David O’Reilly talks creative career, atypical animation at Penny Stamps

Sunday, March 20, 2016 - 5:07pm

On St. Patrick’s Day, The Michigan Theater and Penny Stamps Lecture Series appropriately welcomed Irish-born animator David O’Reilly. Known for his stripped-down 3D graphics, O’Reilly has earned acclaim for his short films, video games and animation work on the hilarious video games in Spike Jonze’s “Her.”

“It started when I was about fifteen, and I discovered the work of Egon Schiele,” O’Reilly said of his career Thursday night.

He walked the audience through the past fifteen years of his creative career, explaining how he went from a technique-obsessed draftsman to an unconventional 3D animator.

“For years when I first started, I just wanted to be good at drawing,” he said.

This obsession with being “good” structured much of O’Reilly’s early career as a concept painter, until he discovered 3D animation.

“I sort of threw that all away when I made my first film which is ‘RGB XYZ.’ ”

When he first dove into the world of 3D animation, the medium was reserved almost exclusively for commercial work.

“This wasn’t something that people were doing alone … It wasn’t something for a creator to do,” he said. “You couldn’t do anything poetic in it.” 

O’Reilly has extensively studied the history and theory of animation. He points to the work of John Kricfalusi as an inspiration and, in his opinion, as the peak of 2D animation.

“It felt like 3D was something totally different, like it didn’t have to play by those rules,” he said.

As with any new medium, the process of learning and mastering 3D animation was not an easy one. O’Reilly keeps a folder of screenshots of his glitches, which he views as sketches of his finished work.

“When you make something in 3D it’s a constant process of everything falling apart,” he said.

What O’Reilly seems to strive for — and achieve — more than anything in his work is empathy. The films he considers “failures” share a certain lack of empathy, and likewise his successes abound with it. Even “RGB XYZ,” one of his earlier and visually cruder films, finds tremendous emotional depth and complexity.

“Somehow there is empathy going on with this character, and that was mind-blowing to me,” O’Reilly said.

The emotional response the film sparked in his audiences was surprising to O’Reilly, he added.

“So many rules are discarded here, so much of this is about letting go of this nostalgia that was around animation.”

But, O’Reilly doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a storyteller. “I think the word storyteller is mostly bullshit and its just kind of a meme word nowadays,” he said. For him, film is about collecting ideas and information and presenting it to the viewer in a way that is compelling.

Even his more narrative work, like his most popular film “Please Say Something,” is more a collection of related scenes that it is a linear story. And despite its lack of narrative, the film is tremendously compelling and heartbreaking. O’Reilly riffs on the classic animation cat and mouse story as he follows their passionate and tumultuous relationship.

The film’s lack of narrative and basic, stripped down design lends an air of absurdity to O’Reilly’s work. The films are hilarious on their own — a short O’Reilly screened Thursday about a horse trying to make friends was met with an uproar of laughter — but the crude quirkiness of their visuals heightens the humor.

Recently, O’Reilly has focused his attention on video games. In 2014, he released the game “Mountain,” a role-player game without any controls in which the user plays as a mountain floating in space. O’Reilly laughed as he discussed the uproar from the gaming community at the game’s unconventional structure.

“I think for a lot of people this felt very abstract or conceptual, but it’s very, very simple and it just follows the line of thinking that we can emphasize with anything,” he said.

That thinking carries through into his forthcoming game “Everything,” which he demoed on Thursday night. Like the name would suggest, the game allows players to play as anything, moving through the world as a rock or a bear or an atom or even, as O’Reilly showed the audience, a dancing solar system.

O’Reilly is a master of emotional responses. He finished his talk by reading a letter from a mother whose son was deeply affected by “Mountain,” finding himself both mentally stimulated by and empathetic to the mountain. Despite his unconventionality, O’Reilly taps into something deeply emotional and personal in everything he does — whether it’s a short film about a cat and mouse or a video game about a mountain.