Glitch in the Grid: Interview with Eric & Jeffrey Leiser

Glitch in the Grid is the newest feature film from brothers Eric and Jeffrey Leiser, two brothers who work together on their own independent films. With Eric as producer, director and stop-motion animator, and Jeffrey as composer and sound editor, this is their third feature which is currently hitting the festival screening circuit.

The storyline behind Glitch in the Grid is about three young artists struggling to find work and spiritual renewal during the modern economic recession. The film's approach is a unique take on this concept, in that two of the artists are Eric and Jeffrey themselves, along with their cousin Jay Masonek, a pro-skateboarder, actor and graphic artist. All three of them play themselves, and openly share their thoughts in a mosaic of footage which is auto-biographical in a documentary style of conversation and re-creation of their individual and collective lives. Woven throughout the various interviews and conversations between them is striking animated imagery by Eric Leiser done with stop-motion animation and timelapse photography. The animation is reminiscent of the surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer, who mentored Eric earlier in his career. There are bizarre animal puppets, shadow puppets, cut-outs, animated liquid, and a unique form of "landscape animation" where elements of grass, mud, leaves, snow, and logs are animated alongside found objects which race across the earth with a pulsing, vibrant life of their own. The animation becomes a visual commentary on the dialogue of the film's characters, as they ponder the mysteries of infinity, art and finding value and meaning to their work. All through the film, a constant image that guides us through the animated scenes is a white dove, which serves as a symbol for the Holy Spirit pursuing, guiding and beckoning us to follow.

A common characteristic of the Leisers' work is that this montage of imagery encourages the audience to look closer, think deeper, and possibly need to re-visit the film in repeated viewings to fully grasp the significance of what is being said. It is well worth the effort and there are few filmmakers out there today who use this stream-of-consciousness technique in a way that provides the same sense of honesty and exploration of their own personal lives and sharing of their faith. What started as an experimental film about their cousin Jay as a gift to help him reflect on his own search for meaning, ended up becoming a significant journey for all of them.

I first connected with Eric and Jeffrey Leiser back in 2008 when I interviewed them about their last live-action/animation feature Imagination for Hollywood Jesus. Years later I was thrilled for the opportunity to talk to them again in more depth, this time looking at Glitch in the Grid.

Here is the official trailer, followed by our interview.

Ken: What inspired Glitch in the Grid and how did it get started?

Eric Leiser: After post-production and screenings of Imagination, we wanted to get started on our next project, Infinity, which Jeffrey was writing and I was storyboarding while we were living in Prague. Eventually we got involved with money coming from some Hollywood studios which would have given us $5 million to shoot in Iceland. The producer ended up wanting more money after we had already paid her out of pocket. This ended up happening in 2008 when the economy started crashing, and the producer got worried about it, which was stressful for both of us. So when that fell through, we initially started planning to make a short film about our cousin Jay, which he had always wanted to do; particularly at this time, as he was feeling depressed and we thought it might cheer him up. We had some thoughts about making it longer, which would have involved some more writing and added elements on our part, but we just started by going up to see him and shooting some documentary footage of him to see where it would take us. When we took him down to Los Angeles, we began thinking we could do something larger. It was tough because we almost didn’t have a pre-production process. This was done while we started shooting. So the film had a strange start, because of this previous film which we still really wanted to do.

Jeffrey Leiser: I had spent 3 years fleshing out a script based on an initial idea from way back that Eric had based on elements of childhood fears, and the inspiration we got from the superstitious culture in Iceland. It was going to tie in elements of a mathematician who discovered numbers beyond infinity, which is a concept that interested me greatly. I had put together a business plan and we were ready to start shooting. We had some meetings in L.A. but when that didn’t pan out, we got a bit rebellious and decided to just keep working and not just wait our whole lives to make this film. I feel like that happens a lot, even with well-established filmmakers who have a script on the back burner, but they end up having to move to another project, even if it’s not their favorite thing. It can still become something beautiful, and that’s the neat thing about being an artist. We went into this with an even more limited budget than Imagination, but we hoped to create something more unique and raw which would connect with audiences.

Ken: Would you say there was an element of timing that brought this project to the fore-front?

Eric: Yes, usually I will have a lot of visual ideas or themes which gestate over a long period of time, and I found I needed to transfer some ideas from the Infinity film and bring them into Glitch in the Grid. The elements of the spiritual journey ended up relating to what was going on in our lives and with Jay, so I felt they were themes which did need to be used now for this project. It became a theme about transition, which was expressed in our lives, in Jay’s life, and the world in general.

Jeffrey: I feel this was expressed in the animated imagery, of the Holy Spirit pursuing someone and giving them a vision. In the end though, it’s rather open-ended as to whether Jay decides to follow that vision. There is a difficult element there, as when you’re making a film about a real person you can’t force a Hollywood climax. It’s really more illustrated through the animated imagery. So I would hope that people come away thinking about the idea that something outside you is aware of your life, and that you’re not alone. It will be interesting to see how it affects people’s lives, and even Jay’s life, because in many ways we made the film for him.

Eric: I agree with the personal angle, and I would also add that these are very universal problems as well, that of spiritual crisis and not knowing what your purpose is in the world, or not knowing just how personal God can be. My take on it is that Jay does accept Christ into his heart by the end of the film. As he goes through the spiritual journey of transition, it seems at first like the dove is far off and distant, like he knows God is there, but he’s not allowing Him to come close, until he eventually come to a decision whether to let God into his heart and soul. So there is that personal angle to the film through Jay’s story, but at the same time, as I was cutting the fictional elements into the master reel, I was looking at the larger picture that says this is who we are in a broader sense.

Ken: I was actually wondering that myself, how the process unfolded of making the film. Parts of it seemed very much like a personal documentary or home movie of your lives, and then this was mixed with the animated imagery and other elements which played out like more of a story. Were any parts scripted, or was there a lot of improvisation in the way it was shot?

Eric: I think one of the reasons it seems that way is that in the short term we were using actors which were just friends of ours. With Imagination, we were dealing with people who wanted to gain experience acting on film, and one of the criticisms we received on that film (which was a bit more of a misunderstanding of the film itself) was that the acting was a bit amateurish. So this time, even though I had a strong structure for how I wanted the film to go, I couldn’t force people to act it out that way, so what I did was to encourage very conversational dialogue. I would give them an idea of what I wanted them to say, but to make it still feel like it was coming from themselves. In other cases, I would shoot lots of footage and hope that somewhere in there, what I wanted them to say would come out and I could structure it in the editing. What really interests me about filmmaking is the concept of keeping things really loose in the shooting and narrative structure, and then weaving in the larger picture of what it all means through the animated imagery. This is why the animation weaves in and out through the entire film, as a way of commenting on what is being said, like a large tapestry. I think it worked well in this case, and with our next film we’ll be trying this approach with more seasoned actors.

Jeffrey: We spent about a year doing new edits to the film and doing some test screenings for friends to see what worked and what didn’t. As a result we ended up putting more of ourselves into the film than we initially intended. There were also many themes related to the economy in the film which we hope will resonate with people of our generation and what we’re all going through. That sense of the unknown is touched on a lot, which we think people will relate to. Musically, I was also trying to complement that same sense of relationship of those themes with the animation. I didn’t want to coerce anything through the music, but rather make it part of the journey.

Ken: I really liked that journey aspect to your film, and especially the dynamic that was there between Jay and both of you. There seemed to be different levels there, in that Jay was exploring and asking questions about God, and even though you both have that relationship with Him, you still had questions of your own, and expressed them in a very honest and open way. The scene where you, Eric, have the conversation with Jay expressing a concern for his spiritual life and where he’s at in his beliefs, I feel was a very honest portrayal of how we can express this to someone without making them feel convicted in a negative sense. It gives a stronger sense that we are all following our own journeys of questioning, but on different personal levels. Is this something you recognized and were trying to capture?

Eric: Absolutely. That scene where I ask Jay about his walk with God had some really great material in it. It was a moment where we captured some great spiritual conversations, and it is hard to only leave one scene of it in the film. So I chose a part of it which was very honest within that particular day, but also within the larger story. I love moments like that which happen in other films, so I felt it was an important part of this one. I felt it really helped to move the film forward. At first, it was the only scene where I made an appearance, since the film started out being only about Jay. But we were encouraged to put more of our own story into it as well, to make us less one-dimensional. We certainly were all questioning things on different levels, but also going through many of the same things, in terms of that transitional phase. It was also difficult separating from each other after the shooting, with each of us heading off to New York, England, and then trying to coalesce these different journeys into one story. It was through the editing process that I kept everyone in my head and in my heart. The other aspect that made its way into the film was the difference between the environments in L.A. vs. England, where they have these carnivals, parades and spiritual festivals out in public areas all the time. This was very different from L.A. where the creativity is more spread out and only happening within the studio stages.

Jeffrey: Thematically, the film shifts from Jay for a little while when we move to England. There is symbolism in the Passion parade scene with Eric’s voice-over, the other parade scene with its hell-ish imagery, and then moving to images of renewal and the wedding. So there is the crucifixion, death and resurrection theme which we hope people will catch on to as the larger structure going on alongside Jay’s story. He is simply one character within that larger story.

Eric: There is always that gamble when portraying those kinds of ideas on film, and how people with or without the knowledge of those Biblical images will understand it. You don’t want it to end up being too inclusive, which is why we put those concepts into the film itself. The voice-over explaining the Passion parade was one of the last things we added to the film, as we felt it was really important to tie things back to sharing the gospel, re-iterating the hope that Jay comes to grips with it, and connecting that to all of the animated imagery. Hopefully the audience will begin to pick up these themes more on repeated viewings, which is how I feel all of our films are structured. We’re still dealing with how to portray these things, and I don’t know that all of our films will be that specific in spelling out our faith, but for this film we felt it was really important.

Jeffrey: I think that backs up the fact that it’s hard to depict spiritual things on film, and translate the eternal into something that visual. It’s a big revelation for me, seeing the animation which Eric does. It’s an attempt at trying to go into a deeper place using the animation to represent the spiritual.

Ken: I definitely feel that in the work you are doing, and that aspect of symbolism is what both animation and puppetry can accomplish. Jim Henson even spoke of this purity that puppets have in being a symbol of whatever you are trying to portray, whether it be good or evil. Art is incarnational in that sense, giving visual form to things which are unseen.

Eric: Yes, and I think that’s why I keep coming back to animation, even after considering making films which are primarily live-action. As I work with it, I realize how essential it is to the filmmaking process, no matter how difficult it is. Even outside of the film itself, I feel this compulsion to push the medium to see where it will lead. In Glitch in the Grid there are very small scenes involving football stadium-sized animation which we had to loop a few times in order for anyone to really catch it. But it was still a real adventure to make, seeing what can be done, and trying to illustrate spiritual concepts with it.

Ken: I’ve noticed there is another theme in your work, in that Imagination used a white stag and Glitch in the Grid uses a white dove to symbolize Christ or the Holy Spirit weaving into the characters’ lives and guiding them through the story.

Eric: This is definitely a conscious thing. It’s also interesting how things happen, as we were shooting in Rome where they have much of that Holy Spirit/dove imagery that is present in Renaissance art. So I think this began to influence me, both during the trip and afterwards. In one of the next films we’re working on there is a symbol of a lamb, so I’m definitely drawn to that kind of symbolism. But even beyond the spiritual aspects, I’m also attracted to albinos, certain anomalies in nature and odd things like that. I also wanted to work on the concept of flight in animation, as I’ve always loved when things fly in stop-motion and other animated forms.

Jeffrey: Me too, I love the films of Miyazaki and how he loves the idea of flight, so we were able to explore that in Glitch in the Grid using the dove and landscapes moving through time, and even showing the airplanes in flight as we move around in the story.

Ken: How did you achieve this illusion of flight using stop-motion?

Eric: It was a combination of different methods, sometimes using rigs attached to the tripod, or suspending objects and removing the rigs digitally afterwards in Photoshop. The rig removal ended up being the only subtle computer effects in the film, along with color correction. But I prefer doing as many effects in-camera as possible to maintain that hand-crafted feel.

Ken: How was the liquid animation done?

Eric: I’ve always had an interest in neurology and how the body works through synapses in the brain, so I tried using water, glycerin, petroleum jelly and other elements in a dish and pushing them around frame by frame. It was definitely very tedious animating liquid, but the sounds that Jeffrey came up with complemented the effect I was trying to create.

Jeffrey: I used uploaded high-quality sound effects from a website called the FreeSoundProject, but it’s hard to find exact sounds that will work for that kind of inner-body imagery. So there was a lot of trial and error involved, auditioning 20 or 30 sounds which I thought might sound good for any one shot, and muting different tracks to find a weird combination that actually worked.

Ken: What other kinds of gear did you use for the outdoor animation?

Eric: Mostly a Canon 5D with L-series lenses. I’m very interested in optics, since I do work with holography as well, so I love the images which these lenses provide. I’ve been animating long enough so I don’t use any stop-motion software, as I prefer to just shoot the images as I see them in my head and import the frames into the computer. I initially started using 16mm film, so I let these principles just carry over. I like sticking to these old-school methods and keeping that organic flow to the work, rather than relying on the digital software tools in that way. At the same time I still want my animation to be as flawless as possible. The occasional pop in the animation helps it retain that sense of warmth, but I want the overall effect that this movement is really happening. Svankmajer talks about that as well, creating this illusion of a reality and making the animation as good as possible. That helps me push things and continue to make things stronger.

Jeffrey: I really like the concept that Eric used for incorporating the landscape animation to represent how Jay was feeling and what that might look like. Destroying and changing the nature of the land itself showed how much Jay was struggling inside, almost like it was the landscape of his heart.

Eric: I was trying to represent that through the changes in seasons as well, using the movement of the snow and winter imagery when Jay was at his lowest points living in L.A, and then using images of tornados and moving earth as he continues to struggle and open up.

Ken: I was wanting to make a comment on that actually, as one of the insights I pulled from the film is that as Jay’s spiritual journey comes full circle, he ends up finding a job where he is cultivating the land, and he begins to find some purpose in that. So it’s almost as if the landscape animation is a symbol for how God is not only speaking through creation, but also perhaps calling to Jay to bring him to that particular point of his life.

Eric: Yes, I began to see that connection as I was shooting, and I feel it really brings it home near the end when he looks up into the trees and is purposefully looking for God this time, seeing and knowing that God brought him there. At one point I felt the film should have ended there, but then I realized he still had some dark things in his life to resolve, so it needed to go on a bit further to suggest that. It’s not like at the moment you see God that suddenly all is well, but there is something in that moment where there is a tremendous sense of peace. I feel like Jay had some peace there, both on film and in his life. So I definitely felt that connection, and there were a lot of gifts given through the filmmaking process as these concepts became more concrete. How all of these elements came together with the music as well, these were not things we always planned ourselves, they were definite gifts and answers to these cries of the heart, which we felt very humbled by and thankful for.

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Images and Trailer copyright Albino Fawn Productions

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