Winner of the 2012 prestigious Cartoon d’Or award (along with various other festival awards), Belgian filmmaker Emma De Swaef is certainly making a name for herself with her unusual techniques and unique narratives. Over the years, animators have gained a reputation for using anything they can get their hands on to create films and in the world of the animated short, we’ve seen filmmakers employ snow, sand, balloons and t-shirts as tools for their creative masterpieces. De Swaef has taken this ingenious use of materials to a whole new level and carved out her very own niche by utilising wool and textiles to create one of the most distinctive, breathtaking styles you’re ever likely to see on screens big or small. With her latest short Oh Willy currently touring film festivals worldwide and only just missing out on an Oscar nomination, we talk to inspirations, wool and future projects with one of animations hottest properties.
Inspired to make puppets by Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronica (even pointing to this specific scene as the moment of inspiration) and Sesame Street, De Swaef’s filmmaking career blossomed as her interest in bringing characters to life and creating a world for them to inhabit developed into a passion for stop-motion animation.
“Arranging all the props onto the tables (at this point everything looks a mess), moving everything around, scattering woolnepps, adding blobs of wool here and there, and most importantly, setting up the light. Slowly but surely depth is created, and in the best cases, a sort of emotionality or expressiveness is created in the way the light interacts with the wool.”
Yet, just like Hisko Hulsing and Joseph Pierce, the first two inductees of the TheyAreAnimators series, De Swaef didn’t step straight into the world of animation (seems to be a recurring theme). Having studied documentary filmmaking at the Sint Lukas art school in Brussels, her filmmaking techniques aren’t inspired directly by peers in her chosen field. Instead this unconventional animator casts her net much wider for inspiration:
“This might sound a little strange, but animation isn’t the film genre I’m most interested in. I draw more inspiration from (documentary) photography, literature and live action films than animation films. I do like watching them sometimes, but find myself paying more attention to the technique than the actual story. As I started to develop more and more of an interest in animation, I applied for an internship at the Beast Animation studios“.
“I was very lucky that right at that time the feature film Panique au Village was being shot, a totally crazy and amazing project. As soon as the directors figured out I could sew and knit they asked me to make all sort of fabric props for them like parachutes for the cows, the farmer’s shower curtain, and leather briefcases for the donkeys. Their most frequent comment to the setmakers was ‘It doesn’t look crappy enough’ or ‘it doesn’t look silly enough’, which is very unusual in the stop-motion world where everyone seems to be obsessed with detail and smoothly sanded surfaces.”
Whilst studying in Belgium, De Swaef decided to take her filmmaking career down a new and somewhat risky path with a short she described to the jury at her graduation as, “a documentary showing the escapist fantasies of office workers.”
“In my first year at school I made a documentary about a man named Willy, a lockkeeper in Ghent. I really liked the way he looked, his shape and soft sensibilities, so I wanted to make another film about him. This time I wanted to focus on his inner life rather than his job, using animation. I started thinking about what Willy could be thinking about, sitting in his office, waiting for time to go by. The result was Zachte Planten.”
“Probably if I had known more about stop-motion back then I would’ve realized it was impossible to make a 10 minute stop-motion film with no money and a few weeks time and never started. But I guess our ignorance just made us go ahead with it. We’ll try and keep the same ‘stupid’ attitude for our next projects, writing scenes just because they are funny or will make the story work better, not thinking about how much work they will be to film or whether or not it’s impossible to do.
Zachte Planten is very flawed in many ways, but it showed enough promise to get people to fund the new project. I know a lot of the film commissions really hesitated to fund Oh Willy… because of the strange scenario. In the end their curiosity about the result always prevailed over their hesitations though, and astonishingly enough we ended up getting all the funding we applied for”.
“But the result isn’t offensive at all. Seeing how mellow and accessible Zachte Planten had become, we realized how far we could go with content in this woolly style. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down! It made us realize how many subjects that are too uncomfortable or weird in a live-action movie become a lot more digestible when animated in wool. This time we wanted the film to have more of an edge though, so we decided not censor ourselves in the writing at all.”
Described on Vimeo as “part sequel, part remake (in reference to Zachte Planten) but with more nudity, sick, poo, sci-fi and horror”, her latest award-winning short Oh Willy… sees De Swaef take a blossoming style and plot to a new extreme.
Fifty-something Willy returns to the naturist community where he has spent his youth to visit his dying mother. When she dies shortly after he arrives, Willy is confronted with the choices he made in his life. In confused sadness he flees away into the forest. After a rough start he finds the motherly protection of a big gentle hairy beast.
Completely made out of wool or textile, the combination of these materials with the nudism in Oh Willy… is a match made in heaven (a sentence I never thought I’d say in my life!), but was nudism/naturism always something De Swaef wanted to include in her latest creation or was it more inspired by the materials she was working with?
“The photos are as poetic as they are uncomfortably banal and confronting. We wanted to achieve the same tension between poetry and shockingly uncensored imagery by combining the wool with the theme of naturism and question of what it means to live in a natural way.”
Whilst there is no doubting the unusual storyline that unfolds throughout the near 17 minute running time of Oh Willy… and it’s something you won’t forget very quickly, the story is always going to somewhat play second fiddle to the film’s striking visual style. It’s hard to even imagine how you go about creating a film entirely out of textiles such as wool and although De Swaef describes it as “a comforting, warm, forgiving material”, what was it really like to work with?
“It did create some extra work. We wanted specific parts of the the wool to move at every frame, so even if there was no movement we asked the animators to touch the puppets before recording the frame- being careful not to touch any of the fibres on the set around it. Wool also ‘breathes’, so we couldn’t take overnight breaks, every shot had to be finished in one day: this usually meant very long days for the animators.
Nearly all the shots were conceived based on the limitations of the wool. We wanted to retain the fuzzy, wiry texture of the wool so green-keying was almost immediately ruled out. We have a very low-tech approach and wanted to create a sense of wide open space on set without relying too much on post-production. Every element in every shot was a real on-set element so we had to come up with all kinds of on-set solutions to make everything look ‘real’. For example, distant objects needed to be scaled down and diffused to create a sense of distance, we strapped wool to the lenses to create foreground fog, we made huge diffusion panels using cheap plastic and created clouds by suspending bits of freshly cut sheep’s wool on chicken wire.”
Whilst Oh Willy… obviously stems from a style developed by De Swaef during her studies, she wasn’t alone in creating this animated masterpiece. A year in production, her latest film was not only aided by the talented team she surrounded herself with, but by co-director Marc James Roels. So how exactly where directing duties split on such a precise, time-consuming shoot?
“Marc was DOP and I was in charge of the puppets, all the other things we just sort of did together. We’ve been living and working together for such a long time now the collaboration felt very natural, and we’re already busy making a new film together.
Zachte Planten was just Marc and I working away in the attic. The set was about 2 metres by 3 metres, a wooden plank on a few wobbly trellises. The characters were half the size of Oh Willy’s puppets with some aluminum-wire stuck in them to put them in poses”.
“In a way there were a lot of similarities too. For ‘Zachte Planten’, I spent about three weeks pricking wool into foam tree trunks to make a forest, a very repetitive task. For ‘Oh Willy…’, I was doing the exact same thing, only now with two interns by my side, creating a bigger forest. We couldn’t re-use the old trees because I decided to use Islandic wool instead of merino… At that moment the two productions felt very similar.”
Currently touring film festivals where along with its Cartoon d’Or awards it has also picked up awards in Bristol, Utrecht, Zagreb and Baden, Oh Willy… is building its creator a reputation as one of the most exciting animators around. But how has the De Swaef found showing her film to a live audience and how did she settle on a distribution strategy?
“It’s been really fun actually, much more fun than I expected. The animation world is not that big, so you meet all these directors and curators from all over the world and bump into them again at other festivals. It’s a great opportunity to travel a lot. The only unpleasant thing is to be forced to attend your own screenings, it’s an excruciating and sobering experience- so we try to avoid that part as much as possible!
I feel quite happy we didn’t have to make any decisions about that (online distribution), we just weren’t allowed to put the film online yet because of our funding and all the producers involved. It would’ve been a hard decision to make. The internet can be a great platform for your film and make it be seen around the world, but you never know beforehand whether a film will work online or not. And once it’s online, so many festival and DVD opportunities are lost…”
With the wooly animation looking set to continue its worldwide screening tour for the foreseeable future, De Swaef seems to have her hands full for the time being. Yet, with the evident success of Oh Willy… you’d expect there to be a few offers circulating for the filmmaker, so what’s next? ……please let it be more wool!
“We’re busy writing a new short film, set in colonial Africa (and yes, there’s a small role for Willy in it!), and doing some commercials. Busy times! The new short film will probably be shot in 2013-2014, so it will be a while before it’s out, but I’ll be posting about in on my blog”