Review Fix chats with “Year Zero” writer Richard Cunningham, who discusses everything from his love of zombies to his experience at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the equipment he used to create the film and what lies ahead for the project.
Review Fix: Why did you decide to make a zombie film?
Richard Cunningham: I love the possibility of the zombie theme, the versatility of their meaning, the ugliness of them. Pat had a great scenario and I really wanted to explore where it’d take the character and then I got into the zombie apocalypse world of Year Zero and I wanted to offer a glimpse into a much larger event going on outside of the main character’s immediate situation.
Review Fix: Unlike other films, some of your zombies speak, why?
Cunningham: Year Zero’s zombies aren’t the undead exactly; they’re infected hosts, slowly losing first physical, then mental control to a parasite that interacts with their systems, in turn, making them crave living flesh for the host’s needs. Until the human host finally loses consciousness to the parasite, he suffers similarly to a heavy drug-addict in withdrawal, unless the host consumes. That’s the general idea of their make-up anyway. It’s pretty involved, the concept actually started after I read an article on “zombie ants.”
Review Fix: How arduous was the animation process?
Cunningham: The animation was a learning process for me. Before Year Zero, I had no idea how to do any of that stuff, so I just worked with those programs for 14-18 hour periods and I taught myself a few techniques, while experimenting in creating a method of illustrating and animating the film. Because I was still developing from novice status, the film grew with me. I started out with about 100 composited shots to animate, but by the end I had made over 300 moving sequences, all with illustrations I had fabricated from photographs. It took me about six months, I think, to do the bulk of the animating, but it actually continued far into the editing process.
Review Fix: What type of equipment did you use?
Cunningham: I did the photography using a Canon HV10, in still mode. For lighting I had some china balls, and a cheap halogen light; I used shower curtains to soften light, it was pretty ghetto.
I did all the illustrating, voice recordings, music recordings, and compositing on a 10 yr old temperamental Dell Dimension 8200. I really didn’t have money to buy a new computer, so I endured a lot of crashes and freezes from that computer with each MB I put on it. The programs I used on that Dell were equally ancient. I had Photo Impact (a web design program) and Photoshop for the illustrations and compositing. For the music/voice recordings I used the program Acid Music (before it was bought out by Sony).
I needed a little processing speed for animating, so I bought a Mac Mini- using savings- and Tim got me the Adobe package and Final Cut. I used Final Cut to edit and mix sound; I did the animating on After Effects mostly.
Review Fix: What did you learn from this experience?
Cunningham:I learned how to play the harmonica actually, because another thing I learned was that animating not only demands skill and imagination, but the patience to endure endless hours of waiting for renders to generate (though my over-tasked computer systems may have been to blame for that).
Review Fix: How do you think ‘Year Zero’ has made you better at your craft?
Cunningham: I learned really a great deal. There wasn’t much that I took on that wasn’t an overwhelming challenge at the time. But I think one craft lends itself to another and the more you learn, the better a storyteller you become. As in music, where a piano and guitar and flute share keys, there’s some quality in animating or photography or composing a score that conveys the story as much as the script does.
Review Fix: If you could change the film in any way, what would you do?
Cunningham: Ha, I’d give it a budget; I’d hire animators to do what I’ve done, but better. I was in a room by myself mostly, hitting the timer on my camera and jumping in front of it to pose quickly. So I could never accomplish much with stop motion shots. I’d also shoot it in a real studio, rather than my studio apartment. But I’m pretty happy with what Year Zero is now, considering how it was made. It’s never easy to put down the pen on a piece of work, but you have to eventually.
Review Fix: How was your Tribeca experience?
Cunningham: Tribeca was an incredible experience. It was the first festival that I have ever been in, so it was an extraordinary introduction. The staff there were really kind and really appreciated my work. The audiences there were full of people that loved film and asked great questions. Plus I live in NYC, it was meaningful that I was being recognized here. It also got an amazing response from the audience and in the press, so it was all pretty surreal.
Cunningham: Looks like more film festivals- we’ve been lucky enough to get waivered into some fests and I’m just waiting to hear back. I’ve gotten a couple of emails that I’m trying not to think about, because the opportunities seem too good to be true, so we’ll see. Plus I have a 30’s FBI pulp novel to finish writing (and adapt into a screenplay) and a bunch of scripts I need to revise and get out there.
Review Fix: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the project?
Cunningham: My aim is to get Year Zero produced into a series- I have 12 episodes already outlined. They open up to the bigger picture of what’s going on: the struggle to maintain society/government, humans being knocked down the food chain. The epidemic situation improves, but it’s a trade-off to an even more damning outcome for the surviving human population. The main character struggles to protect an adopted girl; meanwhile, he’s carrying with him a dangerous secret. There are a lot of big ideas involved, but it’ll still be very personally and internally told.