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How ‘Memento Mori’ Director Paul O’Flanagan Played With A Graphic Novel Art Style To Address Guilt: “We’re Challenging Our Character’s Beliefs”

It’s not often that animation uses elements of horror to tell a moral story. For director Paul O’Flanagan, Memento Mori was a way to bridge his interests of the macabre with a graphic novel art style and combine them into one animated short film. Inspired by graphic novel artists like Patric Reynolds, O’Flanagan managed to use a similar art style to accentuate the gothic Victorian setting with a muted palette reminiscent of the era.

In Memento Mori, a self-serving post-mortem photographer is confronted by his past when the corpse of a young woman arrives for a portrait. To give the viewer a better impression of the main character Huxley, voiced by Mark Gatiss, the film is narrated by the character as he writes a letter to a prospective new hire. As he documents his work process in a scientific and clinical manner, his reality become altered as his guilt weighs upon him.

DEADLINE: What was the inspiration behind Memento Mori?

PAUL O’FLANAGAN: A few years ago, I read an article about post-mortem photography and thought it was dark and creepy, but that’s from a 21st century point of view. And so, over the years, scenarios and situations and ideas just kept popping into my head around the idea of post-mortem photography. So, I decided to tell a story not from a 21st century point of view but from back in the day of post-mortem photography, when it was commonplace and normal. It was like a dark curiosity of the strange and macabre, so I wanted to tell it from that point of view.

DEADLINE: How did you come up with the graphic art style?

O’FLANAGAN: We wanted to use animation in a way that could give the show a stylistic identity rather than just stock graphics. And at the time I was particularly influenced by a comic artist named Patric Reynolds. He did some books called Joe Golem, he did some work on Hellboy. And so that was it, I thought, ‘Let’s make a short, but make it look like a graphic novel.’

DEADLINE: Can you talk about the color choices?

O’FLANAGAN: I saw it as black and white and the first conversation I have with Piotr [Bzdura, art director] he asked, “so color, what are we doing with the color?” and I said, “no color in it. It’s black.” But we decided, “let’s explore color, but let’s use it meaningfully”. So, if we’re going to use it, let’s use it. We had a really muted palette to get across the kind of gas-lit Victorian feel to it. And then we tied it in with the themes. The main overriding theme of the film is guilt. He receives a deceased young woman to photograph and, on her person, she’s carrying a note that he quickly looks over and then ignores. But then in his subconscious thought, the note keeps playing on his mind. That note is orange and whenever there’s a little scare or something in the film, it’s his subconscious replaying the note. And that scare is always heralded by the color orange. So then, at the end, when he addresses that guilt, that he’s harboring, he has a clearer perspective on the world, and that’s when we introduced the opposite color on the color wheel to orange, which is blue. So, we wanted those kinds of moments to be quite potent and quite clear.

DEADLINE: There was a great juxtaposition of the cold, clinical tone he uses in his narration and the actual situation where he is being scared. How did you come up with that concept?

O’FLANAGAN: I always wanted someone that is being challenged, and their ideals were being challenged all along. So, he is telling himself one thing, that this is all fine. This is all going according to plan in the voiceover, but visually things aren’t going well. He’s not calm, he’s very nervous. When we’re challenging our character’s beliefs, I wanted to be able to see the kind of juxtaposition on screen that plays off the audio and the visual at the same time.

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