Three years ago animator Nate Milton had a manic episode and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His friends helped him recover in a practical way but it was while making the film Eli, that he started to feel that his soul was returning to his body. “Which is kind of heavy and glowy,” Nate tells It’s Nice That. “That said, I think ever since I was a little kid, when I first started grasping the process of animation, I’ve clung to it like a form of therapy. The zen state that the frame by frame animation process creates has always helped.”
In the film, we meet the main character Eli just after he’s been sectioned. During a session with his doctor we learn that he believes that a racoon (a stooge for a clutch of extraterrestrial beings) has inserted a small nugget of magnetic meteor rock in his ear, an experience that has left him unable to sleep and in an obsessive fervour. Picked up by the police as he tries to break into the meteor crater site, Eli comes to the conclusion that the rock in his ear and life on earth as we know it, are the result of alien intervention. You’ll have to watch the film to discover just how this all ends, but the short does an excellent job of taking you along with Eli’s delusions and making you think that maybe, just maybe, there’s something to his visions.
Nate describes the film as an exploration of his period of delusion, but also of magical thinking (experiences where you get what you wish for in a way that cannot be explained by rational thought) and also “High Strangeness”. “It sort of encapsulates all the otherworldly experiences I’ve had throughout my life, like the feeling that I had been visited by aliens for instance. In terms of the film, it relates to the bits with Akhenaten Amenhotep IV (the pharaoh with the long skull), Eli hearing messages from ‘god’ and processing them through his musicianship, the alien implant he gets in his ear, and, how he’s under the impression that aliens present themselves as animals.”
For Nate, he started making Eli to plug a gap in his portfolio as well as to deal with the trauma of his manic episode. In the past he’s created a lot of narrative work such as directing many episodes of a Facebook show he created with friend Rob Bohn and developing a non-fiction work for the likes NPR. He’s also made some experimental personal work like short Feelings, but was yet to work on a project where he could direct both the narrative and the animation style. “Eli is like all of that stuff combined,” says Nate. “It’s a personal, narrative, experimental film that I both wrote and directed. It’s sort of my mission statement of where I’m at as an artist.”
Part of what is so incredible about Eli is its tight and believable writing. A lot of the plot is drawn from life – Nate grew up in an area with very magnetic rock and once woke up with an ear infection so severe that he had to have surgery to rebuild some of his jaw and mastoid – and his insight into the experience of mania makes the film feel both magical and deeply grounded. “The process itself was insane, I must have written ten fully independent takes before landing on this one – it really took two years to write. There’s animatics and radio-plays with seven other characters: there was a mother character, he had older siblings, younger siblings, neighbours. But it kept landing at like a 45-minute runtime and I knew I wanted it at around 10 to 12 minutes. So I just kept cutting it down and taking characters out until there was just the two human characters: Eli and Dr Harper and then a handful of aliens.” The writing process took Nate two years and was easily the most challenging part of the project.
The key to unlocking the film’s narrative was deciding on a “Forrest Gump structure”, which allowed Nate to time-travel through Eli’s story and cherry-pick the most meaningful parts. “I could talk all day about the writing process though, it was a huge pain in the ass. I did a ton of research too, and it’s spooky how many similarities my life has with people who claim to have been abducted or visited by aliens. There’s a lot of parts that were strictly written down and some that were more stream of consciousness responses to my research and life experiences. There were more than a few nights that I had to sleep with the light on, I’ll leave it at that.” Eli’s quirky animation style was dictated by Nate’s own natural drawing style, which he is unfairly self-deprecating about. “I pretty much can only draw this one way. What you see in Eli or Feelings is all I got,” he laughs.
Despite its surreal subject matter, what’s so powerful about the film is how empathetic Eli is as a character. It humanises the reasons why some people might feel they’ve been abducted by aliens – something that is often laughed at in mainstream culture. “I’ve gotten a few responses from people who are struggling with bipolar disorder or mental illness and they’ve all said, in so many words, that Eli just fits right in their hearts, even though each of them has their own takes,” says Nate. Most of all Nate made the film for his 15-year-old self – you can even spot Eli’s age on his hospital bracelets. “In general, it’s become my mission statement to talk openly about mental illness and to hopefully get the conversation started earlier,” Nate adds. “I got diagnosed when I was thirty and it opened up this whole third person view of myself. If that happened when I was seventeen, it would have answered a lot of questions.”