Allergy to Originality: Interview with Filmmaker Drew Christie

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Allergy to Originality Drew Christie interview

Allergy to Originality explores the inability to create and invent unique ideas

Drew Christie’s Allergy to Originality is a 5-minute animated short film that screened at Sundance 2014. The hand-drawn film examines the nature of creativity and invention with a postmodern attitude that refutes the possibility of originality or creation of any idea or work. Instead, the film favors the multiple-discovery theory which recognizes an infinite number of contributors who either build upon something that has already been “discovered,” or independently of each other reach the same conclusions.

With humorous references to pop culture (Wikipedia, Men in Black, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp among the many), Allergy to Originality approaches the theory of invention, creation, and authorship in a style that evokes Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author,” which opposes the cultural trends of ascribing a single author/creator to any text.

Christie spoke to about the nature of creation, the Internet, and America.

Creation is not futile. Thinking you are making something original is futile. Creating things is what gives my life purpose and the reason I get up in the morning. I love seeing things created by other people as well. Like drawings, photographs, music and films. But I don’t ever delude myself into thinking anything a person creates is in itself an original, completely unique thing.

Christie said he is influenced by East-European filmmakers such as Russian animator Yuriy Norshtein (best known for the short film Hedgehog in the Fog), Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer (whose first feature film, Alice, in 1988, is a loose interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland”), Armenian Sergei Parajanov (whose film The Color of Pomegranates, aka. Sayat Nova, is based on the life of Armenian poet Sayat-Nova), and the stop-animation Armenian twins The Quay Brothers (who reference Jan Svankmajer in their surreal short film The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer). The visual artist Edward Gorey and the writer Kurt Vonnegut are among Christie’s influences too.

According to Christie, the Internet is complicating the inability of originality even more.

Before the internet and mass communication, someone in a remote town or village was doing something that was original to them and their peers. But when mass communication (whether it was newspaper or radio or television or recorded music or film) came along, people started to think: “Oh what’s the point? Some guy in Paris or London or New York has already done it. I heard it on the radio.” The internet is just the maximum statement on that idea. Now everyone is a pseudo-researcher/fact checker.

Christie sort of plagiarized/appropriated/derived the idea for Allergy to Originality from the real-life story when he and his father went to see Men in Black 3 at the cinema and Christie realized every movie in the theater was either a sequel, a prequel, an adaptation, or somehow a derivative from a pre-existing work.

Allergy to Originality tells the story of a man trying to buy a cinema ticket and his conversation with the ticket salesman. When the two talk about the history of originality, they cannot come up with their own sentences, but instead quote what has been written in Wikipedia.

No one actually can even speak originally about originality. They actually have to keep copying what someone else has already said (word-for-word, previous interview with Drew Christie).

About the origin of the human striving for originality Chrisie said:

I think it might come from the same place in the human brain that the need for religion comes from. Or the same place that conspiracy theories come from for that matter. Humans seem to have developed a need for reductive assignment of all phenomena to one person or thing. Who created the universe? God. Who made that film? Stanley Kubrick. What causes rain? Clouds.

I suspect that most people have a burning desire to simplify things to one author, one creator, one simplistic cause. The same goes for originality. I think it also validates us in our certain little time and place. So someone can say, “This person was the first person to do this and they are alive in our time!” It’s comforting to our puny little brains.

Drew Christie Allergy to Originality interview

Director Drew Christie screened his animated short Allergy to Originality at Sundance Film Festival 2014

Christie took about one month to finish Allergy to Originality. Jason Spingarn-Koff commissioned the film for the Op-Docs series of the New York Times. The budget for the movie “wasn’t very much.”

Although I did use [Adobe] After Effects for putting the frames together in sequential order and adding paper texture, most of the work on Allergy was done by hand with pencil and paint. After I drew each frame on a lightbox, I then photocopied each frame to re-enforce the duplication aspect of the material. Then I hand painted each frame with one of three colors: red, yellow, grey/brown.

On his website, Christie has documented the process of drawing Allergy to Originality. He said he started animating when he was 5.

I would set up the Ewok fortress on my parent’s couch and then set up my Batman characters and other action figures on the fortress and couch and set up the camera. I would then move them and narrate behind the camera what was going on. I would do trick photography too with dummies and stunts involving bicycles and fire.

Christie said he likes animation because it gives him the freedom to create independently of other people.

I used to do much more live action film and video. Particularly with Super8. But I found that I liked to control every aspect of the world I was creating. I also hated having to wait around for people to be actors, help with camera, lights, wardrobe, etc. I wanted to do everything myself and I’m still that way. I don’t like collaborating.

Christie has made 7 movies for the New York Times Op-Ed series. One of them is  Christmas Icon Reform, which mocks American culture and the educational system of standardized tests. In the directorial statement to the video, Christie refers to the theme of originality and seems to single out the American culture as one of the main “plagiarists”: “The American tradition has always been to appropriate and incorporate.”

I had a director’s statement draft that basically ripped on standardized testing but it was edited. I think standardized testing is a poisonous concept and I failed almost every test I’ve ever taken.
As to the second part of the question, I think America might play a special in striving for originality. We like to think of ourselves in this country as leading the world in many things and I’m sure originality is one of them.

Aside from the distinguished visual style Christie’s films share, they also tend to be really short, usually about 5 minutes. Christie said this is because humans have short attention span and because animation is very time-consuming.

His movies often feature animals, and oppose human mainstream culture. The film The Song of Spindle, which screened at Sundance 2012, is a good example. The movie follows a conversation between a man and a whale who both brag about their big brains and uniqueness.

Christie said if the characters in The Song of Spindle took an SAT test, the human would score higher, but that does not mean it is because he is smarter than the whale. The Song of Spindle also seems to oppose the idea of human progress through technology.

Well, the human would score higher because the whale doesn’t have hands to hold a pencil and fill out the test. […] Technology has in some ways helped humans and their connection with the natural world. But for the most part it has divided us and insulated us from the natural world. I think that this tragic, but most likely inevitable.

The Song of Spindle also seems to examine the self-centered nature of human culture, which singles out humanity as the most superior creature.

Humans are self-centered and so is every animal I have ever come in contact with. They are always trying to get fed and their main concern is: “How and when will I eat.” That’s pretty self-centered to me. But then again, it’s also survival. Can one survive without being self-centered? The gap between humans and other species is not big at all. Humans share quite a bit of similarities with Fungi.

Christie’s film Naturally, J.J. Cale opposes the mainstream pop culture through the story of J.J. Cale’s musical career. Cale was the original composer of many songs that became well-known after musicians such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Eric Clapton covered them. The film seems to reference the themes of originality, appropriation, and pop culture also present in Allergy to Originality.

Aside from animated film, Christie has also published a book called “Strange Americans.”

It’s an illustrated collection of eccentric people from American history. There are people who started cults, people who went mad. One of the people in there is Boston Corbett, whom I made an animation on years ago called The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Lincoln. I might be adapting the book into an animated series.

Currently Christie is revising and editing another illustrated book he started 8 years ago— Greetings from Port Satsop.

Christie is based in Seattle, Washington. He graduated with experimental animation from The Evergreen State College in 2007.