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From Audio to Animation: How ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ Captures Cobain in All His Contradictions

From Audio to Animation: How 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' Captures Cobain in All His Contradictions

READ MORE: Watch: Kurt Cobain is Angst-Ridden in ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’ Trailer

Brett Morgen knew about the storage facility where Kurt Cobain’s effects were being stored six years before he actually got access to go inside. “In my mind’s eye, it was going to look like the last shot of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,'” Morgen told Indiewire during an interview back in January when “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “You know, a vast warehouse of boxes that would take me years to go through.”

“So, I go into this room,” continued Morgen, “this sort of nondescript room with four white walls, harsh fluorescent lighting, gray carpet — and in the middle of this room there are about 18 cardboard boxes and some of his paintings put up against the walls and all of his guitars laid out.
Each box, Morgen said, “contained a treasure chest of mementos and artifacts and energy from Kurt.” The most surprising discovery came when one of the boxes turned out to contain 108 cassettes full of homemade recordings by Cobain.

“I wasn’t expecting that at all, in fact, that conversation had never come up [while negotiating access with the Cobain estate]– [around] what sort of audio might be in storage,” he said. “So we went and got two pro-tool systems to start transferring, and because I’m an archivist by nature, I don’t skip over anything. I wanted to examine every little moment and that became really important, because Kurt was very careless with his audio cassettes; he would tape over stuff, he might start recording in the middle of a tape, or what-have-you.”

The audio from these tapes eventually provided the basis for the bulk of the narrative in “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.” One tape in particular, however, left a much greater impression on Morgen than all the rest; it had the words “Montage of Heck” scrawled on it and, in Morgen’s own words, contained a “mish-mash” of music and film-related sounds “that are sort of perfectly symbiotic and contradictory at the same time.”

Besides inspiring the title of the film, Morgen says that the “Montage of Heck” tape provided him with “a blueprint on how to make the movie,” which manifests itself in the dynamic, remix-inspired approach to pairing the original archival audio with intricately designed animated sequences.

READ MORE: Specialty Box Office: ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ Primes HBO Pump, Russell Crowe’s ‘Water Diviner’ Is Spotty

Animation as a nonfiction filmmaking narrative tool was not a new idea for Morgen, who had pioneered the use of motion graphics more than a decade earlier with the 2002 documentary, “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” In “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” there are two different styles of animation at work: traditional single cell and motion graphics, with the bulk of the film’s animation falling into the latter category.

All of the motion graphics work was done by Portland-based filmmaker Stefan Nadelman, who also worked on Morgen’s 2007 documentary “Chicago 10.”

Nadelman, who is best known for the 2003 Sundance Grand Jury prize-winning documentary short, “Terminal Bar,” came on-board the project in 2014 once Morgen had assembled a rough cut of the first act. In a phone interview last week, Nadelman told Indiewire that he worked on the film in bits and pieces. “I didn’t have a picture of the film in my head like [Brett] did,” he said, “so [Brett] would just give me some key words to work with, like what Kurt was feeling at the time or what he was going for in the narrative and then he would sort of let me loose.”

Each motion graphics sequence was built from still photographs that look straight down on pages from Cobain’s journals. The resulting full-frame photograph provided Nadelman with the means to manipulate the angle, grain, light and texture so that the image felt just as analogue as the accompanying audio.

At times, however, free reign over the design of each motion graphics sequence became a challenge for both Nadelman and Morgen to navigate because the latter didn’t always know exactly what he wanted to see onscreen. “If he didn’t like it, he would just say, this is not working,” said Nadelman, “and most of the time he didn’t say why — he would kind of just let me figure it out, because a lot of the time he wasn’t sure himself [of] what was going to work and he didn’t want to put me in a corner and tell me to do x, y and z. He wanted to see how many iterations I could do before it worked.”

Designed by artist Hisko Hulsing, whose short film, “Junkyard,” made its way around the festival circuit last year, the single cell animation in “Kurt
Cobain: Montage of Heck” is seen in two, lengthy sequences: one of which takes place at the beginning of the film and the other, towards the end.

Morgen was initially averse to pairing visuals with the first of the two sequences, in which Cobain relates his first sexual experience. Said Morgen: “I was so nervous about approaching that story, and for the longest time, it existed as only audio, and in a way, I kept thinking maybe this could be it: That we could all sit in a movie theater and just listen to his voice. I just felt any visuals are going to torpedo this thing. And I also was thinking, how do you represent Kurt in an animation?”

The solution to Morgen’s dilemma emerged by accident, when he happened to look up Hulsing’s work after reading a review in Variety for a film that Hulsing had done some animation work on. “What I liked about Hisko was his art, his style was a 180 degrees from Kurt Cobain’s style,” said Morgen, “so it would never be confused as a self-portrait.” To construct each sequence, Hulsing hand painted giant
four-foot-by-six-foot canvas backgrounds using oil paint and shot real actors as reference points for his drawings.

“I wanted to approach it in a more formal way — kind of like the interviews, if you will — not hand-held, very sort of symmetrical and sort of classical, a lot of gravitas,” Morgen said.

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