Interview with Christoph Büttner, director of In Seiner Gnade [In His Mercy]
Tuesday 1 February 2022, by ,
One evening a prison director announces to a convict being executed next day. As by a miracle later at night the cell door opens. Being exhausted by endless interrogations the convict drags on through dark prison corridors. On his odyssey to gain freedom he is tossed back and forth by various mental states: his fear of being discovered, his hope for salvation and moments of sheer madness.
How did you come across La Torture par l’espérance, the particularly cruel short story by Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and what has drawn you to make an animated film of it?
By March 2018 I already had been stuck since four months in story development of my graduation film. I realized changing the topic was the only chance to move on, when my insatiable love for literature let me stumble over the works of de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. One genre I love in particular is the fantastic one as it is known by Poe, Lovecraft or E. T. A. Hoffmann. Villiers de L’Isle-Adam was new to me anyway, so I gave it a try. Choosing La Torture par l’espérance out of the Contes Cruels to get familiar with his writings had been a mere coincidence determining the following three and a half years of my life. I got aware of the universal topics of fear, hope, mercy and oppression at once and I was not surprised this story has been adapted several times in film history. But in my opinion these live action short films have missed something, a kind of cruel expression the story had, something that perhaps may only be shown by animation. Naturally I connected it to another subject I am fascinated of, which is everything concerning the gulag and katorga system especially as Solschenizyn, Dostojewski or Melschin described it. The picture I had in mind was a perfect fit for that certain art style I wanted to use. Last but not least the restricted number of characters have been very practical, because it saved much animation work.
Can you tell us a bit about your animation style?
Primarily I got into animation as an 3d animator, but somehow I always have been a bit annoyed by casual render styles. Everything is shiny, very pleasing and a lot of know how is necessary to achieve it. In my opinion analogue animation is much more forgiving and its inaccuracy does make you really curious. You believe it or not, until project start I did not have a certain art style. My drawings were horrible and I was not sure how to give my ideas the right visual expression. Nevertheless I have always been impressed by other artists, like Regine Grube-Heinecke, an illustrator from former GDR, that did some great relief printing on an edition of Heinrich von Kleist’s famous novel Michael Kohlhaas. Every image seemed to be dominated by darkness surrounding the single figures and the human characters themselves have been described by a restricted set of lines. Nonetheless they created a sculptural feeling by an uncertain lighting as you can set up in digital 3d. I tried to adapt it in 2d concepts and finally came along with something of its own. Other influences are some woodcut prints of Karel Štěch, a Czechoslovakian woodcutter and illustrator. My first attempt rendering everything in 3d was not very convincing. After some time I tried to rotoscope 3d animations I have playblasted in maya and ended with a 2d animation consisting of clean white lines. To get rid of the digital look I used a vfx process that has been partly prototyped by a smart co student of mine. It allowed me to imitate the ink dispersion into sheets of paper, as it happens during analogue printing.
It’s a black and white film. Why this choice?
Using black ink in relief printing is a very natural thing. Of course there are various techniques you can also print fully colored images with, but the only use of black ink and white spaces has something restrictive suiting the story. For my understanding of its overall tone and feeling black and white has been the only option, because nothing of a colorful life is left in this pitiful human beings world. Moreover it let me create an uncertain space surrounding the convict expanding the general 4:3 aspect dominating almost the whole film. But I also have to admit, I am a bit helpless when it comes to color. Although I am aware of the beautiful emotion color can express, for me form and composition is much more important. Maybe that is why I am so much attracted to black and white films – especially the old ones.
In Seiner Gnade is your graduation film. What sort of support did you receive – production and post-production – for your film from your school?
Of course there are general benefits I relied on like using powerful workstations equipped with various software and financial support e.g. paying an foley artist or buying materials I used. Color grading has been done in house as well as the mandatory dcp mastering. Recording ADR, foleys and the overall mixing has been realized by sound designer Lambert Regel, a student of M.F.A. program sound for picture, inside film universities sound studios. Regarding the project development the work in progress had been presented annually in front of the animation teachers, which I really appreciated. There I always got good clues, what is working and what did not. Beyond that you get as much support as you ask for. For example I could have asked for help realizing the art style only with CGI, but I really wanted to find a solution by my own.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
I really fell in love with Ruth Lingfords Pleasures of War because of its great rhythm and very convincing wood cut style, although mixing it with live action sequences seemed a bit odd to me. From time to time it reminds me on Käthe Kollwitzs work and I really wish I could achieve something similar.
What’s your definition of a good film?
As a filmmaker I like to say, a good film – like any other art work – is as good, as the audience thinks it to be. But as a father of two charming children I have a slightly different opinion: A good film is keeping me awake until the credits are rolling – after me and my wife have successfully defeated our two kids going to bed.