What would you do if you were 12 and suddenly found yourself charged with God-like powers? Would you use them for good? For bad? Perhaps a little of both? For one Grade 7 boy whose mind starts to wander while dissecting a frog in Biology class, the possibilities seem endless: having the power to toy with life and death, to create monsters who can punish those who torment him daily (in particular, Augie, who sits in the back row), and, more importantly, to create that one perfect day with Lily, the love of his 12-year-old life.
Directed by two-time Oscar®-nominated animator and long-time NFB collaborator Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back, Strange Invaders), If I Was God explores the difficult gateway between childhood and adolescence, when the approaching power of adulthood is often mistaken for omnipotence. Drawing inspiration from his own memories of a particularly awkward day in Grade 7, and using a variety of animation techniques, from traditional animation to stop-motion puppets and more, Barker creates a darkly whimsical 3D animated short film with an organic, hand-made feel that’s as imperfectly human as the world we all ultimately craft for ourselves.
The Cat Came Back
1990 – National Educational Media Network Competition – Silver Apple Award
1990 – A.T.O.M. Awards for Short Educational Films & Videos – A.T.O.M. Award – Highly Commended for Children’s Award
1990 – BACA Film and Video Festival / The Brooklyn Arts Council – Special BACA Certificate for Outstanding Animation
1989 – Columbus International Film & Video Festival – Chris Award
1989 – Annual Independent Film and Video Makers Competition – Third Prize
1989 – Itinerant – American Film and Video Festival – Blue Ribbon Award
1989 – Genie Awards – Genie Award for Best Animated Short
1989 – International Animation Celebration – Los Angeles Film Critics’ Award (Tied with Vykrutasy directed by Garri Bardin, USSR)
1989 – International Animation Celebration – First Prize Debut Works
1988 – Shanghai International Animation Film Festival – Second Prize – Category: Work for Children
1988 – Festival du cinéma international en Abitibi-Témiscamingue – Prix Animé
1988 – International Film Festival – Silver Hugo
1988 – Chicago International Children’s Film Festival – First Prize Short Animation
1988 – Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films – Public’s Award
1988 – Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films – Special Jury Award for Humour
1988 – Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films – Special Jury Award for Music (John McCulloch)
2003 – The BLIZZARDS/Manitoba Motion Picture Ind. Ass. Film & Video Awards – BLIZZARD Award – for Best Overall Sound
2003 – The BLIZZARDS/Manitoba Motion Picture Ind. Ass. Film & Video Awards – BLIZZARD Award – for Best Animation
2002 – Berlin International Shortfilm Festival – Interfilm – Award for Best Animation – International Competition
2002 – Hiroshima International Animation Festival – Special Prize
2002 – Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films – Special distinction “for its great humour, timing and design”
2002 – Yorkton Film Festival – Jury Award
2002 – Golden Gate Awards Competition & International Film Festival – Golden Gate Award – Division Film and Video – Animation
2002 – Houston WorldFest – International Film Festival – Bronze Award
2002 – Black Maria Film and Video Festival – Director’s Choice
2002 – The New York Festivals / Festival Competition – Gold World Medal – Animated Short
2001 – Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival & Animated Dreams – Special Merit Animation
2001 – Columbus International Film and Video Festival – Silver Chris Award – Category: Entertainment
2001 – Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film – Special Commendation given by the International Jury of Animated Films (ex-aequo with Camouflage by Jonathan Hodgson-UK)
2001 – Sitges International Fantastic Festival of Catalonia – Audience Award for the Best Animated Short Film
2001 – Int’l Festival of Animated Films / I Castelli Animati – Grand Prize “I Castelli Animati”
2001 – Annecy International Animated Film Festival – Special Jury Mention
2010 – China International Animation and Digital Arts Festival – Golden Cartoon Award for Best Short Film
2010 – Plein la bobine – Festival de Cinéma Jeunes Publics, Paris – People’s Choice Award
2010 – Plein la bobine – Festival de Cinéma Jeunes Publics, Paris – Mention for the Young Jury Award
2010 – Plein la bobine – Festival de Cinéma Jeunes Publics, Paris – Mention for the Professional Jury Award
2010 – Huesca International Film Festival – Special Award
2010 – Yorkton Film Festival – Golden Sheaf Award: Animation
2010 – Newport Beach Film Festival – Best Short Animated Film
2010 – Florida Film Festival – Audience Award for Best International Short
2010 – Dallas International Film Festival – Grand Jury Prize
2010 – International Children’s Film Festival, New York – Audience Award (ages 5 to 10)
2009 – Carrousel international du film, Rimouski – Camério L’Avantage Award for Best Animation: Category 12 and under
2009 – New York City Short Film Festival – Best Animation
2009 – Annecy International Animated Film Festival – Special Jury Award
2009 – Cannes International Film Festival – Petit Rail d’Or for Best Short Film
Cordell Barker is a two-time Oscar-nominated animator and long-time NFB collaborator. Cordell talks about his latest NFB project, If I Was God, a darkly whimsical animated short film, and what it was like to adopt a collaborative approach for the first time on a personal project.
Q. If I Was God is about an awkward day in Grade 7. What prompted you to want to relive this difficult time?
I’ve always been fascinated with coming-of-age stories, because puberty is the most powerful moment in your life. For me, junior high is the gateway between childhood and adulthood. It’s a time when you have this sense of the future where all things are possible. When you’re 12, you envision this much more powerful and controlled world than what it ultimately really is.
Q: How much of this story is your own personal memory and how much is pure storytelling?
It’s a totally manufactured memory. I actually don’t remember anything from that time; it’s all a blank. So I thought it would be interesting to manufacture a memory since I don’t have any of my own. That’s why I start the film with “The NFB presents” and add “A true story” in parentheses below. I want people to go in with the sense that it’s a true memory, even though it quickly becomes ridiculous and reveals itself to be otherwise.
Q. This is your fourth NFB film. Your first two, The Cat Came Back and Strange Invaders, both received Oscar nominations. The third, Runaway, was highly acclaimed at Cannes, Sundance and other major festivals. Did you take a different approach to making If I Was God, or did you stick to your proven ways?
With this film, I collaborated with others on a daily basis for the first time. On previous projects, I only had sparse interactions with other people, mainly to issue orders. But most of the time it was just me sitting in a room by myself for years on end. This time around, I had to constantly interact with others. Having to dictate sensibilities and timing to other people was a big leap for me. It’s also why I wanted to use stop-motion, because it forced me to work with others.
Q: Did you enjoy the collaborative process, or was it hard to relinquish the control you’re accustomed to having on films?
I enjoyed the collaborative process a lot, although the idea of working with a group initially intimidated me because I’m a fairly introverted person. It was hard to give up control, but if you want to have a truly collaborative experience, you have to let others put their stamp on things.
Because of the collaborative process, I was also able to maintain some distance. With my other films, I had absolutely no perspective by the end. I thought The Cat Came Back was terrible and a career-killer. The same with Strange Invaders, and especially with Runaway. I guess that’s all three [laughs].
But when I finished If I Was God, I was able, for the first time, to sit back and say, “I think it’s pretty good.” Maybe it’s because I wasn’t staring at my own drawings for the entire duration. This one has other mediums and elements that I could get lost in. It’s a much richer visual so I feel a little more positive about it.
Q. What audience reaction are you hoping for with If I Was God?
I hope people are amused by it. I think comedy is the most powerful thing. It’s too bad comedy is somewhat denigrated at festivals and major award shows. A few comedies get special attention, but they never really enter the scope of best picture of the year. Which is strange, because comedy is such a hard thing to do. One of my absolute all-time favourites is Dr. Strangelove. The humour in it is so dark and goofy and whimsical. It’s the perfect blend. Black comedy is the ultimate if you can achieve that. Runaway would definitely be my black comedy.
Q. The stop-motion in If I Was God has a hand-made feel to it. Why did you choose this approach instead of CGI?
My initial intention was to incorporate every kind of animation, including CGI. But I quickly realized that CGI didn’t really fit as a memory looking back. It needed to be organic. So I ended up using the mediums I remembered from that time, like paper and chalk on chalkboard and such.
Q. It’s a refreshing break from the rich visuals of today’s animation blockbusters.
Most films tend to have either a sit-back or lean-forward feel. Some films, like today’s blockbusters, just slam away at you and all you can do is just sit back and absorb it all. Others have you leaning forward because you feel like you’re participating in the story. I told my producer I wanted this film to slow down and have that lean-forward feel. I wanted audiences to be able to inject their own thoughts and sensibilities within the film.
Q. There must be a lot less control over stop-motion, compared to CGI?
Yes, I was certainly giving away some control because, unlike CGI, stop-motion is all or nothing. If you shoot the scene and it doesn’t work, you have to junk it and start all over. With 2D and CGI, it’s an evolutionary process. There’s no real loss; you keep everything you want to keep, and you just massage it in the right direction. Unfortunately, CGI had no place in this film. The flip side is that CGI may not capture the jury at festivals quite as much as something where they feel the hand of the artist involved.
Q. Like your other films, If I Was God blends humour with a naïve style. Where does your signature style come from?
Not from any master plan. It’s all I can do. My drawing skills are not on par with most animators. I always wanted to be an animator as a kid, but I learned early on that it took me a lot of effort to wrangle a character together and hold it on-model. Fortuitously, that naïve quality works with my humour. If you took my gags and did it in Disney style, I think they would fall flat because the beauty and lushness of the visuals would be too distracting. There’s something about stripping things down to the bone. I always thought Warner Bros. was far funnier than Disney. They do some great animation. They strike a pose and everything is crisp and hard and tight. I strive for that kind of timing.
Q. Does being a two-time Oscar nominee make you more confident as a filmmaker?
Not really. You sort of forget that you have these Oscar nominations. I struggle on each project and just hope the NFB will like the idea. After getting the Oscar nomination for my first film, The Cat Came Back, I did worry about the sophomore curse for my second film. I was hesitant to stray too far from the recipe, but if it was too similar… that really haunted me.
After I finished my second film, Strange Invaders, which has much of the same sensibilities and cartoon style as The Cat Came Back, I wanted to do something totally different. Runaway was considerably different, at least stylistically. It was a little statelier in its presentation, although it also gets ridiculous after a while.
Q. I read that your earlier NFB films averaged 8 ½ years to finish. What about for If I Was God?
It was much faster, although the NFB is an unbelievably generous scheduler. They just wait for the filmmaker to find his muse and get the thing done. Maybe that’s why it took me so long. But in all fairness, the reason The Cat Came Back took so long was due to sheer laziness and insecurity on my part because I had never done a film before. I had done tons of TV commercials but never a film. And then the success of The Cat Came Back left me inundated with commercial work. It was a real career booster. My second film took so long mainly because I was so distracted with earning an income.
Q. When you finish a project is there a sense of relief, or sadness that it’s over?
There’s always a sense a relief, although not nearly as big a relief this time around as with my previous three films, which had hung over my head for so many years. I don’t lament the fact that it’s over. I look to the day that it’s all behind me. I love starting new projects, when it’s all promise and everything is possible… and when you don’t know all the little tortures coming your way.
Q. Would you ever consider doing something other than a short film?
I would love to do a long form. Even if it wasn’t a feature film but a half hour for TV. I’ve made four films now but they’ve all been around that same golden seven-and-a-half-minute time zone. I love that time frame because it forces you to be concise. But a 24-minute form is a whole different beast in terms of ebb and flow, pace and timing. That would be an interesting challenge—to have more time to elaborate on characterizations and set up gags. And time for the payoff to come much later.
Q. Would you say then that the short form is your comfort zone?
That’s the form I’ve had the opportunity to work with to date, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’m in my comfort zone. Runaway was well outside my comfort zone. I even tried to stop the project. When I did the storyboard and looked at it, I phoned the NFB and said, “We have to put the brakes on this because it’s going to be a monster.” There were too many characters, and having to animate a train and all that… I was really uncomfortable about the project.
But the producer at the time said, “Don’t worry about it; it’ll be fine.” And then he retired [laughs]. Because from the producer’s point of view, it’s just animation and entirely manageable. But when I saw the mountain of work involved compared to my previous two films, it was daunting.
Q. Looking back, are you glad you persevered with Runaway?
Yes, because Runaway has something my previous two films don’t. It’s a dark social satire. In the end, I’m glad the producer saved me from myself and dismissed my panicked attempt to stop the film, because I’m very proud of the result. I think The Cat Came Back will always be my seminal piece, though, because it gets such a great reaction from people and because it’s truest to the way I feel. It’s very snappy and crisp. With the others, I was trying new things and slowing things down, but that was simple experimentation. The Cat Came Back was pure me.
Q. Will your next project be a collaborative effort or will you go back to your solo ways?
Part of me longs to go back to my solo ways, especially to see how it would work now that I’ve had this collaborative experience. It would be interesting to see if I could hold on to some perspective this time. But it’s so easy to say that at the beginning. It all caves in when self-doubt hits. I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable and not have self-doubt about my work.
Q. So what’s next?
I’m working on putting together my next pitch for the NFB, so that would be my fifth NFB film. In my mind, when you’re working on a body of work, an odd number seems best. Three films is definitely a body of work, but five is a nice, self-validating number.
a film by
Written and Directed by
Designed and Edited by
Stop-motion Animation – Classroom
(See Creature Animation)
Stop-motion Animation – Fantasy
(See Creature Animation)
2D Animation Assistant
Compositing and Stereography
Stéphanie Weber Biron
Rig Removal Compositing
(Studio Jako Lanterne)
Classroom Sets & Props
Fantasy Props & Puppets
(Channels Audio & Post Production)
Foley Recording Mixer
Jenna Dalla Riva
Foley Recorded at
Footsteps Post-Production Sound Inc.
Centre Operations Manager
A National Film Board of Canada Production
© 2015 National Film Board of Canada