"An astronaut meets an unusual space object."
X is a short film directed and animated by German artist Raphael Wahl about an astronaut who faces an uncommon identity crisis. It features multiple versions of a main character that trigger peculiar internal/external conflicts, and a particularly interesting use of changes in narrative point of view. The film deals with existentialist themes such as identity and loss of uniqueness.
Staged in outer space and inside a spaceship sometime in the future, X employs iconography from science fiction films (astronaut suits, spaceships, stars, weightlessness, etc.) mixed with household items (toothbrush, pot, kettle, etc). The film features a stylized retro aesthetic with a darker palette and slightly desaturated colors. 3D animation is used throughout the film and its hand-drawn quality was achieved thanks to a technique of drawing over 3D-rendered frames. (You can find more about this in the director’s explanation below.)
X makes interesting use of characters, it’s a crowd-based film, but all of its characters are copies of a single main character. This triggers an internal conflict, which in turn triggers external conflicts with the other copies of the character. Narrative POV plays a prominent role, the final plot point lets viewers understand that a change in narrative point of view had taken place when the astronaut was first thrown out of the space photocopier, and that the purported main character that viewers had been watching is actually a copy of the real astronaut.
Visual rhythm is high, handled through pans, dollies, camera rolls and shakes, editing, etc. X makes abundant use of medium shots to capture the expressiveness of the character, in order to build and transmit conflict, and pays special attention to screen directions, which are key here to help identify each of the characters and successfully convey the idea of the appearance of multiple copies of the main character.
What makes it work so well? Fun and creative script, very original staging and conflicts, abundant surprises and great use of points of view in narration.
Director Raphael Wahl kindly shared with us some insights on the making of the film:
How did you come up with the idea for the film?
The idea of “X” is actually old (over 20 years). I was always fascinated by space travel, and thus that’s what I was mainly drawing as a kid (i.e. space ships, planets and astronauts). The idea for “X” started with a doodle of an astronaut in my sketchbook, a 3/4 view of him looking to the right. And as the character was new to me I made another mirrored drawing right next to the first. I ended up with two identical astronauts facing each other. The basic idea of the film was born:
An astronaut gets copied and has to face numerous copies of himself.
Evidently, the first approach wasn’t a deep philosophical rational of identity; however, the concept of uniqueness and identity was bothering me a lot back then.
At this very early stage of the story, I didn’t even know about the
short stories by Stanislav Lem. But when I discovered them, I felt his
ideas very much matching mine.
I felt connected to Lem’s world and appreciated his writing style, which is why you might find parallels in “X” to Lem’s world. All of his stories are composed based on logic, but often turn out odd and bizarre. They also offer a comical side, even though the basic idea of his stories is tragic. I thought his strategy is worth achieving for my own story.
Please tell us a bit about your aesthetic choices.
When sketching, all characters and surroundings turn out round and
knobby from my hand. For “X” I wanted to keep the style of these
If I had to reproduce the film, the general design is the one thing I would change. In retrospect, I feel that some people were a bit distracted by the cartoony look.
How did you approach the animation process and how did you focus on helping viewers keep track of the different characters?
It was clear that some scenes of the movie needed complex
three-dimensional motions. “X” was therefore produced with a mixed
technique of classical hand-drawn animation and 3D computer animation.
The rather plain computer generated 3D optic was to be replaced by a
vivid 2D look, without losing the advantages of 3D computer animation.
All elements of the pictures were supposed to get the same
characteristic style regarding form, outline and animation. The complex
background elements and main character poses were rendered and roughly
animated in 3D.
The key poses were then printed and traced with a pencil, the inbetween phases drawn and the timing of the animation fixed. This fast procedure enabled me to perform complex 3D motions, without abandoning the style of classical hand-drawn animation.
I used Maya for the characters and the background elements. The star field however was created in Lightwave. For coloration of animated scenes I added a “noise effect“ on all pictures. This caused another break of the plain computer coloration look and the individual pictures. The film got a “copy look”, which supported the story’s basic idea.
In one of Lem’s short stories an astronaut is trapped in a time travel
loop and interacts with his past and future self. The story is very
complex and sometimes hard to follow.
However, it showed me one big problem I was facing myself: How to avoid the viewer from getting lost with all identically looking characters in the film?
I had to solve the problem of cutting from one identical character to the other. I decided to use contrasting shots instead and guide the viewer through a very defined set. When the viewer had to follow a specific character, I often cut in motions.
Any interesting anecdotes from the production of the film that you’d like to share?
The story of “X” is based on a misdirection of the audience. Only at the end, the viewer was supposed to realize how everything is connected. I struggled a lot with this. I was astonished how easily the viewer’s perception is misdirected, however I also felt that this possibility comes with great responsibility. When we watch a movie, we know when we are deceived. We look at a flat screen that becomes three-dimensional, and we watch 24 static frames per second that become motion, however this is only summed up in our heads. Hence, illusion is extremely important, especially in animation. I think that our identity and our uniqueness are connected to the way we perceive things very much. Here the cycle closes. How we see the world makes us who we are…