Created by Arizona native Timothy Reckart, “Head Over Heels” puts an imaginative, whimsical twist on the tale of a married couple grown apart – he lives on the floor while she lives on the ceiling.
A product of tireless work while studying at the National Film and Television School in the UK, this stop-motion animated film had its world premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and has since nabbed high-profile accolades such as the Annie Award for Best Student Film.
Last month, “Head Over Heels” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film – an unexpected yet exhilarating honor for recent graduate Reckart. An animator and director now based in New York City, he took some time last week to chat with the East Valley Tribune about the film, growing up in Tucson and his favorite animated features of last year.
Q: To begin with, what inspired the idea behind “Head Over Heels” and what compelled you to tell this story using stop motion?
A: There's a spiral staircase in Rembrandt's painting The Philosopher in Meditation that’s built sort of symmetrically, so that you can see the steps on the underside of it as well as on the top. It’s as if someone living the floor and someone living on the ceiling could use this same staircase, and that led me to the image of two people living on opposite poles of the same house. That image resonated with a lot of ideas I had been thinking about at the time: the estrangement of spouses, the intensity of political division in the USA, the difficulty of being in a long-distance relationship... (I left my girlfriend behind in Boston while I studied in the UK.)
The image of a husband and wife separated by gravity seemed to encapsulate all of those ideas and offered a lot of fun possibilities for animation. The image can work as a pure concept, something the audience recognizes as a metaphor. But I wanted the world of the film to be tangible and real, something that could immerse the audience. Stop motion was the perfect animation technique for this because the focus on miniature objects exaggerates their natural textures. It's a very tactile medium, with little fibers of cloth and specks of dust everywhere. Drawn animation can only suggest these textures, and it's expensive for computer animation to simulate them. But it comes naturally with stop motion. The technique has this wonderful nostalgic feel. It's old-fashioned and handmade, which lends it this human quality.
Q: How long did it take you to make this film and what were some of the challenges you encountered in the process?
A: From conceiving the idea to the end of post-production, “Head Over Heels” took 15 months to make. We spent six months animating, which is relatively quick for ten minutes of footage. But with stop motion, you have to build every prop, character, and set before you can shoot a frame of animation. With a crew of about 50 people, our art department spent five months meticulously building all of the stuff you see onscreen. The level of detail is astonishing and you only get a glimpse of it when you see the film. Even the floorboards were cut, sanded, glazed, and laid down one at a time, by hand. As soon as they’d finish a set, we’d yank it into the shooting space and start animating.
Q: Were there any films or artists that inspired your work in “Head Over Heels” or the love story within it?
A: Aardman Animations in the UK does amazing work that has definitely inspired my passion for stop motion. I’ve been a fan of Wallace & Gromit since I was a kid. With Aardman, it was the stories and the characters that captured me, not the animation as such. Their craft in stop motion is unparalleled, but more importantly they’re great filmmakers. The amount of comedy, emotion, and plot they can cover in half an hour is really impressive, and I’ve always wanted to achieve that economy of storytelling in my own work.
The love story in “Head Over Heels” definitely didn’t come from a vacuum, but in this case the inspiration came from life, rather than films. I was lucky enough to grow up around really strong marriages, with great examples of sacrifice and commitment. I think in particular of my father’s parents, who raised five kids together even when my grandmother contracted polio and lost the ability to walk. There’s nothing mushy about the love that got them through it. That kind of love is heroic. And that’s what I wanted to make a film about.
Q: Where were you when you learned about the Oscar nomination and what was your reaction?
A: I knew the announcement was coming and didn’t sleep at all the night before. I was tossing and turning, trying to prepare myself for bad news but still hoping for good news… I live in Brooklyn with my brother, two blocks away from my girlfriend, and all three of us were gathered in front of a computer the morning of the announcement. When the press release finally went online and we saw “Head Over Heels” had been nominated, they jumped up and were whooping behind me, but I had spent so much time preparing for a disappointment that I didn’t really know how to react! I think my first thought was to make sure they had spelled my name right!
Q: I read on your site that you also work in multiplane collage and digital 2D animation. Any desire to experiment with any other types of animation or live-action film?
A: I’m actually working on another multiplane animation right now, in those rare gaps of free time I have during awards season. And I’m editing a live-action sketch comedy piece that I directed for a group of Philadelphia-based comedians, one of whom I went to high school with in Tucson. I got started making films in live action, so I certainly don’t see myself as an animator exclusively. These techniques just give you different options to tell stories, and it’s ultimately about the content, not the medium.
Q: Anything you’d like to share about growing up in Tucson or your early work while attending University High?
A: I consider myself lucky to have grown up in Tucson. It has a really lively, robust arts scene. For a small city, it has lots of ballets, operas, downtown art studios… And I constantly went to the movies, which was great in Tucson because you have arthouse options in addition to the multiplexes. And the wide-open space gives you this sense of freedom and initiative. My siblings and I used to go out into the desert with a bottle of ketchup and make slasher movies. No permits, no strangers walking into the shot… I feel like I had a lot of opportunities to pursue my interest in filmmaking, growing up in Tucson.
Q: To wrap things up, what were some of your favorite films of 2012 and why?
A: Last year was a great year for stop motion animation specifically. There were three stop motion features released (Frankenweenie, Paranorman, and Aardman’s Pirates! Band of Misfits), all three of which are now nominated for an Oscar. This is really astounding when you think back to the '90s, when I think three stop motion features were produced in that entire decade! I’m of course a big fan of Pirates because I got to work on it two summers ago – I think I made about 300 plasticine eyebrows for that film. And I also have a soft spot for Frankenweenie, since I’ve always been an enormous Tim Burton fan.
“Head Over Heels” can now be seen along with other Oscar-nominated short films at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale.