Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Dom Hilton
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Since moving to Philadelphia from London about 20 years ago, Dom Hilton has transitioned from freelance writing to working on screenplays, eventually moving into the arena of writing and directing his own projects. Hilton now works as a freelance videographer, and co-founded the production company Naut Pictures in 2012. One of Naut’s first forays into animation, Aerial is a paranoid sci-fi short about a man tormented by mysterious radio signals. His attempts to escape eventually lead him even closer to the source of the problem.
PFS: How did you get your start making films?
DH: When I was a writer, my paid gig was writing for freelance guitar magazines and some other music magazines. It was fun, but from a creative standpoint I was a little frustrated because I had all these ideas I wanted to explore. So really it was starting out by writing treatments and screenplays and then just realizing that it would really be great to understand the process and what it would be like to really make a film, rather than just trying to write one, and it just seemed like a lot of fun. Which it is.
PFS: Tell me more about Naut Pictures. How did you join up with Naut’s co-founder, Brendan McGeehan?
DH: I think it was through good old Craigslist. I was looking for crew to make a film and Brendan was looking for someone to collaborate with from a music point of view. Originally we met at a coffee shop, and I said, “Oh I have this great idea, I’m going to make this film. This kind of coming-of-age thing that’s going to be really experimental.” We got very excited about making this film, which was going to be called Naut. And it never happened, because we got so distracted by all sorts of other things and started making short films and submitting to more competitions. We like to mix media when we can, and we’ve also started doing some more documentary-type things as well. And that’s how we met Francis Anderson, who is the animator for Aerial. He animated this amazing segment for us in a documentary we did about Joe Soprani, a legendary local accordion player. A part of Joe’s story is that he survived this terrible plane crash in the Pacific during the Korean War. We had this great footage of him talking about it, but we didn’t have a way to show it. So we were like, “Let’s try animation.” Then we found Francis, who did just an amazing job at that, so we were like, “Oh we have to work with that guy again. And that’s how we ended up doing Aerial.
PFS: Where did the initial idea for Aerial come from?
DH: It’s kind of crazy because it’s a story that goes back a long, long way to when I was a kid growing up in England and had the Sunday paper delivered. There was a magazine, and in the back of the magazine there was a kid’s science section. And I was a nerdy kid. One of the stories in this magazine was about a guy’s tooth picking up radio waves. This is literally 40 years ago, and it always stuck with me. It was kind of a cool story. Over the years, I’ve heard other versions of it. I think one of the most famous is Lucille Ball, who claimed she could hear Morse Code, and that the FBI managed to find a Japanese spy through the transmissions she heard in her head. There were many other stories. I ended up talking to a dentist who suffered from this phenomenon. And I read the Mary Roach book Spook, in which she follows this story of a German engineer who looked into this phenomenon and felt it was definitely something that could happen. So when I read that I felt that I could kind of turn it into something. So it was a long, long time in the making and it was in treatment for a long time. When we met Francis, it was like, “Oh, this is how we can make this.” With animation, it’s a very tedious way to put a film together, but the great thing is that you can put anything in it. You have no budget when it comes to the content. So that’s how it got made. And then a big part of it was Brendan’s sound design and music, which really elevated it. He did an amazing job of pulling all these sounds together. It includes things like number stations, sound waves coming off the Aurora Borealis, all sorts of crazy stuff. That’s how it came together after all that time.
PFS: How did you and Francis work together to bring your vision to life?
DH: It was an interesting challenge, because even though we had worked with Francis for the segment in the documentary, it was very much dictated by Joe’s description of the events. So it was quite clear how we were going to do that. With this it was a little more open. I realized that by far the easiest way to go was to just go straight to the storyboard. Then Francis would take the storyboard for each scene and figure out how long he wanted them to be, and what kind of movement he wanted. And then we went to-and-fro on earlier cuts to make sure everything was working out. He did a really great job of interpreting my chicken scratch, awful storyboards—which barely should be called storyboards, but got the point across enough that he could work his magic with it. And you realize that it’s unlike shooting live, where you can just say, “Let’s try the scene this way, let’s try a retake, let’s do a low-energy take, let’s try something different with the camera.” You don’t have that luxury and you really kind of have to decide those things up front, because you can’t pick and choose the final version without putting your animator through horrible amounts of work. It was a good lesson in focus, really having to think about what I wanted and sort of try to nail it on the first try. Francis did a great job, and I think there were a lot of decisions we could only have made because it was animation. Like putting Nicola Tesla in it and having the tower. So it was wonderful being able to say, “Yeah, let’s just put that crazy thing in the scene.”
PFS: When did you decide you wanted Tesla to make an appearance in the film?
DH: I’ve always been a big fan of Tesla. He’s such an intriguing character, and such a showman himself. We were looking at all these different radio signals and wireless transmission, all of this technology and the theory behind that. When you’re thinking of that stuff, you’re going to come round to Tesla. I think in the original story that I read in the newspaper a long time ago, it was a man who lived in Chicago who lived very close to a big radio tower. And back in those days it was AM, which was more easily demodulated than FM radio. So it’s much more likely it would have occurred back then. The idea was that being near this very powerful transmitter was how he could pick it up. So I was trying to think of something that was symbolic of the past, and Wardenclyffe Tower just looked so cool. It was like, “We’ve got to use that, and have a cameo by Nicola Tesla too.”
PFS: Do you think you’ll be working in animation any time in the future?
DH: Yeah, it’s been really liberating to realize what you can do with animation. There are certain stories that I’ve been kicking around in notebooks that I’ve always put to the side because you could just tell by the nature of the story that the budget required to show some of the scenes would be so prohibitive. Another medium we’ve worked with is puppetry, which is another way of being able to show things that are impossible cheaply and effectively. So maybe something that combines puppetry, animation, and live-action would be the way to go. It’s sort of where we’ve been headed for a while. That could be a cool witch’s broth to try.
PFS: Is there anything in the pipeline right now that you’re working on?
DH: Brendan and I are both actually at the minute are working on a project for a group called Songs in the Key of Free, which helps Pennsylvania life prisoners connect through music, make music, and ultimately record music. I’m working on a video for that, while Brendan is recording the music in the actual prison. So it’s certainly interesting work for him. But we’ve been talking about a long-form documentary and sort of filtering through some ideas and sort of local-based stories which we could take a bit of time to sink our teeth into. We’re definitely are due for another quirky short film.
Aerial will screen on Friday, March 9 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.