Christopher Salmon: Adapting THE PRICE by Neil Gaiman | Interview (english version)

14. November 2010

The Price | Christopher Salmon adapting a story by Neil Gaiman

Crowdfunding seems to be the next big thing for filmmakers and sometimes the only chance to get a project out there that would never meet the standards of classic industry models. Christopher Salmon is following this path via kickstarter with a short film that not only stands out among the majority of crowdfunding projects but also the genre in general. The Utah based filmmaker with a broad background as an art director in video games and clients like Disney Interactive, Atari or Majesco, prepares a CG-animated apaption of „The Price“, a story by acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman – with full backing by the author himself. Salmon’s demo pitch video and his honest and deeply felt passion for the project touched more than just a handful of crowd funders and after only three weeks he managed to raise almost a third of his intended budget (a total amount of 150.000 USD). He talked to us about the origins of the film, fan reactions, his obsession with monsters and the impact of „The Price“.

screen/read: Christopher, thanks for taking the time to do this. When I first came across the pitch video for your project I immediately felt that this one was completely different from most projects to be found on a crowdfunding site like kickstarter and it was obvious that you had a passionate vision for something that you felt should be made. Now „The Price“, which your film will be an adaption of, is anything but a classic short story as it has no standard narratve at all, no dialogue even, and so the idea of turning it into a film is not necessarily the first thought. In your case it was though.

Christopher Salmon: That happens a lot of times when I read something. I visualize it, and Neil’s stuff is especially visually stimulating anyway. There was something about it, that made me say, I wanna do this one, so it just started from there and I sent an email to Neil and told him about the idea and what I wanted to do and actually got an email back from him a week later! At the time I had already been thinking a while about working on a project that I was able to manage myself. I used to work in video games quite a bit and I have a skill set that lets me do a lot of different stuff. So I was looking at something where I could handle the majority of the work and do it as a project of my own on the side without having to hire a whole lot of people to help me.

screen/read: It must have been quite unexpected to actually receive a reply from Neil Gaiman himself. He probably receives a huge lot of requests from fans and so this one must have been really stimulating for him as well.

Christopher Salmon: I guess so. Of course he gets asked a lot for things from other people but in my case I really wasn’t asking Neil for anything. I just said, „Here’s this idea, I’d like to try and do a CG kind of animated movie of this short story. How do I go about getting the rights for it?“ That was my only question to him. In general though I made the experience that if authors enjoy what you’re doing, they have a desire to collaborate with you. For instance, I worked on a video game project called „Advent Rising“, and we got some help by another great writer back then, Orsons Scott Card, who wrote the „Ender’s Game“ series, and it went really well.

screen/read: Compared to, say, the infamous Stephen King based „Dollar Babies“, which are mostly of a very poor quality, your approach is very professional and high end. So when you first thought about it, did you already have an idea of what the finished product would look like or which direction you’d be going in terms of technique, look, sound, atmosphere etc. And did you have comparable projects in mind, like the „Coraline“ movie maybe?

Christopher Salmon: No, not really, because I kind of already had this idea in 2006. It was something I’ve been toying with and thinking about for a while. „Coraline“ hadn’t been made yet, but it was actually the first story I read by Neil that made me want to make a movie out of. I quickly found out that they had already given the rights to Henry Selick who later did the movie. But then I came across „The Price“ and truely loved that story just as much. So I just jumped in with both feet and thought, this is what I want to do.

The Price | Christopher Salmon adapting a story by Neil Gaiman

screen/read: As you stated in your pitch clip the first idea was to go for a rather classic animation but went for a motion comic type of some sort. What was it that made you change the original approach?

Christopher Salmon: Neil’s agent was very blunt and honest in a sense of „Who are you even?“ when I talked to him the first time around, and I realized that there needed to be something I could show to them. So I sat down and started to do animatics, set up a video and drew a whole bunch of pictures. But then it just got more and more elaborated, and I decided that I should have one chunk of actual finished animation. So I did the whole thing in this kind of blue and white look to show that it was temporary. I saved up a little money and hired somebody to help me to 3D-model one of the characters, the devil, which I thought would be the most important one to show. So I had it modeled and animated and built a full 3D background. When you watch the animatic now it goes along from the images moving to the part where the devil shows up and there it was: fully animated. It looked really really cool, and so I put the animatic together. It had a good impact and everybody really liked it, but then I started factoring, how much is it going to cost to get the whole thing animated? And that became a problem, because as you pointed out, it’s a short story, it’s meant to be a short film, it doesn’t have a traditional narrative. And everyone I started talking to about funding it or looking at it, said the same thing in a Hollywood model type of „How are we going to make money out of this when it’s so short?“

It was easily going to be around a milion dollars to put all of that together for a movie that would only be about 20 minutes long. And that just doesn’t fit the occasion. So I was frustrated because I thought, I can get my friends to help me and we can get the price down but then the quality is going to go down as well while all over the place animated movies are looking better and better all the time. I mean, look at „How to train your Dragon“ and its unbelievable level of detail. But then I came up with a different idea and realized that these simple little drawings moving around already served me to tell the story. Because everybody that I had shown the animatic to reacted so strongly to it on an emotional level. And it seemed to fit as Neil actually comes from comics and graphic novels, and so I thought, I can still build 3d models in real high-res and render them in different angles and shots but I don’t have to fully animate them. But that’s cool, that’s a different look, a different feel and it seems to fit the project already, so I’ll fix it while it’s not even broken.

The Price | Christopher Salmon adapting a story by Neil Gaiman

screen/read: Now 150.000 dollars are quite an amount and way more than you’d usually find on kickstarter or other crowdfunding sites. The more surprising it is to see how quickly people reacted and how much money got in within that short period of time.

Christopher Salmon: Yeah, but there are other projects on kickstarter with comparable budgets that already achieved their goals. You may have seen the one called „Blue Like Jazz“ which barely finished funding. They were looking for 125.000 and actually finished with 349.000 or something like that. So it is possible. Kickstarter was the place where I realized that people would want this, want to see this, would want to buy it, would want to support it. They’re fans and so we can find a way to reach them. Obviously Neil has a powerful internet presence and they can speak. If they want to see it they can make it happen, if not, then I am where I was two weeks ago and that’s fine with me as well.

screen/read: Did you try other ways of funding in a more traditional way before you went to kickstarter?

Christopher Salmon: I did. There was a bunch of different things that I tried but all of them kept coming up short. It’s just hard to find people that are more progressive and at thought about what to do with a film like this. The majority just wants to do it the same old way. I kept hearing people say, „Maybe we can turn this into a tv series“ or „Can you make it a two hour movie?“ But no, that’s not the story, that’s not the point of it. Like you said, it isn’t a traditional narrative, it’s designed to make you think.

screen/read: It would be ridiculous to turn it into a feature, it would steal the whole idea behind it.

Christopher Salmon: Exactly, but they said that in a hundred percent seriousness, because they were trying to make it fit their model.

screen/read: And trying to make money with it. So for traditional investment it’s sort of useless. But apart from that, what are your plans for distribution? Do you have any plans or ideas apart from festivals?

Christopher Salmon: Not really anything about that right now, I mean, initially when I was trying to get other people interested in it I did contact Focus Features and Universal, the people that worked bringing out „Coraline“, because the first thing on my mind was to follow the Pixar model and have it as a short film to open theatrically for something bigger. I tried to approach them by saying, „Hey look, this is gonna be great, I’m on my way to fund this“, but no one was interested, so I just want get the thing made and then worry about that afterwards. But I have a feeling, again with the attention that’s been generated, that once we have it made, we get it in festivals, we get it around and those steps will follow in line naturally.

The Price | Christopher Salmon adapting a story by Neil Gaiman

screen/read: How many people do you think will have to work with you on the picture, how big will the crew be?

Christopher Salmon: It’s definitely going to be a team that’s very, very small. I have done a lot of drawing, a lot of sculpting and a lot of special effects and stuff like that but I don’t do any 3D modeling myself. I learned a lot while working on video games, doing creative direction there, but I never got into the 3D programs. I have a bunch of people though that are really, really talented there, spectacularly talented, and those guys are going to help me build the actual models and stuff like that. I’ll go through it and and put in the cameras and do all the lightning and the rendering, and then take all the elements and do the after effects and that’s how we’re going to achieve this 2½D look. It will be a little bit more complex then the motion comic thing that you see out there but still it’s the same idea, using a virtual camera and setting up focal distance and everything like that. I have the feeling that it’s going to have a nice unique look when it’s all done. As far as the sound and music are concerned, I’ll ask some other people that I’m hiring to do that. We’re even in talks with Zoe Keating, a famous cellist, who might perform on the soundtrack with us. So there are a lot of elements but basically the idea is to keep it low and lean and put every single penny at making it look fantastic.

screen/read: For a good reason you’re not making it too big as that would be totally untrue to the story.

Christopher Salmon: I totally agree with you. And that’s the whole point of it. I know 150.000 dollars sound like so much money, but when I start to figure how much time it takes to build just one 3D model with all the little details, well, it takes weeks of work, and the people that deal with it are highly talented and I cannot ask them to do it for free. We’ve all heard that a whole life: „This next one is gonna be big, we all make money with it“, but it never happens. So I want to pay these people something reasonable and in return get the best quality possible.

The Price | Christopher Salmon adapting a story by Neil Gaiman

screen/read: Let’s talk a little bit about your background. Where are you coming from, how did you get into animation and filmmaking at all?

Christopher Salmon: Actually I always wanted to be involved in films, I always wanted to be a director, and ever since I was a little kid I was fascinated by monsters. Monsters were cool in all their forms and sizes, and it wasn’t necessarily about horror films even though that’s where you find them. I drew them, I learned how to sculpt them, I read books on how to make them. My dad was a dentist, so he was able to help me on how to get materials for making teeth and fangs and eyeballs. He also had a camera and I was trying to do my own little science fiction movies although it never really worked out too well. But then I got in highschool back in 1981 or 1982 they had very high end video equipment and that was like candy to me. I didn’t play sport, I was always making monsters, making movies, drawing things, writing stories, and even tried to compose music and generally learned all the different elements, so I could make my own movie. And it just got off from there.

When I got older, I wrote to a lot of make-up artists and asked for a chance to work with them, and at some point I landed into video games as some sort of creative director. And even though I wasn’t making movies there was still the whole part of creating worlds and characters and atmosphere. Later I found that a lot of these companies and the bigger publishers that financed them didn’t really think about marketing their products until they were finished. I was thinking the other way round though, like we should have posters, we should have web and stuff, so I was getting more involved in the marketing. And that’s what I do on a professional side right now, I do a lot of marketing, motion graphics, commercials for a variety of different clients, and that’s basically how I got there. But literally all the time, my favorite thing has always been movies. I read everything I can, I watch everything I can, especially all the behind-the-scenes stuff and that is like the best film school in the world. The whole creative process fascinates me. And video games was a great place to start. There’s a lot of terrific people involved and it really helped tremendously.

screen/read: There are a lot of monsters and creatures in your office, so that provides with quite a clear idea of what motivates and intrigues you.

Christopher Salmon: [laughs] It kind of does. When some of my friends come over I should wonder if I am embarrassed or not, but I’m not, I mean, this is who I am and this is what inspires me, what moves me, and it’s not about horror, there’s just something fantastical in the look that I totally love.

screen/read: The music that you use in the demo, is that temp tracking or is it already specially composed?

Christopher Salmon: Yeah, that’s a temp track unfortunately, I can’t use that in the final thing. The idea of using the cues was to make it feel like it was all composed for the one thing. I just listened to tons of soundtracks and found the one that felt right to me. And that’s actually how it started. I had a copy of an audio book that Neil had done and I used that recording and edited it together with the music first before I did any images, just trying to get the pacing and the feel. And to me a movie is just as much about what you hear as it is about what you see, and I was like, ok, I got it, I know what to do visually.

screen/read: I guess especially in this case where there’s no dialogue, the off-screen narration in combination with the music is very, very important for the mood. And even though it’s a temp track it feels very close to what the film’s score actually should sound like.

Christopher Salmon: Exactly. My friend Rob King is a very talented composer and all around sound guy. He’s going to be the one to crack that nut. We will also have to re-record Neil’s voice especially for the film and the music will have to fit that too.

The Price | Christopher Salmon adapting a story by Neil Gaiman

screen/read: What do you think people, Neil’s fans especially, are expecting from you when the donate for the film?

Christopher Salmon: You know, I’m reading all of these comments on kickstarter and I’m literally overwhelmed of how many people feel the same way I do about this story myself. They’re like „This is one of my favorite stories“, „This is something I always wanted to see“, „I can’t believe you’re making this“. The goodwill from people in general is huge. And I haven’t had one person saying, „You’re asking too much money here“ or anything negative in any way. And even more than before I’m just so excited to make the goal and get the money to do this and get it out there as there are that many people who want it. My whole point is to tell a story and it may sound weird coming from somebody who is obsessed with monsters and stuff, but I want to say something that’s a little bit uplifting, giving people hope and something positive to think about. I think this story is powerful and it has lots of layers to it and it’s for people to look at it and figure out for themselves. And that’s the kind of story I’m interested in.

screen/read: Christopher, I really hope you get this done by December 1st, and if not I’m quite sure that with the amount of passion that you got for this project you’ll make it some other way.

Christopher Salmon: I appreciate that and thanks so much for taking the time and doing this interview.

[The interview was taken on Nov 6th. On Dec 1st the project had reached its funding goal  of 150.000 USD and will now be produced (more on this here). Meanwhile cellist Zoe Keating got on board and will be featured on the soundtrack.]

Christopher Salmon

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