Fresh from a high profile festival tour earlier in 2015, that saw his film play Annecy, Sundance & SXSW, Ryan Gillis has today released mysterious animated short film Palm Rot online. Created as his thesis film at the University of Southern California, Gillis’ 8-minute animation is a short with a strong visual style and a compelling narrative that feels as distinct and original as it is immersive.
“It was hard going, not the smartest way to write but it was fun.”
There’s a real cinematic feel to Palm Rot and it’s one of those films you could also easily imagine being just as successful as a live-action piece (although it would probably need quite a bit of FX work). However, whilst it’s hard not to be impressed with Gillis’ aesthetic, it’s in the story that this short really grips its viewers. With no real backstory provided, Palm Rot’s ambiguous narrative appears to never really be concerned with providing answers, but instead uses a somewhat vague storytelling approach to really leave its viewers intrigue bubbling and analysis (of what is actually happening) open. Eager to find out more about how his plot originated, Short of the Week spoke to Gillis to discover the source of Palm Rot’s storyline – “I was really struggling to write my thesis when the time came”, the director admits, “all I knew was that I wanted it to be set in my home-state of Florida, and I wanted it to have all of Florida’s hot, trashy beauty. I poured through old sketchbooks and notes, just putting different images together and seeing what kind of narrative it generated. It was hard going, not the smartest way to write but it was fun. I ended up settling on a story set around this yellow crate full of jars my brother once brought home from work. They were used to send flies into space and I always loved them. So I hammered away at this idea for a while – taking it down a million different paths until I had what I consider to be the only ‘aha-moment’ of the whole production: Rocket Palms. Ever since I moved to California I was sort of fixated on these palm trees that shed their fronds like coats around the trunk. It gives them a really distinctive silhouette, and they always looked like rockets to me. I never knew what to do with the idea until Palm Rot. Now I had the final shot of the film – a palm farm lifting off the ground, flying towards the moon – and the rest of the story fell into place.”
“I actually animated almost every shot in the order that they occur in the film.”
With his concept now formed, Gillis could now get to work bringing his tale of unexplained explosions and airborne Arecaceae to life. Taking a year and a half to complete, from coming-up with the concept to exporting the final piece, the director describes the 18-month process as “pretty solid labor”. “It took me 4 months to figure out what the film was going to be – and a month to storyboard it”, says Gillis, “I broke down a shot-list, made a schedule, and started animating. I animated on a 13″ cintiq in Photoshop, illustrated the backgrounds on paper, then composited everything in After Effects…I actually animated almost every shot in the order that they occur in the film. That puts a year of daily practice in between the first and last shots. I’m not sure anyone else can notice but it’s interesting for me to see a year of progress pass by in 8-minutes”. If you want to know more about the creation of Palm Rot, be sure to check out Gillis’ extensive production blog and animatic.
Currently storyboarding on a new Disney TV Animation called Pickle and Peanut, Gillis is also working on a new short, with fellow SotW alum Miguel Jiron, which he describes as “about chickens and exorcism and should be pretty weird!” – if their previous films are anything to go by, this will be a collaboration certainly worth keeping an eye on.