In The Lonely Orbit, a man leaves home for his dream job as a satellite technician. Feeling isolated, he constantly texts old friends but with his mind elsewhere, his work suffers, and things start to go wrong with the satellites he’s looking after.
The short was created by Zurich-based animation studio Team Tumult, a team of six long-time friends and collaborators, who all met each other through studying and freelance work in Zurich and Lucerne. For The Lonely Orbit, Frederic Siegel and Benjamin Morard worked together as co-directors on the project.
The initial idea for the film was the image of a satellite in space burning up into a huge fireball, and a man walking through a bar, burning up in the same way. “I was intrigued by the metaphor of a human, living his life mirroring the life of a satellite,” says Siegel.
“After that, me and my co-director Benjamin Morard started to find narrative cues that connect satellites and humans to build a story around. Finally the topic of loneliness and being connected to your friends via smartphone resonated with both of us.” Pulling on themes of virtual connection contrasted with a lack of physical contact, the story feels especially timely with much of the world having gone through some form of quarantine and lockdown in the last year, away from family and friends.
The animation is in 2D with a flat colour palette and has been created digitally frame by frame. “The concept of limited colours is initially based on my previous film Ruben Leaves, where I used a bold blue and yellow colour scheme,” says Siegel. “I developed this kind of style during my studies at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Lucerne, where I tried to combine a loose drawing style, inspired by my love for sketchy illustration, with a more graphical and simple look, inspired by print-making and works by contemporary animators from the mid 2010s like Nicolas Menard or Alex Grigg.”
In pre-production it was just Siegel and Morard developing the story together as the initial idea was just an image and the broad topic of loneliness. “It helped massively to work together with Beni, crafting a narrative around the images. It was very freeing and eye-opening to just talk about the themes,” says Siegel. “We also worked together on the storyboard, each of us drawing different sequences, interchanging and combining during the process.”
After that, the pair started to split the work out with Siegel in charge of the design and overall direction, and Morard in charge of the editing and production management. “In the production phase we had a great team of three additional animators, one layout artist, two sound designers and a musician, working on the film simultaneously,” explains Siegel. “Everything was orchestrated by our producer and fellow Team Tumult member Marwan Abdalla Eissa, who did a great job handling the administration side of the project.”
The editing of the film was the team’s biggest challenge. “Since we really wanted to create a slow-paced film with impressive imagery of the earth and technology, it was very hard to get the timing just right,” explains Siegel. “In certain space shots you just observe some satellites flying by and the world spinning slowly underneath. It’s beautiful to look at, but how long can you show it until it gets boring? It’s hard to judge the length of a scene when there is basically nothing happening at all. Especially when you’ve seen it a few hundred times already during the editing.”
While decisions like that are difficult, working with a team to bounce ideas off is one of the benefits of not being the sole animator. For Siegel it’s also an opportunity to share and learn. “The best thing about working in a collective is being able to share your personal knowledge and skills with the other members and in return being able to profit from their expertise,” he says. “It’s great to work in a group, where everyone brings another strength to the table, that benefits the whole team.”
Through The Lonely Orbit, Siegel hopes to confront his own feelings of loneliness and his relationship with digital communication. “It feels like most of the ideas for my personal projects are based on basic feelings and issues that I’m struggling with myself sometimes, like anxiety or envy,” he notes. “Most of the time they are connected to my relationship with technology or social interactions.”
One of the aims for the film is to make other people more aware of using modern technology to communicate and the impact of that over time. Siegel feels it’s become too easy to pretend we’re still just as connected while ignoring the importance of real world connections. “I think the global pandemic is accelerating this development, getting people closer together virtually but separating them even more physically. On one hand I love that everyone I know, basically lives in the palm of my hand right now and I can reach out to them anytime I feel lonely,” says Siegel. “On the other hand, I’ve never felt that a digital conversation is a replacement for a real-life, loosey-goosey exchange of thoughts over a few beers in a smoky pub.”
Siegel hopes the film highlights the need to consider phones, computers, and other smart technology as just a method of communication and not the only one. “They are just supposed to be handy tools helping us to stay in touch with a real human on the other end. They are not the connections themselves,” says Siegel. “They are not keeping us from feeling less lonely, and we should never forget that, no matter how long this situation lasts.”