In a surreal desert full of backpackers, N. tries to communicate with a distant nucleus. Upset by the constant noise of his neighbor's cat, which keeps him from his work, he slowly slides into madness. Watch MULM now!
With their diploma project, Carol Ratajczak and Tobias Trebeljahr created an experimental film in which only music, sounds, and noises are used to communicate instead of actual language. In the following article, Tobias himself reveals the challenges this entailed, how the unusual design of the protagonist came about, and what Carol and him are up to today. Enjoy!
Carol and I met during our first year at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg (FABW). We both had been working a few years in the industry at that point. Carol in advertising and visualization, me in concept art and games. In our first year, we realized that our talents complemented each other and that we got along very well. After that, we worked together virtually our entire time at FABW.
The biggest project before our diploma film was probably our third-year film PIRATE SMOOCH, produced as part of the AniFilm/AniPlay semester. Back then, the films produced there had the chance to be selected as festival trailers of Internationales Trickfilm-Festival Stuttgart (ITFS) or FMX – Film and Media Exchange. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to win this competition. Accordingly, from the beginning, we constructed the project with the goal in mind to achieve an impact on the audience. To our great delight, PIRATE SMOOCH was indeed selected by the 2017 ITFS.
When we had to start planning our diploma project about half a year later, we were in the comfortable position of having already produced an audience hit. We didn't feel any pressure to prove ourselves like that again. Instead, we decided to try something experimental. Opportunities to make exactly the kind of film you want to make are very rare. Usually, you are being accountable to others. Since Carol and I are fans of the horror genre, specifically surreal horror by Lynch, Cronenberg, or even Brothers Quay, we headed in that direction.
We started writing a plot, however, the narrative was not our main focus. I think the idea of a script is incredibly overrated in animated film. Instead, we tried to come up with a repertoire of images through stream of consciousness exercises.
After a while, we developed the images of “the cat with a human face” and “the scientist and the backpacker,” which function as opposites to each other in our world. Another area of tension would be the opposition of endless contemplation without action, represented by the protagonist N., as well as endless action without contemplation, embodied by the swarm of backpackers.
Relatively soon, we started thinking of visuals and planned our first sequences in a storyboard. In animatics, we experimented with the sound as well, which we wanted to make as big and bombastic as possible. Since the film was not supposed to contain any language, the communication between N. and “the Black Star" happens through music.
Instead of a classical story, the film was meant to be driven by a rhythm. With PIRATE SMOOCH, we already had experience with that and we wanted to do it again. Thus, the first months of production were characterized by almost endless revisions of the animatic.
The main character N. was one design factor that kept us busy for a very long time. We wanted something that felt unique. The myriad of sketches I made during that time were quite bizarre (a lot of gnome-like, fused cyclops were created). But that special spark was still missing.
During a random experiment, I, rather as a joke, put the face of a frightened looking actor from a Kurosawa movie on our character. It quickly became clear that we had found our special something. Numerous tests followed, in which we projected the filmed faces of fellow students onto 3D geometry and had them distorted by our glass dome. These tests were so promising that we finally found a lead actor with the help of our fantastic producer Laura Messner.
To give the film its very specific sound, we worked with our sound and music professionals Mark Fragstein (sound design) and Alexander Wolf David (music) throughout the project.
Our early layouts had been set to a mix of the soundtrack of AKIRA, sounds from the video game INSIDE and a song by the band The Algorithm (TROJANS). While the sound design was quickly going forward, the development of the music turned out to be more difficult. Some of you probably know this dilemma: You fall in love with the music you used in your layouts, which makes it difficult to accustom to the specially composed pieces.
The completion was slightly delayed, but when we both graduated in 2019, we were happy to finally show the film. When the pandemic broke out a little later, it suddenly felt strange to watch MULM again.
The self-isolated protagonist in sterile surroundings, the circular sign in the sky with which he obsessively tries to communicate, the empty world full of beings that wear masks. I'm not a spiritual person, but from time to time I wonder if there might be something magical about the Stream of Consciousness approach.
At this point, a big thanks is needed for two people: First, to Arash (Seyed Ahmad Hosseini). Our technical director who developed the incredible tools and systems without none of our projects at FABW would have seen the light of day. Arash has left the world of film to pursue a PhD in Artificial Intelligence in Cologne. The other person is our senior lecturer Phil Hunt from Studio AKA. Phil is a fantastic director with an encyclopedic knowledge of virtually the entire history of media and art. His feedback really helped shaping the film.
Of course, thanks to the Animationsinstitut and all our fellow students and collaborators. I still believe that the decision to study at the Filmakademie was the best decision of my life. Whether it is my everyday work, the crowd pleasers, or the weird art films you produce: The experiences I had in Ludwigsburg have enabled all of this.
Carol and I are still working together. After graduating, we were at Axis Studios in London and Glasgow for six months where we directed two exciting projects. Since mid-2020, we both live in Leipzig and are currently working as art directors for the film ELLI by Eagle Eye. I've also been making my own short films in Blender Grease Pencil for a while now.
If you are interested in my stuff, I would be happy if you follow me on YouTube or on Instagram.