Pile

Toby Auberg — Toberg (2021)

Water then food. Agriculture then industry. Old then new. Critical then extra. Simple to complex. Concrete to abstract. Dirt to clouds. Real to unreal.

If you don’t watch a lot of short films, you might be forgiven for assuming there’s not much depth or complexity you can fit into a three-minute duration. A comedy sketch or a music video, maybe? But a thought-provoking deconstruction of the evolution of society, that’s not possible, right? With grand aims of putting human constructs in order, Toby Auberg’s (aka Toberg) Pile attempts just that.

When you picture animations about evolution, your mind will probably (just like mine) immediately go to the image of simple creatures, dragging their basic bodies from the sea, before developing legs and scuttling around on land. Auberg’s short isn’t so interested with our biological progression however, much like Hertzfeldt’s 2005 short The Meaning of Life, it’s more focused on our societal progression and how we’ve moved from bare survival to the unhinged dystopia of late capitalism.

Beginning at the bottom of his titular pile, Auberg introduces us to his world as we witness humankind just struggling to survive – living in scrappy tents or ramshackle huts, eating only what they catch or grow – before moving his camera upwards and revealing the true intentions of his short. As we travel upwards, the different stages of societal progression literally stacked on top of each other, we experience these rapid developments in living conditions, before entering a crazed finale that paints a provocative picture of the future.

Discussing Pile with Short of the Week, Auberg admits he has difficulty “identifying a clear source for the film’s inspiration”, instead pointing to how his mind often thinks in terms of “muddled visual metaphors” as a major motivator for his premise. Originally coming up with the idea back in 2018, when pre-pandemic politics filled our headspace, the filmmaker (like most of us) was very anxious about the world and so decided to make “a piece that visualised the big ‘house-of-cards’ that we rest our lives on”.

Thematically ambitious, Auberg backs up his grand concept with some impressive craft, telling his story in one continual shot, his virtual camera rising through his incredibly detailed tower of humanity. Like the environments he portrays, his animation style develops as we progress. “The beginning of the film uses more traditional character rigs and ‘realistic’ environments”, the filmmaker reveals as I quiz him about his distinct aesthetic. “As the film progresses the style becomes more distorted and surreal, disconnecting elements and using simulation (dynamics) to animate the world in a more broken and chaotic way”, he adds.

Selected to play at Annecy (where it won the 2020 Jury award for a graduation short film), BFI London and Cannes, while Auberg admits he’d “love it if the film hit a nerve with someone out there”, he’s also just happy to have this complicated vision out of his head.

– S/W Curator Rob Munday

Sound design: Ben Goodall

Additional assets: Leto Meade, Jim Cheetham, Matt Taylor, Anita Gill, Linyou Xie, Michelle Brand

GAN animation: Erik Lintunen

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