EK Interview: Carl Burton

Back near the end of September 2012 I stumbled upon a short film entitled SHELTER (posted here). At first, it was a nostalgic blow to the head for me, but as soon as the film progressed further and further into its purely visual / non-dialogue-driven form of storytelling, I was hooked. My expectations were continually trounced as I fell further down this mysteriously familiar rabbit hole. Just recently making its rounds at the 2013 Slamdance festival in Utah, EK is proud to present our interview with the short film’s creator in question, Mr. Carl Burton.

Welcome Carl! First of all, thanks for contributing your time and effort to do this interview, very much appreciated. To start things off, why don’t you give a bit of background information about yourself (where are you based out of, what you do professionally, and so forth).

I have lived in NYC for the last four years. I work in Manhattan as a 2D / 3D animator / designer. I take off a month every year to do personal work, and that’s when I made most of SHELTER.

Where and how did you learn to animate and direct your own creations? Was there any particular schooling involved? How do you feel about current industrialized animation practices compared to the various DIY opportunities and digital stages / outlets of today?

From the technical end I am mostly self-taught. I went to school for gallery-oriented fine art, and I was often the only one doing any kind of 3D animation. Most of the discussions about work with faculty and other students were very conceptual. This was nice just because there was no pressure to do anything traditional.

As for animation practices, I love work that comes out of Pixar, Studio Ghibli, etc. but they often have relatively large budgets, so I enjoy seeing how independent animators can generate just as much interest using more economical techniques.

Why 3D animation? What made you decide to become a 3D animator?

The Myst video game series was a very early inspiration. I also had a VHS tape of early CG animation called Beyond The Mind’s Eye. My first job was working in a scientific visualization lab, helping scientists come up with 3D animations to explain their research. I liked working with 3D animation software, and it eventually became the primary medium I used in art school.

I feel like I always need to backtrack a little while viewing your shorts, as if I missed something important. In general, what are you trying to convey to your audience with these creative and otherworldly creations?

I am usually trying to make a more involved version of an emotional state I like experiencing. In SHELTER I’m trying to take what I find satisfying about being indoors during a storm and go into that feeling as if it was an entire environment. I think daydreaming is like that in general, where you just go off on a tangent based on whatever is around you.

My first viewing of SHELTER (2012) blew me away. What was the inspiration behind that particular piece (perhaps a nostalgic idea about attics from your childhood)? What’s your motivation and mindset when trying to construct a story without any dialogue or verbal engine? Could you give us a breakdown of how you go about starting a project like this from inception to completion?

The main inspiration was a book by Gaston Bachelard called The Poetics of Space. He has a very nuanced way of describing daydreaming and how that relates to homes:

“It is a strange situation. The space we love is unwilling to remain permanently enclosed. It deploys and appears to move elsewhere without difficulty; into other times, and on different planes of dream and memory.”

“An immense cosmic house is a potential of every dream of houses. Winds radiate from its center and gulls fly from its windows. A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.”

My primary interest is in environments and to create a sense of place, which is why I tend to make things non-verbal. The biggest challenge without characters is finding other ways to maintain the interest of the audience. In SHELTER I tried to use simple cause and effect, or following an object from shot to shot, to keep the viewer’s attention. It was also important for the weirdness of the environment to have an arc, so it starts somewhere an audience can relate to, a relatively normal attic, which then gets more and more surreal. It’s easy for “abstract” animations to lose an audience, and I try to make it feel like you’re being comfortably guided through somewhere strange.

In terms of planning, SHELTER started out as a series of techniques for breaking apart polygons. Then I experimented with just making single frames of different environments. Once I had a library of different sets, I still had no idea what the animation was going to be. I just try to make sure everything has the mood I want to get across. The actual animation itself was half planned, half made up as I went along. The idea for the opening shot is what generated the whole thing. The part with the folding structures was based on a video game I had been playing about folding proteins, and it wasn’t a part of the idea until I was about halfway done.

As for story, I had a professor who said something I liked about narrative. He would say that narrative had nothing to do with story, and that narrative is just a structure that allows you to go off on tangents in a way that makes the tangents feel necessary. And I try to approach it the same way, where I want to explore a fantastic environment, but in a way that makes the exploration feel organic and not just random.

Have you ever thought about moving out of animation? Maybe trying out live action or any other medium?

Ha, no plans to do that in the near future.

Let’s talk tech. What kind of software / hardware do you usually utilize? Are there specific programs you use separately for the wire-framing, the textures, the backgrounds, and the actual subjects? Is there a difference in how you approach background design and foreground elements? Are there still some age-long traditional technologies you apply to your creative process, or has your whole toolbox gone digital?

I did all of SHELTER with Cinema 4D, Adobe products, and The Internet. I like being able to make something from start to finish on a laptop.

Who are your role models (either professional or personal)? Major artistic influences that have nudged you onto the path you walk now? Who are you currently into right now? What sites / artists / places do you go to for inspiration?

Hmm, I’m a big fan of David O’ Reilly, Brandon Blommaert, Nicolas Sassoon, Bruno Dicolla, Chris Cunningham, Don Hertzfeldt, Hermann Hesse, Boards of Canada, Stanley Kubrick, Gaston Bachelard, Tarkovsky, Killian Eng, Moebius.


I find that a big chunk of what I know about filmmaking comes from watching other great works. What are some of your favorite movies? TV shows? Novels? Or any other medium you find enlightens you, or just brings you pure fanatical joy?

Movies: Quest (by Saul and Elane Bass), Eraserhead, Stalker, Mirror, 2001, Star Wars, Tron, Crumb.
TV Shows: Lost, The Prisoner.
Books: Damien by Hermann Hesse, The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon, The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus.
Videogames: Myst, Riven, Journey, Foldit, Fallout 3, Rez.
Comics: Yuichi Yokoyama, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, Akira, Big Questions by Anders Nilsen.

Now to go slightly off-tangent. Care to share any memorable dreams / nightmares that you found particularly intriguing?

My most recurring dream is that I am late for a bus or a plane. It’s very stressful. I usually have that once a week. I think my most memorable dreams don’t involve anything interesting happening. They just have some sort of intense mood that isn’t connected to the setting. It could just be a dream of me sitting on a couch, but it’s oddly memorable.

We’ve come to the end of our interview Carl. Again, we here at EK cannot thank you enough for your time and patience. As a final note, are there any future plans / projects / works / ideas in mind that you’d like to divulge to our readers?

I’m working on my next animation right now actually. I’ll definitely let you know when it’s done!

Full short for SHELTER.

Full short for RIFT.

Carl Burton