This Short Film Dives into the Depths of Existence in Just Four Minutes

Posted inComics & Animation Design

Have you ever stopped to ponder the sheer weight of your existence? The vastness of your humanity? The enormity of your lived experience? Creative director, designer, animator, and founder of the studio State Marcel Ziul sure has, so he embarked upon a journey to capture it in his work. In an effort to articulate “the crushing weight of emotions” and the strength needed to rise above them, Ziul and his team at State have created the short animated film entitled Feelings: An Invitation to Look Inside, which served as the opening titles for the 2023 OFFF Festival in Barcelona.

A cluster of my PRINT colleagues were among the privileged crowd who attended the Feelings screening at OFFF, which was followed by a discussion with Ziul himself. They raved about the film and Ziul’s post-show talk, and immediately sent me the Vimeo link to watch it myself.

While Feelings is technically only four minutes long, this immersive audiovisual feast covers a breadth of emotions and ideas that make it feel like a feature. I was able to speak with Ziul directly about the film recently, digging deep into his motivation and intentions with the work, and demystifying some of the themes embedded within.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Still from matrix 3

Where did the idea for a short film tackling themes of this magnitude originate?

A few years ago, right before the pandemic, I was very rational. I saw people going to therapy and trying to understand who they were, but I was like, This is bullshit. What’s wrong with you people? Just get on with it! But then, there was this moment when I took my kids to a dinosaur exhibit. I saw my kid walking around, and I don’t know why, but I started crying. I had to go to the restroom and stay there. I didn’t know what was going on; I didn’t know what was happening. So I started doing therapy.

There was a big disconnection for me in terms of the life that I was living and what I was feeling because I was very pragmatic. I didn’t believe people who cried during movies— I had a hard time accessing those feelings, so I did a lot of therapy. At first I was just talking about work, work, work, work, until at some point, there wasn’t any more work stuff to talk about. So my therapist said, Can we talk about you? What’s in your chest? Can we just get into it?

That’s when I started accessing memories, but I felt like I got stuck. I understood that there was a lot of trauma during my childhood, but I never thought about how much those things were affecting me in my adult life. So I watched a documentary about transpersonal therapy, which is using psychedelics for therapy, and I got really into that. I started studying a little bit more, and learned about perinatal matrices, which is the idea that the process of your birth is the blueprint of how you’re going to live your life. So if your birth process is very traumatic, that’s going to affect you as an adult, somehow. 

Through this process I was able to access memories and understand what happened to my mom during her pregnancy. I thought it was fascinating. In my case, there was a lot of trauma in that process. It was very interesting to understand the cycle of what happened to me, and how that applies to my life. Sometimes I get stuck in some of these matrices, but it’s okay, because now I know what’s going to happen next. It gives me peace. Now I’m able to look at everything and understand what’s going on with my life.

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Why did you decide to go from this very personal, introspective journey to creating a film for a public audience about these ideas? 

This project was my way of telling people to look inside of themselves, to look at what’s happened in their past. I’m not encouraging people to do psychedelics for therapy. There’s a lot of preparation— I prepared myself for five years. But I got the clarity to think about how I could use animation not to just sell crap to people. Because that’s what we do in advertising: we make stuff to sell people stuff. And I was like, Can we do something different? Can we use animation to create awareness and inspire people to look inside and see how they can live their life better and live less anxious? As a foreigner living in the States, I feel like there’s a sense of anxiety in the air all the time— it’s a very anxious society. That was my motivation to use animation to help people get better, or to at least create awareness around it.

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The film is very clearly split up into four distinct sections that align with the four perinatal matrices, and each one has its own visual style, sound, and overall tone. Can you describe those? 

There are four parts of the birth process, which is the perinatal matrices: matrix one, two, three, and four. Matrice one is when the baby is a fetus in the mom’s womb, and everything feels so good and comfortable. Then once the mom is getting ready to give birth and starts getting contractions, that’s when you go to matrix two. The mom’s body has cut all the food and nutrients to the fetus, so the fetus thinks that it’s going to die. It’s like, Oh my god, what happened to this amazing place? Now it’s dark, no colors, no anything.

From there, the body starts to push the baby out, which is matrix three. It gets really gross, but there’s also a sense of pleasure. Then comes matrix four which is an explosion of colors. That’s when the baby’s out, and that’s when life happens. 

Still from matrix 1

The most difficult thing for me was to create four different styles for each of those parts. For example, the first part is very calm and soothing. You see the fish, you see these shapes, and everything feels very cool. There’s this kid playing with the panther, and the panther isn’t scary at all; everything is okay. 

Still from matrix 2

Matrix two is just sketches. There’s a sense that there’s no more hope. We wanted that visual language to feel like there was nothing, like you’re about to die; there are no more colors, no anything. That’s why you see a person hanging there with the kid watching. Then it becomes this puddle and it’s hard to breathe, and you’re drowning. For matrix four, we wanted to get more realistic with the shapes and forms. Matrix four is also very colorful and full of life.

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The development of these four different styles was very complicated because not only did they have to be aesthetically different, but we wanted the imagery to match whatever my therapist was telling us. We had a lot of back and forth with him to develop the whole thing. 

Still from matrix 4

In addition to the stunning visuals in the film, the sound design from Zelig is just as impactful. What was the collaboration process like in developing the soundtrack? 

When I started putting the project together, I had the music in mind already in terms of the artists and the style for each matrix. The reference was a band called Heilung from Germany; it’s very intense music. Then someone from OFFF said that we should work with Zelig, so I went to them. I told them I was using Heilung as a reference and they were going to let me use their music. But Zelig asked me if they could compose something original instead. I said we didn’t have enough time, but they were like, We don’t care. We want to do it! Then in two days, they sent it back to me, and they had gotten the vibe perfectly. It was an amazing experience for me. Seeing that progress and working with those kinds of creatives. The sound of the film is like 50% of it. It’s insane. They nailed the whole thing on the dot.

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What sort of feedback have you received from viewers of the film so far? 

In the way that we structured the narrative, we wanted people to feel something, and that’s exactly what happened. We got a lot of feedback even at OFFF. I presented on Thursday and a lot of people came up to me on Friday and were like, “Marcel, what the heck, man? Last night, I couldn’t stop thinking about what you presented. I thought it was cool at first, and then after a day, I started absorbing all of that information.” Now, I would say I get around ten emails a week from people. They say, “Oh, shit, this is crazy! It really hit me.”

All of the images that we use in the film are based on a library of images that people see in each state in their life. During transpersonal therapy, they see those shapes. The way we structured the film was by using images that people can connect to, but they don’t even know why; it’s part of a collective unconsciousness. So you see it and then you recognize it, but you don’t know why you like it, or why it’s related to you. That’s why people start connecting with it.

Still from matrix 3

As the director of the film, how do you hope people experience it? What do you want them to walk away thinking about or feeling? 

There are a bunch of interpretations, so it really depends on where you are in your life. That tells me which matrix you’re going to connect with. Some people connect with matrix three; they’re like, Oh, this is amazing! I felt a lot of stuff here! There was a lady that came to me at the end of my speech at OFFF, and she asked me for a hug. She started crying and was like, “Matrix two just destroyed me!” Then some people who are stuck in matrix four, they’re like, Oh my God, the end is crazy! Because there are a lot of colors and they love that. So it really depends; each person likes one part, and that’s kind of cool to me.

Do you have any plans for pushing “Feelings” further in any way with other additional projects? 

We’re developing an exhibit that’s going to be four stages. So you come in, and then you go through all of the stages, and then you exit. Then, if you want to talk to a therapist, or if you want to draw, or if you want to play an instrument, or if you want to understand what happened through the experience, that’s what we’re working on now. We’re building the whole system of the exhibit and we plan to travel with it, taking it to different cities.