Animator and former designer Eoin Duffy's short films use simple graphics to address some complicated issues. We spoke to Duffy about his Oscar-nominated The Missing Scarf and the moving On Departure...
Released online in full last week, The Missing Scarf follows a squirrel named Albert who has lost his favourite scarf. As he travels through the woods to find it, he meets various animals – from a top-hat wearing owl to a beaver named Conrad – who are experiencing their own personal crises.
Narrated by Star Trek actor George Takei, it begins like a cheerful children’s fable but quickly turns to something much darker, addressing some mind-bending questions about the universe and the meaning of life.
“I wanted to lull the audience into a false sense of security only to punch them in the face with some existentialism,” says Duffy of the film’s ending. “Flat vector animation is often associated with kids content or light messages. But I wanted to show that the medium has equal ability to carry weight as any other approach to film,” he adds.
Duffy says the film is inspired by the idea that “nothing is permanent, including ourselves and the universe. It presents Albert’s nihilistic viewpoint, and then counters with Albert’s never ending universe. There is a certain level of comfort to be gained from his outlook, but when faced with immediate danger, [his] perspective offers little in the way of comfort," he explains.
With his distinctive baritone voice, Duffy says Takei was a natural choice for narrator. “There are very few actors that can make a seamless transation from child’s storybook reading to the fiery screams of impending doom. George was our man. We pieced together a polished animatics, sent it to his agent, and three weeks later Jame Hogan [the film’s producer] and I flew to LA to record him. It was amazing to see him in action – it was the first script I had written, and the first voice recording I had ever directed,” he says. Since it premiered last year, the film has won over 50 awards at international film and animation festivals and was shortlisted at the 86th Academy Awards.
Now based in Vancouver, Duffy is originally from Ireland and studied visual communications at Dublin Institute of Technology (the same course as animator Johnny Kelly). After graduating in 2006, he worked as a web designer in Brisbane, Wellington and Vancouver, and says his move into animation was more of "a stumble" than a conscious decision.
“I was passionate about digital design, but dabbled in motion design whenever I could. I played around with programs like Adobe Flash and Blender 3D, [and] after enough playing around I switched out 'designer' for 'animator' on my business card.”
In 2011, he received a grant from the Irish Film Board, quit his job as a designer and moved back home to Ireland to make his first short, On Departure. The film, which features a lone character travelling silently through a busy airport, represents Duffy's grief following the death of his brother in 2008.
“When I was living in Australia, my younger brother committed suicide back home in Ireland. The film depicts my 52 hour journey home, along with parallels to my brother's journey. It's also the visualisation of the five stages of grief – denial throughout followed by four ending visuals – anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance."
With no dialogue, the character's sadness is conveyed through a sombre colour palette and emotive score, while constantly shifting shapes capture a sense of confusion and isolation.
“At times I find the most isolating places to be the most crowded of places. A packed airport is a very unnatural and clinical environment to begin with. So to further amplify this, I stripped each scene down to the bare essentials, leaving a very stark and uncomfortable visual. The viewer is continually constructing each scene and can never fully relax,” he adds.
While a very different film to The Missing Scarf, On Departure shares a clever use of reductive visuals - an approach Duffy says is inspired by his "obsession with the early pioneers of moveable type."
"The complex works they could create using only a few over-printed blocks was mesmerising. I guess in an effort to return to simpler times, I place similar restrictions on my own work," he adds.
For his next project, Duffy says he is "teaming up with a major player on the animation stage" - a project he hopes to announce "in the coming weeks."
"I also have tonnes of side projects, which I'll be letting loose on the web very soon."