Serendipity & Sensibility: An Interview with Cordell Barker

If I Was God... If I Was God...

This past Saturday, Academy Award nominated director Cordell Barker premiered his latest effort If I was God… The premiere happened in the context of the seventh annual Montréal Stop-Motion Film Festival and it left a great impression on animation fans and filmmakers alike. Even though Barker’s forte is traditional 2D animation (The Cat Came Back, Strange Invaders, Runaway), the audience reaction was palpable, and proof of the film’s success was the award for best short in the professional category. This imaginative and cinematic short follows a seventh grade Barker who toys with the idea of having God-like powers. His mundane biology class quickly becomes the object of his will as he tries to create the perfect day with his crush Lily. I was able to reach him over the phone to talk about about his work, his thoughts on the ‘coming of age’ story and the challenges of doing stop-motion.

Joshua McLeod (JM): How much of your childhood is portrayed in this film?

Cordell Barker (CB): (chuckles) Very little. I don’t have much of a memory of my junior high school days. I just like the idea of doing a nostalgic film. I didn’t have any nostalgia about [my childhood], so I just had to manufacture something. I thought the idea of manufacturing [a memory] was more
interesting than tapping into some specific event of my youth.

JM: That’s interesting because I really related to the seventh grade version of you.

CB: Well you know what, I guess that’s it. I do remember the sensibility of the time — the feeling. I just don’t remember many of the kids. This is just totally manufactured but I tried my best to recreate that kind of vibe.

JM: What do you think it is about this time of life that lends itself so well to comedy?

CB: When people use the term ‘coming of age’ I think they usually imply 16, 17, 18 – that kind of range. But to me, I think specifically grade seven because in that era, you’ve left the elementary school so it’s your gateway to the big world. For some, puberty is looming. So to me, it’s about that gateway of being a kid that just imagines things, then suddenly having the sense that adulthood is looming. You go from the imagination — you know like a kid would imagine a magical world and having magical powers — to sensing adulthood where you actually have tangible and even scary powers. For me, grade seven was that defining moment. It’s really just whenever that change takes place, when you go to a new school and you’re with bigger kids and sensibilities have completely shifted.

If I Was God... Zap (1)

JM: You draw an interesting dynamic between childhood and adulthood.

CB: The implication is it that it may be just imagination for a kid, but for adults they can actually act on these things. You can destroy the world for real.

JM: While still remaining in the realm of comedy you seem to inject some darker elements. Can you expand a bit on that? Do you agree?

CB: I completely agree and in fact, I make a point of trying to insert that in. If it was just a memory — like a sweet, charming memory — of my days in junior high, then to me that would feel meaningless and just sort of self-congratulatory that I made it through junior high. I strive for black comedy, is basically what it boils down to. I love it when something has this kind of frothy happy overtone but underneath is this darker line that is drawn.

If I was God...

If I was God…

JM: Would you say you’re still that imaginative kid at heart?

CB: Yeah I think so, probably everyone says that about themselves. When it comes to the selection of movies that I like, even live action things, I like films that are more playful and inventive. Rather than just striving for an artistic stamp on my stuff or a serious note, I keep on trying to find ways to have that playful but dark quality and I think that even though it’s dark, it still all stems from that kid-like sense of humour. Kids have a pretty dark sense of humour.

JM: Would you ever consider other genres?

CB: Life’s an adventure. I can’t even imagine doing something serious. But I could see myself doing something really outrageously fast and slap-sticky. I’d be open to just about anything. I even love the idea of doing live-action. I’d love to see what an animation sensibility would bring to something if I was doing a live-action short. I’m actually sort of working on a longer format, towards about a half-hour. But there is something really fantastic about a short. You can really pour your heart and soul into it and it can be very much a personal project. Whereas the longer the project, the less personal it can be. You have to rely on more and more people. I consider the old Warner Brothers cartoons as being the absolute perfect length for a short film. Like the seven and a half minute mark, that’s what I strive for.

If I was God...

If I was God…

JM: To go back to If I Was God…, what posed the biggest challenge?

CB: I was surprised because I thought the paper world was going to be the toughest of all. I left it for last and I was quite worried about it because, well, stop-motion isn’t my medium. Whereas I thought: “Oh, the claymation? That will be easy,” because it just needs to look rough. But I found the claymation stuff really tough to do. The paper world stuff surprised me. Each time I would work on something it just kind of came together and I don’t think I reshot anything. So that was a total surprise to me. In fact, there was one shot in the paper world right near the end of that sequence when the young version of me is running along the surface of the burnt world and he’s doing the limbo underneath the sun going overhead. That one I was especially worried about. I thought, “How on Earth am I going to do that?” When I finally shot it and looked at it I was like, “Wow, that actually worked.” That was probably one of my happiest revelations, I would say during the entire shoot. Well, that and the flipper cards inside of young me’s head. The daunting thing about stop-mo is if you’ve blown it, you gotta start again. I come from the world of 2D animation where you don’t have to start all over again, you just keep the drawings that work and you add a new drawing. It’s an evolutionary form of animation whereas stop-mo is an all-or-nothing form.

If I Was God... - Flipbook

If I Was God… Flipbook

JM: Do you think this promotes ingenuity?

CB: That’s true, it does promote ingenuity. You also have to think everything through like crazy. I started animating with Cat Came Back before the computer revolution. I was having line tests shot under an Auxbury Camera Stand, so it was shot onto film. Each time you had to a line test it was shot all over again — I guess that is a little bit half-way between an all-or-nothing and evolutionary process. But once I started working on Strange Invaders, which was at the advent of the computer era. The computer — wherever you can use that to compile images — allows you to defer decisions until a later date. All that defering can really pile up on you. It allows you to be lazy in your organization. Whereas in stop-mo, there’s no way you can be lazy about all that stuff. You’re under pressure all the time. Immediate decisions need to be made now because they’re going to be baked into the goods, right then.

JM: I like that analogy. Is there any room for anomalies or happy accidents?

CB: With stop-mo, it’s the classic straight-line animation as opposed to 2D where most animators will do keys: you draft up keys and then you do in-betweens. Stop-mo is straight-line animation, so you start at the beginning and you work towards the end. Sometimes you can trap yourself into weird animation directions that are hard to get out of. Like I said, that scene where the character’s doing the limbo under the sun: when I did that running character, I didn’t really know where he was going to be going from frame to frame, you know? I just kept on going. You look at what you’ve already done and just keep it moving on in some kind of forward direction. So there was a certain amount of serendipity about what I would end up with. I know with stop-mo, even the pros like Dale Hayward and Sylvie Trouvé — they did the animation in the class-room and did a phenomenal job — were saying that sometimes if you bump the puppet and you just can’t get the puppet into it’s original position, you use that bump. You make an expressive motion towards some new direction and you just ride with it. So yeah, I think serendipity has a big part to play in it, there’s no real serendipity in 2d animation anymore.

If I Was God… premiered in Montreal as part of the Montreal Stop Motion Film Festival.