The soldier's life has long fascinated filmmaker Danny Madden.
The 26-year-old director and animator, who grew up 30 miles outside Atlanta in Peachtree City, witnessed many of his hometown friends enlist in the armed forces after high school. During that time, he also poured himself into military memoirs to better understand the military experience. As the years passed, he continued to think about making the animated film that would become Confusion Through Sand.
But it wasn't until early 2012 that the film's subject came together on a several-month trip to Mali. The war-torn sub-Saharan nation reminded him of photos he had seen of Iraqi and Afghan villages where people he knew were stationed. Throughout his travels, he contemplated the differences between his world travels and a gun-toting reserve's stint halfway around the world.
"It was interesting to think about what if I was here with these other intentions and trained to defend myself to kill people," Madden says.
Following Ornana Films' premiere of his experimental full-length feature euphonia last SXSW, Madden, producer Jim Cummings, and producer Ben Wiessner moved out to the San Francisco area — and raised more than $30,000 via Kickstarter along the way — so they could devote their time and resources toward the animated short.
Confusion Through Sand, Madden says, tells the story of teenage military recruit who's "alone in a hostile desert, scared as hell and trained to react." To conduct research for the film, Ornana's co-founders interviewed more than a dozen military veterans in Georgia, Texas, and Washington about their active duties. Madden kept hearing similar themes emerge from vastly different experiences that spanned numerous decades and multiple wars.
"Boring was a word that came up a lot," Madden says. "It's mostly just really boring. You're in these undesirable places, you're thirsty, and you're eating shit food. Then, all of the sudden, 'boom!' You're adrenaline's up 100 percent and you're expected to perform perfectly."
With Confusion Through Sand, the filmmaker wanted to recreate the full spectrum of emotions felt in a young soldier's combat tour. That includes getting sand in one's eyes, temporarily losing hearing from fired gunshots, and the moments of isolation between those high-octane rushes. Over the course of 12 minutes, the film frequently shifts perspectives to purposely throw viewers off-kilter in an effort to capture his character's harrowing experiences.
To reflect the calm and chaos of warfare, Madden drew more than 6,000 frames over nine months and colored each picture with markers on different kinds of recycled paper during the next two and a half months. For two additional months, Cummings and Wiessner helped photograph individual frames and assemble the film's edits.
One of Madden's most formative experiences during the making of Confusion Through Sand came during the recording and mixing process at Skywalker Ranch in California. Employees from the legendary sound design studio, where sound design takes place for countless Hollywood blockbuster films, invited him to set up shop and offered complete access to their world-class facilities.
"They opened the doors to me in such a casual way," Madden says. "It's an absolute dream of a lot of filmmakers to step foot on the premises."
Madden carefully designed audio that captured the sounds of life during wartime. He recreated the sonic experiences of whirling sandstorms and whizzing rocket-propelled grenades — all on a trusted handheld recorder to ensure its realism.
Now that the film's finished, Confusion Through Sand is set to debut SXSW this week. Soon after, the animated short will be screened as part of the Atlanta Film Festival. Ornana will likely show the film at other independent festivals throughout the remainder of 2014.