Keeping Things Real
Insights from another InGlorious Sydney-sider, motion graphics guru Michelle French
Tammy: Your first thoughts when hit with a doco about the history of smell-O-Vision?
I think… wacky was my first thought (laughs). Yeah, I was totally intrigued. The only thing I knew about… I had actually experienced Odorama, I think it was in the 80s: Polyester, the John Water’s film. I have very strong memories of looking down at the card and looking at the screen and then deciding at some point not to scratch because what I was seeing on the screen wasn’t very palatable.
Tammy: That’s hilarious. Well of course everyone’s heard of Polyester but had you heard of ‘Scent of Mystery’ before this project?
No I hadn’t, no. But I was totally bewitched by it and when I heard the soundtrack, those car horns! They just did it for me, I just loved that. It just seemed like an incredible story, with all those Hollywood stars and things … and how it just yeah, failed. I was totally intrigued.
Bruce remembers car horns too!
Tammy: Interesting that sound was your first cue, but first up what is ‘Motion Graphics’?
Well, the industry changes the names of things every 10 years. ‘Motion graphics’ is a type of animation using either 2 or 3D graphic elements and/or live action and typography. This can include opening titles, credits – any sort of information design, or even visual effects which helps tell a story, (factual or conceptual) or adds meaning or emotional tone. It’s tricky to spot these in a film as they are woven into the film by working closely with the editor.
Usually in a documentary the titles are very much woven into the opening scene. Not like the early TV series where really the idea of the theme music was a sort of attention grabbing device to call people from out of the room. You know when time-based broadcasting was the thing…
Tammy: The ‘Gilligan’s Island’ theme would make us run from all areas of the house!
Yeah that’s right, it was ‘Bewitched’ for me!
Now, there’s a bit of storytelling going on to set the scene and usually the actual title itself is integrated into that sequence. With In Glorious Smell-O-Vision!, you and John created this great opening, just teasing a bit of the history and themes of the film and It was a lot of fun. I just counted up 8 audience sniffing clips – that was just hilarious, I mean just seeing coloured smoke wafting over an audience, that just says it really. (laughs).
It also sets up the slightly comedic element. Even though the main characters in the film, their lives were completely changed through pursuing this new era of entertainment and it did have a dire effect, Smell-O-Vision! is still a pretty funny idea.
Tammy: Yes, striking the right tone was hard because we didn’t want to take the piss out of people but the idea of ‘the original stinker’ is funny and we didn’t want to lose that.
Yes, and that hero image from the poster: the pistol with the rose, was just a very strong brilliant icon for the film. So the idea was pretty immediate, that the petals should fall off (laughs). So the opening titles were a culmination of that opening scene. We established quite a few of the elements a couple of years ago, working with editor Lile (Judickas). She’s got a fantastic sense of humour and a very sharp eye for storytelling and style. And then it was an irresistible visual joke to have the words ‘In’ and ‘Glorious’ come together and collide- that was John’s idea.
Tammy: … underscored with a sound effect for emphasis.
Yes, It’s all about timing and graphic choreography!
Tammy: How did you come to the overall look and feel for the film?
“Five cents in every dollar…”
Well the period, Hollywood of the 50s, 60s and The Scent of Mystery, all the paraphernalia was all wonderfully of that period and so I thought well I have to weave a flavour of that in. You’ve got to work with a concept. It’s not about getting on the computer and seeing what you can do, you’ve got to start with an idea, with a script. You’ve got to break that down and understand, through talking to the producer and director, what their intentions are and try to embellish and help tell the story. There are so many aspects of stories that you can’t just wallpaper with endless vision. There are abstract ideas or emotions that need to be conveyed.
The other key visual element were Nadia’s wonderful character animations of Hans. He just seemed to step right out of the 1960s program – a fabulous counterpoint to Carmen’s telling of her father’s single minded entrepreneurial drive!
I think what attracts me to doing documentary and keeping things real is connecting to human stories. (I find it hard not getting emotionally attached to the characters!) Of course there’s a time and a place for fantastical motion graphics, but for this film you didn’t want to push the balance too much from reality – as it was a film about failure. But I’d like to think that the lightness in the graphics suggested the excitement in the potential of Smell-O-Vision! at that time.
We had an archive of black and white photographs: the personal collections of Carmen (Laube) and Susan (Todd). And Art Shay, his stunning photographs. They are just wonderful images and from a period where photography was still good, thank God (laughs). So that was another strong visual cue, really graphic black and white photographs from that period.
Tammy: Talk about the ‘photo albums’ you created for the Laube and Todd family stories.
Laube family album
Well, it could potentially be confusing the fact that you’ve got these two different family stories that interweave in the film, and hopefully creating individual album styles gave some clarity.
Todd family album
Tammy: I loved the way you lit the albums so they feel like they are in the real world.
Light really helps focus aspects of an image you want the viewer to pay attention to. Not doing too much with the photograph, just framing to emphasise meaning. Lighting is pretty damn important. Sound too. I mean my crikey, being able to work with Peter Dasent’s amazing score. I’m a huge fan of the Umbrellas and Nina Rota – Fellini, pfew, love it!
Everything I do is driven by sound really, and it’s interesting the whole smell aspect… I’m a bit of the opinion that sound is more powerful than vision. The combination of the two is the ultimate but I think we have such and incredible connection to sound and smells with memory. Especially if you are doing something period based it’s really important. I mean visuals really don’t come to life unless they come together with the sound. That really is how it works. I think the themes that Peter came up with for the families – for Carmen and for the Todds – they underpinned everything. I thought that was brilliant.
Tammy: So the process was that John was the editor but for your sequences you were given a bed of sound and a selection of stills, right?
Yeah, so I would get the cut from John and he would lay in a draft of a sequence and I would kind of reconstruct it using the stylistic treatment and the elements. And of course John also had temp music which was a huge help because you’ve got to get the tone of it. The music sets up the tone and the tempo. I was fascinated to read Peter’s interview about his experience scoring the music. And John brought a lot to the film with his pedigree musically – which was a huge bonus.
With John in Chicago, that just worked SO well. The time difference was perfect, it was like a tag team thing and we got into such a rhythm with it. The thing is you just have to have a go and you get into your stride with the story and the elements. BTW I just counted up there were 59 graphic sequences in the film!
Tammy: How did you approach the fact that this is a scented story?
We did experiment with quite a few different types of misting of molecules – I think that was the first incarnation. I thought a sciencey feel would work well for Hans as an osmologist. Yes…we did a whole lot of spritzing of ‘molecules’ but it was when I found the high speed smoke footage and then tinting is a saturated colour, did it… you could almost smell it! And over black and white photography it seemed to work the best.
Tammy: In the film we weave in modern day scent artists, with a very different feel both musically and visually. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, that was a real challenge because they are contemporary scent-based artists and not part of the smell-o-vision story, so what we wanted to do was like visually crash into the film! So when I heard the music and it was this – how would you describe it? It’s like a break beat… I thought oh God, right, okay – there’s going to be a lot of jump cuts here.
Cat Jones- Anatomy’s Confection
Most of the material we had to work with were stills so we had to make them look dynamic. I needed to come up with a treatment that captured the energy of the music. I think ultimately the idea was to just tease the audience with the potential of this medium of scent which is quite tricky visually. I hope, I think they worked. Those lollies (clitorises), I mean honestly (laughs).
Tammy: Yes, and we give the audience a smell there- Strawberry cream lollies.
Oh no ‘Milk bottles’?
Tammy: Afraid not (laughs). Were there other challenges?
There were some real challenges in there. Like the story of the “Battle of The Smellies”. It was pivotal for the viewer to understand the key part that played in Smell-O-Vision! failing.
When I read the script initially, I found it really confusing that there were these two technologies. The AromaRama technology was almost in a completely different league: it was just sort of smell slapped on a film that was not designed for smell. So there was a bit of skullduggery going on by the sound of it. Luckily both technologies had logos so we used them in a fun way to illustrate the battle. And I puffed out ‘Smell-O-Vision!’ so it was like it literally evaporated.
Tammy: How is your sense of smell?
It’s very very good actually, I think I might be a bit of a super sniffer. I’m a bit of a bicyclist too and when I used to commute to the ABC I loved, in the morning and of an evening, the smellscape. When you’re cycling you’re breathing more and so the wonderful thing is that at speed you get this hyper condensed smellscape. You pass a whole lot of quaffed people going into the office and you get a range of perfumes and breakfast aromas. Then coming home at night you get all the lovely cooking smells (and the odd garden). Especially round where I live ‘cos there’s lots of tiny little streets and the smells of everything are in close proximity.
I do have to say though that when you loaned me the Odorama card, the original scratch’n’sniff card from the Polyester film, I had that on my desk and within an hour of you leaving I had to put it in a plastic bag because it was so awful! So pungent.
Tammy: When you are not sniffing the world and smelling up cinema what do you do?
Well, I’m part of a duo called ‘French Baker’. I’m the ‘French’ and there’s a Baker (Betsy) and she’s actually a really damn good baker. Our background is we were lucky enough to work for the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) on an incredible range of wonderful shows from ALL genres. Comedy, children’s, news and current affairs, docos, sport, arts and entertainment, science- I did a lot of science. Really wonderfully diverse. So we have a multi-disciplinary practice with quite a grab bag of skills. We like making things with our hands and we shoot things and we create props and film all sorts of elements. I do a lot of digital design but we really love working on documentaries because that’s where the heart is. There are so many really amazing stories out there and we happen to know quite a few fascinating, amazing independent filmmakers like yourself, Tammy!
We love doing projection based works. Most recently we were lucky to get a grant to produce an installation in a local arts festival ‘EDGE’. It was a work about a lovely little glasshouse that was built in the 40s to propagate plants to decorate the Town Hall. So we created a light show and a projection on the front windows of that building, giving a little potted history of the glasshouse and reminding people, locals, of the value of these places and times. I’d love to do something like that again. We had a really fabulous time doing that.
Tammy: Finally, do you think scented cinema has a future?
I can see why the whole concept was so exciting initially, for Hans especially. Smell adds a whole other dimension. I think visually we are a bit overloaded in a lot of ways. We have such a strong connection to sound and smell…So I have to agree with the contemporary scent artists that you interviewed, there’s a lot of untapped potential there!
Tammy: Anything else?
I just have to say that this is the most fun I have had working on a film in years!!