The Motel Life is a searing and profound examination of brotherhood set in the timeless Sierra Nevadan frontier. Two brothers, Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) escape their bleak day-to-day existence by telling each other fantastical stories. Lakeshore Records, who released the The Motel Life soundtrack, spoke with animator Mike Smith about his artwork for the film. Mike Smith was tasked with portraying the imagination of the two wayward brothers. Like David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia’s score for the film, Mike’s images are impressionistic, minimal, and stripped to the heart.
You have been animating for over 30 years, including music videos for David Byrne, Grace Jones, and Bob Marley; and you have animated feature films and animated sequences in Tank Girl and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. What attracted you to animation?
The endless variety of styles, techniques and interpretations. That is why it is so liberating to work on projects like The Motel Life and get a chance to express something different through the medium. From early on, I realized one could never really exhaust the possibilities to express ideas through animation. I still feel this way today.
Your animation for the film is loose and sketchy, yet it perfectly captures the spirit of the brothers and their stories. It looks like you used very simple tools.
I kept in mind that the animation was a sort-of joining of Frank’s stories and Jerry Lee’s imagination, so I wanted to keep a sketchbook feel to the animation to help us feel Jerry Lee’s presence while Frank told him the stories.
There is a quality one obtains from using the actual rough animation drawings in the final look that brings to mind an unfinished sketch. I felt that one could relate this style of animation to the rough-hewn style of American roots music.
This minimal approach can also be heard in David Holmes’ and Keefus Ciancia’s music. Were you inspired by the music? Did you try to match the sound of it with your drawing style?
While storyboarding of the animation, I listened to American roots music. When the animatics were edited, some of this found its way into the cut as temporary place-holders to help express the flavor of each sequence.
Did you have a goal or idea in mind as to what the animation should look like before starting the project, or did you let it take shape as the film developed?
Originally, I did designs that were much more painterly or more expressive in terms of how one draws with charcoal as opposed to traditional animation pencil line. I decided to keep a rather monotone flavor to everything and have the animation affected by subtle textures and simple shading.
Much of the atmosphere actually comes from the surreal stories themselves and Emile Hirsch’s reading of them. It allowed me to wander visually and break the traditional ways of storytelling.
Do you have a favorite sequence in the film?
I liked the sequence where we imagine a childhood adventure with Frank and Jerry Lee. They encounter pirates, meet Willie Nelson and come-of-age thanks to a bevy of cowgirls.