Interview with Nicolai Troshinsky

Nicolai Troshinsky’s short film, Astigmatismo, has swept through the festival circuit gathering awards and accolades for its whimsical story, delightful design and innovative combination of paint-on-glass and cut-out techniques. At first glance it is a simple story of a boy who loses his glasses, but the expressive depth of the film draws the viewer into an atmospheric wonderland. It is the sort of film that can be watched over and over again, with new discoveries each time.

In February, 2014, I connected with Nicolai on Skype and peppered him with questions about his creative process and the production of the film. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Corrie Francis Parks: First, a bit of background. Why did you start doing animation?

Nicolai Troshinsky: I studied illustration and was working as an illustrator for children’s book from 2006. At some point, I saw a compilation of movies at Animadrid from the animation school La Poudrière. They were a very good quality for student works. I was at a point where I wanted to do something besides illustration but I didn’t know what, so I started research this school and found out that it was perfect for me because I didn’t want to learn technical skills to work in the studio, I just wanted to learn a new skill to help me work creatively in general.

For my application, I just did a few small films with a super crappy camera and a couple of lamps. But it worked. Actually, I’m still proud of those little films. They were quite naïve, but there was something beautiful about them. I can no longer make films like this because I learned too much.

CFP: You can’t go back to that innocence, can you?

NT: Yes, it is a trade off. You lose something, you gain something. I had more ambition back then. So I did something very simple, but it was not pretentious at all. When I see it now, I see that it was very fresh. That ignorance had some kind of beauty. Right now it is impossible for me to do that. I know too much about theory and cinema. So that’s why I don’t want to study anymore!

CFP: When I look at your production methods and all of your films, they have very exploratory approach to technique. I think that that comes from the fact that you weren’t going into school just to learn how to do something, but you were going into school to enhance your work in general. You have a very strong sense of what you want to express, and whatever serves the purpose will work for you.

NT: I would say that I do try to do that. I really don’t know where I learned it. At some point, I just understood that everything had to be at the service of something. A lot of people in my school discovered what they wanted to do by making, and I wasn’t like that at all. I knew beforehand exactly what I wanted. Most of the time I’m happy that I’m coming quite close to what I want to achieve. I cannot guarantee my work will always be good, but I know what I want it to be. I quite like that.

CFP: Let’s talk about Astigmatismo. Can you tell me, what is the film about?

NT: The film is about the feeling of being lost. It’s about creating sensations in the viewer. It’s also a play on rhythm. Everything from the visual effects to the sound works to create rhythm. The story is extremely simple, so it is more about creating that feeling. It is about the pleasure of being lost and about enjoying it.

Astigmatismo - still
Focus shifts constantly in the film, creating an atmosphere of dizzying delight.

Actually, that was the main challenge because normally in a movie if the audience is lost, that’s not good. So how do I make this feeling pleasurable so the audience will enjoy it? Also, it is a bit about childish love, but that is actually tied to the idea of being lost as well, in an emotional and physical state.

CFP: Can you describe how you worked with the other artists and why you chose to work that way?

NT: The goal of the project was to approach it in this very weird way. I decided that everybody involved had to work separately and they wouldn’t know who the other people on the crew were. Since the goal was to create this feeling of being lost, I wanted this feeling to be authentic. So I thought the best way to make that happen was that everybody creating the film had to feel lost the themselves. And also me, I had to feel lost somehow! So essentially, everybody was lost.

Astigmatismo - background
Background design by Cecilia Ramieri

I gave very vague references to the artists. Gina Thorstensen, who made the character designs didn’t know who was making the backgrounds and she had no idea how they looked or how many backgrounds there would be. And the background artist, Cecilia Ramieri, had no idea how many characters there would be except for two main characters. So they didn’t have a specific list of things to do.

They didn’t know it would be 4 minutes, they didn’t know there would be this effect of the depth of field. They did know the very basic idea of the plot, so essentially they just made their own thing.

The strangest part of the process for me was that the sound designer, Pierre Sauze, made the sound with no visual cues. I told him to make me a composition which had space and things happening, but it had to sound interesting on its own, because I was sure that if it sounds interesting on its own then anything on top of it would only be better. And it worked, because he was essentially creating the rhythm of the film. I was leaving the rhythm of the film up to somebody else who had no idea what I was doing. And surprisingly it worked!

So, I had all these things and then it was my turn to put it all together. And I was feeling lost because at first, I had no idea what to do with all that. I had to figure out that this character could be in this environment while these sounds are happening. It was a long process but it was very interesting to do.

Astigmatismo - stillI guess the reason to do the film in this way was that the feeling of being lost would be authentic. We are all working from that feeling and I hoped that it would be somehow injected into the film, in some invisible way. Also, we spent almost 3 years making this very short film, and since I could not guarantee that it would be good  – it could be a complete disaster, especially with a process like that – I hoped that the process itself is interesting. In the end if the film is a train wreck, it doesn’t matter because I had a great time making it.

CFP: Right, because the process was worth it.

NT: Yes the process teaches you something, you had fun, it was enriching in itself. Whereas, if you are doing a very boring process but you think the film will be great, and then it turns out not so great, well, you just have nothing.

CFP: That’s a great philosophy to live by for an animator, because we spend so much time making these short segments.

NT: Yes, that’s how we survive.

CFP: For me it would be very difficult to have someone come and tell me “do whatever you want.” Because I like to have some sort of limitation or parameter as a starting point. Did your artists find that mandate hard or was it freeing?

NT: Well, the thing is I asked very specific people. It’s not something you could do with just any artist. These people they have a very specific art style. And they are exploring very specific themes in their art. For instance, Cecilia Ramieri, who made the backgrounds, she makes those type of backgrounds. I have known her for several years and this kind of work is what she does for herself. The same for Gina Thorstensen who made the characters. She mainly makes these weird characters and I’ve never seen anything close to that. So, I was interested in these creatures she was drawing. I saw them and thought this could be animated and it could be really cool. So I said to her, “I like what you do. Please do more of that, but for me.”

I had the intuition that the 2 styles together could combine well, and they did. That’s something you can only do when you know the style of the person very well, and the person has a very specific kind of work. For me as an illustrator, I choose a different style every time, so I couldn’t do that. For me it would be impossible, because I adapt to what is needed.

CFP: Was the process for you, having this huge pile of things you collected, like having the pieces of a puzzle. Did you feel like the film was already there in that pile and you just had to sort through everything and clear away the fog?

NT: A little bit. It was interesting. When I received the art from everyone, it was like a huge gift. At that time I had an idea of what I might do but I wasn’t too worried because I thought, “Oh the ingredients are great.” Like with cooking, if your ingredients are great, it’s going to taste good no matter what. So at that point, I wasn’t super worried because everything was fantastic.

Astigmatismo - still
The face, arms and legs of this character are cut paper, and the black body and hair are liquid ink.

I was surprised by some things. The two main characters, for instance. Gina made these designs which were from very liquid ink. That was the last thing I expected, and I liked it so much I decided to add the paint on glass technique. In the beginning I thought I would do everything with cut-outs but I added this new element to the animation just to respect her design.

So, I guess the film did make itself somehow. For example, the sound influenced it a lot because a scene can only take as long as the environmental sound lasts. As it changes, I have to switch to another shot. So I was limited by what was already made. But it was inspiring at the same time because it allowed me to come out with very spontaneous ideas, which are impossible to come up with if you just sit and write a scene. You hear something, you put something in there, change it a little bit, it works, little by little it starts making sense. Every time I had some space, I added in the parts that were mandatory to move the plot forward. So it is super interesting to do.

CFP: You’ve used different techniques for each of your films. What motivates you to try different things instead of just sticking to one technique?

NT: I get bored! For me, when I am doing creative work, it’s important that I don’t know everything. If I become too good, it becomes mechanical. I vary techniques because it is something I don’t know how to do and that is how you become creative. If you don’t know it, you have to figure it out. There is a challenge, a tension in the art-making process and when I finish something, I learned a lot along the way. And if I do the same thing again, it will start to feel like work.

You can find out more about the film at http://www.astigmatismo-shortfilm.com/

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