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Michael Langan makes short films that blend animation and live action, inspired by motion picture pioneers like Eadweard Muybridge and Norman McLaren, but they're nothing like you've ever seen. It's his uncompromising vision that has companies like Pepsi and Samsung soliciting him for commercials—giving him creative control that other directors can only dream about. Langan's newest passion, screenwriting for feature-length films, lets him bring the things he loves about experimental shorts to a wider audience. In this Creative Spark, we profile Michael as he looks back on the evolution of his style, and reflects on his future in film.
Watch the bonus feature for a full-length version of Choros, Langan's 2011 collaboration with dancer Terah Maher.
Male 1: So when Tara and I first rented this studio space, we needed to kind of take a leap of faith with the technique and understand that this was going to look beautiful once it was all composite in After Effects. Because when you watch the raw footage, there is not much to it, and her movements are really slow and she is just hanging out in one space, easing through each motion.
But then when you bring that into After Effects and you multiply it, you get these beautiful fluid echoes. So then I just run into the room in this black suit. And because of the additive lightening layer technique that we're doing, I don't show up. The background is brighter than I am, so I just disappear. And I'm just running around with a little flashlight. And that's how we got those kind of like magical fireflies all over Tara throughout the film. And the counting that track we hear in the background, the music is just kind of this fluid, amorphous, chord-changing beast, and the whole piece is actually 60 minutes long or so.
I really wanted to make a film with the entire thing, but that just wasn't practical. So we took about 13 minutes of it. This choreography is worked out down to the beat. So every movement that Tara's doing, well it started out as an improvisation. At some point in the choreography process, is now like, dead down to the beat, and so the counting check helps us kind of keep track of when to make those moves. The flashlight was kind of the starting point for these experiments, and the beginning of the film, she's kind of like feeling it on her skin and she's getting into it, and then she gets a little too into it and she gets overwhelmed by it, and she shuns it here.
And then she kind of re-embraces it. And by the end of the film, it's exploding out of her, and she's kind of come full circle. So when we bring this footage into After Effects, it's a relatively straight forward process for getting the effect to unfold. We've just got the one piece of footage, and we're cascading it over time, multiples of the same clip in order to get that echo effect. So these are just offset by a few frames each. And it gets a little bit more complex when we get into things like when her hands go over the the lighter stuff, because this principle is based on the, the subject being brighter than the background, and the lighten just happens to make everything blend together really nicely.
Unlike McLaren, when he was working, you know, 40 years ago with this technique, we can shoot a gray, and the gray doesn't overexpose when we add it on top of itself, because we're just using, with the light and blending mode, we, we're it's not adding the light on top of itself. It's just taking the brightest pixel in the stack of these layers, and that comes out to the top. So if it's only ever gray, it's only ever gray. But if she's super bright over here, then she's going to be super right over the background, because it's darker. We've spent most of the film, the first like ten minutes or so in dark spaces, by around minute nine, we as an audience feel like we need to break out. And so that's what we did.
And so we just busted out into this field. This is a prairie out in Oregon. So we started out with just one of these women. She steps out of herself. And pretty soon, we've got more and more and more. And by the end of it we've got about 100 layers of Tara stacked up on top of herself. And because we were working with a click track here that was timed perfectly with the music, Tara is stepping completely in sync with herself throughout that whole shot. So we're working with a different kind of echo here.
We were offsetting by just a couple of frames before in the dark, now she's offsetting by a full second or so. This, this kind of brings with it a whole, another set of compositing difficulties. This requires a whole lot of really tricky keying and a lot of rotoscope too. Although we even got into some illuma key which I never work with over the top here because she's so much darker than the background. We caould get in and isolate her through illuma key. So let's see. Let's look at a couple of these layers.
So this is just Tara on her own in front of the green hill. Thank God this was a green hill. Because we could just kind of key out that green. And it's a really, really bad key because you can see it's, it's so far from an ideal Chromo pull there, but with a little bit of love, and a little bit of rotoscope to make it all work you can end up with a pretty decent key of that. And so we just did that a whole bunch of times, and we ended up with these multiples of Tara. So the film itself, from that first test to wrapping the, the editing and the compositing, was over a year. And we, we probably shot over 50 times, usually once or twice a week in the beginning to, to really figure out the choreography and what not. The biggest risk involved here was that we didn't have the music rights to to 18 music, for 18 musicians, and that's like number one no-no.
Everyone knows you don't start a movie and well even finish a movie after having edited to this one specific piece of music. And I knew that, but we were so in love with it, and it was just so right for the piece. And we sent the film off to Steve Risch, and thank God he approved it. And it cost an arm and a leg, and it keeps costing. But you know, the film can exist. It's gotten a really nice run and we keep getting screenings. People every now and then, even a couple years later, we're invited to play in a film festival, and, few dozen film festivals now, and, and it keeps counting.
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