“The more you’re able to project your own world upon the work, the more power it has.”
Peter Chung is not your average sci-fi figure. First, he cuts a studied philosophical chunk out of whatever he happens to be interrogating at the time, be it the AI-human interculture in The Animatrix (via his seriously underrated short “Matriculated”), Alexander the Great’s Reign, or his touchstone work, Aeon Flux, now a full-blown Hollywood effort. Second, as he shows in this interview, he’s honest about making the compromises an artist has to make to get his work out to the people. But finally, he’s an animation loyalist, and interested in experiencing — and making — slipstream art that defies convention.
Scott Thill: Your baby has finally made it to the big screen. What did that entail, and what does that mean to you?
Peter Chung: Well, what it entailed in terms of my involvement was reading the script written by a couple of writers and offering notes. Talking to the director and so forth. Offering my input on how . . . well, I don’t know. Honestly, the way Hollywood works, I think this is done as a courtesy more than anything else. For the most part, the suggestions and notes that I’ve made were pretty much not used. In some cases, they were paid attention to and used as a guide for a direction not to take. They ended up doing the opposite of what I suggested in my notes.
So how behind this film are you?
Well, I’m just going to be very, very honest. Obviously, I’m thrilled that a major motion picture is being made out of Aeon Flux. So it’s great that it is being revived, and that we’re releasing the remastered original episodes on DVD. Better picture, better sound. There’s a possibility that if the film is successful, we may do more projects using these characters. And all of that is very, very exciting. But the people inolved in doing it are different from those who were involved with the original series. Yet I think that the world is broad enough and audiences are numerous enough that both versions of the character can live in the same world and be recognized as being two different versions. From the very beginning, the live-action people were very clear and up-front about this not being the animated Flux. This is their reinterpretation for perhaps a broader audience. Ten years have passed. I don’t know that trends in Hollywood have improved; if anything, I think in fact that they have gone the other way: There seems to be even less freedom to do unusual stuff now than there was back then. But this film is definitely for its era.
I read your article “The State of Visual Narrative in Film and Comics” and was struck by your opinion that moving comics to the big screen tends to generate an unhealthy reliance on high-concept storytelling. Is this something you were worried about with Aeon Flux?
Well, it’s a bit ironic, because Aeon Flux was originally intended to be a parody or mockery of the typical Hollywood heroic action movie. And, in a way, it has come full circle: Now there’s a Hollywood heroic action movie based on something that was intended to mock it. I think that people who are familiar with the original material may get a kick out of that irony, but those who never watched it aren’t going to care about it. They’ll see it as a cool movie starring Charlize Theron doing strange stuff.
Let’s talk about your style, as it is. It seems more open to ambiguity, sensuality, philosophy, and the like than the work of other animators and artists. I’m interested in what galvanizes you to go off into these territories where others sometimes fear to tread.
I wouldn’t quite be that broad about that description of other work, because a big source of inspiration for me have been European comics. Not American comics, but artists like Mobius, Jodorowsky, Cadelo, and some Japanese comic artists have inspired me. They may not have directly influenced me so much in their sense of style, but their sensibility. But this stuff tends to be considered fairly non-mainstream, obscure, and underground. I just enjoy graphic storytelling. I enjoy animation, and watching animation. I never understood, if I want to be an animator and make
animated films, why I have to tell children’s stories. If I were an author, I would want to write the kind of books that I would want to read. I wouldn’t be writing children’s books. Not that there is anything wrong with them. I just want to expand the possibilities of the medium. In a way, I guess that is what attracted me to animation. I found the field to be so barren, in terms of examples of work that takes full advantage of the medium to tell sophisticated stories visually.
Who are some of the animators or artists that inspired you to work in the field?
There are a lot of independent animators who your readers might not know . . .
Well, it’s time for them to learn.
(Laughs) Well, a good friend of mine . . . Igor Kovalyov, an independent Russian animator. His films (right: image from Kovalyov’s Milch) were very inspirational to me, especially in terms of his filmmaking, because he tells stories without dialogue, without words, and they are always psychologically complex and ambiguous. To me, the fact that you can’t understand a film the first time you watch it is not a liability. To me, that’s an advantage. That’s what I look for when I see a film. I want to see a film that, after you’ve watched it, makes you want to see it again right away in order to understand it better. Whereas what I’ve found is that if you make a film which people don’t understand the first time, they think it’s boring. I never understood that, which goes back to what I wrote in that article: There is no reason to think of film as a passive medium. They can require you to use your imagination if you view them that way. There’s nothing inherent about film that makes it a passive experience.
Which is weird, because most people I know return to films like Clockwork Orange or Blue Velvet or whatever precisely because they are impossible to explain after one sitting. That seems to be what engenders such a loyalty to the material.
Exactly. When I see a film I don’t understand, I don’t say, “Oh, I hated that. That was so boring.” To me, that’s a challenge, to unlock the film’s meaning. If, that is, the storytelling, the technique and direction is of a quality that tells you the filmmaker is skillful, that there is something there. It has a lot to do with people’s level of sophistication, knowing how to read. And you’re not taught that today. A problem with a lot of critics and stuff that’s written about film is that it tends to be biased towards the written word, because those who are writing about it are writers. They want films to have a meaning transmitted through dialogue. And of course, this isn’t always the case.
Especially with the original Aeon Flux, which is why I think it has stood the test of time. It conveyed meaning visually to tell its story, rather than have a character or voiceover come right out and tell you what is going on.
Well, you may have been one of the people who understood that, but I still get people coming up to me saying, “I really like your drawings, but why didn’t you write a story?” And they assumed this because there were no words.
Well, “Matriculated” (right) from The Animatrix was one of the most philosophical films I’ve ever seen, but no one really said a word.
A lot of people didn’t understand that the robot was the main character, and that I didn’t think the robot would speak English. (Laughs) As a way of trying to get you to identify with the robot, I really wanted the viewer to receive information through it. The virtual reality sequence in that film is the film. And there were a lot of people who really hated that film, especially Matrix fans.
I just don’t get that.
But the idea of making a film about virtual reality is that you don’t make a film about virtual reality. Film itself is virtual reality. It didn’t make sense for me to describe a virtual reality experience; the idea was to experience virtual reality by watching the film itself. I think that’s where viewers got lost.
What, technically speaking, is your role in the Aeon Flux film?
I’m not really involved in it. The way it works is, if you create a show for a network like MTV or Disney or whatever, you basically sign away the rights from the get-go. You do not control the property, and that goes across the board. I was talking to James Cameron when Terminator 3 was coming out, and I asked him if they came to him and asked him about it. And he said, “Oh hell no.” James fucking Cameron! They didn’t ask him what he thought of it, so no one is going to come to me and ask me about Aeon Flux. They were going to make the movie with or without me — preferably without me. (Laughs). Which they did! But I’ve been lobbying the whole time to make it as an animated feature, because I thought that is what the fans would have wanted. But it’s fine. The fact that the character is being revived opens up that possibility. The attention, promotion and so forth — because it’s a big Hollywood movie from a major studio starring a major actress — means it will get a lot of press and visibility. And to me, I can’t really put a value on that. That’s pretty amazing. So I’m in it for the long term: I don’t see this as the movie being the definitive, final word. I’m pushing to do more with the character, and the chances of reviving Aeon Flux in some form are looking better and better.
Right. The opportunity seems to have created other opportunities; now there is a video game (right) and graphic novel coming out around the same time the film does.
Yeah, there’s a totally new graphic novel coming out from Dark Horse. And we remastered the original episodes and added a bunch of extras for the upcoming release on DVD. In some of the episodes, we re-edited and re-recorded them in such a way that better reflects the way they were supposed to be made.
So, in that sense, the live-action film has allowed you to revisit the material and get it back out to the public in the way you originally intended it. Correct?
Yeah, and I am talking to them. They have been very interested in pursuing another animated version. I’ve been working on the story for it, so it looks like at some point that will happen. I’m just not sure the form it’s going to take.
Do you feel that Charlize’s work with Monster and Karyn’s work with Girlfight will flesh out, pun intended, what you were trying to get at in terms of Aeon Flux‘s feminist ass-kicking? It seems, at least on paper, to have that possibility.
When someone is assigned the job of directing the film, they are the director of that film. I understand the need to be able to put your own stamp on it. I don’t begrudge Karyn for taking the character in a direction that interests her as an artist. There were some episodes from the original series that I didn’t write or direct, and I look at them and know that I would have done them differently. But you have to give that latitude to the artists who are interpreting your work, because directing is a hard job. No one is going to be able to say whether or not Karyn was the correct choice or not until they’ve seen the film. If the studio said from the outset that their intention was to reproduce the work as faithfully as possible — say, the way Robert Rodriguez reproduced Sin City, which was his agenda from the beginning — then I think as long as it’s done well, whether it’s exactly the same or not, there’s no issue. You have to see if the work holds up well on its own terms.
Do you have confidence that Charlize and Karyn (right) will keep, for lack of a better term, the sensual spirit of Aeon Flux‘s self-awareness and sexuality alive in a non-exploitative way? I read a post on a fan site that said part of the audience at a recent comic-con lost their virginity just watching the trailer.
(Laughs) Well, not to be flippant, but yeah, that’s kinda what I was going for. In the sense that different people are going to watch it for different reasons. I just wanted to create a character that covered a lot of bases. The fact that she’s sexy and fun to look at was geared toward that segment of the audience I wanted to capture. In a way, that is an integral part of the animated character, but at the same time I was deliberately thinking of designing the character and animation in such a way that you couldn’t get away with in a live-action film. That’s a given with my animated projects. How am I going to take advantage of the medium?
Are you confident in how the film adaptation will channel the animated series?
I can’t really answer the question about confidence, but I support the film and I support their efforts. The people really responsible for interpretation of the character, more than Karyn and Charlize, are the writers. Whether or not those changes appeal to more people than the animated version does is something I think they wanted to gamble on. I think the studio felt that, as strong as the characters were in the animated series, they may have a limited appeal to the majority of the audience. So they thought they could get a bigger audience by taking the characters in different directions.
Were there other issues that concerned you?
They made a lot of changes that I wasn’t sure about. For example, the look of the soldiers is completely different. It’s funny, because they decided to keep some things exactly while others were changed entirely, and I’m not exactly sure what was the reasoning behind it all. I don’t understand how they decided what should remain faithful and what shouldn’t. The Breen soldiers look completely different. Trevor looks completely different. He has dark hair and dresses in black.
Do you think it was a mistake to set the film on a specific date in the future?
When you nail those things down, the film becomes locked in them and starts to lose its symbolic value. A lot of science-fiction films make the mistake of taking their premise literally rather than metaphorically. The thinking is that it will have more relevance if you nail it down, that it will become unambiguous. But I think the opposite effect is achieved. The more you’re able to project your own world upon the work, the more power it has. Whereas if you nail down the time and place, the more you can say, “Oh, this is a story about their world that takes place in that time and that place. It has nothing to do with us.”
How would you describe the world that this movie takes place in? As well as the animated version, if you find serious discrepancies.
The world that the movie takes place in is narrowly defined. The majority of the population has been wiped out and the only survivors of Earth are restricted behind this walled city ruled by Trevor, which was never the back story of the animated series, where it was implied that there was a wider world existing beyond those boundaries. I’m not going to talk too much about the world of the movie, but I’d just expand on that idea that these stories are more meaningful the more you meet them with the language of metaphor.
What animated work did you have a hand in prior to Aeon Flux?
I worked on Transformers in the ’80s. I also worked on the Ralph Bakshi film Fire and Ice, as well as Rugrats. I also did an animated film for The Chronicles of Riddick; it was a one-off, half-hour project. So it’s kind of funny: I’ve done two of these short films based on live-action films, Chronicles of Riddick and The Animatrix. I was actually proposing another one for Aeon Flux on DVD to accompany the release of the live-action version, and that’s something I’m talking with the studio about right now. The Riddick short, called “Dark Fury” (above) is very different from “Matriculated.” For one, I didn’t write it. It was handed to me, so I was just strictly the designer and director. But fans of Riddick really liked it. It’s pretty much a straight action piece, but you can see some flashes of me in there.
So explain your work with Rugrats and other shows.
My first directing gig was with Rugrats. I directed the pilot episode, which actually got the series sold. I did a lot of design work for that show. I designed Angelica and some of the recurring characters. I created storyboards for Transformers, and was a character designer on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After Aeon Flux, I ended up doing a lot of commercials. (Laughs).
There’s good money in it! That’s what Bill Plympton told me.
Yeah, it’s funny. A lot of commercial agencies want to go after a Japanese animation look, but don’t want to actually hire a Japanese animator! (Laughs) So a lot of those jobs come to me, because I can work in that style.
What would you say that style is? How did you arrive at it?
Well, I don’t know if it’s right for an artist or designer to comment on how his own style came about. I know that sounds like a copout, but in a way the ideal is to try not to achieve a style but rather approach everything in a way that feels most natural to yourself, and that ends up being your style. You end up with these labels after the fact. It’s a very complex process. Yes, you obviously pick up points from artists whose work you like, but that’s just half of it. The other half of it is avoiding formulas used by designs you don’t like. And, in a way, that’s a lot harder to do that it sounds. It’s very hard not to show signs of influence. It’s why so many animators draw in such similar styles. It’s even harder to shed yourself of those influences.
It also helps to know what an artist has done throughout his career, not just the stuff he or she did that was popular. The idea that you were partially behind the design of Rugrats seems to irrevocably change the idea of a “Peter Chung” aesthetic, one that seems mostly informed by Aeon Flux. Just as knowing, as many don’t, that much of popular Japanese animation was informed by Walt Disney.
Right, through Osamu Tezuka. I would say that right now a lot of Japanese animation has become very incestuous and inbred. It’s become so much like animation of animation. Know what I’m saying?
A copy of a copy.
Right, in the same way some Cartoon Network shows, like Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory, take that retro Hanna-Barbera style to the extent that it looks like animation made by people who spent their childhoods watching animation.
Who were your influences?
Definitely the ones mentioned earlier, Mobius and Egon Schiele. Those were probably two of the most important influences on my work, especially visually. There are a ton of others. But that’s just something that’s very obvious, in terms of the way characters are drawn.
Has there been anything since that 1998 article was written that you felt worthy to add to the list?
Actually no. (Laughs) Not in the area of comics at least.
What about Sin City (right)?
Sin City was a faithful adaptation of a comic book, but whether or not it was a good film depends on how you liked the comic. But I think it did a lot of things that are necessary in the comic book but not in the film. Like the voice-over narration, for example. Where the characters are constantly describing stuff you’re actually seeing happen. Which became irritating after a while.
They were going for the film noir vibe.
That’s another thing, which is kind of a pet peeve of mine. Like I was saying earlier, you don’t set out to make something in a certain style, whether its film noir or whatever. When the original filmmakers were making film noir, they didn’t know what film noir was. That was a term a French critic slapped on the films later on. Those artists were making films that were based on what they observed and the environments they lived in.
But these things become part of the cultural grammar.
Right, they do. But you shouldn’t set out to make things that way. Then it’s no longer authentic.