Interview: Jan Koester, director of The Pine Tree Villa

German Animation director Jan Koester returned to Filmfest Dresden this April where his second short film The Pine Tree Villa received the Golden Horseman for Best Sound Design. The award-winning short premiered at last year's Hamburg International Short Film Festival and also screened at the likes of Toronto.

In the water-coloured fairy tale the two protagonists Lion and Bird break into a secluded villa where they find its inhabitants enslaved by their master's piano music.

Cineuropa Shorts spoke to the director about self-liberation, the importance of music – and why it took him eleven years to come back to the Filmfest Dresden where he had walked away with the two major awards in 2006 for his acclaimed debut short Our Man in Nirvana which also won the Silver Bear at the 56th Berlinale.

Sabine Kues: The last time you were at Filmfest Dresden in 2006, your first short film Our Man in Nirvana won the Minister of Fine Arts Promotion Prize. Is it true, that this prize money helped produce your second short film The Pine Tree Villa which was screened this year in Dresden's national competition?

Jan Koester: Yes, exactly. It went into the preparation. After I finished my first film Our Man In Nirvana – the one that won the award – I was at that point in my life where I had no new ideas, so the money went into finding new topics that interest me. I felt the need to go on but I had no idea, actually. For filmmaking it was kind of a depressing time [laughs] but it was more like I felt forced to go on, rather than I really knew what to do. Now it is completely different. I'm working on a lot of projects right now.

SK: You describe your recent film as a fairy tale about self-liberation – is this also due to the circumstances you were in while you were working on it?

JK: I think so, yes. My favourite character in the film is the girl, she starts as a maid who wants to get out of this villa and is kinda stuck. And then she has a plan how to escape and I’m still impressed when I watch her do it. It’s funny because I invented her… you could say that now I want to follow this girl inside of myself. I’m not sure about the lion and the bird, I think they still have a lot to learn. For me it was the same. I didn’t know what I wanted to say in this film when I started. And you can still feel that. The film is a bit of a miracle. I think some people are getting something out of it, but most people are a bit confused. And I was confused while I did it. I'm still working on self-liberation. I think most people do.

SK: Your film won the sound-design award this year in Dresden. What is the importance of music to you and also for you animation?

JK: I love music and also I was making music when I was 16 or 17 but then I stopped – mainly because I couldn't listen to music while I was doing music. So, I wanted to go on with animation, in order to be able to listen to music and that is what I do everyday. I listen to music while I work.

SK: Do you draw inspirations from this music?

JK Yes, the atmosphere, the energy. It pushes me all the time. And I worked with one of my favourite musician from youth, Ralf Hildenbeutel. In the 90s he did a lot of Techno music and I was into that. When I was looking for a musician for The Pine Tree Villa – I was actually searching for a long time. And then I thought, what if I go back to this guy that I liked when I was 15? And I called him and he was like, yes, okay, let's do it. And for the sound design I work with Michal Krajczok and that is always a lot of fun. He transports film sequences to a higher level just like that. It’s beautiful to watch, and I’m just sitting there enjoying and he’s doing the work.

SK: Is this part of the self-liberation programme that you go back to a Musician that you enjoyed in your youth?

JK: Yes, it is changing sides. At that time I was really shy – I would never have talked to him. It was a revelation that I could just call him and work with him, because we are now kind of on the same level. And that was really special to me. Now I do that all the time. When I know an artist, I just call him.

SK: How do you decide on the animation technique for a film?

JK: I was a 3D animator when I started. Very technical and very digital. And then in film school we had a professor, Roseangela de Araujo, who was telling me: Hey, I think there is more in you. That was when I started to do the shadow puppet play and then I was like: Wow, there is really a lot more to discover in style. After Our Man in Nirvana when I didn't want to do films anymore, I started painting nature. That was why, when I started with The Pine Tree Villa I thought, okay, let's do a painting film now. It was planned much smaller, of course. It ended up being too much work.

SK: Can you describe the technique you used?

JK: We filmed all the characters with green screen and they were wearing the yellow masks made out of paper – and couldn't see anything – but still jumped around. [laughs] And then I was painting every second frame of them and I also painted background elements and then I composed everything in 3D. There is also a stereoscopic 3D-version of the film. The problem is, only 3D cinemas are able to show it. It think it is really interesting to see this film in 3D. In Toronto it was screened in 3D and also in Hamburg, where it premiered.

SK: You've stated that water colour is your favourite technique. Why is that so?

JK: That is old now – that is from last year and now I'm thinking of complete different ones. Right now I'm working very digital again. Like the Nirvana style in Our Man in Nirvana – very colourful and flat, but digital and I compose it with filmed background, that is the technique I enjoy right now – but painting is over, for the moment. [laughs]

SK: Was it easy to receive the funding for your short film by FFA and BKM?

JK: I thought it was alright. First try, and we got the budget. But then the film got much bigger and it could have needed a bigger budget, too. I ended up putting a lot of money into it for years. When we first started, we had the plan to finish it in 1 ½ years, I think, and it took us 5 years – so the money had to come from somewhere and I was co-financing the film by commercial work – that was the only way it worked.

As an animation director, I think it is kind of my fault, too. I wanted to have a big graphic style. Every second was a lot of work and so it was my decision that got me into these problems – but a lot of animators have this. Making really big pictures is a lot of work and then the film funding is not enough. But then on the other hand I'm really trying to do the opposite now. I'm trying to keep the style simple and that is why I film backgrounds and I'm not animating them. I think it is also surprising what you can do with less. So, that is what I'm trying to do right now – to have simpler styles.

SK: Is it the financial situation that forces you into this or is it also a decision that you would like to try this style?

JK: It is also easier to work on storytelling when the style is not so complicated and I want to learn more about storytelling now. Style-wise I know what I'm doing but storytelling – that is what I need to learn more, so I've got to be faster.

SK: Can you tell us about the current projects you are working on?

JK: Right now I finished two very short films that are pornographic. I mix genders, most characters are male and female in the same time. I will do one or two more that are also work-in-progress now. And I also am doing a music video for Ralf Hildenbeutel. This is a film I have started already. I'm not really sure where it leads to but I'm working on that right now. I feel connected to the subject, so I know it is alright. I feel it in a way – with The Pine Tree Villa it was a bit different. I really enjoy working right now.

SK: Will you continue with the short film and music videos? Is that your field or thinking of doing an animated feature in the future?

JK: Maybe. My producer Christine Haupt wants to do an animated documentary with me. I might do that – but for me it is really important to keep the production small and controllable because I had so many productions that were too big that now I feel kind of tired of this, so feature film for me is not the right thing. Not at the moment. Maybe I will change my mind. Right now I'm doing films that are like one minute long and for me that is perfect. I feel very free doing that. I know when I start a feature film I would need to stay in the studio for years and I don't want to do that right now. Right now I want to be able to work spontaneous.

SK: In 2009 you co-founded the collective Talking Animals, could you say a bit about the intentions of the collective and your work?

JK: It started really small. A friend of mine called me and said he's arranging a meeting of people who don't want to work alone at home and for the first meeting there were 20 people there and they had the same problem of being bored of working alone at home all the time. So we rented this flat where we still are in Berlin. And we moved there to work together and it wasn't planned to have a studio or a collective but people started asking us to do stuff for them, so we needed a name – and then Talking Animals came up and that is the whole story. Now we are still there and we really feel connected to the brand also to each other and we are really happy to work together and I think we will go on to work like this. I think it is really promising. It is the perfect place to work.

18 April 2017, by Sabine Kues