Oftentimes an independent filmmaker requires the support of an army of many—actors and crew—to nurture his or her film into fruition. In the case of director-producer Sam Chen’s computer-animated short film Eternal Gaze, a biopic on the life and art of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, the required support came down to an army of one.
Chen, a San Diego based animator and a graduate of UCLA’s computer science program, wrote, directed, designed, and edited Eternal Gaze, which in 2003 became a festival favorite and garnered a slew of awards ranging from the San Diego Filmmaker Award at the San Diego Film Festival, to grand prize honors for Best Animated Short Film at the Siggraph 2003 Convention. And the wave of critical kudos still continues to gather momentum as Chen travels to more festivals with the film, which qualified for Academy Award consideration in November.
An Oscar nomination would do wonders for any filmmaker’s career, but Chen, who cites Pixar-pioneer John Lasseter as a major influence, did not make such a complicated film with the sole intent of using it as a calling card. When asked what he had learned through the making of Eternal Gaze, Chen is candid about how deeply personal the film is to him, especially after dedicating the last three years of his life to completing the project. “It sounds corny, but I found out who I am and who I am supposed to be,” says Chen. “It’s been a personal journey.” Chen further explained that it was a journey during which he felt driven to put his professional and artistic self to the test. “You always want to prove yourself to yourself like, ‘Can I do this? Do I have what it takes? Do I have something unique to say and offer?’ Those are questions that every artist struggles with.”
The age-old issue of artistic truth is a central theme in Chen’s film. From the film’s opening moments, the viewer crosses the threshold into Giacometti’s studio to find the sculptor hard at work, trying to express the inner turmoil that is suggested by his illuminating yet soul-weary eyes. He is the angst-ridden artist incarnate, and Chen establishes an intense, introspective mood in the film where the audience is invited to share Giacometti’s existential view of the human condition.
Set in Paris circa 1957, Chen unfolds Eternal Gaze as a dramatic fever dream of light and shadows, taking undeniable cues from Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. With composer/co-producer Jamey Scott’s music and sound design complementing Chen’s imagery, the 16-minute short is part portrait of the artist and part meditation on the creative process. Interestingly, the initial spark for the film’s concept emerged from a reading assignment given on a day Chen ditched a drawing class he was taking at Stanford. He later picked up the assignment, though, “A Giacometti Portrait,” and from the first page onward, Chen says, he was hooked.
“It was an accident,” says Chen, who was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the US in 1975. “And, maybe, it was fate. But I was taking an evening, life-drawing class and the professor gave a reading assignment about Giacometti written by James Lord. [Lord] posed for Giacometti for eighteen days. It was suppose to be a one-day pose, but it became eighteen days,” Chen explains. “That’s really a reflection of Giacometti. Art is never finished; just abandoned . . . He’s searching for the meaning of life; the meaning of the human gaze. To him, there is no time limit.” There was no time limit for Chen either when it came to realizing his dream project.
In the three years that it took Chen to resurrect Giacometti as a computer-animated character, the first year alone was dedicated to doing research and character design. Chen read everything he could on the artist best known for his stark, monolithic figurative sculptures, which included the rediscovery of Lord’s work in Giacometti: A Biography. And then the writing began. “I spent six months writing a first draft and it went nowhere,” Chen recalls. “I threw it away and started from scratch. The next morning, it finished itself in two hours because it felt right.”
Chen, who thrives on working in a state of “healthy stress,” says the breakthrough materialized when he shifted the script’s focus away from the art and started taking a serious look at the man behind the startling modernist masterworks. The key was making the audience empathize with Giacometti as a human being, Chen explains, thus allowing them to better appreciate the art that dominated his life. And though one might think that a depiction of Giacometti as the existentialist human being he was is a far cry from the more whimsical themes often associated with computer animation, Chen believes his film openly challenges this notion.
Like the technique of his elusive subject, Chen approached his project as a search that started with pencil and paper, developing the character’s anguished look from hundreds of drawings in his sketchbooks. Chen later drew storyboards on Post-It notes that he scanned into a computer for an animatic—or animated storyboards—which were then set to music. It’s a process that varies, says Chen, and one that is not always clear. “The difference between animation and live action is you’re making the film backwards,” he explains. “And what I mean is you have to edit everything ahead of time, and then you animate only enough to fill the length of each shot that’s been pre-planned. That’s because animation is so expensive and time consuming. You’re not going to animate one more frame than you have to.”
Working on an animated piece like Eternal Gaze demands precision and a willingness to make every image count, in order to create an illusion of life that makes sense both visually and conceptually. Since he was creating the film primarily on his laptop computer, Chen had to be at the top of his game, otherwise time, money, and energy would be wasted. In the end, nothing wasted and much gained, says Chen, who confesses to more than a passing connection to the sculptor’s philosophy. “The coolest thing about this project was that parallelism,” Chen explains. “It’s one of those things where by the third year, all of my friends accused me of channeling Giacometti. It’s almost as if I became Giacometti.”
“Animators are actually frustrated actors,” says Chen, whose research for the film included taking acting and improv classes. “I’m the one who is actually acting as Giacometti. And so I almost had to feel his torment and strive for the impossible. Not just ‘Am I going to sell this? Does this look pretty?’ It’s more like you’re putting your life on the line. The direr it is, the better it is.”