In David O'Reilly's latest animation, The Horse Raised By Spheres, a crudely rendered horse stands to the side of a meadow and laments, "I haven't spoken to a soul in months, weeks… Oh such thoughts are poison on the mind!" Bravely he resolves to approach a drove of horses across the meadow and when he does, well, the film's cryptic title explains itself. This horse also has its own online world, which is a sort of interactive puzzle through which other short films can be unlocked. Like many animators, David is interested in cartoon violence, but in his case this encompasses not only slapstick but also emotional, political, and social violence. The resulting stories are heartstring-tuggingly beautiful and thoughtful, and very, very funny.
Most likely you've already seen his work in the video game sequences of Spike Jonze's Her, or in his own video-game-slash-philosophical-planet-simulator Mountain, or in the glitchy 3D-animated episode of Adventure Time that he directed. But if you're yet to watch his own films, you're in for a rare treat. Just turned 30, David hails from Kilkenny, Ireland, and now runs his own independent animation studio in downtown Los Angeles, with panoramic views over the bustling streets below. It's there that I found myself knocking on his door.
What brought you to downtown Los Angeles?
I moved here when I had just arrived. Downtown was a risk, and there were a lot of buildings really hungry for tenants, especially young people. There's a lot of activity here on the street and that attracted me. I was moving from Berlin, which in many ways is kind of an opposite city, a very quiet place with a lot of big, open streets. When I came down here I just liked the amount of chaos that was happening when you step outside. Four years later I'm still here despite the stench of piss and shit and whatever else in the air.
I notice your studio's very empty, with no storyboards or pictures on the wall.
I just moved in here recently, so I'm still getting it together. But most of the creativity happens on the screen and in hard drives. 3D is an interesting process, it's a drama that takes place really in the virtual space. In another lifetime I would be wearing rags and there would be broken canvases all over the place; now everything takes place in the computer.
How have developments in software changed animation?
What I've seen happen in the last six years is people have gotten increasingly comfortable with doing more stylised work in 3D. They've realized that this tool can do more than just realistic representation. I think people are doing a lot more unusual, strange ideas that wouldn't be possible with more traditional methods.
For a long time I called myself an independent 3D animator, and you wouldn't see anyone else calling themselves that. It just wasn't something that you did alone. Even now it's a very, very small community. These things that occur are really motivated by a love of the medium, or just by a very, very powerful will to create.
A lot of independent animation is hidden from the mainstream in a way. If someone is interested, where should they go to find it?
Well first of all, you're right. It's totally escaped any mainstream attention. There's no overlap between the press that covers mainstream animation and independent animation because, I guess, the feeling is that the audience is pretty minor. There are communities like Vimeo that things tend to center around, and there are places like Cartoon Brew, which is a popular blog that tends to cover an interesting spectrum of independent animation. There are a couple of Tumblrs like FuckYeahAnimation where you can get a peek into the community.
But it's very much a subculture, and it's not really thought of as culturally or commercially significant. It's lumped together sort of loosely, I think, with entertainment, and it's not really considered an art form, which truly it is in many cases.
Do you ever work on music videos, or commercials?
Nope. I had a start in the commercial world and I learned a lot, but ever since I've had the opportunity to make my own work, I've just felt like I have a limited amount of time on Earth and I want to do the things that I want to do. Even throwaway independent projects usually create more joy, or happiness, or interest than the commercial things. But it comes down to my needs, to "How can you actually get someone to feel something more effectively?", and "How can you express something about the world more accurately?"
Text Dean Kissick
Still from Her, courtesy David O'Reilly