I watched an amazing short film directed by the Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis (pictured above) and I was so moved by the work that I got in touch immediately for an interview. The film is a beautifully animated tale about a boy and his dog, and in less than ten minutes the story we are told is simultaneously beautiful, and moving. It reminds us that there are parts of our lives that we sometimes neglect, in our urge to achieve our goals. But it is those very same parts that deserve our attention, even when paying that attention seems counter-intuitive to what we assume are the needs of the moment.
But hey, don’t let me oversell the short film to you, go ahead and watch Priorities for yourself. And then scroll down beyond the video to read my interview with the filmmaker.
Let’s start with the idea: how did you come up with this idea of a boy stuck on an island with his dog?
The idea is very personal to me. Like the main character in the story, when I have a large goal in mind I spend all of my energy to reach it. For me the goal is to finish the film and for the character it’s the lighthouse. I become so lost in the work that everything else around me seems to be out of focus. But there are good friends like the dog character who remind me to step out of the cave and live a little.
How long did it take – from idea to completion – on this project?
It took a little over a year. Half of that was coming up with the story, characters, doing concept art and motion tests. The rest was just cold hard modeling, rigging, animating, compositing and sound design.
I noticed that you said this film was made entirely using just Maya, After Effects and Logic. Did you go through an extensive pre-visualization before you started animating the scenes?
I used very simple stick-figure storyboards. Before building any models I made concept paintings of the key story points. They acted as a guide to overall color design and framing.
The dog behaves so much like a real pet would; did you study dogs a lot before you animated the character? How did you go about achieving that level of believability for that character?
The character is based on my own dog. I didn’t have to do much research because I was already very familiar with her behavior. I didn’t even use any video reference.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Latvia. I started to make little animated shorts when I was 8. Actually they weren’t really animated. More like moving storyboards. I also filmed a lot with my friends. Whenever we had to do a project for school we’d make a mini documentary. We also did parodies of popular films. I became more invested in filmmaking at 14. That’s when my dad started to show me classic films. We went through the entire Alfred Hitchcock filmography. Since then I’ve been obsessed with film history. My animated shorts became more cinematic. I read a lot of books on the craft of filmmaking. The most influential ones were Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I’m about to graduate from an art school here in Latvia.
Do you have a day job, or are you able to make a living from making films full time?
I don’t have a day job, but I frequently do free-lance work.
What is the film-making (and viewing) scene in Latvia like?
The film industry in Latvia is struggling. Very few films are made and they’re mostly government financed. But we have some good cinemas here.
What is the hardest thing about making animated films?
Every animator would answer differently. The hardest thing for me is solving technical problems. I get much more satisfaction from solving something creative.
And what is the best part about making animated films?
There’s no need to compromise. The only limits are the time and energy you’re willing to invest. And also it’s easier to make changes even late in production. Some of the most important choices were made very late in the production. That would not be possible in live-action.
I realize that the film hasn’t been online for very long but what has the response been like, to it—apart from the Staff Pick and the comments and likes on Vimeo?
It has been great. After working on the film for so long, it gives me great pleasure to see people respond to it. And they seem to respond at the right places.
When you have an idea, what is your process?
Before writing anything I do a lot of sketches. The first ones look very different from the finished film, but they still help to find new ideas. Doing research is important. I spent the last summer in Iceland on an unrelated trip. I did some oil paintings there. I was in an underground cave. I flew in a small plane and sat next to the pilot and observed everything he did. Only when the story and the details are figured out I write the script. After that I do storyboards and additional concept art. The story keeps changing all throughout the production, but I try to maintain the basic structure from the original idea.
Take us through the process of making Priorities: What part happens in Maya, how much of it is made in After Effects, and how do you approach sound design on an essentially dialog-free film?
I had never made a CGI film before. I learned by trial and error. For example, only when I had finished the character rigs I would start to learn how to animate. By doing that I made a lot of mistakes, but a lot of happy accidents too. Almost everything was done in Maya. The characters, the environment and most of the effects animation. Each of the 4 shots was a separate Maya file. I would start by very roughly matching the storyboards. At this stage, the characters and the camera are just floating from point A to point B and the environment consists of only the most important objects that are essential to the story. I tried not to separate any of the processes and would simultaneously animate the characters and tweak the environment to find a better frame. This approach is only possible if a single person is doing it. After the camera is animated, I would look through it and only add details that can be seen on screen. I did the same for character animation. Once a certain limb leaves the frame it freezes midair and becomes animated when enters it again. That means if the camera would be tilted just slightly the illusion would break. This method not only saves a lot of time but also helps to focus on what’s important to the story. I then rendered each element separately and imported them into After Effects. There I added some minor effects like the flares and smoke from them. I used masks to add shadows on the characters. And finally on top of everything I added photographic effects like diffusion, chromatic aberration and film grain, which when used subtly adds reality and blends all of the elements together.
With the sound I wanted to convey a sense of space. The camera is always moving and I wanted to reflect that through audio. We hear what the camera would hear. If there’s a noise on the left side of the camera we would hear it only on the left speaker. Because of the lack of dialogue, the task to communicate the story lay on all of the departments, not just the sound. I think visual storytelling is a universal language and the lack of dialog makes it more accessible to larger audiences.
What was your big hope when you started to make Priorities?
I hoped that I could find a way to tell the story honestly. That it would not feel artificial and forced. I hoped that people would be moved by the story and not the technicalities.
Are you interested in feature films?
I am, but I still have a lot to learn before that.
What’s next for you professionally?
I just finished this project and haven’t decided yet. When I make a film I treat it as if would be my last chance to do it, so I don’t plan ahead.