Rethink What We Think is Normal: Interview With Dissonance Director Till Nowak

German-born artist and filmaker Till Nowak is a rare talent who can work across art forms and scientific disciplines, until his viewers are left disoriented and dazzled.

Consider his latest stunning short, Dissonance, which qualified for 2015 Oscar consideration thanks to wins at Aspen Shortsfest and Anima Mundi. Like its 2011 mockumentary predecessor, The Centrifuge Brain Project, Nowak describes Dissonance as a “hybrid film” that seamlessly blends live-action and CG animation/fx to create a world where humans struggle to redefine reality and experience.

Evocative of Christopher Nolan’s surreal Inception, as well as Michel Gondry’s sci-fi standout, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dissonance’s moving story of a homeless pianist trying to reconnect to his family ends up destroying the boundary between live-action and CGI through a series of physical and psychological breakdowns.

It’s a brilliantly speculative but also quite personal exercise. After growing up in a family of artists, Nowak has become a new father himself, living now in Los Angeles and working for Marvel. Before immigrating to America, Nowak studied media design at the University of Applied Sciences in Germany, where he wrote, produced and directed the acclaimed 2005 animated short, Delivery, which scooped up awards from the American Film Institute, Annecy, and more. His equally acclaimed The Centrifuge Brain Project — starring H.R. Giger’s agent Leslie Barany as a mad scientist who designs failed theme park rides which defy logic and gravity — followed in 2011 and garnered Nowak more awards and attention.

I spoke at length with Nowak via email about art, science, film and reality reengineering.

“Our whole life is an effort to escape from reality,” your mad scientist explains in The Centrifuge Brain Project. This seems like a thematic throughline for most of your work.

Till Nowak: That’s quite a good interpretation of my theme, although my mad scientist likes to see things a bit overdramatic. Escaping from reality can mean different things. It can mean to break out of the usual, to try and step on new ground. Sometimes, the new ground is not far away, but still not easy to find.

In a scientific sense, our brains are masters when it comes to adapting to our environment, meaning that we never see the world as it really is, we always see it through the filter of getting used to things. We accept our environment as normal. I like to twist reality to break out of this, so that we can rethink what we think is normal. To escape from reality can also just mean that we don’t like to stay where we are. We want to move forward, which sometimes leads to absurdity, like in my parody, The Centrifuge Brain Project.

How would you describe this theme as applied to Dissonance, which features another gray-haired mad genius seeking to make a human connection? Is his dissonant state, as explained by his doctor, another scientific fabrication as in The Centrifuge Brain Project, which fooled some viewers into believing its rides were real?

Till Nowak: In Dissonance, reality is relative. The perspective is switched; fantasy becomes our world, and reality becomes the intruder. You referred to the hospital scene, in which we see the protagonist for the first time as a real person. The doctor seems to know exactly what’s going on, but his explanation may be the most absurd moment of Dissonance. It is another twist of reality: The scientific explanation is even crazier than the mental patient. You can see how detached and alone the pianist is: Nobody understands his view, and he does not understand the world. So yes, the diagnosis is purely fictional and ironic, but structurally it tells us that we are dealing with a mental disease and hallucinations, and not some kind of fantasy magic.

How does Dissonance’s blending of live-action and CGI literalize this theme of dissonance and escape for the viewer?

Till Nowak: Dissonance should make you rethink whatever you see; you constantly have to adjust. Even the film’s format changes to take that idea as far as I could. I decided to radically ignore borders between film genres or formats. The initial idea was to create a total clash of animation and live-action, and create a new world in between. I grew up with different cinematic perspectives, between live-action and animation, between Europe and Hollywood, and I never wanted to accept how separate these cinematic worlds and their audiences often are. I wanted to prove to myself that I don’t necessarily have to choose one, that they could tell a story all together. A psychosis, in which fantasy takes over reality, seemed the perfect theme for that.

Dissonance’s bleed between realism and fantasy destabilizes the viewing experience in a surreal but still moving way.

Till Nowak: The concept also has to do with empathy. I think animation is in general a very empathic medium, because animated characters are created entirely from empathy. Everybody sees the world from his or her own point of view, regardless of whether it’s a high-ranking manager or a mentally ill homeless person. Dissonance takes a subjective perspective of reality. I became interested in the world of someone who talks to himself in the street and appears crazy to others. From his perspective, everybody else might appear crazy. Who actually has the right to define what reality is, if it is subjective?

What did you use to make Dissonance? The pianist’s flowing hair, for example, was amazing.

Till Nowak: To create the animation, I mainly used 3ds Max and After Effects. All images and the fantasy world were created by myself, but I also had some great help from the gifted CG artist, Malte Lauinger, who created the final character models and rigs, and animated about half of the character motion.

The hair was one of our most difficult tasks. It was done with the 3ds Max’s standard “Hair & Fur” tool. Right after the birth of my daughter, I spent about three months moving the digital hair frame by frame, on top of the live-action shots with my newborn baby daughter sleeping on my lap. Some shots got additional hair treatment by CG artist Gunter Freese, who used Maya and HairFx. Overall, the rendering alone took a full year on five computers running day and night. But I never had to wait for any renders, since the rendering went parallel to the animation, meaning that I was always animating the next shot while the last one was rendering.

Would you consider it to be animation? Live-action with VFX?

Till Nowak: Dissonance is a hybrid film, but the animation is the most important part of it. Two months of work went into the live-action shooting, but over two years went into the animation, after five years of developing and designing it. The animation is handmade; no motion-capture was used. I think the animated parts are the soul of the film, and contain most of the innovation and finesse. The live-action parts are the counterpart, rather new terrain for me as a director. The story leads us from animation into reality and back.

How did you become interested in graphic art and design, as well as science and computation? Who are some of your scientific and artistic influences? Your work reminds me of Christopher Nolan, as well as Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, but I’m also feeling Jan Svankmajer.

Till Nowak: I grew up in a family of artists. Both of my parents and my brother are artists, so art became my native language. As a child, I had Super-8 and video cameras at home, so I made my first stop-motion animations and films when I was five or six years old. And I have always been a science maniac. Influences that surrounded me from early age range from Jacques Tati, Oskar Fischinger, M.C. Escher, the German Oscar-winning animation Balance, as well as scientists like Ray Kurzweil and Frank J. Tipler.

In my childhood, I could watch only a handful of Hollywood films that I coincidentally got to watch on TV, since we did not watch much TV at home. But it was enough to make me fall in love with the magic of big foreign productions. I became an admirer of Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Christopher Nolan; you already guessed it. I also began to study artists like Syd Mead and H.R. Giger, both of whom later became personal friends of mine — and which also led to The Centrifuge Brain Project, whose actor Leslie Barany is actually H.R. Giger’s agent.

I heard you recently moved to Los Angeles. What are you up to these days? Are you interested in features?

Till Nowak: I moved to Los Angeles as an independent artist, without knowing what my first project here would be, but with very good connections to the film business. I have been back and forth between Germany and L.A. since, having been fortunate enough to win some awards at AFI Festival in Hollywood in 2005. In 2010, I worked on Arthur Christmas, a co-production between Aardman and Sony. My wife and I had made the decision to move to the US about five years ago, and here we are!

I am still an independent artist, as I have been the past 15 years in Germany, hopping from one project to the next. My first gig after we moved in April was at 5D Global Studios, with the renowned production designer, Alex McDowell. Currently, I am at Marvel doing concept art for a big movie, and in a few weeks I will be on something new again.

Are you interested in feature films?

Till Nowak: My long term goal is to make my own feature films. Writing and directing never feels like a job to me. It always has to come from deep within, so I am taking my time to find the right theme.

Any thoughts on Oscar season? How do you feel about Dissonance’s chances?

Till Nowak: Luckily, I have no idea how it will go. Dissonance won two qualifying awards, at Aspen Shortsfest and Anima Mundi, and it is my third film that has qualified for Academy Award submission, which is exciting. My fully animated short film, Delivery, won AFI Fest in 2005, but was on the Internet too early to be eligible. The Centrifuge Brain Project won at Aspen Shortsfest in 2012, but didn’t make the shortlist. I’m trying to relax. I’m glad it’s out of my hands.

This interview appeared at Cartoon Brew