by Manu SharmaJan 30, 2023
A cigarette smoking man in a blue suit stares at a group of mannequins, and in return, is stared back at by eyes filled with static noise. A gigantic configuration of long, flowing limbs with a grinning clown’s face sneaks up on him, shocking the man in the process. As the startled man’s cigarette falls to the ground, the clown-monster begins telling him how in 1943, a US warship stationed in Philadelphia that he was aboard was teleported to New York in a failed attempt at generating an electromagnetic invisibility field. As a side effect of this process, the clown’s crewmates were all fused to the hull of the ship, and he, Mischief the clown was born. These strange scenes are merely an account of the very first episode in Youtube animator Umami’s series Interface, and serve as an introduction to the travels of its blue-suited protagonist Henryk, and Mischief the clown. Mischief plays both Vergil to Henryk’s Dante as well as Betaal to his Vikram, serving as a guide through Umami’s surreal landscape, whilst occasionally posing a cryptic question to his companion.
The two-year-old series is considered to be one of Youtube’s more obscure artistic projects, and is viewed by many as a shining example of a creator-driven, online animation culture that has thrived at Youtube since its inception in 2005, and in toto, extends even further back, to arguably 2001. Age is key here in understanding the relevance of works such as Interface, as they introduce a generation of creators who have spent their formative years watching early internet animations, and in the case of Umami, who is 30-year-old Justin Tomchuk, have now matured with the creative discipline necessary to build upon that foundation. Tomchuk himself is from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and earned a Bachelors in Fine Arts at NSCAD University, wherein he studied painting and film production. He cites David Firth, creator of one of the internet’s oldest and most highly regarded animation series Salad Fingers, among his influences. However, Tomchuk’s overarching palette is highly eclectic, and as he tells STIR, he also counts filmmakers such as David Lynch and Ridley Scott, as well as classical painting and music among the broader creative forces that have informed his practice. To quote the creator, “Interface draws from an amalgamation of movies, music and video games that resonate with me; books, graphic novels, news articles, paintings, art and my imagination”.
Tomchuk’s method of engaging with the wide body of artistry that he takes inspiration from is to build readings of these works within the world of Interface. For example, this aspect of the series may be observed in its treatment of Magritte’s The Son of Man, which forms a conversation piece within Mischief’s nostalgic meditations on the desires and limitations of corporeal life. As he observes the surrealist painting that famously features a prominent, floating green apple obscuring the facial features of a suited man, he mentions to Henryk, “I know when something is obstructing your way”. Meanwhile, Henryk looks on at the painting which Tomchuk has recoloured in order to give its human subject a blue suit, making him indistinguishable from Henryk in all but its indiscernible facial features. The apple limits him from total self-identification with Magritte’s subject, and no matter how hard he tries, he cannot see himself beyond it.
Tomchuk also engages with the tropes of film and storytelling as they appear in Interface, often retooling them in the process. The most prominent and enduring instance of this is in the unexpectedly friendly and thoughtful nature of Mischief himself, who is the creator’s subversion of the monster-clown archetype that has appeared in films for decades. In Tomchuk’s own words, “there are enough horror movies where the monster is scary in the obvious sense. I thought it would be interesting to have a physically horrifying monster that you can actually warm up to slowly, and then even empathise and love”. He adds to this by expanding upon the impact that his nuanced take on the archetype has on his narrative by telling STIR, “that way, his true evil intentions (if they are even evil at all) are not masked by the plot, they are masked by the viewer’s adoration of him”.
Interface is made using the Adobe Creative Cloud, and is developed by Tomchuk within a low resolution, 640x480 format. He believes that this small resolution forced him to create an economy of line and colour, and was ultimately a propelling force rather than a hindrance. Discussing this, Tomchuk said, “Despite my animations looking very crude, I try to approach their drawings and colour choices similar to that of painting - which is to say to focus on how light affects the subject. Light plays a huge part in the style, especially in my ongoing series Interface, and with just a few bright strokes against a dark background, you can create animations that are dynamic and not flat”.
While each episode of the series takes the creator roughly a month and a half to make, Tomchuk is currently working on episode 22 of a total planned 24 episodes, and, as he approaches the end of the story, he is taking longer with each episode so as to make the final episodes especially memorable. Additionally, he mentions that episode 24 may be the expected finale for the core narrative within the world of Interface, but will not necessarily serve as an ending to the world itself, nor does it mean that he will not use the characters he has created for Interface in his work again.
The series may be viewed as independent episodes on Tomchuk’s Youtube channel umami, as well as a 40-minute-long compilation of the first 12 episodes, called Interface Part I. This was screened at the 2019 Ars Electronica Festival in Austria, and stands as an exception to Tomchuk’s current outlook on the project, which focuses on the minutiae of the series itself, and does not generally engage with how it may interact with an exhibition space. However, this has not prevented the animator from releasing the soundtrack to Interface, which fans who look to owning a piece of this fascinating series may purchase either as a digital album, a compact disc, or as a vinyl currently in its second pressing from the bandcamp page HEXSYSTEM, which is also run by Tomchuk.