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You Are Being Generated: The Work of Animator David O'Reilly

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Animated sequence from Her, Spike Jonze
Animated sequence from "Her," Spike Jonze

The characters of L.A.-based Irish animator David O'Reilly are rough, as if drawn by a child; they're glitchy, irreverent, sometimes repulsive, with giant heads, gaping eyes and stringy legs. The settings are unrealistic, flat, badly drawn, often ugly. The colors are garish, the pacing jagged, the humor juvenile or enigmatic. And the stories? Primal themes of existential loss and despair. These get announced overtly -- sometimes in subtitles -- amid torrents of chaos as we're catapulted through some kind of horrible televisual channel-hopping hell.

O'Reilly's work is absolutely contemporary, and the apparent chasm between gaudy pandemonium and sublime recognition is somehow bridged. His body of work is based on the idea that the smooth and clear signals of a pristine information age imagined in the past are a fantasy; the signal is always frazzled by noise, and that noise, with its elements of entropy and disorder, offers a rich terrain for exploration. O'Reilly doesn't merely visit this world like a tourist, though; he brings it fully to life, with the result that his work feels at once entirely familiar and utterly shocking.

Commissioned for M.I.A.
Commissioned for M.I.A.

O'Reilly was born in Ireland in 1985, and began to develop his own unique brand of visual creativity when he was lured away from college by the London-based design collective Shynola. Working with the small team, he explored in a decidedly non-traditional approach to animation, and had the chance to work on a music video for Beck, as well as segments for Garth Jennings' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." In 2007, O'Reilly moved to Berlin where he began to pursue his own work, and then to Los Angeles, where he is now based. He is probably best known to a wide audience for his work on Spike Jonze's film "Her," for which he created the animated sequences with the bubble-headed and profane character in the video game played by Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix).

O'Reilly's main creative format is 3D animation, but his 3D is a reduced and stripped down version. The gleam and sparkle connoted by Hollywood's 3D spectacles is totally absent; in place of that machine finish O'Reilly offers glitchy visuals and, oddly enough, attention to an almost anachronistic sense of story and emotional intensity, with his references spanning -- if you can believe it -- from comic book artist Chris Ware to French filmmaker Robert Bresson.

One of O'Reilly's first pieces is "WOFL 2106," which starts in a graphically sophisticated black-and-white forest, where a small creature bounds through the woods. He comes across the bloody body of his mother in the snow. A series of surreal images follows, and what makes the short piece work is how it suspends you between the recognition of emotional loss and a dizzying feeling as the story grows increasingly chaotic and absurd.

WOFL 2106 (HD) from David OReilly on Vimeo.


O'Reilly's 12-minute "RGB XYZ" from 2007 follows a boy as he leaves home and travels to the city in a colorful world that might have been imagined by Mondrian on acid. The characters are voiced by computers, and the sound effects and music are straight out of 80s video games. "This place is weird," says the boy, and he's right. The whole thing seems to be the jumbled detritus of a corrupted hard drive. But there are moments of gentle silence as the boy travels toward the city, and sections toward the end that are nothing less than hypnotic as the camera floats over a grey-scale cityscape. The boy lapses into boredom and ennui, and at a certain point, God appears, announcing, "Discipline is paramount to all activity," a directive that O'Reilly takes to heart, creating strict rules to govern how he'll work.

RGB XYZ (2007) from David OReilly on Vimeo.

O'Reilly's 2008 piece "Please Say Something" is perhaps his most overtly moving story, chronicling a relationship between a cat and a mouse. Once again, O'Reilly deftly captures the sweeping lines and patterns of the city with a machine-like roving camera. But the short is filled with quiet moments of angst and intimacy, of love and despair.

There's a moment halfway through the piece, for example, when the cat and mouse are in bed. The cat gazes up at the ceiling, and when we see her point of view, everything is a soft blue, the walls becoming almost a shimmering wash of color. She asks, "Do you think it will always be like this?" and your heart wants to break.

Please Say Something from David OReilly on Vimeo.

It gets more intimate, more filled with loss, all of it rendered in moments and gestures, resonances and repetitions. There's the trauma of going home after an incident that changes everything forever; there's being alone in the bed that you used to share with someone else; and there's that fracturing of the world around you when someone you love dies. O'Reilly shows this particular experience by alternating frames, so that you can't capture the moment in a single image, but only in the stuttering flashes of space and time tumbled out of alignment.

In an essay that O'Reilly wrote about his work titled "Basic Animation Aesthetics," he explains that, with "Please Say Something," "my central idea in constructing the world of the film was to prove that something totally artificial and unreal could still communicate emotion and hold cinematic truth." He goes on to argue for the value of coherence and how everything should fit together in aesthetic harmony. O'Reilly likes to push the boundaries of the artificial and unreal on the one side, while at the same time finding ways to trigger emotional connection.

The External World from David OReilly on Vimeo.

O'Reilly's 2011 video "The External World" responds to the directive from his essay. The 17-minute piece is composed of a series of episodic vignettes that cycle through the storyline, creating his most structurally complex narrative to date. The story is anchored by a boy's experience playing the piano under the stern disciplinary force of his father and it's almost as if O'Reilly wanted to test how much noise he could introduce around the emotional signal represented by the boy. A lot, it turns out. The vignettes are cheerfully anarchic and wildly disparate, but the boy, the father and the music sustain a strong line through to the end.

One of O'Reilly's latest projects ventures into game design, where he brings his signature low-fi aesthetic and attention to emotional resonance to an entirely different kind of experience. The game, called "Mountain," was released last summer, and O'Reilly has dubbed it an "ambient game," by which he means that it is an experience attuned more to emotional textures than to leveling up. With its quieter, gentler aesthetic, it's more akin to the artist's 2010 collaborative video short, "Black Lake," made with Jon Klassen, which shares with the game a kind of dreamy elegance.

"Mountain" begins with a series of prompts, as the player steps through sadness, beauty, love and patience, to come to a text that reads, "You are now being generated." "You," in this case is a mountain, but "you" also refers to the creation of a player calm enough to wait and bear witness, to hear the rain, to play notes of music, and to see the dimming light at sunset or the swirling fog through mid-day. More a meditation than a game, the piece underscores the power of O'Reilly's particular genius: he steps into pop culture with some of the most outrageous material around, and then shows you just how quietly powerful even the most low-fi, anarchic experience can be.

ð??» Mountain ð??» from David OReilly on Vimeo.

O'Reilly's work, with its crude aesthetic and irreverence, can be connected to that of other animators, such as Don Hertzfeldt or Jim Trainor, but it's also reminiscent of George Herriman's great comic strip "Krazy Kat" from the 1920s and 1930s. That seemingly simple comic shares O'Reilly's penchant for the pared-back; it gleefully messes with depictions of time and space; it plays with the logic of everything, from gender to story; and despite these upheavals, it still manages to render emotions and to create readers able to sense the ineffable even in the ridiculous. In both cases, the artists offer emotional complexity cloaked in simplicity, and in the process create a better audience, one able to suss out the depth behind low-tech chaos. In watching O'Reilly's work, as in reading Herriman's strip, you are indeed now being generated, but it's a better you.

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