The enigmatic German animator Patrick Buhr returns to Short of the Week with a fascinating (and fascinatingly short) film, The Train, The Forest, which is premiering online today. In an unapologetically experimental 3min, Buhr seemingly proposes a test to both audiences and himself—’what is the minimum amount of stimuli I can provide to provoke the maximum amount of dread in you?’
The result is fascinating. Employing a side-scrolling perspective that represents the view out from a moving train, Buhr populates the exterior landscape via a unique brand of ultra-minimalism—overwhelming blankness dominates, but objects emerge and blink out existence, comprised of a simple accumulation of straight lines. It’s fascinating as art—a complexly simple exploration of animation’s flexibility, and a testament to the power of our brains to transform mere suggestive hints into a vivid tableau. But, even more fascinatingly, while The Train, The Forest, is likely to provoke diverse sentiments and interpretations, for me Buhr’s film plays like a full-fledged scene from a horror film.
I don’t mean to suggest that The Train, The Forest is scream-inducing, but it is deeply unnerving, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. The scenes are semi-innocuous: figures running in a field, leaves floating off trees, light behaving chaotically in a tunnel—again this is an experimental film—but something in the agglomeration of its deliberate pacing, the sharp presence of its sound, and, of course, that closing shot, craft a narrative of rupture, of reality breaking, and something very wrong occurring.
Horror lives in the mind. It has been conventional wisdom since at least Jaws that what you can’t see is scarier than anything that can be explicitly place onscreen. It makes sense that animation, with the ability to completely control every element of the image, would lend itself well to the genre. Interestingly though Buhr relinquishes some of that control in this film. Seeking to preserve a hand-drawn aesthetic but also employ the flexibility and improvisation of 3D, Buhr developed a unique technique for this film. Buhr explains, “…instead of using a toon shader in the 3d software (which looks too clean) or drawing by hand (which doesn’t leave room for improvisation) I found a middleground: The lines are animated in 3D, but a custom written software uses these lines to find the right drawing out of a database of many hand drawn lines and then fits them into the right place.” For those more technically minded, you can read a more in-depth explanation in this blog post.
Both of Buhr’s previously featured films utilize a lot of wry and wordy humor, so this experiment is a bit of departure for him. There is a fun story behind the film’s creation: rather than shell out for studio space, Buhr would buy a universal train ticket for roughly the same price, and would animate while traveling. Living in Cologne, traveling to Berlin and back (2 x 4 hours) would serve as a full 8 hour work day. It is an idiosyncratic arrangement, and over the course of three years much of that experience bleeds into the film. Not only in the silent character whom is the implicit subject of the film, but also the preoccupation with lines, trees, electrical wires, and sound, which all play large roles in the piece.
“Sometimes you encounter the fraction of a fraction of an event, but you pass by so fast that there can’t be a resolution to the story…something is going on, people are acting strange and even perception itself is almost collapsing. Can it all make sense or does it remain a fragment like so many other things behind the train window?”. Buhr asks this question, and The Train, The Forest responds, via its artful display of storytelling minimalism in both form and content.