Dead Air: Playful sci-fi animation has fun repurposing overlooked sounds

Illustrator and animator Sam Wood has made an out-of-this-world film which repurposes the sounds that exist all around us in Dead Air. Combining adventure, horror, and a dash of mystery, it follows intergalactic explorers mining a far-off planet for sound.

How do you co-exist with sound? Do you embrace all the background noise that echoes through the air, or do you block everything out with headphones and your favourite tunes? This disconnect that people have from their local sonic environments was the jumping-off point for Dead Air, which tells the story of a mechanic and his trusted driver, Clamp, as they scour space for sounds.

"I walk around 90% of the time with noise cancelling headphones on, so the world around me is soundtracked in quite an abstract way where the movement of things doesn't naturally correlate to the sound I'm hearing," Sam tells Creative Boom.

"I was listening to a lot of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire at the time, and while digging, I found Chris Watson's lectures on 'SoundWalking', where he talks about this disconnect whilst demonstrating his process of Field Recordings and found sounds.

"The idea of 'taking' and repurposing sounds really interests me. I'm drawn to the overlooked, mundane, and obsessiveness that people can fall into with this sound collecting."

In Dead Air, Sam takes this idea and runs with it to the extreme. Through his animation, Sam imagines a scenario where people aren't just collecting and experiencing localised sounds but also travelling to distant, uninhabited planets and documenting their experiences through sound rather than image.

The project is something of a first for Sam, as it saw him working with an animatic. "It was pretty helpful in terms of working out the pacing and time length," he reveals. "I started from three images and then built the rest of the animatic from there.

"The initial timeline was still quite loose, which allowed me to play and come up with new ideas later on in the process by embracing and living in the landscapes and movements of the characters."

A key consideration for Sam was the desire to make the environments feel anthropomorphic. This involved incorporating and abstracting elements of the character design and using these assets in the sets themselves. "Familiar architectural objects are placed in unconventional spaces that would traditionally render them useless," he explains. "However, in this world, they find purpose and functionality in their interactions with the characters.

"The look and feel developed quite naturally as I spent more time 'living' in the film. It's pretty important to me to spend a lot of time just poking around the environments and getting very familiar with them."

Dead Air also ties into Sam's core principles of play, discovery and space, which all come from his background in DIY and self-publishing, an ethic he was exposed to through the punk and hardcore movements. "I'm really interested in people modifying existing structures/tools in order to create new ideas and experiment in unique ways," he adds.

"Be this by 'breaking' children's toys to create weird new sounds or by putting on generator gigs with whatever equipment they have under a bridge for themselves and their community of friends. The characters in Dead Air modify and make new equipment in order to capture these deep space sounds, which come directly from these ideas."

Sam is also interested in treating his characters like dolls, and the way he moves them through sets is inspired by the stop-motion puppetry of animators such as Jan Svankmajer. "I like the playfulness and uncanny feeling which arises by having 'wrong' movements and semi-blank or fixed expressions," he says.

"I'm not attempting to try and trick viewers into thinking these characters are real, but encouraging them to accept the reality which is presented, and imprint their own feelings and thoughts onto them, as you do when playing with dolls."

In a more literal way, Sam was also influenced by the Playstation games he played as a kid, namely Crash Bandicoot and Spyro. "I think the open world style of these games began to bleed into the narrative, providing a different way of thinking about the movement of characters through the world."

These influences and considerations resulted in a production process that spanned a few months, which went against Sam's traditionally speedy work ethic. Not that he minded, though, as he could give Dead Air the focus it deserved and soon settled into the creative routine.

"I was making multiple environments and characters at once, spending short amounts of time on each and switching through them throughout the day," he reveals. "This allowed me to continue working on the film whilst also feeling like I was constantly working on something different. It also lets your eyes rest from looking at the same thing constantly and burning out or hating it.

"This was also my first time doing the sound design for a longer project, which was interesting. I used lots of found sounds and manipulated them in Ableton. I'm a bit of a novice in Ableton, which means I spend a lot of time problem-solving and learning on the go. YouTube is amazing for this, and I spent a lot of time watching tutorials to understand the gist of the effects and then experimenting from there."

Dead Air ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, which leaves the door open to a potential sequel. "They'll be back at some point, in some incarnation," says Sam. "But whether that's in their current predicament or after they've escaped it, I'm not yet sure, and neither are they!"

Either way, Sam's ultimate hope for Dead Air is that it encourages people to go out and make their own films. "That's kind of the goal with all of my work and how all of the work I really love makes me feel," he concluded. "I like making things that feel slightly more open for the audience to imprint themselves onto.

"I've had people find Dead Air funny, scary, cute and creepy so far. All are great responses to it. I just want people to feel something."

The full Dead Air video is available to watch by contacting Sam on his website.


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