Novalis is an animated short film which bridges family-friendly animation and arthouse cinema with the story of a lost orphan trying to find shelter in a desolate German village in the 1890's, where he finds the giant robot creature called Novalis, that seems to be threatening and dangerous, until something more human is revealed.
Chris V. Powell is a filmmaker/artist who grew up in Houston, TX during his adolescences. Having traveled around the world during his childhood and honing on his artistic aptitude in Ringling College of Art and Design, it became his mission to prove that animation carries the magic to move people of all cultures and not just be confined as a genre for children. He loves to build worlds and tell collective dreams within the CG animation medium. It was our pleasure to speak to Chris about the making of Novalis.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
During high school I had a general interest in filmmaking where, after finishing my homework, I would watch segmented videos of full-length movies (I don't believe they exist anymore due to stronger copyright and piracy laws). I wasn't particularly competitive in my art classes in high
school, but I still took them as I felt it was important for my development, and that it was definitely something that would help me work towards my dreams in animation. It was only after taking a class at Guthrie Center that I began dabbling in 3D animation and my teacher, Alan Yip Choi, introduced me to several good schools that would help me towards my career goals. After getting accepted to my first choice animation school, I graduated with my thesis project, “Novalis.” Since then I’ve been developing and honing my skills in both CG and concept art. And ever since I heard of post- graduate success among some of my peers who got into the Disney Talent Development Program, that became my goal and by extension my growth as an artist.
I feel like my background in CG plays an important role in my art, as I can think and feel out my concepts in a more tangible, three-dimensional way that I wouldn’t be able to achieve had I stuck to just drawing. After Novalis I helped out on various crowd-funded indie projects and pitch projects. I'm currently working as a Lighting/Compositing Artist with DreamWorks Animation TV on an unannounced show.
What was the inspiration behind the making of Novalis?
For me I was always struck by the more visually-arresting films that had an emphasis on style and mood. It was usually expected that students from my school had to produce a thesis that
centered around on a gag in order to curate their reels for animation specific roles that depended on comedic storytelling. So it was important to me to make a film that really stood out and in doing so I made a story that was simple but filled with metaphor and the visual world to pull from the steampunk genre. In some ways I also wanted to prove that cartoonier-designed
characters that are commonly associated with brighter colors and kid-friendly stories can be expressed in more atmospheric and dramatic storytelling.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?
As an independent creator, I would say developing an audience that enjoys your niche-interests, while having those interests to be exciting enough for the mainstream studios.
How difficult is it to fund indie films?
When it comes to funding indie projects, I feel like it’s actually much easier now than it’s ever been. With crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon, and Indiegogo, there are a lot more resources readily available for independent use to make professional-quality movies. I’ve known other students that have benefited a lot from using Kickstarter to finance professional soundwork, music, and voice acting to dial up the quality of their films when attempting to meet with the faculty reviews at the school. In the case of Novalis, I was able to bypass a lot of the hassle that most students encountered, as the tone of the piece worked better if there was
no voice acting. As for the music, I personally re-edited it together myself from an existing song by the Austin-based post-rock group, Explosions in the Sky, and their representing record label lent me the song's license almost free of charge, so long as it wasn't used for a profit-making,
commercial project. The band had a history of lending out their music and talent for Hollywood movies, and notably were heavily responsible for the score of Friday Night Lights, as well as the Big Bend documentary project that was released last October.
"Keith Ukrisna, my sound designer, did some great sound-effects work on Novalis. It was great working with him, and he was incredibly responsive whenever I needed changes made."
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
In no particular order, my three favorites are definitely Alfonso Cuarón, Brad Bird, and Trey Edward Shults. Trey is someone that I had the pleasure of meeting back when he presented his film, “Waves,” at MFAH. We both have a similar background in that we both grew up in Houston, and he became a filmmaker by just setting out on his own path and doing it in his own way without much planning or foresight. Both of us have done a lot of independent learning about filmmaking on our own, focused more on gaining experience towards our own goals rather than strictly following a school curriculum. I appreciate how he bravely examines difficult subjects
like mental illness and family tension when producing his experiencial dramas. Most filmmakers tend to shy away from these brutal, spiritually honest topics. I always get the sense that his goal as a filmmaker is to create films about understanding and empathy without judgment, no matter the seriousness or the unseemliness of what the person is doing or experiencing. Lately, I’ve been trying to adopt that understanding point-of- view for myself.
Alfonso Caurón is an amazing visual storyteller who can create an experience that appeals to all the audience’s senses. His works, like “Children of Men” and “Roma,” are films that transport me into another world - one that, strangely, both feels emotionally familiar and threatening. Like myself, he devotes his time to understanding and researching the worlds he wants to tell his stories in. I think that’s part of what makes him so good at visual storytelling. A good visual storyteller is someone who is always learning about the world without bias, and without arrogantly thinking they already know everything they need to know. His movies are always so specific in their details and film language that it feels like his movies are ones that continued to evolve alongside the world. His stories always coincide with current events and issues that were
important in the time and place they were being made. I love watching the Blu-ray extras where he discusses his filmmaking process and philosophy. My mother also connected a lot with Roma as it reminded her of her home life in Lima, Peru. Brad Bird is someone who I’ve followed my whole life. He is someone who was deeply driven to change how people both saw and made animation, as he feels it's a medium that can communicate all genres of film, and that it should be used to caricature life in an artful way. “The Incredibles” is one of my favorite films ever. I loved how he made a superhero film about endearing characters gifted with powers that manages to not alienate children, while nonetheless discussing mature issues like family
tension and social fear of those of power. And beyond being a great director, he continues to be an avid lover of film and continues to watch movies and learn new approaches towards filmmaking. I just find it kind of awesome how he can transition between both animation and live-action film, and approach those different mediums through the same principles of good visual storytelling. I try to live by his mantra, “You are who you choose to be.”
How did your film go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?
As I mentioned, this was technically a school project made for my university course, but I really took it upon myself to try and revise and add more to “Novalis” so that it would meet with my own personal standards and vision for the project. At school I always had a nagging, spiraling
feeling that I was being too rushed, and more often than not I carried a deep dissatisfaction with the assignments I submitted to pass my courses. So while the version I made in school isn't the most polished piece in the world, I at least graduated with an accredited degree and came out with strong, demonstrable skills, even as I continued cultivating myself as an artist, and continued to build my own enthusiasm for what was possible with animation.
That was when I realized what a challenge it was to break into the industry, and how long it takes for people to really be noticed by studios and professionals. So while I took that extended amount of time to put together a lighting reel for Disney, I was also revisiting “Novalis.” I just had
this gut-feeling that 'something was missing' from it, especially near the beginning, which was why I held off from posting my film online for a good while. I eventually added an expositional scene of Johann (the kid) entering into frame for the first time and gazing up at the cathedral-factory. Revisiting an entire film you finished in school is not something I would advise anyone else do, but I encourage those trying to break in to just keep working really hard and continue to stay motivated to learn. And be sure to trust in your own individual perspective so that you can produce a film that is honest with yourself, no matter what stage you are at in your artistic
development. And, of course, be sure to enjoy the learning and growing process!
What is your plan for further distribution of the film in order to reach a wider audience?
Currently I don't plan on distributing my film any further since it has been played at many festivals already, and I don't want this to be the only thing I will be remembered for in my journey as a filmmaker.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent feature films?
Just do it. Sit down, learn as much as you can, and grow during the process. There’s not much more I can recommend than that.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
I can’t say too much about it right now. All I’ll say is that I'm working on a secret pitch-packet project for an adult animated show.
Why do you make films?
I believe films have the power to make people have a deeper appreciation for life when done right. Films grow with people, and people become better at how they view themselves and treat those in their own lives. So for me, I want to make films that are about healing and understanding, no matter the shadows for what the person is going through. And that not everything is really a choice, and we have to learn how to resolve our own suffering when events we have no control over crashes down on us.