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Toby Auberg: “There’s a Nervous Energy Around Tech. Call it the Fear of Being Left Behind”

The innovative director tells LBB how he marries escapism with dystopia, and why sound design is so important for great animation

Toby Auberg: “There’s a Nervous Energy Around Tech. Call it the Fear of Being Left Behind”

Part of animation’s magic is that - sometimes - it can feel more real than reality itself. 

That’s a feeling with which anyone who’s seen Toby Auberg’s work is likely to be familiar. The director - now part of the team at Presence - is a dab hand at taking aspects of our world (be they physical or psychological) and skillfully replicating them through animation. The result, as well as an award-winning and critically acclaimed portfolio of projects, is often the feeling that a new kind of light has been shone on the world. 

When Pile, one of Toby’s short films, picked up the sought-after graduation film jury award at Annecy in 2020 and followed that up with a Vimeo Staff Pick soon after, the filmmaking world tuned into Toby’s work. 

To find out what makes Toby tick - as well as go behind the scenes on a number of his films including Pile - LBB spoke to the idiosyncratic director. 

LBB> Starting right at the beginning, how did you get into filmmaking? And were you always interested in animation as a child?

Toby> Definitely. I always wanted to make movies, and I started working fairly early on. When I was about 17, I sort of slipped out of high school and worked as a post production assistant on an indie feature called ‘My Suicide’, where, alongside the PA grunt work of logging tapes and driving hard drives around, I got to help the animation team with some coloring in Flash and started learning After Effects. By the time the film was completed, I was completely committed. 

LBB> Your grad film Pile received huge acclaim. How did it feel to receive such praise on one of your early projects?

Toby> I think I’ve got some complicated feelings about it all. I'm really blown away by the response it got and I'd totally love it if it were an early project in my career. But the truth is that I've been at this 3D animation thing for a long-ish time - about eight years even before my MA and making Pile - and I think all the time spent working without getting big doses of external validation makes you get kind of caught off guard when it finally comes.

LBB> And how did you arrive at the concept of an infinite upward scroll?

Toby> It’s difficult to pin down, I think the relentless continuous motion of a panning one-shot sort of works hand-in-hand with the concept of the film. It feels like a vertical alignment of all things, and it reinforces the feeling that all of this is all just happening to us.

Above: Pile, Toby’s mesmerising short film from 2021, played across festivals including BFI London, Anima Brussels, and Hiroshima - as well as picking up a Vimeo Staff Pick. 


LBB> Did the film change shape as you began creating, or did you have a clear idea in mind of elements you wanted to include?

Toby> It morphed significantly during production. Originally it was going to have a voiceover narration jumping between the various overlapping models that underpinned the placement of everything. But due to some technical constraints and some reconsideration for how much you can reasonably cram into a 3 minute film, I was forced - thankfully - to let go of the narration element. As a result, it turned it into a more intuitive map of overlapping contrasts and sequences. 

LBB> Can you tell us about the characters in Pile? Many are presented as monstrous and grotesque - particularly as technology moves forward. What ideas played into their final representation?

Toby> Along with spaces becoming increasingly abstract, the character design shifting throughout the piece is a way of trying to highlight that we are being warped by our constructs and we’re biologically and psychologically adapted for a different world than the one we currently live in. So as the film progresses, people get increasingly detached from our nature, becoming surreal caricatures, and characters at the very top are some kind of adapted neo-humans. 

LBB> The film delves into social and political history and zeitgeist. Is that a theme you like to explore in your work?

Toby> Absolutely, but it's really hard to land the right tone with work that’s politically oriented. It's easy to end up making a piece that's too imposing, or overly prescriptive in its message. I feel like there's an abundance of films that tell you what to think and these days it’s become too easy to tune out.

LBB> In general, what type of work are you most passionate about - is there any particular genre or subject matter or style you are most drawn to?

Toby> I'm constantly oscillating between work that's aiming for escapist-abstraction and dystopian-surrealism, and I find that the two are mostly at odds with one another. But I'm hoping to find ways they can be fused together in a coherent way, someday!


LBB> What’s your relationship with new technology and, if at all, how do you incorporate future-facing tech into your work? 

Toby> New tech is for me equal parts exciting, and a source of pressure. I think there's a nervous energy around novel tech - call it the fear of being left behind - especially in the CG world. There seems to be this common belief that one needs to be an early adopter of all the newest tech to further assert your value, and I try to keep a lid on that impulse as it's not a healthy reason to use a new piece of tech or software on a project. That being said, it’s hard not to get excited about some technology. I’m especially keen to see how V/A/XR matures and to be a part of that. 

LBB> What elements of a film script do you feel sets one apart from the other, and what sort of scripts get you excited about?

Toby> Honestly, I don’t tend to work with scripts anymore as most of my work is more non-narrative or concept driven. So I'm usually working with styleframes, moodboards, and animatics instead. I feel like for motion and experimental stuff it's good to get a grasp on the vibe and substance, but then intentionally leaving space for a bit of intuition and improvisation in production. I find the less I'm chasing down some original vision for the project, the better it ends up being. Plus, it’s simply more fun to work that way.

LBB> What do you think is the most important working relationship for a director to have with another person when it comes to making an ad, And why?

Toby> I'd say having a great sound designer involved is especially vital for animation. If need be I could do a whole project solo, but not the sound. I'm super grateful to have found a couple of really creative and solid sound designers that are willing to work with me - often in unconventional ways - on my projects. 

LBB> What’s the craziest problem you’ve come across in the course of a production – and how did you solve it?

Toby> Unfortunately this is a bit of a technical and boring answer, but early on in one production there was a bit of a technical breakdown that I had to reconcile with. 

For a number of boring reasons, I discovered that I couldn’t feasibly build everything in one 3D scene the way that I had originally hoped. So instead, the whole film was assembled as a kind of 2.5d collage, wherein I would render chunks out of Cinema 4D and then stitch them together in giant After Effects comps and move through it like a big planar diorama. This shift in techniques was a massive exercise in ‘rolling with the punches’ and adapting the style to work around technical constraints. 

LBB> Filmmakers’ work is now presented in so many different formats. To what extent do you keep each in mind while you're working?

Toby> It's definitely tricky, with all the various configurations of screen sizes, colour spaces, and audio setups out there in the wild. The reality is that it's nearly impossible to consider all the ways people will watch a film online. I generally like to keep things pretty standard to cast a wide net, for example working in 16:9. 

Of course, there's also a completely different set of things to think about for making it suitable to watch in theatres. I tend to spend a long time worrying about how much to alter the film to make it compliant for projectors, cropping for a 2K export, and fussing with gamma… that kind of stuff. 

And then you have a whole world outside of film and online videos. Making 3D stuff for interactive/VR purposes is a completely different animal, with almost every step involved in production being less forgiving. All the while you’re constantly thinking about the various ways a user can mess up the experience, or how it will play on specific devices and platforms. 


LBB> Which pieces of work do you feel really show off what you do best – and why?

Toby> That's a tough one, I've explored a similar style of dystopian surrealism in smaller pieces like 'LUHNDONON LOOPED' and 'COMPULSIVE COMFORT' with possibly a bit more emphasis on production value given the smaller scales of those projects.

Above: Toby takes us inside a twisted alternative London in his LUHNDON LOOPED film. 

Above: COMPULSIVE COMFORT appears to take aim at digital addiction with a mesmerising - yet somehow uncomfortable - loop. 


LBB> And finally, do you have any tips for new animators who are creating their first projects and building their portfolio?

Toby> When I was wtarting out I kept initiating these huge projects and - for whatever reason - abandoning them. That pattern really limited my skillset and the amount of work I’d have to show for my efforts. I’d encourage people starting out to make a whole bunch of small-scale projects and simply commit to finishing them in some form or another.

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Presence, Tue, 15 Mar 2022 17:48:48 GMT