This week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Pile” by Toberg (a.k.a. Toby Auberg), is a digitally animated film employing an infinite upward scroll technique to reveal a sitemap of the human condition. In Toberg’s words, the roving single shot contrasts “the directions of history, economic stratification, the hierarchy of needs, infrastructure, etc.” That continuous upward pan is no accident, but uniquely reinforces the themes and concept of the film.
In just three minutes, Toberg simultaneously pulls the viewer up through time and technology. We climb from sea level to rural farm life into the industrial revolution. We move from manual labor to robotic. From an era of hard work to pure consumerism. Truth becomes post-truth. Finally, reality turns fully abstracted, existing in a digital ecosphere of our own damned design. In a sense, this film feels unfinished. It just happens to end in the present, but one can imagine the sequence going on forever and ever, we’re just unsure if we’ll be around to see it.
Online for the first time, “Pile” has enjoyed an exemplary festival run premiering at Cannes Film Festival in the Cinéfondation section, winning a jury award at Annecy, and screening at many of the other premiere film festivals including BFI London, Anima Brussels, Hiroshima and more.
Ahead of this week’s release, we reached out to Toby to learn more about his surreal short and the process behind its creation.
On the inspiration:
“I originally began developing the film in late 2018. I think back then, especially in the west, the Zeitgeist was all about post-truth and a notion that politics, culture, and economics had become unhinged. There was a common feeling that things were getting a bit brave-new-world out there. Back then, I felt like it was really frustrating to talk about anything without talking about everything, and especially difficult to appropriately allocate concern or to pick apart the various upsetting phenomena of that time.
Originally the idea was to communicate a certain worldview through a condensed human habitat where humans become increasingly detached from reality as they progress from the most concrete concerns of survival. The film changed substantially over the course of production and shifted into a piece more about abstraction and a map of overlapping contrasts in the human condition, such as the directions of history, economic stratification, the hierarchy of needs, infrastructure, etc.”
On using one continuous shot:
“I don’t know if the film could have worked the same way with cuts. The relentless continuous motion of a panning one-shot sort of works in hand with the concept of the film, a vertical alignment of all things, and reinforces the feeling that all of this is happening to us.
Also, there’s just something extra engrossing about shorts that leave you to direct your attention and find things on your own, as if it’s a Hieronymus Bosch painting or ‘Where’s Waldo(/Wally)?’ in motion.”
On challenges faced due to a single shot:
“Oh my god, so many challenges. But I have to confess, there is a cut in there, so I cheated a little. Aside from many technical strains, the real difficulty is that the camera’s distance, pan speed, and the timing of each animating element all had to be in check with each other.
If the camera goes wider in some place, then some little character in the corner has to be animating for 5 more seconds. On a related note, it was a ton of work just to keep elements animating for as long as they’re on screen (even if the viewer isn’t directly looking at them), which could be 20 seconds sometimes. Whereas in a conventional project, you can cut around a character’s animation every couple of seconds. At the moment I struggle to think of any clear production benefit but I love seeing animated one-shots.”
On determining story beats and pacing:
“I knew that I wanted the level of noise and abstraction to increase incrementally, driving events and beats on a micro level, and I started off with so much overkill structure for what should go where and when. Then reality happened and I had to sort of just feel it out, massaged everything into place based on associations and reacting to some killer early sound design work from Ben Goodall.”
On the ads/commercials in the background:
“For the most part they’re just made up grotesque versions of brands and products that we all get shoved in our face daily. I hate to admit it, but some of those are actual ads that I made for clients, nothing goes to waste!”
On Easter Eggs hiding in the film:
“Waldo (Wally) is hiding in there someone, few people have been able to find him, good luck!”
What is your best piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers?
“Starting out I kept initiating these huge projects, on my own, and 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 commit to finishing them in some form or another.”