DECATUR — In 2009, Millikin University graduate Lucas Martell found out what it was like to become an online sensation. After working for more than five years on a six-minute animated short film called “Pigeon: Impossible,” largely on his own, he uploaded the final work to YouTube. The response was immediate and shocking, as the viewer tally crept into the millions. Today it stands at around 9.5 million viewers for the film, which has been shown at more than 200 festivals in 43 countries.
And yet, for all that stunning success, “Pigeon: Impossible” has never made Martell any income to speak of. He uploaded the video to YouTube before the site’s partnership plan began offering uploaders advertising dollars, but says it never mattered anyway because he never intended to produce weekly content for a popular YouTube channel. What the short film did do for him, though, was attract attention that has resulted in a steady career in professional animation.
“When I started on ‘Pigeon: Impossible’ it was a way to teach myself things about 3D animation,” said Martell, who helped found the Film Association of Millikin during his time in Decatur. “I thought it would be a relatively short process, but I had no idea how complex it would be. After it went viral, it opened a lot of doors to direct projects, but it takes a long, long time to get a film off the ground.”
And so, rather than sitting around doing freelance work, Martell decided to keep busy with a project even more ambitious than “Pigeon: Impossible.” He conceived “The OceanMaker” as another nine-minute animated film, this time with a post-apocalyptic setting in which the only water left on earth is gathered from the clouds by intrepid pilots and air pirates. Sinking his own money into the project, he bribed a team of animators to come join him for six weeks on a small island off the coast of Belize, where they attempted to complete as much of the project as they possibly could in one marathon work session.
“It was much more of a collaboration, implementing the ideas of the other animators,” Martell said. “I sort of provided the road signs to get there. I knew we wouldn’t be able to finish the entire film, but in those six weeks we accomplished the equivalent of three years I spent working on ‘Pigeon: Impossible.’ Working in a tropical paradise was a great incentive.”
One person who has supported Martell since the beginning is Millikin University adjunct professor Chris Reyman. The son of music professor Randy Reyman, he graduated alongside Martell and helped him with some of his earliest film projects. Taking advantage of a friend with extensive music training, Martell reached out to him to compose orchestral scores for both “Pigeon: Impossible” and “The OceanMaker.”
“Just as ‘Pigeon: Impossible’ was his first film, it was my first score and I had very little idea what I was doing,” Reyman said. “He gave me some great examples of soundtracks he was listening to, and I took those for inspiration.”
This second film, though, will feature a considerably more complex score. Reyman spent a week with Martell in Texas discussing his work, and they ultimately recorded with three different groups both in Austin and Decatur.
“We finally decided to use a 35-piece orchestra in Austin and both a choir and percussion ensemble at Millikin,” Reyman said. “It is much wider in scope and has a lot more depth to it, which is how Lucas always wants things, bigger and better. He has a way of seemingly biting off more than he can chew but then pulling it all off in the end.”
Despite all the progress, though, “The OceanMaker” was only halfway finished when Martell’s team left Belize. The journey toward completion has been slow, buoyed by an extra $9,200 that Martell was able to raise through online crowdfunding website Indiegogo. After much work, the final product is finally drawing to a close. The director hopes this film, like his last, will make the sort of impact that gets plenty of industry attention, and eventually larger budgets.
“Pixar puts around a million dollars into each of their short films, and obviously we can’t do that,” Martell said. “‘The OceanMaker’ is just part of a larger idea for a feature film I want to direct someday. Hopefully by the end of the year, people will be able to see this new film.”