There is a new force in animated filmmaking, but you won’t find him in Hollywood. His name is Ladd Ehlinger Jr. and he is based in Huntsville, Alabama. If that location seems peculiar for the pursuit of animation, put the geographic snobbery on hold and experience Ehlinger’s bold and brilliant feature film debut: “Flatland.”
Based on the pioneering Victorian era sci-fi novel by Edwin A. Abbott, “Flatland” imagines a parallel universe made up of two-dimensional geometric objects. The hero is a square, literally – A Square, a lawyer who gets caught up in a political power struggle within his country of Flatland. Simultaneously, A Square discovers there are hitherto unknown worlds beyond his: the one-dimensional Lineland, made up of glowing straight lines, and Spaceland, a wild three-dimensional world where the billionaire adventurer A Sphere explains the secrets of height, width and depth to A Square.
Mixing provocative lessons of class struggle, racism and the challenge to closed minds (not to mention a subtle slam about the Dubya-style policy provoking wars for flimsy reasons), “Flatland” is a mature work of intelligence. And Ehlinger’s animation, with its original visions of multi-dimensional universes, is miles ahead of the hideous CGI stuff being churned out by Hollywood.
Film Threat caught up with Ehlinger in his sweet home Alabama (sorry, the reference was too good to pass up) to discuss “Flatland.”
Q: Why did you decide to make a film of “Flatland”? It would seem that Edwin Abbott’s source text, with its emphasis on mathematics and Victorian satire, is not easily adaptable to the film medium.
LADD EHLINGER JR.: I always wanted to make a film inspired by “Flatland.” But not a straight adaptation. Edwin A. Abbott’s novella – from 1884 – had great themes of transcendence and perspective that appealed to me. Wonderful work. However, I found the Victorian satire dated. I thought it would be far more interesting to satirize the modern U.S. empire.
So we have an emphasis on technology in Spaceland; we have government contractors performing messianic duties for the government. And we have wars and rumors of wars. I didn’t quite spell any of that out for the screenwriter, Tom Whalen, when he got started – but to my delight his work was just rich with it. He’s a powerful writer.
Adding new material to the original proved beneficial from a financial standpoint too. I don’t think there’s enough in the original novella to do a feature film. And since there’s no market for short films it was either bring new ideas to the material, or else make a really slow film. I love Wim Wenders but I don’t want to emulate his style.
From Tom’s base material, it was an easy thing to nudge it into my own vision. I saw the movie as something faster-paced than a typical indie film. Not an angst-ridden Sundance reject. Something more like a blend between “Touch of Evil,” “2001,” and “Jonny Quest.” An homage to those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons with the great Hoyt Curtin music.
Q: How long did it take to complete the film and how much did it cost?
LADD EHLINGER JR.: It took me about two years. What I do requires a lot of computers, which are capital expenditures, not operating expenses like renting cameras or locations or craft services. I use the computer equipment for other stuff, and the cost gets spread out over multiple jobs.
Q: You are based in Alabama, not Hollywood. What kind of professional support is there in Alabama for a filmmaker like you to create a work like this?
LADD EHLINGER JR.: No professional support. But Huntsville is a unique city. I believe it has the largest number of PhD’s per capita of any city in the U.S., because of NASA, Space Camp, and so many defense research firms. So there’s plenty of 3D animators here supporting those government entities.
But they all work and get paid well. They don’t have time to pursue crazy dreams. So I’ve been pretty much on my own trying to get it done on a day-to-day basis. Not that there wasn’t help. People were willing to pitch in. There’s several PhD’s and NASA workers doing voices in my film, along with theater aficionados and the like.
But hard core support like you get in LA? Crazed people banging on my door to audition? No. So except for the occasional freelance job – a 3D animation here and there for clients – I’ve pretty much been in my home studio toiling at my white whale with my wife doing her best to keep the rest of the world from intruding.
Q: How are you using MySpace and YouTube to market this film?
LADD EHLINGER JR.: The entire marketing strategy for “Flatland” is strange. Sort of David and Goliath, pajamas media (Internet, bloggers) versus big media. I set up several MySpace accounts, one for each character of the movie. Whenever I was waiting for an animation to render on my computers (rendering is the process of taking 3D animation files and generating images – very time intensive) I would send out friend requests or correspond as one of the characters. My wife did a lot of these, too, for the characters of A Sphere, Colonel Triangle, A Square, etc. An enormous amount of fun to do, but time consuming because you have to be careful not to creep someone out or be tagged as a spammer. Internet guerilla marketing takes time, humor, and savvy.
YouTube’s editors also recently featured a clip from the film right on their front page at the top for about a day. I sold a lot of DVDs in a few hours as a result. It makes me think that a big venue like that should fund someone like me making quality content every few days or so, as a counterbalance to the puppy videos and girls on trampolines. Then package it all together into one big direct-to-consumer DVD for sale at the end of the series. I think it would be huge financially for them. I hope they like the idea. They seem a lot more open than MySpace. I love YouTube’s style and corporate culture.
Q: There appears to be another film version of “Flatland” out there, with Martin Sheen providing a voice performance. Are you familiar with that version?
LADD EHLINGER JR.: In a sense. When I went to buy the domain name “FlatlandTheMovie” two or three years ago I saw that it was already owned. No site up, just a placeholder. Found the owners and sent them messages telling them that I was already making a feature film off the book and didn’t want to have both efforts ruined. At the time I was told that it was just an educational piece, a half-hour thing with the book on the DVD. To be marketed to schools and math classes. So I kept on working, thinking that we’d be in different market spaces. Lo and behold in late ‘06 before I launch my “Flatland,” I find out it’s now a feature with Martin Sheen. Silly me, silly them. Beyond that, I don’t know much except what’s on their web page.
My guess is they thought I was a pesky bug not to be concerned about. Some rube in Alabama. Maybe they’re right. But one wonders if they told everyone involved in their project that I was out there somewhere like a submarine, lurking. I can imagine the conversations if my surfacing in January ’07 was a surprise. At any rate, I wish it all the best. Every time their movie is mentioned on the Internet, my film gets mentioned too. So it takes some of the pressure off me vis-à-vis promotion.
Q: What are your next projects?
LADD EHLINGER JR.: There’re several ideas in the works. The question is whether my marketing of “Flatland” works, attracts a distributor, and attracts investment for the next one.
I prefer minimal logistics. I used to do the whole guerilla filmmaking thing. Get out there on the street with a camera and a bunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and actors on points. Did it in college, did it for a while afterwards. But really, there’s no point in it.
It’s almost impossible to do a good film that way when your lead actress doesn’t want to show up the first day or the guy who said he’d run camera flakes on you. If you’re not paying people, you can’t count on them. It’s not fair to them or to yourself to try to make a film that way. With all the politics you have no time to concentrate on the quality of the product. Those books about making movies in ten days or whatever – they’re a crock.
Which is why I picked “Flatland.” Very similar to writing or painting or sculpting, with minimal logistics vis-à-vis cast and crew. I can 3D animate, I can edit, I can record and mix sound. The technology doesn’t intimidate me. Certainly it costs money, but nowhere near the money involved in properly paying an army to go out on the street to make a movie. And your computer won’t argue with you. Sure, it will crash, but it won’t sit locked in the make-up trailer refusing to come out!
(Ladd Ehlinger Jr.’s “Flatland” is online at www.flatlandthefilm.com)