Hello Interwebs! This week I analyze TPM’s very first short film, Planet of the Beavers! Our PoB series is too big to cover in one article, so I’m just doing part 1 this time. More will follow in the future. Read on to discover the behind-the-scenes origins of this quirky series, how the Thought Plane team was founded, and how 3 young filmmakers started a story too big for their high-school skill-set.
Planet of the Beavers Behind-the-scenes Stories
The year was 2015. Compared to 2020 (and these last few years), it was a simpler time. Justin, Matteo and I were still in high school, our biggest worries were getting girls to like us, and sometimes we had big assignments to pull off. Planet of the Beavers began life as one such assignment. Justin and I were enrolled in a Communications Technology course back in Grade 11 and, for our final project, we were tasked with developing a short film.
I remember we weren’t supposed to do anything fancy or complex for our shoot. I don’t even think it was a partnered assignment. We just had to come up with something which could be filmed quick, dirt cheap, and under 5 minutes. Of course Justin and I went above and beyond (but we always did). Each of us needed dedicated actors and a small crew because, once again, we were thinking way too big. Because of this, Justin and I made a deal to help each other out on our individual assignments. My film was a sitcom-like comedy based on some misadventures Justin and I once had on a school trip; Justin’s was Planet of the Beavers. Suffice it to say nothing ever became of mine. We never even posted the thing anywhere (it was kinda funny though).
I recently asked Justin if he remembered how the concept for PoB came about. He couldn’t recall. So, this strange film’s stranger origins are lost to history. The idea seemed simple enough for a school project though: a goofy character wanders the woods, on the eve of the apocalypse, searching for a beaver to keep him company through Armageddon. As anyone loosely familiar with the series can attest to, however, that premise got wildly out of control…
I was brought on largely to do my “Australian Adventurer” bit for some comic relief. I came up with this character in my first ever collaboration with Justin. Justin also brought in some of his/ our other friends Cheyanne, Patrick, and Reid to be dead bodies and create a sense of atmosphere. They helped with camera work as well and hung out on set during some of the forest scenes. How were we to know our best hire would be the guy who was chosen for athletic prowess (see: he could climb trees)? Justin requested someone drop out of a tree in one of the scenes to attack the main character, Alex. His casual friend, Matteo, was the only person he knew up to the task. Sure, we needed another actor to perform for this film, but the tree thing was Matteo’s main draw. We didn’t find out til’ later Matteo once attended a performing arts school…
Truth be told, Matteo was so good in his role that I legitimately thought he wasn’t an actor for the first few months I knew him. To clarify: I thought he was this strange guy who could pull off a convincing animal-man shtick for this one video (and maybe others, if we needed him). I didn’t find out till a lot later that Matteo was a legitimately good performer with varied skills. Boy, was I proven wrong on that first impression…
Planet of the Beavers was done back in the days when we planned absolutely nothing. There was no continuity between shots and no real direction. We just set up a camera, started rolling, and accepted whatever we got. I don’t think this film even had a script! Justin had some rough notes for shots but every scene in the film was improvised on set.
Our improv gave us some content gems for PoB 1. I can’t remember whether or not we planned for Queen to be the thing The Manimals reacted positively to (I believe we did) but I’m confident all the other songs were random ones I thought up. I also think the Beavers and Queen thing was improvised as well. Speaking of that: there’s a 6 minute clip of Justin, Matteo, and I lip-syncing to Bohemian Rhapsody on my hard-drive somewhere, and it’s amazing. We at TPM consider this clip the unofficial moment our company was born.
RANDOM FACT: That guy with us in our “crew photo” at the end of PoB 1 (Derek) just randomly found us in the park that day and somehow ended up in the picture. He didn’t even have a meaningful job on that particular film (though he would later join us for part 3).
These are the memories I remember most from filming that first PoB. It was a rag-tag operation with a couple casual friends (or strangers– I hadn’t even met Matteo before this video), made haphazardly during our school lunch breaks, which somehow turned out memorable and funny and led to a story I hold dear. This is the film that united Justin, Matteo, and myself for the first time. And this story is what ultimately led to us becoming such close friends.
Planet of the Beavers Narrative/ Film-making Analysis
NOTE: The first PoB was intended as a goofy stand-alone video without much intentional subtext. Planet of the Beavers is a series which builds on each previous installment, which means the majority of “deep” ideas from the first video is dependent on what we did later. So that’s how I’ll have to examine PoB 1: by putting the film in context of the larger story.
The first scene of PoB shows Alexander being super non-nonchalant about the end of the world. Upon discovering the apocalypse is happening, his reaction lasts less than 30 seconds. From scene 1 alone we can infer a lot about his character: he’s cocky about his chances in the apocalypse (he dismisses the “weapons” advice because he can simply “make” them), he’s impulsive and doesn’t think things through (he randomly picks a companion off the page in his book), and he has a strange sense of priorities (having an animal companion stands out more to him than survival tips).
Now, we follow Alex as he ventures into the apocalypse. His strange behaviour continues. Though the world is presumably ending, he is unusually calm. Finding a beaver companion is fully engrossing to him. He even casually walks over dead bodies like they’re obstacles in his way. Who is this guy and why is he so unfeeling? Perhaps he’s a battle-hardened warrior, ready to brave the apocalypse and– wait a minute– maybe he’s a coward? The moment a man jumps out of a tree and runs towards Alexander, he shrieks and runs full-speed away before falling onto the forest floor. This character is not only a coward– he’s clumsy too. As further proof, he also runs from the beaver as soon as it makes a noise. The beaver is far from the most intimidating animal…
So in the first few minutes we’ve established this strange character as our presumable lead: he’s fearful, goofy, cocky, and maybe even a little dumb. How’s this guy going to survive the apocalypse? The answer is a mystery for now. Better question: how can this guy lead a whole series? I’ll answer that one now: he wasn’t supposed to. This was just going to be a one-off adventure until we figured out how to use Alex’s awful leading-man status to our advantage (Spoiler alert for PoB 3: He’s a “chosen one” figure to some but, in reality, an incompetent loser). Alexander is like watching an accident unfolding before your eyes: you want to warn him he’s gonna get hurt, yet you also can’t stop yourself from looking as he goes about survival in the weirdest ways.
Alex’s wilderness trek is filmed in a somewhat disorienting way. Multiple cuts and fades imply the passage of time. But how much time? In some shots Alex is wearing a jacket; in other moments he’s only in a t-shirt. Are these sequences even in order? The apocalypse has begun and time is no longer relevant. Such editing choices parallel Alex’s descent into madness (which we don’t find out has happened until later).
Alex, though he’s allegedly our series protagonist, doesn’t get many speaking parts for the first 2 films. Besides this beginning section, he won’t speak coherently again until the end of Part 2. So does that make Mortimer our protagonist for this installment? I’d say so, yes. When we first meet Mortimer, he’s documenting the apocalypse for future survivors and, due to this, all information we as the audience learn is learned through his eyes. The audience is supposed to care a little for Alex because we see his character before he became a Manimal, but Mortimer is the one you root for. You probably want to know more about this world, and so does Mort, so you (the audience) develop this little alliance with him while he’s figuring things out. His goals are in our best interest as well.
The film-making when we meet Alex again is raw and documentary-like. Mortimer demonstrates his curiosity of the Manimals by following their behaviour. It is telling of his personality that he chooses not to interfere in this weird display. Even after a lot of character development in later installments, Mortimer remains the straight-man of this trio. He calmly watches as Manimal Number 1 attempts what appears to be a mating ritual or invitation for friendship. Who knows what that was?
SIDE NOTE: The way Alexander and Manimal Number 1 playfully interact shows us that Manimals are more docile than menacing (this would change by Part 2, but for right now Manimals are like pet monkeys).
Here’s what else we can infer/ see about Mortimer from this scene: he’s a cheery gent who keeps a video record of his adventures, maybe to alleviate boredom or possibly to give himself purpose. He teases that he’s strapped down in weapons, foreshadowing his warrior ways. He’s a survivalist, sure, but his descriptions nearly sound like overkill. What’s his deal? He also apparently captures Manimals and presumably trains them. Mortimer is a curious and observant man too (for one thing, noting the Manimal obsession with beavers). We also see him as a brave personality. In his video, he hears strange noises close by him. Whereas Alex would have likely run away, Mortimer laughs at them and sees potential for dinner.
Manimal Number 1 (later known as Jack or Doc in the series) seems like the least important character in this video, but he’s doing more than first meets the eye. Unlike Alexander (who is almost a complete simpleton after becoming a Manimal) or the other Manimals we meet later in the series (who are largely rabid), MN1 is reasonably intelligent. He might say the word “beavers” a lot and eat bugs out of Alexander’s hair, but each of his movements is filled with intention and meaning. He’s not some dumb beast existing on instinct (once again, like Alexander or any of the other Manimals).
MN1 seems to be aware he’s performing for a camera, initiating a friendly greeting with Alexander, and appears to have a complete understanding of human vocabulary. He demonstrates a sense of rhythm during Mortimer’s rendition of “We Will Rock You.” He even launches into the first lines of Bohemian Rhapsody unprompted! The mention of Queen was enough to jog his memory of the song. MN1 later becomes the smartest character in the series. Though his first appearance seems like a basic “monkey performance”, the signs of something greater were there all along.
This brings us to the climax of PoB: The Bohemian Rhapsody scene. Alexander, MN1, and Mortimer’s jam session solidifies this unlikely trio as a post-apocalyptic tribe, united in their common love for rock music and by their common need for survival. The three men dance and sing together in an extended sequence of group bonding. Here the dynamic is forged: Mortimer is the leader, MN1 is the comic relief, and Alexander is the strange guy who travels with them.
Before the ending of this story we’ve learned many vital things about this world: beavers seem to be a common obsession, the apocalypse left many survivors, and most of the living turned into Manimals over an unknown period of time. Oh yes– the Manimals are also fans of Queen. Why, you might ask, do Manimals forget about everything in their former lives except beavers and Queen? Well, as to the former: you’ll find out soon; and for the later: Queen is unforgettable.
At this point Mortimer’s documentary finishes for good and is never brought up in the series again. I like to imagine that his camera died. Without any reason to continue his social experiments on Manimals, and his need for adventure driving him, Mortimer takes his tribe out of the woods, into the world. But the group is met with a terrible realization: (presumably mutated) beavers have taken over the area– maybe the world– and enslaved humanity. This may explain why every human Mortimer comes across seems to only discuss beavers: it’s based on some sort of traumatic experience.
The first chapter in the lives of this bunch has concluded but the adventure has only begun. Now they are in the real post-apocalyptic world, with whatever dangers and horrors it may bring. The look on their faces in the film’s final shot shows clearly how they feel. They’re in for a wild ride.
Planet of the Beavers was only ever meant to be a funny short film for Com-tech class. Instead, it helped kick-start a production company, created close friendships, and provided many years of creative material to work from. The narrative we ended up producing pushed Justin, Matteo, and I to grow out of our comfort zone as filmmakers and taught us everything we know about movie-making. There’s a lot more PoB to cover, and I’ll be sure to get to it at some point. Stay tuned for those articles!
Who’s your favourite PoB character and why? What’s the best episode released thus far? If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time