In „Ruben Leaves”, Frederic Siegel turns everyday anxieties into surreal imagery

As Ruben leaves for work one morning, his mind is restless: did he remember to lock the door? Did he close the windows? Did he turn off the gas? There are so many things that could go wrong in Ruben’s home during his absence, and they all take monstrous shapes in his imagination.

Frederic Siegel‘s compelling animated short about a young man harassed by anxieties has a very striking sense of colour and design. Frederic explains how he created „Ruben Leaves” and its aesthetic:

Q: How did you come up with the concept for Ruben Leaves?

A: The Idea behind Ruben Leaves is actually based on my own habits of checking things and being anxious about having my front door locked or having the windows closed etc. I also have to regularly walk back to my flat to check if the door is really locked. One day, as this happened to me again, I came up with the idea of exaggerating this particular thing in my graduation film project.

Q: What kind of research went into developing the story?

A: There was not a lot of actual research, because most of the ideas were already in my head or I could take them from my experience. First, I started out with collecting these different thoughts that could occur while leaving your flat unattended, like: you didn’t close the door, so someone could just enter, or: you forgot to turn of the stove, so everything could burn down. Finally, I needed to arrange these situations into a steadily escalating narrative.

Q: Who is Ruben, how do you envision him? Does he suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety? Is this an unusual day for him or is it a regular occurrence?

A: Ruben is kind of an alter-ego of mine. As I’m not really diagnosed with OCD, I think he isn’t suffering from it either. Ruben is a just a regular guy who is just a little too stressed, and by concentrating on his work so hard, he tends to forget other things, and getting anxious because of it. So what happens to Ruben on this day probably just happens a few times a month when his stress levels are extraordinarily high.

Q: I thought the symbols of biological decay (birds, flies, a dead deer) that overrun Ruben’s flat in his imagination were a very interesting and unexpected choice, can you tell us a bit more about the significance of Ruben’s nightmare scenarios?

A: Ruben’s anxieties are partly made of his subconscious thoughts. So the deer is just a mental manifestation of the deer he sees everyday in the smart phone game he plays. The fly and all the animals that follow are based on the fly he fights while smoking a cigarette before going to work. His nightmarish hallucinations act like dreams, where you take stuff from your real life and rearrange it into surreal worlds and events. That’s why the element of the animals seem very random and unexpected to the viewer, because it really is a very random part of Ruben’s live. He doesn’t even remember some of those parts himself.

Q: Do you think animation could play a part as a tool in cultivating empathy about mental illness, or stimulating dialogue on this topic?

A: As I was making the film, I wasn’t thinking about raising awareness about this topic in a very serious way. However, after the film was done, I received one request from a professional school for medical and healthcare experts. They asked me if they could show the film to their students, to get an easier access to this complex topic. At this point I realised that animation, or storytelling in general, could really help people to understand the human mind (including mental illness), because I think it’s the perfect way to visualise as closely as possible what actually happens inside someone’s mind. A lot of animators already use this power with great success!

Q: Tell us a bit about the choices made when developing the look and the style of the film, as well as the sound design, which was another remarkable aspect of the short.

A: First of all, from the beginning I treated the image and the sound design of Ruben Leaves as equally important. For every scene I already had the sound script in my head. So it was very natural for me that visuals and sound work hand in hand.

The visual style developed very naturally, based on the style of a music video I animated a year before. For this video, I only used the three colours of the CD-Cover of the band. The result was this very flat and print-like animation style. After researching different, related techniques and watching the work of some of my animation idols on the Internet, I came up with this final look for the film.

As for the sound, I worked with a graphical sound script, where I split the whole soundtrack in different layers. The layers depicted the different states of time (past, present, future, no time) and place (real world, Ruben’s mind, mixed reality) where the story takes place. Then we could start building this complex mix between the sound layers and the visual layers.

Q: What is the advantage of animation over live-action for stories that convey the inner life of characters and their stream of consciousness?

A: It’s obviously the expressionistic quality that gives animation the power to exaggerate nearly every emotion that a human can portray. Obviously, real humans can exaggerate their emotions only to a certain amount. In animation there is almost no boundary.

In animation you can also build your own worlds with your own rules. Things that are perceived as surreal in real life, become very normal and real in an animated world. This gives you the possibility to make any emotion or event believable, even if they are weird or hard to understand.

Q: What is your next project?

A: I’m actually working on a few different projects. At the moment, most of my time is invested in the forming of an animation collective here in Switzerland. We do commercials, but also music videos and more Art-related stuff. I’m also working on another animated short together with a friend. It will be about a satellite on his lonely orbit, but as we are still really busy, the production of the film probably won’t start until the end of this year.