I've been reading a lot recently about worldbuilding, a concept for rethinking the filmmaking process such that it begins not with a script but with a world, and allows a story to emerge from that world. Production designer Alex McDowell has played a key role in articulating this new approach to Hollywood filmmaking, but it applies as well to a spate of new independent and DIY directors and artists who are similarly compelled not so much by stories as by spaces, and from there, the stories that might emerge from provocative environments.
Among these directors is Troy Morgan, an artist based in Los Angeles. His short films, one of which is currently on view at Blythe Projects in the Culver City Arts District, are uncanny evocations of worlds at once familiar and strangely magical. All of Morgan's worlds are built by hand as miniature sets that then become the worlds for stories.
Morgan's interest in starting with a world is not surprising given his background. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute, initially as a painter before changing his focus to filmmaking.
"I guess what I do is a combination of painting and filmmaking," Morgan says. "I build landscapes and environments, and then see where the story comes from. The initial idea may come from a drawing or a landscape, and I get a feeling of what happened there. I'll ask, 'Who am I here?' and 'What's going on here?' And a narrative will spawn from there. So when I draw these landscapes, it's kind of an arena where characters can come in and I can watch what happens."
Morgan cites the horror films he saw as a kid as further inspiration. "I love those miniature sets and matte paintings they used - there was something so off about them, but that was my favorite part of those films, that there was this unintentional otherworldliness. To me, that's how we dream."
Morgan's first animated film, the stop-motion piece titled Dragon, debuted at Slamdance in 2006, and won the grand jury prize for Best Animated Short. It's a short tale about the power of a young girl's imagination. The Instrumentalist came the following year, about a musician whose music charms the world far from him, and Beneath the Sea is Morgan's latest project, and is the centerpiece for the exhibition at Blythe Projects, which includes some of the sets, models and creatures from the film.
Morgan reports that he learned a lot about filmmaking from the inimitable George Kuchar, an icon in American independent film whose courses at SFAI often center on making a single collaborative film project. "He invites you into his process," explains Morgan. "You learn about his process by actually participating in his filmmaking."
Like Kuchar, Morgan enjoys all aspects of the filmmaking endeavor. He creates puppets, models, sets and drawings, and merges the physical and virtual in his projects. For Beneath the Sea, Morgan worked for the first time with greenscreen, bringing live actors into his magical worlds and layering live action footage into images of his miniature sets. While this kind of image manipulation was once the province of high-end visual effects artists, Morgan taught himself how to composite images and create seamless spaces. The effect is dazzling - at one point, his character dons an old diving helmet and ventures into the sea, and while it's clearly not a "real" image but rather a fantastical, imaginary image, the visual experience is delightful.
"I started doing these drawings of a lighthouse," Morgan says of the film's genesis, "and then I built it, and then I built the inside of it." He points to his dining room table. "That's the set over there," he says, gesturing to what could be a small wooden stage, but for seven-inch characters. "Then it evolved and I noticed that it started to be about themes of trying to harness things from the sea and collect and contain them. I also liked the idea of people coming from two different worlds and not understanding each other at all."
For Morgan, this process of combining disparate elements, and uniting the digital and physical, is very satisfying. "Ultimately, I think what I'm trying to do is a kind of painting. I'm less interested in going out and photographing something that's happening in the real world. Instead, I'm trying to make up something else entirely."
Overall, new tools allow filmmakers working on their own to create incredibly compelling worlds, but the focus on a world first and story second is an interesting development. For Morgan, the impetus is the evocative promise of a mysterious image. For others, the drive to begin with a world might emerge from our immersion in game culture where the backdrop for activities centers on moving through and discovering the space of the story. New techniques for pre-visualizing stories will make this kind of emphasis on worldbuilding more prevalent, but for now, on a smaller scale, seeing how one artist allows a place tell him a story, and how that process in turn creates an uncanny experience for us as viewers, is a real pleasure.
Troy Morgan: Beneath the Sea will be on view at Blythe Projects through September 2, 2011.