Oscar winner Chris Landreth (Ryan) has taken the inner workings of the human psyche in a whole new absurd direction with his latest short, Subconscious Password, which has its Canadian premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Produced by Marcy Page for the NFB, with the participation of the Animation Arts Center of Seneca College and Copperhead Entertainment’s Mark Smith, Subconscious Password has already won best short at Annecy and wowed SIGGRAPH in Anaheim, making it a likely Oscar contender.
We’ve all been inundated with information overload in this ADD-induced, social media culture, and Landreth found himself talking to a friend at SIGGRAPH a few years back and couldn’t remember his name. That got him thinking about memory and tricks of the mind, and after glancing at a monitor playing the old game show, Password, at his favorite video store, the idea for Subconscious Password clicked.
Landreth casts himself as Charles, a guy paralyzed by his inability to recall a friend’s name at a party (played by animator John Dilworth) Thus begins a mind-bending romp through a game show of the unconscious, featuring an iconic list of celebrity guest stars trying to prompt Charles to remember John’s name, including Dick Van Dyke, Yoko Ono, Sammy Davis Jr., William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ayn Rand. However, as his frustration increases, the film uses 3-D effects to mirror his growing psychological imbalance.
“I like the idea of laughing at myself as a lifetime of entertainment,” Landreth offers. However, he admits that the presence of his mother as Rand is not autobiographical. “In the world of dreams, your subconscious is really jumbled and disorganized and gets things wrong or makes associations that your conscious would never make. And having Charles confuse Ayn Rand for his mother is one of those absurd non sequiturs. For a lot of 17 to 18-year-old boys, including me, Ayn Rand spoke to that individualism and don’t listen to your parents anymore. The problem is when that that is taken to extreme selfishness.”
Meanwhile, the other celebrities either represent childhood heroes (Van Dyke) or subconscious memes or archetypes (Joseph Campbell didn’t make the cut). “Today we have to retrieve from our memories so much more from the needle in the haystack that the haystack gets bigger and bigger,” Landreth contends. “I would say if there’s anything to take away from this film, it’s how remarkable and miraculous it is that we are able to remember the name of a friend we haven’t seen in four years.”
As with Ryan and The Spine, Landreth continues to experiment with different animation techniques, though this is a greater hodgepodge, ranging from the pixilated opening and closing parties to the various celebrity representations. Although created with Maya, Landreth also modeled and animated the opening title sequences with SANDDE (Stereoscopic Animation Drawing Device), a digital animation technology created by IMAX that allows artists to create hand-drawn animation in 3D space, and which has been licensed to the NFB to develop new applications.
“In Subconscious Password, a lot of what you see is very low-fi. Ayn Rand, for example, is a simple 2D rig of a cardboard cutout except for her face, which is rendered from the actress playing her like Clutch Cargo. James Joyce comes close to a Terry Gilliam figure where his face and body are taken from actual photographs and every time he moves his head, it morphs from a profile photo to a full face photo. It makes it flow cheaply.”
At the other end of the animation spectrum are Charles and the host, who are both realistic self-portraits. Here Landreth enters the Uncanny Valley on purpose. “I like the idea of exploring characters in that area even though it’s a derided place to be. It continues to be fascinating and I think it’s gotten an unfairly bad rap. When it’s bad there’s an unintentional creepiness with realistic characters that just aren’t convincing enough. My one concern is that people won’t get the joke or the point. The host says, ‘It’s where our contestants try and guess the passwords from clues planted in the deepest Uncanny Valleys of Charles Langford’s unconscious mind.’