Animation Noir: An interview with filmmaker Patrick Jenkins

Femme fatales, detectives in fedoras, secrets behind every corner, and a most elusive prize - Patrick Jenkins has created a perfect pairing for this week’s feature, film noir classic The Maltese Falcon, starring the legendary Humphrey Bogart. With an inventive use of colour and a unique form of glass-animation, in short film Phantom City Patrick Jenkins has captured the atmosphere one expects from a good noir: shadows, paranoia, mystery and deceit. Read on to learn about Patrick’s ingenious style, and discover his surprising source of inspiration.

CPFF: Your film is paired with one of the masterpieces of film noir: The Maltese Falcon. Which classic noir pictures influenced Phantom City? Were there particular scenes or characters in The Maltese Falcon that you drew inspiration from?

PJ: This is the third animated noir film I've made. I call my approach Animation Noir. It's interesting to pair Phantom City with The Maltese Falcon because of the little animal statuettes in both films. My animated noir films tend to be influenced by the entire genre of film noir, rather than one specific film. The mood, the play of black and white, the play of shadows and the figure of the detective in his fedora and overcoat.

However, one film that was in my mind when I was developing Phantom City was Stanley Kubrick's early noir film The Killing about a robbery at a racetrack. I love the simplicity and directness of the black and white cinematography in that film. It influenced the gritty look of Phantom City.

CPFF: Interesting! We had SUCH a hard time deciding between The Killing and The Maltese Falcon for this particular screening, actually!

PJ: One of the things I like about film noir is that you can't trust any of the characters who appear in them and that's evident in Phantom City. You never really know what are their true motives. Likewise, everyone in the Maltese Falcon has ulterior motives and dark sides to their characters, including the detective played by Humphrey Bogart. I like that sense of duplicity in film noir. What I like is that audiences know the film noir genre and its look, and they quickly get pulled into the mystery story. Then, what I like to do is to insert otherworldly elements, and the supernatural, into this film noir world. I like playing with the film noir genre to explore expanding storytelling.

CPFF: Your short features a classic "macguffin" in the form of a cat, which is part of why we chose it for our prize-vying programme, Eyes on the Prize. Tell us a bit more about the development of this idea - was it always a cat?

PJ: The little cat was inspired by an Egyptian cat mummy I saw at the British Museum in London, England, years ago. In my film I turn it into a little urn, which was inspired by Egyptian canopic jars that have the heads of animals on their lids.

The film was done in an improvisational way. I didn't have a full story when I started the film, just a few scenes and images, so I discovered the story as I animated it. That was exciting and a little scary as usually, especially in animation, you have it all planned out ahead of time, so I was discovering the film as I animated it.

The plot revolves around the theft of a suitcase and for the longest time I didn't know what was in it. When I reached the scene where the detective has to open the suitcase, I had this vision that there was a cat urn inside, something that would seem innocent at first glance, but as we find out, is actually very powerful and lethal.

Likewise, I didn't know what the ending of the film would be until the last month I was working on it. I had all these elements in play: the detective/thief, the girl in the movie theatre, the mysterious woman, and the pursuer, but I had to figure out how they all related to each other. Again I just had this vision that the cat urn would morph into something else and be returned to its owner.

Eyes on the Prize is very apt because in Phantom City, everyone wants what's in that suitcase!

CPFF: The animation style in Phantom City is quite distinctive. What was your process like?

PJ: The animation technique I used is called paint-on-glass animation, a variation of stop-motion animation. Basically I created a wet painting with a combination of gouache watercolour paint, water and glycerin, so that the painting will never dry. I take a photo of the art with a digital still camera and then alter the painting a little bit, taking away part of the image and changing it with a brush and re-photograph it over and over to create the animated movements. I have studied painting, but I also really like cinema, so paint on glass animation is a happy marriage of these two interests of mine. I can paint and create movies at the same time!

It's a tiring, time consuming process. Phantom City took a year of work to create (spread over 2.5 years). I work about 4 hours a day animating. I'm happy if I get one shot done a day! In spite of all the work that’s involved, it's really rewarding to see the images come alive. That keeps me going through the animating process.

For Phantom City I wanted a really gritty look, mainly black and white, but with little dashes of colour in some shots. The characters live in a tough, illusory world in the film, so that look seemed appropriate.

I created the smeary-looking transitions between scenes by spraying the artwork with a water plant sprayer. This creates a smeary dissolve, and the water does the animating by distorting and washing away the painting. I thought this was perfect for the mood of the film. I have to wash away the previous painting to create a new scene anyway, so I thought, maybe I could incorporate the washing away into the film. The first time I did it I thought, "This is so cool!" It's very trippy and dreamlike.


Phantom City screens alongside The Maltese Falcon at Christie Pits Film Festival on July 9th, 2017.