Eric Power, animator and director of the newly released feature Path of Blood, recently spoke with us thanks to the folks at Synapse Films. We talked about the movie, his animation style and all the influences that went into creating this epic tale of a ronin warrior in hostile feudal Japan. It's an exciting and hyper-violent ride that hearkens back to the golden era of practical, stop-motion film.
Andrew Hawkins: I just want to start off by asking you: how would you describe this film to someone who is brand new to the kind of animation, and the kind of history, and what you do? How would you pitch this to a first-time watcher?
Eric Power: I would say that it’s a 70’s-era genre film, it’s a samurai film, and it’s done in stop-motion paper cutout.
Hawkins: Yeah, it’s great. This is a movie that, when I was watching it, reminded me how much I love older-style practical stop-motion. The paper cut technique that you do is really unique, and you use a lot of influence from genre film like you’re saying. It even seems a little Takashi Miike-influenced, even going back to Akira Kurosawa. Where do you get your influences from for making a movie?
Power: Definitely the things you’ve listed. The Zatoichi films are really big for sure, the Mikoami trilogy, Lone Wolf and Cub, and I love Takashi Miike. He’s one of my heroes.
Hawkins: You have a handful of animated features that you’ve been doing for years. Where did you get your start doing this kind of work?
Power: I did a lot of freelance animation. I guess I still do that. So I was doing music videos and short films. I did a lot of different styles of animation and then the paper thing kind of took off, people started requesting it more. I got better at it and figured hey, I might as well try to do something larger with this. And I just kind of ran with the feature.
Hawkins: Yeah it looks like you’ve built a pretty big audience off of animations of stuff like Mortal Kombat. What is fun to you about this kind of work? Because it comes off as really labor-intensive, but the end result is a blast to watch.
Power: Yeah, you’re talking about Mortal Kombat and Super Mario and all that? I love video games. I kind of seemed to want to do something like that, in my style of animation. I mean there’s a lot of stuff kind of like that in various styles. At first it felt like there’s just something so cute about doing it out of paper. I don’t know if you saw the video I did for Star Wars, but I did that and people kind of responded to it and so I branched out doing other stuff that I look back fondly upon from my youth. Like video game stuff. Kids really liked it I guess, and I decided to do my own stories because it’s a time to play with pop culture, you know? But I also want to contribute, so that’s how the samurai film got started.
Hawkins: This movie is a really cool nod to this kind of stories that have been told over the years of Japanese folklore, of ronin/samurai stories. Where did you get the inspiration for this tale from? Because you’ve got the story of the ronin who goes through the pathway to find good fortune and winds up at the door of this general who has a reputation for being cutthroat and bloodthirsty, Osamu. This is a really cool story.
Power: I took inspiration from early Japanese stories dating back. Osamu is the main bad guy who’s not really a bad guy, he’s actually a pretty noble samurai, he’s based on the Chushingura, the story of the 47 ronin who lost their king and sought their revenge but ended up having to kill themselves for it. I know I riff on his backstory but the idea is that when the Tokugawa Shogunate took control of Japan, a lot of these samurai were displaced, they had nowhere to go. Someone like Osamu would long for the days of battle and glory and honor. And so he’s set up for a futile thing. I guess Kazuo is sort of a main character, who goes back through all of storytelling.
Hawkins: Yeah, he reminds me of your Jubei characters or your awesome characters from old Kurosawa films. It’s a popular tale that’s old really well in your film. What I love about it is, getting into the fight scenes and the violence and the gore, you really seem to embrace old weaponry You even see the flying guillotine. Tell me what you thought process was in putting all that together, because this is a really cool movie in that regard alone.
Power: You mentioned the flying guillotine and I totally had to have that. I’m also big fan of films coming out of China like that. Martial arts films. I looked it up and was trying to figure out how things were actually used. Of course the flying guillotine was a bit crazy but it was too good to pass up. But yeah, it’s kind of crazy violent and I kind of wanted to have all that in there, the shocking violence and craziness, but I wanted to balance it with a real story. This is supposed to be a real genre film, it’s not supposed to be making fun of it or anything like that. So I was trying to respect the history of the genre as well, while of course having a flying guillotine rip a person’s face off.
Hawkins: [Laughter] And that’s a cool thing about it too, this movie doesn’t feel like pastiche or a parody or satire or anything like that. It really feels like you’re respecting the work and the history of the story and everything like these kinds of movies. You’re even doing a lot of nods to things, like when you mentioned Shaw Brothers films out of China and Venom Mob stuff too because you have an entire sequence where we get to set a really cool ninja fight.
Power: The Shadow animation stuff was really fun to do; it involves back-lighting paper from underneath and filming from above to get the silhouette. It’s an animation that dates back to the earliest animated feature film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. (Lotte) Reiniger, the animator, was one of my superheroes as well. The first person to make a feature animation was her, before Disney. But nobody talks about that, she doesn’t get the credit she deserves. But when doing a feature animation of my own, it kind of made sense to do an homage towards her. Some of the shots are my recreation of shots from Prince Achmed. I think she did it better, but I tried.
Hawkins: You actually developed a couple of cool techniques in the time it took to make this film. Because I was watching the featurette on the Synapse blu-ray that just got released and I got to see how you figured out shooting on a green screen background while still doing everything practical. Give us a little bit of insight into some of the toughest work you had to go through to make this movie because what you pulled off is really impressive.
Power: Yeah, that was a huge challenge and I sort of jumped into this film not exactly knowing how to pull it off. So with paper animation, the characters are held together (which mine are) with this little sticky tack on the joints, and it’s already hard to make a character walk from one side of the screen to the other, but imagine multiple characters all having to cross paths on the same shot. It would just be practically impossible. I was trying to get a character to walk past a tree once, and I could not get him without the top of the tree shaking. It was just nightmare.
So I was brainstorming, “how am I going to get all this stuff done?” So first I tried the planes of glass separating it, like a multi-plane technique which early Disney films used. It was kind of working but it was very problematic, because I’m working on such a crazy low budget that I can’t afford too many layers of glass. I only had three; one of them was held up with Legos. If we had more to feed, just add more Legos to make it higher for the camera. We’d be casting shadows and there would be dog hair all over it. So I don’t know why I thought of it, but I just thought, “I’m going to do a test. I’m going to shoot it on a green piece of paper.” And like it tells you in the featurette, it worked! Of course it worked. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? But then it just kind of blew open the doors, and I was thinking about paper animation in a completely new way.
Hawkins: That’s really cool. I know this film got a lot of credit when it went around on the festival circuit. How was that for you? Because it looks like this is a real crowd-pleaser.
Power: Yeah, it’s pretty good. I took it around to a handful of film festivals and got pretty strong reactions from the audiences, a lot of people liked it. A lot of people were shocked at the gore, I don’t think they knew what they were getting themselves into. You could hear audible gasps at the— a lot of people were gasping but there would be one dude in the back, like, “Hell yeah!” He got it. But that was pretty fun, and the Q&As were always pretty entertaining. I felt like I had a bit of trouble getting it to more fests and getting more eyes on it because the film clocks in pretty low. I didn’t even qualify for a lot of festivals because it wasn’t considered a feature. It was too long to be a short and too short to be a feature to some people, so it didn’t even qualify. I’m kind of kicking myself for not making it longer, but that’s my bad.
Hawkins: Well, I know in the features on the blu-ray, there are some really cool supplements. The featurette that we’ve talked about, and one thing that I really liked was the video game trailer which was so cool. Especially when Kazuo goes further from where we see the end of story of the film. I don’t know if you were doing a sequel like you hinted at in the featurette or anything like that, but I’ve got to say, I would love to see a follow-up to this. Do you have any thoughts on trying to continue his story?
Power: Oh man, I’ve got the craziest ideas. In the video game I’ve got a lot of Yo-Kai and a lot of demons and stuff.
Hawkins: A supernatural story.
Power: Yeah, and Osamu— he dies, he gets his head cut off! And he— well, I guess I’m giving stuff away [laughter]. But he goes to the Underworld and he gets spit back into the real world through the yo-Kai. They want to take over the world, and so things kind of get a little cartoon-y, where things are coming out of the woodwork, trying to find Kazuo. Osamu’s resurrected but he doesn’t want to be resurrected, so he’s looking for Kazuo too, because he’s the only guy who can actually kill him. There’s this whole story. I thought it might be fun to have the people see the film in video game form. Not really thinking about doing a sequel unless people actually like it. Then we could do it.
Hawkins: I think it’s awesome, I think it’s a really cool concept. I’m also really happy that we were able to get word from Synapse Films that your film is out and available. Eric Power, is there anything else you’d like to finish on before we get going? And I’ve got to tell you, I’m really excited to get the word out on this one, because your movie’s great.
Power: Thank you. Actually, I’m working on my second feature animation, it’s a horror film done in paper only and the quality is super high. I’m working with a screenwriter on it and the story’s real solid. I’m just super thrilled about it and I’ve got twenty minutes done so far, and I think it’s going to blow people away. If you liked Path Of Blood, then this is just going to shock you. I’m excited about it.
Hawkins: Awesome, we’re definitely looking forward to it. On one final note, I wanted to give credit to the amazing score for your film, by John Dixon. The music in Path Of Blood is excellent. It just adds a great tonal level to your work, your story, and your animation. I’ve got to say, I’ve been blown away by this film, so I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. If you’ve got a straight-up horror on the way, that’s going to be exciting.
Power: Thank you. John is working on the score for the new film too, so it’s going to be really good.
Hawkins: Eric Power, thank you so much for talking with us, and like I said, we can’t wait to share this one.
Power: Cool, thanks for talking to me, too.