Lovestreams: a heartbreaking film based on the early days of internet love

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Los Angeles-based animator Sean Buckelew has come up with an animated short film that shows us the ups and downs of digital love set in a time when the internet was at its infancy.

Called Lovestreams, the film was made in a span of two years using Flash and After Effects. It tells the tale of two people finding love on AOL Instant Messenger. Despite not ever seeing each other face-to-face, the two go on a breathtaking adventure before having to face the hard truth about meeting someone online.

Interestingly, the film’s release coincided with AOL Instant Messenger’s 20th anniversary, making it the perfect ode to the tech of yesteryears and the time when the internet was a much simpler place (read: no fake news and trolls).

We recently caught up with Sean to know more about the intensive process that went into the making of this emotional film.

Lovestreams by Sean Buckelew

What was the inspiration for the film?

“The first direct inspiration was receiving a prompt from the heads over at Late Night Work Club, an online animation collective that I’m a member of, that we were going to be putting together a new anthology of films with the theme ‘Strangers’.

“I had been doing some work and research on another film about the early Internet and identity issues surrounding it, and hearing this word made me think about the pure emotional interactions that strangers would have chatting online on platforms like AOL Instant Messenger back in the early 2000s.

“From there it kind of exploded into a whole bunch of different inspirations: personal memories from that time, images and music that would have been floating around in mass cultural space, and just romantic fantasy images that I wanted to see play out in a narrative.”

Could you tell us more your creative process, especially with regards to the film’s animation?

“I like to keep things as loose as possible for as long as possible, so that when the film starts to really take shape, you’re able to be nimble and responsive to the direction it’s going as you fill in the final pieces. So I would constantly be boarding and re-boarding sequences later in the film as earlier parts of the film started to fill in.

“The interface animation is basically a rigged Photoshop file that collages screenshots and is then pulled into After Effects for animation. The character sequences are all Flash with lots of compositing and post in After Effects.

“I try to just stay loose and have fun when I’m animating. I also tried doing this new thing where I would animate the shots on really big canvases and then kind of ‘find’ the cinematography later with a camera in After Effects.  I think this really helped smooth out a bunch of the transitions, even if it required a little bit more work that you don’t really see.”

We loved the chat between the two characters. It felt so real. What’s the key to writing effective and emotional dialogue?

“Thanks! This was the most fun part of the process because it was really intuitive and pretty easy to execute and change (compared to the character animation stuff).

“All the writing was timed out in Flash (which might be stupid, but it’s the program I’m most comfortable with, and has really immediate real time playback on the timeline). It allowed for a lot of flexibility in pinning down all the timing, which I think is a big part of the emotional feeling.

“I had also done a little experiment in the build up to the release of another film of mine that had screenshots of two guys talking on Facebook, and I found that like mimicking voices in the chat format was really fun and natural.  You talk like that all the time, but I think trying to write it outside that context is a fun challenge.”

Lovestreams by Sean Buckelew

We heard that it took you two years to complete it. What were the challenges of making the film?

“Yeah it did take about two years. The main challenge was finding the right balance between working on Lovestreams and working on stuff that paid the bills (or not passing up opportunities that felt like they couldn’t be missed).

“I think there was also a big psychological challenge in just taking myself and the film seriously, which might be easy for some people, but was something I really struggled with for a lot of production. Like, people say that working on your own stuff should be fun, but my experience is that it’s a total fucking nightmare where you feel like a worthless fraud for 90 percent of the time. I think this is why it’s so hard to make big personal films.”

That ending was heartbreaking. What made you decide to go with that particular conclusion? And what does it tell its audience about technology and the internet?

“I think the last line of the movie (when Sumr says ‘You’re not alone’) is meant to show a kind of contradiction or paradox of the way the Internet can make you feel like you’re in a crowded room and totally alone at the same time.

“I was a teenager when the film takes place, so I definitely indulged the emotional aspect of that in my personal experience. But then I also think there’s a kind of fond remembrance for how intense a lot of these textual interactions were, despite the limitations.

“And now that the internet and real life have basically merged, I don’t know if you can have those kinds of interactions in as pure of a way anymore. I also don’t know if overall the world feels more or less alone with all the advancements of the Internet. This is all to say: it’s complicated.”

Lastly, what are you working on next?

“I’m developing some stuff that’s in a similar tech-oriented realm as Lovestreams, some more serious some more comedy.  But my main project right now is a coming of age musical comedy about a wannabe DJ called This is My Hardstyle Attack.”

If you want to know more about the making of the film, Sean wrote an in-depth blog post here.