As an independent animator, the most prudent thing Geoff Marslett could do when making the short “The Phantom 52” was to model the truck driver at its center on himself so he wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else for reference. Still, there was an issue – his facial hair.
“If I was teaching animation class and someone said to me, hey, I’m designing this character, should I give them a beard and crazy hair, I’d say no, don’t do that! That’s going to triple your work. And it did,” laughs Marslett, who wasn’t about to cut his beard off. “I custom created a brush [on the computer] that was made up of strands, but really had to paint frame by frame that beard and it became a lot of work to do. On the other hand, the few people that have had a chance to watch it and give me feedback [have said], “I just like watching the beard move.”
Indeed, it becomes transfixing to watch every stray gold and orange hair that makes up the beard of the Phantom (Tom Skerritt), the long-haul driver who can be seen rumbling down the highway in the dead of night in the latest short from Marslett, but also tremendously moving for the fact that it’s an extension of how much of himself the animator put into “The Phantom 52,” most prominently his glorious imagination. The filmmaker has long traversed between reality and the fantastical, which is reflected in his ability to work in both animation and live-action, previously landing a rotoscoped Mark Duplass on the red planet in “Mars” and following a ferocious Trieste Kelly Dunn in the all-too-real aftermath of surviving a brutal assault in “Loves Her Gun.” “The Phantom 52” finds him on the road with a grizzled old pro, using his CB radio with the hope of giving him some company on a lonely drive.
When recommendations for the best cinnamon bun in Albequerque and other random musings pour in, the asphalt suddenly looks like the sea when the Phantom’s diesel truck taking on the shape of a whale in the ocean, with his years of experience coloring his thoughts and rolling in like waves. With a fine attention to detail yet gloriously cinematic, the eight-minute short premiering at Sundance this weekend is easy to lose yourself in and unforgettable as an experience. Shortly before “The Phantom 52” takes off, Marslett hopped on the horn himself to talk about how the film revived his own passion for filmmaking, the initial spark of inspiration and how he himself experienced something profound in bringing together those he’s met along the way as a filmmaker for the unique project.
How did this come about?
It probably goes all the way back to middle school when I first heard a story about a real whale that no one had photographed and speaks in a frequency that no other whale can actually physically hear, so it was this lonely creature. I’ve been fascinated with it for decades and fast forward to 2014 and Lauren [Modery, the screenwriter of “Loves Her Gun”] and I heard a story about the whale and we were talking about it while we were stuck in traffic. It was one of those things where one element led to another and I thought about the similarity to driving long distances down the highway in these little metal boxes where we talk on our phones and have this long distance communication, but no face to face. The more I thought about the obvious physical similarities between a semi-truck and a whale and the use of CB to communicate with people you rarely ever see and tend to be thousands of miles away from, I just kept building on this idea of loneliness working the same way for human beings in that position as this whale.
I went home and wrote this thing very quickly with those ideas in mind and then had the hard part of trying to make it. I spent a solid year trying to apply for grants, look for producers, attach a voice talent and in the mean time, I recorded a temp voice, made an animatic for it, and even animated the first two shots and used that to send to people. As often happens with indie film, it was just strike out after strike out and I felt really strongly that the script I had come up with in the end was really good. By 2015, I back-burnered it [because I didn’t] want to have to make this the “anyway I can, cheap and quick compromised [way]” because it felt like a waste of a great idea to make it that way, but fast forward to Warren Etheridge coming into the project. He approached me to license some of my other short films to put online and I sent him a blanket password to my Vimeo account and said, “Hey, go through here, look at it, find anything you want.” And what he ended up finding was this half-baked animatic for “The Phantom 52” and got really excited. He [asked], “Can I buy this one?” And I told him, ”It’s not really for sale,” and gave him the whole sob story.
About 10 days later, he called me back and said, “How would you feel about Tom Skerritt voicing the Phantom?” And this sounds like you’re taking what someone brings to you, but in truth, Tom Skerritt was in the five names I had come up with on the shortlist of who my dream cast [would be] for this part years earlier, and that was someone I was never able to get through to the first time around. Warren knew him, showed it to him, Tom liked it and then that really became the spark that helped us to get it made because once that happened, I flew out to Seattle, recorded Tom’s voice for the film and then went into earnest of really working on it, basically every single day from June to last Friday. And it was really exciting because I already loved the piece, but getting to record Tom the voice, he gave it this weathered, worn-out, tired, exhausted sound that was still strong and persevering that I really dreamed of for this character and once you have that in the can, it’s like I should just do everything I can to make the visuals live up to this narrator now.
I noticed in the credits there is a reference cinematography credit – this isn’t rotoscope, but are you shooting a live-action version of it before animating?
Yeah, what existed first was the script and I animated the entire thing, every shot of it in stick figures, just a white line on black background in Flash. It was an animatic of really sloppy, quick drawings that I timed out and the truth is probably around 90% of every shot in the finished film, the composition and timing matches my original animatic, so it really stuck very true to the first envisioning of how the shots would look and what the transitions would be. But I also knew I wanted these whales and the inside of the cab of the truck to be accurate. So Amy Bench and I met up with Johnny Morris, a truck driver out of Pflugerville, Texas and a friend of a friend, and Johnny showed me how to move and do things as I sat in the truck. I knew that the live-action model I’d have the easiest access to was myself, so Amy shot both stills and a little bit of moving image that I could keep as references as we animated, [that] was mainly the inside of the truck so all of those trucker scenes would be accurate. We did that shoot way back in 2015 and I kept that stuff and when I was animating four months ago, there were some other pieces that I didn’t have a reference for and I would honestly stick my iPhone on a tripod and then make myself be the model again, so I was really glad I had chosen myself as a model for that character because I still had free access to me. [laughs]
When Tom Skerritt came aboard, did it change your ideas aesthetically at all?
Since I had kind of envisioned him at the beginning, I didn’t have to change it too much. The somber tone of the piece was there and the whale is loosely based on that same feeling [of] a sadness but also a real nobility persevering that I always knew I wanted out of these images and out of these trucks. I wanted it to feel like a ghost story, but twinged with feeling a little sorry for the ghost and you’re simultaneously a little impressed the ghost hasn’t quit. So all that stayed true from the beginning as far as how we were going to make it look and since I’d already started designing the trucker after myself, even putting Tom’s voice in, it was like, “Well, I know what the trucker’s going to look like,” [but] it’s funny for me to watch it [now] because I look at it some days [now] and I’m like, “Hey, that trucker looks like me. It sounds like Tom,” and then it’s like my face got taken away from me and attached to this whole new character, which is wonderful in its own right.
Part of the ghostly experience comes from the way you’re able to use layered to show different layers of experience for the trucker – when it’s not cel animation, is it difficult to get those kinds of layers to have that translucent quality in the animation?
Certainly it was. If someone asked me, “You’ve got to call this just one thing,” as far as a style of animating, it’s really digital hand-drawn. A good portion of this was drawn on a tablet digitally on a computer. But I wanted a lot of variety in the way it looked and in those translucent layers, I wanted certain feelings, so a lot of the scenes include ink, watercolor, glitter on actual paper and photographed frame by frame and brought in there as backgrounds, which the digital hand drawings were then composited on top of in After Effects, and even with the digital drawings, [I used] TV Paint, Flash and Photoshop, so when you look at it, you see all these strange different qualities of visuals that are layered and stacked. We got those by using a few analog tools and a half dozen different digital tools so everything didn’t look like it was just created in one program. I tried to take the different programs that I liked and whatever the strengths of their particular pieces were and bring it all together. it took a good long time. I did all the compositing myself for it, and I had six other animators who helped me in parts of it that I wanted to look differently, but they would give me the pieces and I would often decolor their work and composite it and make sure that it fit that world I was building it into.
What was it like to build a team of animators and bring in their individual styles?
It was awesome. In the same way when you’re shooting a live action piece and you cast actors and they take the role you give them and make it more than you could tell someone how to make it, I can give [the animators] all these directions and say, “This is what I had in mind,” and they come back to it with everything they add to it because they’ve spent years developing the ability to bring that character to life and they give you back something greater than what you handed them. I love animation where you see the artist’s hand and personality come through in the drawings as opposed to more homogenized stuff that you can get out of CG and we all drew it by hand, so you can tell who drew it. Shunsaku [Hayashi] took Jason [Thomas]’s work on some whales swimming by the radio towers in one of those early undersea moments — it has his style and when I would send him the backgrounds and the whales that Jason had designed and said, “This is what I want you to do with it,” it was like opening a little Christmas gift whenever he would send whales that were done and I could marvel with how he took my idea and ran with it in his own style. That was what I really hoped for is different personalities to puncture these moments and we really tried to time it out so in many cases they work in threes where you see the introduction of one of those artists’ style and then you come back to it a couple times. Every time I look at it, I know if I had drawn them, they would’ve not stood out as differently from their surrounding shots as they end up doing, so that was hugely satisfying.
Thinking of bringing other voices in, what was the process of the other truckers? It’s a beautiful moment of cacophony in the film with a lot of recognizable voices. Were you giving them full scripts to read?
I did send them scripts. I wrote a bunch of trucker lingo and I had another friend of mine Rick Perry — who I always have to say is not that Rick Perry, but the one that was never governor of Texas — who came from a family that does a lot of CB trucking, and we brainstormed some great things for truckers to say. I reached out to friends of mine and people who had been in previous films and really all of those trucker voices were just things people recorded on their phone and texted me. It was as lo-fi as could possibly be, but I knew I wanted to create that deep hole in the middle of all of these people talking to each other from all these different worlds from all across the country. So I was able to bring back people who had been in “Mars” — James Kochalka and Howe Gelb did voices and I stuck myself in there and Frank Mosley and Ashley Spillers and Noel Wells. Matthew Lillard is a friend of Warren’s and I think he even texted me when he sent his recording, saying “I think I’m woefully utilized here,” because [all] he says “Hammer down, rabbit ears.” But I thought it was fun. And since everyone had good will towards the project and were willing to do those things, it was a great way to pepper it with occasional voices too that someone watching it might think, “Was that…? I think I might’ve heard a voice I recognized” and they can watch those credits and see, “Yeah, you did. You heard a couple of voices in that montage.”
There’s a great ballad in the film too. Who was responsible for that?
That’s a musician out of New Mexico named Joe West. He lives in Santa Fe and still plays there all the time and I love the way he tells stories with his songs. He was one of the people I had approached when I was trying to build the team all the way back in 2014 and he was really responsive. He had an old track that he had never released on any of his albums and we got talking about what he might do, so we revisited that old track that was about a trucker and [he] shaped it to this film and I thought it perfectly fit what I wanted out of that sleepy dream sequence in the middle where the trucker is listening to the radio and hallucinating just a little bit. So we were able to resurrect this 15-year-old track that Joe had done and to me, it screams late night, West Texas highway, turn on the radio and hear something like that.
After five years in the works, what’s it like to be putting this out into the world and be headed to Sundance?
I can’t even put into words how excited I am to be showing this at Sundance. I’ve been lucky enough to act in a film that’s gone to Sundance and I’ve been in the crew of some films that have gone to Sundance, but to get to go to Sundance with a film you directed is one of those things that becomes a personal/professional goal, so that’s been really, really satisfying. And for it to occur with this film has been even more satisfying [because] on the one hand, this is just an eight-minute short, but on the other, I’m really proud of all the films I’ve made, but if you were to really ask me, I think this might be my best work yet. I’m really proud of the visuals and the way the story plays out, so to have something that I’m so artistically proud of actually get that recognition, which I absolutely did not expect, really means a lot to me personally.
That’s combined with the fact that I had done an animated feature called “Mars” in 2010 and it was so much work animating an entire feature film with five of us doing all of the animation essentially, that it didn’t me dislike animation, but it put me off of that for a lot of my own work just because of the sheer late nights and the fact that to create a few seconds, you’re working weeks on something. This is the first fully animated piece I really jumped back into since then, so the other side of having it get a little bit of recognition and turn out as well as it did is it really rekindled my excitement about animating work. I’m already starting to work on another short animated doc and maybe another short animated ghost story, so it also relit that fire in me to make some of these very evocative animated, personal tales. As an artist, you always like it when your own work can re-excite you and this is giving me the chance to do that.
“The Phantom 52” will screen at Sundance as part of Shorts Program 4 on January 25th at 6 pm at the Park Avenue Theatre in Park City, January 26th at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City, January 28th at 1 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City and February 1st at 10 pm at the Holiday Village Cinema in Park City.