If you think science fiction only goes as far back as 1950s movies such as Forbidden Planet, or the stories of icons such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, you’re missing out on a lot. Depending on how you define the genre, sci-fi started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 or Thomas More’s “Utopia” in 1516. Or, by some accounts, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh in the second millennium B.C.E.
You get the idea. There’s more to science fiction than spaceships and robots, and there’s more of it to explore than most people realize.
A pair of Portland writers and filmmakers are trying to change that, by creating an animated, episodic series that draws on the work of neglected sci-fi authors. Marisa Cohen and Peter Issac Alexander have completed a ten-episode, four-plus-hour epic titled The Cloaked Realm. It’s taken years of work, and a peripatetic trip through dozens of film festivals, but The Cloaked Realm is set to have its Pacific Northwest premiere when two episodes will screen on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 5:30 p.m. during this weekend’s Fan Expo Portland at the Oregon Convention Center.
Arts Watch spoke with Marisa and Peter to learn more about this unique project and what to expect on Saturday.
Who are some of the authors and stories that served as the inspiration or basis for the films?
MARISA COHEN: The first season is mainly based on three stories, all from around a hundred years ago: “Moxon’s Master” by Ambrose Bierce, “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley Weinbaum, and “The Ablest Man in the World” by Edward Page Mitchell.
PETER ISSAC ALEXANDER: Weinbaum was only thirty-three when he died, but he had a massive impact. Isaac Asimov thought he was a genius and felt that he completely changed the face of science fiction. I really think that if he had lived another seven or eight years, he would probably be a very well-known figure. As it is, the average person has no idea who these authors are. That’s something we’re trying to change with this series.
M: We feel like Jules Verne gets all the love.
P: Two of these stories were written in the nineteenth century and they were addressing the potential and the dangers of artificial intelligence. It’s a pretty impressive intellectual leap that these guys took. And obviously it’s very relevant now.
What were some of the inspirations for the visual style of the series? Does the style remain consistent throughout or does it vary by episode?
M: We were inspired by things like Æon Flux and other old animation and sci-fi movies.
P: Artwork from the golden age of sci-fi and pulp magazines. It’s got the DNA of a lot of different looks.
M: The whole thing is hand-drawn, 2D animation, which has been quite the time-consuming project. But that’s the style that we gravitated to.
P: It also ages well. You can look at hand-drawn animation made twenty years ago and if it was done well to begin with it still has a cool look and feel to it. With computer-generated animation, it doesn’t age quite as well. There’s been progress in that direction, but if you look at computer-generated animation from twenty years ago, it’s kind of a rough experience.
Do either of you have a background in animation?
P: I can draw some mean stick figures! But neither of us has a specific background in animation. So we put together a team that can do a little bit more than stick figures.
M: Our background is on the writing and directing side. I directed a feature a few years ago. Writing is something we’ve been doing together for quite some time.
What was the origin of the project and how long has it been in development?
P: We’ve had a team of some sort working on it continuously for about the last eight years. We have over four hours of hand-drawn animation completed, which is the equivalent of three feature films’ worth. It was a very epic task.
M: When we first started, we weren’t aiming for such a huge project. It just kind of grew and grew, expanding before our eyes into what the project wanted to be. We wanted to make an animated feature, and everything was going so smoothly we were inspired to keep going. We reformulated it into a series, and we were very excited about how it would work as an anthology. That’s one side of the story.
P: From the time I was really young, I was into science fiction. I got a thrill out of finding these overlooked stories. When I was eight or nine years old, I thought to myself “If no one’s done anything with these stories by the time I’m 18, once I’m actually a man, I’ll jump in and start doing something.” And, of course, when I was 18, I told myself that when I was 30, once I’m actually a man, I’ll start working on that. By the time I hit 40, I looked around and started to realize that maybe I’m the guy to do it! And the anthology format just seemed a perfect way to showcase all these different stories.
M: Hopefully we’ll get distribution, and we can continue adapting them. That’s a dream of ours. We’re already working on the second season.
P: There are so many fantastic, amazing stories that are just sitting there waiting to be rediscovered. And there’s a lot of cultural value to these stories.
Just to be clear, the series is described as a “hybrid anthology.” Are the episodes stand-alone or is there a larger narrative arc?
M: When we say the series is inspired by these stories, we did a lot of our own writing to connect them.
P: I would say the first episode is its own story, and then episodes two and three go together. And then episodes four through ten go together. So, there are three overall parts.
M: Ideally, you’d watch them in order from the beginning. We made them sequential in the order we thought would be most entertaining for an audience.
You’ve been screening episodes at dozens of festivals over the last year, and finally you’re having a Northwest Premiere at this weekend’s Fan Expo at the Oregon Convention Center. What sort of experience can attendees expect at that screening?
M: We’re also screening at the Oregon Short Film Festival on February 26, but this is the first time any of our work has screened in the Northwest. It’s gotten a lot of play in New York and California.
P: Our hope is that we’ll be screening a little bit of new content, about 90 seconds of footage from Season Two. So we’re excited to see how audiences react to that.
M: And we’ll be talking about our process a little more in-depth than we’ve done. We’re hoping that aspiring series makers or animators come see it, and we have some tips and feedback we can share about how this all came to be. There’s so much potential for animation to be made on a limited budget. Hopefully that can be inspiring to other people.
(The Cloaked Realm: Creating an Animated Sci-Fi Series is at 5:20 pm in Room B113 of the Oregon Convention Center. FanExpo tickets are available here.)