The Big Deep Sleep

A poetic reflection on anomie and desire, experienced through the vernacular of pulp-noir. As nightfall unravels into surreal fever dream, the landscape pitches into unrest. Whose interests steer us through the dark night of the soul?


Johannes DeYoung is a multidisciplinary artist who works at the intersection of computational and material processes. His practice considers the poetics of time and ontology through exploration of metaphors and emblems of desire. DeYoung’s work has been exhibited at the B3 Biennale of the Moving Image, Frankfurt, Germany; National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Taiwan; Crush Curatorial, Robert Miller Gallery, Jeff Bailey Gallery, Eyebeam, and Tiger Strikes Asteroid, New York, NY; the Images Festival at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada; Pallas Projects, Dublin, Ireland; and Hell Gallery, Melbourne, Australia. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The New York Post, The Huffington Post, and Dossier Journal. DeYoung is appointed Assistant Professor of Electronic and Time-Based Media at Carnegie Mellon University. He previously taught animation and moving-image courses at Yale University School of Art, where he was appointed Senior Critic and Director of the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, and at the Yale School of Drama, where he was appointed Lecturer in Design. He received his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2006.



How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?

I wouldn’t exactly call them films, but I started making videos with my grandmother and a few friends when I was a kid. It was wildly absurd and adolescent stuff, often blending live-action and stop-motion animation. We never took any of it too seriously, but we practiced religiously. Throughout my junior-high and high-school years the group of us continually iterated on a story about psychic cats that would attack and manipulate people through mind control. In hindsight, I see the influences of Ray Harryhausen and Roger Corman — it was a past-time to watch their films with my father. My friends and I would record directly to VHS tape and do all of our editing in-camera. We had a single tape for recording — when we reached the end of it, we would start over. It went on like that for six or seven years. It wasn’t until college that I viewed moving-image as an artistic practice. Until then it was only a release valve.



What was the inspiration behind the making of "The Big Deep Sleep"?

“The Big Deep Sleep” draws inspiration from pulp noir and Dada collage. The imagery and poetics of noir fiction authors like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler are particularly resonant, especially in the contemporary political climate. The themes relate globally. Social orders are changing. People scramble for power and influence, or lucky breaks, or survival. Communication technologies facilitate political upheavals and market shifts at massive scales. People have difficulty trusting each other. The visual language of noir fiction speaks to the underbelly of humanity — it’s stunningly visceral. But I’m not especially interested in recreating the form. I rather view my work through the lens of Dada collage, or cutup poetry. I structure the work as a poem to relate themes of alienation and desire without explicit or narrowing plot lines. For now, I’m happy to keep it simple and sweet.


What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?

I work in moving-image, but I don’t exactly see myself as part of a film industry. I find the term itself challenging. It implies a singular industrialized standard. I’m interested in a continuum of moving-image arts that predate industrialized film standards — a continuum that perpetually evolves and exposes new forms of expression. There are pluralities of art worlds in which we create and experience moving-image. It takes a great deal of agency to straddle the lines, but I suppose that’s one of the virtues of working independently.


How difficult is it to fund indie short films?

It’s feast or famine. That’s my experience, anyway.


Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?

The vaudevillian constructions of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati are phenomenal. Their works exhibit a degree of stylized staging, carefully crafted timing, and exaggerated visual comedy that are exquisitely constructed. On the flip side, George and Mike Kuchar are wildly inspirational filmmakers. Their films reveal an audacious and strange blend of humor and pathos. To my mind, they rank in a category of filmmakers with the likes of Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose works bring great poetic inspiration despite surface level dissimilarities.


How did your film go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?

I produced the work myself. That’s true for most of my work. I enjoy wearing many hats — I write, animate, edit, make sound, and direct. Occasionally I work with collaborators, but in this case, I produced “The Big Deep Sleep” entirely independently.


How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your plan for further distribution of the film?

“The Big Deep Sleep” premiered internationally at the B3 Biennial for the Moving-Image in Frankfurt, Germany, as well as at the Supernova animation festival in Denver, CO in October 2020. The reception has been positive. Ultimately, I see the work as part of a group of related works, which I’m actively making. I hope to show the works together when everything is complete.


What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent short films?

Brush your teeth. Dental work is expensive and you never know who you’ll meet along the way. A winning smile will take you places.


What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

I’m continuing a body of works related to “The Big Deep Sleep”. The work is mixed-media animation, involving a blend of hand crafted material and digital animation combined in a real-time graphics engine. Aspects of the project — including the sound, narration style, and some visual elements — are created using neural network models, trained for style transfer and unique sound generation. It’s an intense process, but I really enjoy it.


Why do you make films?

My practice is politically situated in the idiomatic. The underlying impetus for my activity resides in my belief in the artist’s ability to shape culture from peculiar perspectives; to draw forms into being from ideas; and to resist hegemonic and authoritarian influences through creative expression. In this way, I find resonance in what Jean-Luc Godard described as the act of making art politically, rather than making political art. Advancing idiomatic expression is an urgent concern in a world where systems of communication and representation proliferate broad cultural flattening. I am distinctly interested in using the tools of our time to advance intimate and expressive works that posit critical and philosophical alternatives to such homogenizing paradigms.

© Toronto Film Mag I 2021