lies a director who understands, and cares, more about the framing of social and political conflict in terms of the psychology of desire and its underlying shades of grey, rather than the archetypal structure of absolute “good versus evil” morality much more prevalent in current media.

Aeon is the strong female lead of the animated series “Aeon Flux” which was created for MTV’s Liquid Television, and ran from 1991-1995. The strong cult following of this series, however, means that you can often find it still screening, most notably as a retrospective program at film festivals, on dvd, and more recently as a download for your ipod.

Chung's directing credits include the “Matriculated” segment from “The Animatrix”, and, most recently, “The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury”. Chung served as lead character designer for two animated series, “Phantom 2040” and “Reign: The Conqueror”. He also, along with Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, co-designed the characters in the Nickelodeon series Rugrats, as well as directed the pilot for this series, "Tommy Pickles And The Great White Thing".

Chung originally developed Aeon in his 2nd year at CalArts. He says “I wanted to work on human characters, with more action and drama, and provide an animation for adults, with dramatic subjects”. He chose a female lead for this new series because it was something he had always wanted to see on screen but had not been done by anyone to his satisfaction. Chung says that ultimately he “makes animation that I want to see. I always try to go back to what is meaningful to me – as someone living in the world”.

Aeon has often been described as extremely ambiguous and bizarre. Some of this confusion comes from Chung’s absolute premise that “the characters should be true to the real life experience rather than pushing the boundaries of good versus evil or cut and dry”. Aeon and Trevor, the two main leads of the series, are neither heroes nor anti-heroes. In some episodes one or both of them meet their end (and return to live again in the next episode), or quite obviously make disastrous mistakes in their own judgement. Aeon is often caught at the end of her own foolhardy rope, driven by greed or desire.

The unique style of Aeon Flux has many of Chung’s hallmark characteristics and the influence of this style on many other Directors is immediately evident. Chung says it has been a largely unconscious process. “Like all arts it is the development of a natural style. The definition of style is not conscious”. The dancer like movements of Aeon’s leaps and stealthy crawls are often likened to an insect stalking its prey and it seems no coincidence that much of the detailed imagery also contains insect like references.

Chung, however, noted in an interview with the Japanese Paramount Home Entertainment channel that, “the insect imagery was not so much of a conscious choice”. It is also in this interview that he continues to describe one idea that was deliberately portrayed within each episode, and that was the importance of events happening on a miniature scale. Chung says, “I find that many films attempt to suggest importance by means of staging action on a very large scale. Conversely, I find that I’m usually more drawn into scenes showing tiny details: an overlooked object lying on the ground like a tooth or a nail, or events inside someone’s mouth or eye. When the camera focuses on tiny details, you lean forward to examine more closely.”

It is these tiny details that have become the debate of many forums and online discussions. War (Season 2, Episode 6) is a favourite of these forums, with good cause. The episode is a startling look at murder and revenge and paces through the loss of Aeon at the hands of a Breen soldier, and a multitude of heroes changing hands as the carnage continues. But it’s not the timing of Aeon’s loss in battle or the body count that catches the attention of the Aeon community, it’s the intricate details. Tony Fawl at Sadgeezer.com says after a detailed review of the episode, “that’s the most people I’ve ever seen shot in the shortest period of time and instead of smirking at the silliness and impossibility of it all, I remembered the embrace in the last scene; the dead woman and baby [in the battlefield]; the soldier with the blue paint smudged on his forehead; the little girl and her father; and of course, our darling Aeon shot in the head while making some lovely suggestive movements with her tongue”.

The same episode sparked a bulletin board discussion that spanned over six years from April 1998 to November 2004. Moderated by “Barb e” this thread had more than 40 postings on the initial lead posed by Gauger “..there is a close-up of a tooth falling into a glass which seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story. I have always taken this to symbolize, "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” Does anybody have any other ideas?” And goes on to include a question posed by Diamond in April 1998, “The hydraulics that Romeo activates to open the door leave a puddle on the floor - they drip consistently. As the short ends, the shot closes in on the puddle. What do you think this represents?” Multiple theories are posed, and expanded. Buel in May 1998 proposes, “it was a way of saying that a million things can happen, heroes can be forged and killed, in an amount of time that is otherwise relatively meaningless.” And Black in September 1998 adds, “I like the answer considering that millions of people are dying while something as small as a puddle is slowly forming.” Others go on to propose that the tooth is a symbol of identity for dead soldiers on the battlefield (Loufer, 98); that it was Varsh’s wisdom tooth, so as such he was 'bottling his wisdom' and getting on with taking out an entire Monican base (Mills, 98); or that you could read something subconscious into the tooth; If you dream about losing teeth, it's supposed to indicate that someone is preventing you from speaking, or that you've lost some of your social influence (Zach, 98).

Chung says he is indeed a fan of these sites and often posts to some himself. On the nature of the diversity of the commentaries on his work he adds, “that’s the whole point, I’m not interested in providing a single answer. I believe that works of art must stimulate the imagination of the audience to discover the meaning of the work themselves”.

Technique

Web Anime Style in Japan asked Chung about the influence of Yoshinori Kanada’s style on his own, and his response gave us a rare insight into his technique. “Watching and studying [Kanada-san’s] work taught me a lot about the potential of non-naturalistic timing to evoke feeling. I also learned from his work a way to make limited animation interesting by mixing up the number of frames within an action. It’s a valuable idea when you are working on a TV series where the number of drawings must be minimized.” Interestingly, also from Kanada we learn the basis of Chung’s unique development of character movement, “[he] invents movement that expresses an inner feeling rather than trying to mimic reality”.

Chung says “The style of motion is an attempt to depict an inner expression of character rather than a realistic representation of nature. I think of my characters as dancers who must convey to the audience their inner states through precise movement. When we watch a dance performance, we don’t expect the dancers’ movements to reflect the ordinary ways in which average people move. We’d be disappointed if they did. I believe the same applies to an animated character”

Sexual nature of Aeon

In would be remiss of any review on Aeon to overlook her sexual edge, and I certainly couldn’t miss an opportunity to ask Chung to expand on this aspect of the cult series. He explained, “I was trying to address something lacking in other areas, especially American animation whose characters don’t even have a sexual side.” He adds that while the sexual edge was undoubtedly a strategy to get people to initially watch the show, he also explains that films have to deal with physical expression – that the internal experience of the character must be visible to the external. “Sex and violence is more prevalent in film than real life, because that is the nature of film. It is dealing with visual images”. Chung also explains, “I didn’t want to use dialogue – so the sexual images are a direct way to portray love and desire, conflict and violence, on film these have to be made physical. Dialogue should not be used as a crutch for what cant be shown visually”.

Architectural sets

Its not just Aeon’s fabulously sculpted body or scantily cut attire that draws visual attention. Chung goes to architectural lengths to draw the audience into the futuristic city of Bregna and the many battlefields created by the scientific genius of Trevor Goodchild. Chung says “I see architecture as an integral part of my storytelling. It creates a psychological environment using every visual cue on screen.” He continues, “I always wanted the let the background be more integrated into the character action – not just a background. It needs to interact with the character so there is a lack of foreground/background reference points. I wanted everything to be important.” Chung confesses that he was strongly influenced and impressed by the work of the French artist Moebius, after having the opportunity to work with him on a short film project early in his career. Chung says “what I appreciate about Moebius’ work is that he gives equal attention to all the visual elements in his images. He conveys a strong sense of the environment, the supporting characters, the incidental details. Moebius’ images have a descriptive clarity that emphasizes the content of events rather than atmosphere and mood. He calls it striving for neutrality”.

Chung explains that the series was not readily accepted by MTV. He says, “they complained that my stories were non linear and morally ambiguous. But that is exactly what I was trying to convey, because life is not linear and not usually morally clear. In particular, I think what you are making animation for adults, the point is to portray situations in a more sophisticated way, not simply to increase the levels of sex and violence.”

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

Editors Note:

This article was originally written to be published in Design Graphics Magazine. However, Peter Chung withdrew his permission for this article to be published after reading the original copy. His comments were - "I've read the text of the interview you sent for my review. I'm very sorry to say that I am not happy with the article, as it uses small excerpts of our conversation and drops them into your comments, losing their intended context. Many of my comments are so truncated, they don't even make grammatical sense. I've done many interviews for many publications and they always allow me to express myself to develop complex trains of thought in my own words. You've apparently read some of those yourself for this article so you know what I mean. The article also contains factual errors such as "Chung originally developed Aeon in his 2nd year at CalArts." I don't remember saying that, since it isn't true. Were you taking notes as we spoke, or was the conversation recorded? I can only suggest that you redo the article extensively or I regret that I must withdraw my permission. Thank you for your time in preparing the article and your interest in my work."

Response: The line in this article "Chung originally developed Aeon in his 2nd year at CalArts" was taken directly from the phone interview with Chung, however he was referring to the character Aeon not the series. This article is published here as the writers own thoughts.

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Aeon Flux: Peter Chung
Aeon Flux: Peter Chung
Aeon Flux: Peter Chung
Aeon Flux: Peter Chung