Director Patrick Jean already attacked a city with an arsenal inspired by video games. Now, he’s letting a city itself do the attacking, empowered by a certain utility that you just might be familiar with.
After racking up millions of views online, winning top honors at the prestigious Annecy Animation Festival, and being picked up by Adam Sandler to develop as a feature, Jean’s 2010 short film Pixels seemed due for a follow-up. The director chose to wait, however, until he got the right idea. His latest creation, Motorville, which premieres on Vimeo March 26, uses the Google Maps interface to spin a simple story about a rather serious threat to society—our increasing oil dependency.
Although the film is not affiliated with Google Maps in any way, its director makes the most of the app. In his film, the roads in a city called Motorville become arteries, which feed a beating heart. Locations on the map with names like "Right Arm District" and "Shoulder Park" provide motility and eventually all of Motorville rises up like an Iron Giant and begins to move in a way that would bedevil most cartographers.
"I love Google Maps. It’s a wonderful tool and I’m totally addicted to it," Jean says. "I find maps graphically beautiful. I’ve always been fascinated by their convolutions and I love the fact that online maps give you a new point of view on your environment. So one day I decided it would be funny to use it as a language to tell a story."
Although the story does start off as another fun romp à la Pixels, eventually the underlying theme becomes unmistakable. When the mobile Motorville gets near Texas, his mouth begins to water—that’s where the oil resides. Unfortunately, in this world, Texas is dried up. In the search for alternative resources, Motorville steps on everything on the way to go gorge in the Middle East, with predictably unfavorable consequences.
"The challenge was simply to animate a modern megalopolis living on a map—like massive, living organisms feeding from oil," Jean says. "But the problem is these organisms are not farsighted enough to achieve their own survival in the long term, because they consume all the resources around them. In the end, modern cities behave more like zombies, robots, or drug addicts. Or a mix of these."
When Motorville needs to make decisions, the options come up as the kinds of questions drivers face when looking for directions ("Go there?" is an option.) To achieve this verisimilitude, the director had to code specific tools to make the designs he wanted, at different scales. The whole process took several months, including time spent shooting all the time-lapse sequences in L.A. with a 5-D camera.
Motorville and its predecessor, Pixels, are both films about modern American cities. Taken together, they seem like the opening salvo in an ongoing series of shorts about living in America right now—a notion that Jean does nothing to discourage.
"American cities are the blueprint for the contemporary megalopolis. For this reason, and others, they are iconic and it’s great to play with icons and symbols in filmmaking," the director says. "But hey, to be more fair, next time I will try to make the end of the world come from a Chinese or an European city. Maybe Paris—why not?"
Watch the entire short Pixels below.