In a garage somewhere in Folkestone in Kent, a grey squirrel named Dot begins to move, blinking and stumbling forward as she comes to life. Dot looks around an impenetrable, foreboding forest, rife with do-it-yourself artistry. A human hand reaches over to adjust her fabric-covered arms just so.
The hand belongs to Astrid Goldsmith, an animator whose short film, Squirrel Island, caught my attention at the London Short Film Festival earlier this year. It’s a remarkable dialogue-less effort with an incredible sense of handmade aesthetic, dark humor and perilous narrative thrust. I sat down with Ms. Goldsmith to discuss her movie, from her first screening with Laika Studios to where she plans to take her career next.
In a talk you gave a few years ago, you said you grew up on Nick Park’s work. What appealed to you about his films?
I guess… Obviously the later work is quite different to the earlier work. I really fell in love with A Grand Day Out, which was actually his student film that then got taken in by Aardman. I love the humor and the oddities. I love that weird oven-fridge — I don’t know what he is. The mechanical character on the moon they find?
And the reason I like that so much, and Gromit as well, is they are language-free characters. I love that kind of humor and language-free expression. I think it allows for the audience to imagine a lot more? It’s not all sort of said and done and dusted. I’m very interested in that. The animation is the best when it’s like that. There’s obviously great scripts for animations but that’s kind of…
With A Grand Day Out, it just looked — I’d been making FIMO characters for all my life, since I was about four. So when I saw that when I was about 11, I think it just looked like something I could make. It had that point of entry to me where I could imagine animating the characters that I’d been making.
And that’s a bit of a difference from Laika, where it’s stop motion and beautifully crafted, but looks so polished that I would never look at it and say, “I could do that.”
Well now, I read they’ve gotten to the point … where they’re now inserting fingerprints to make it look like the human hand has touched. Which I think is an interesting thing to do because it’s obviously something they’ve recognized that people love that kind of tactility. But they want to streamline their own process and make it easier.
My film screened at Portland Film Festival where I met one of the VFX team from Laika and he said that every single frame that they shoot goes through [the VFX] department.
It makes sense to want to streamline and enhance, especially after Aardman had that fire during the production of Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
You come up against that stuff all the time in stop motion. I had so many disasters and catastrophes on set. You’re working with materials which have a mind of their own and those things sometimes happen.
Are there any other artists besides Park who you’d consider the biggest influence on your work?
Jiří Trnka, Břetislav Pojar, [Ray] Harryhausen. They’re kind of my animation gods. And [Ladislaw] Starewicz is amazing.
How have people received Squirrel Island since its release?
Really amazingly well. I’ve now visited both of the world’s biggest stop-motion animation studios. Sarah Cox, who’s a creative director at Aardman, she was on the BAFTA jury and Squirrel Island got long listed. So she saw it there, and she really liked it. It was literally the best email of my life. [Laughs.]
Both of those experiences, with Laika and Aardman, have really…
Have those meetings led to anything you can talk about?
It felt like a very agenda-free meeting, which was bizarre for me because I’m an amateur. Even just to be on their radar is amazing. [Squirrel Island] has done really well at film festivals. Clermont-Ferrand [International Short Film Festival] was amazing, Tampere was amazing, London Short Film Festival… I’m going to Norwegian Film Festival next week.
Because it’s kind of a weird film, and I know that it’s not to everyone’s taste, I’m just really grateful that some people have recognized something that they like in it and that they want to play it. And also that they’re big prestigious festivals that are getting behind it.
But I will also say that distribution reception is probably my least favorite aspect of filmmaking. It’s actually kind of torture because it’s this ongoing roller coaster of rejection and affirmation. Again, I felt like I really owed it to myself to push the film. I didn’t know what I was doing.
So you’re also your own publicity team, as well.
Yes. [Laughs.] In-house.
With a film like The Lego Movie, you have a style that’s clearly mimicking stop-motion animation. How do you feel about this approach?
For me, the technological aspect of film is probably the least interesting. [Laughs.] Because I spent many years as a model maker I’m much more interested in creating really beautiful mise en scène, clean lines, fun, engaging characters. Puppets that you know what they feel like. Those things. And I’m just not – I get asked about my process all the time because I shoot on film. I do love film, I do love that process, but I just did that because that was the easiest thing for me to do.
People get very caught up with these issues. I actually think what Tomm Moore said about this is really interesting. He said if you’re still thinking five or ten minutes into a film about how that film was made, then it’s kind of failed? And it’s true.
If you could have made Squirrel Island using CGI instead of stop-motion, would you have done that?
Even if you could achieve the same aesthetic?
I don’t think it’s possible. I really don’t think that’s possible.
So what they did in The Lego Movie to imitate stop-motion worked, but you don’t think it would for your film?
Yeah, because Lego’s plastic. Things like Toy Story are really successful, and The Lego Movie is successful in their own terms, because it’s plastic and CG is really good at mimicking that smooth sheen. I’ve yet to see a CG movie that I love the aesthetic of the same way that I love the aesthetic of stop motion.
I really love Sid the sloth from the Ice Age movies. Even though that’s actually quite early CG, especially the first one, there was something about the way he moved and his fur –
He was kind of like a rag doll.
Yeah. I’m not saying — I love all of those movies, but it’s just something different. I don’t think that they necessarily should be trying to ape human life, bringing Peter Cushing back from the dead. I think it’s just another thing and I’m not interested in that [goal].
The cinematography isn’t something that’s talked about all that often in animated movies, but it’s a big part of the process — particularly in stop-motion. How does that play into your visual style?
I had to learn all of this on the job because I wanted to make this film in an isolated, hermit-like way so that I would have complete control over it. [Laughs.] Which I know is a common thing for animators…
21 minutes is a long film to work on by yourself.
Because of that, there were some jobs that obviously I was pretty comfortable with — model making, which I’d been doing for years — but pretty much everything else was learned. I didn’t go to film school, so I didn’t know anything about lighting, cinematography and all of those things.
I think also because I wasn’t in a big stop-motion studio that knows about all of these things and has miniature lights for miniature sets, I was looking more at live-action movies. I was looking at 70s sci-fi movies, [in which] a lot of the interiors have quite flat lighting, and just making it up as I went along.
But with cinematography, because I didn’t really know the rules, it was really just what looked nice to me. I like symmetry and clean lines. I don’t like a cluttered mise en scène. And because I had so much work to do, and it was just me, I was making decisions based on, “This is enough to tell this moment, and I don’t need to make more things to put in here. I don’t need to make this more complicated than it needs to be.” Maybe that comes across quite earnest, because there’s not a lot of trickery in there, but I feel massively under-equipped to talk about cinematography because I’m learning.
So many of my influences have come from the mid-century, that also had a massive impact on the way I chose to frame it and tell it and the colors… Because I was watching a lot of The Avengers (1961), Batman (1966), Mission: Impossible (1966), The Prisoner, Columbo. A lot of it is low-budget filmmaking. A lot of it is, “We have one set and we’re just going to light it differently, rearrange the flats to make a different corridor. We’re going to repaint this thing and hope you don’t notice that it looks just like that thing.” There’s something really beautiful about that simplicity, not giving the eye too many distractions.
Contrast that with Laika, which is rich on detail. You see one of their movies and you think, “There must be 4,000 people working on this.”
That’s because there are! My first ever screening of Squirrel Island was at Laika. It was terrifying. Amazing. When I was in Portland for the film festival, I was invited to screen my film — like a cast and crew screening — with a Q&A afterward. That was before my film screened at the festival.
[Laika] were so lovely. The Q&A was probably the best Q&A of my life because it was with people who really know and understand stop motion. But it was terrifying standing up there. “Don’t judge me!”
“I made this in my garage! And this is one of the preeminent stop-motion studios in the world.”
[Laughs.] Their whole thing is pushing, pushing, pushing for perfection of their craft, which is incredible. If you have limitless time and money, that is something you can really explore. But when you’re making light fittings out of old ice-cube trays…
If you had unlimited time and money, would you have made Squirrel Island any differently?
It definitely would have been quicker! It would have been nice to employ some people to make things with me and to be able to afford not to have to stop production to take work on to earn money to carry on with the film. That’s why it took so long.
How long did it take in total?
From conception to finish, eight years. But so many years of that was making other work.
You did some commercial projects.
Yeah, a lot of commercial work. That’s obviously necessary; you have to earn a living, and that enabled me to completely make it on my own terms and not deal with other people’s agendas. So that’s good. But it does mean that you’re breaking your flow all the time, and then it’s hard to get back into animating or focusing on making the next massive set when you haven’t done it for months on end.
What sort of tools did you end up using to make Squirrel Island?
I don’t even have a computer. I’m in the Dark Ages. That is going to have to be remedied at some point.
So did you edit this all manually?
No, no, no. I said I didn’t want to edit — I don’t know how to edit. I wanted somebody else to do that. It’s a weird thing because when I started making [Squirrel Island], it was literally just a project just for me to see what would happen if I went back to making films by myself again. I didn’t really have any expectations and I didn’t want put any boundaries or limits on myself. That’s why I spent three months storyboarding and wrote this crazy storyboard with forty different sets, loads of puppets.
I didn’t want to think about what that process would be like. Throughout the process, I didn’t want to look at my storyboard too much because it kind of freaked me out about how much I still had to do. But then, because it took so long to do it, anything you’ve spent so many years of your life doing it grows in importance. And other people have expectations as well.
So it just became this much bigger thing than I’d anticipated it being. Then I felt like I owed it to myself to get a professional in to sort it out for me. Ben Mallaby, who is an amazing director, he volunteered to edit it which was amazing. Ben had never edited an animated film before.
You also had folks come and do music and sound for it, as well?
Yeah. That’s my partner, Craig Gell. He wrote the music. It was a bunch of firsts: he’s a musician and he’s written music for years and years, but he’d never scored a film before.
My sound designer, [Daniel Chase], I’ve never even met him. He lives in Oregon. He wanted to do the sound design. During my Kickstarter, he got in touch. He’d never done anything of that scale before. He’d just had a baby — his partner had just had a baby. And every night, after the baby had gone to bed, he’d record all of these polystyrene boxes crunching… It was January, so there was nothing dry in Oregon, and he was trying to find dry sticks in his garden. And he’d send me the rushes every evening.
How do you feel gender representation plays into how you thought through the development of Squirrel Island?
Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel like gender is not important in Squirrel Island. To me, it’s not a factor. Also, when you look at squirrels, you don’t think about whether they’re male or female. They’re just a squirrel. In a way, I would rather not have to engage with gender at all.
But, when you’re making characters and you’re thinking about what they’re like as people — squirrels — you do naturally imbue them with characteristics. They’re not necessarily feminine or masculine. I also feel like it’s important to name them. I have a bunch of puppets in my studio –
And you need to keep track of which one is which?
Yeah. I automatically just name them. All the squirrels are named after my mother’s aunts? So for me they were all just female.
The acorns, as well?
No, the acorns are… male? Yeah, it’s weird. He was called Mr. Acorn. It’s just because calling things “it” all the time, or the acorn, or the grey squirrel, it’s just useful for me to have names. But it’s language free, nobody ever knows their names. They don’t speak.
It’s been really interesting for me to see people read into things. The red squirrel cadets people think are more feminine because they’ve eyeliner and they’re more curvy. People always refer to Dot, the grey squirrel, as “he.” Even my editor, all the way through the editing process, referred to it as “he.” And at some point, I did, too! Because it’s just easier and I don’t really care. It’s not really that important.
I think in a way, that’s another great thing about making films with animals or anthropomorphized animals or highly stylized animals because you just get to sidestep all of those representation issues. You don’t have to really engage with it. Not that I fear engaging with it, but for this story, those things weren’t important. They are universal themes.
Even with anthropomorphic silent animals, going back to Mickey in Plane Crazy (1928), artists were gendering these characters by contrasting him with Minnie Mouse. Or further back in The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), which is about infidelity between husband and wife.
Also the new Peter Rabbit cartoon, the CG Peter Rabbit? Oh my god. It is a travesty. They’ve given the female bunny a pink headband.
It is frustrating. It’s really reductive. It’s kind of boring.
I know the reason that people refer to Dot as “he” and assume that it’s a male character is because there’s nothing traditionally feminine about her.
There’s nothing particularly masculine about Dot, either.
I suppose showing ingenuity is often attributed to male characters, so we assume…
I definitely was conscious that you can’t really control these things, how an audience reads into your film — especially with language-free shorts because there is that leeway. I do welcome that, I think that’s great. But the moment where Dot and Mr. Acorn are hiding behind the tree and they see the red squirrel for the first time and she’s zapping insects with the cow prod, and then they follow her through the hatch? I did wonder if people read romantic intentions into that? And I did wonder if I needed to make anything clearer. Then I just thought, “Well, that’s okay. It doesn’t really matter.”
It’s not like it comes to some romantic conclusion in any case.
And actually if there are romantic intentions there, then that’s okay, too. I hadn’t intended them, but people want to read that in, then that’s fine, too. You know people are always looking for faces in objects? We’re so programmed by those “girl meets boy” [stories], you’re just trained to look for those things. But it’s fine. You can see those things if you want to. You’re going to be quite disappointed when she gets the knife out.
Then she probably comes across as a femme fatale in a James Bond thriller to some people…
[Laughs.] Yeah, and I’m quite bored by that black and white, goodies and baddies kind of thing. That’s why from my viewpoint the red squirrel cadets aren’t villains. In fact, there’s no villain apart from humans for making this mess in the first place. The red squirrel cadets are just conscientious young [squirrels] doing their job, following the instructions to the best of their abilities.
It’s hard especially in a short film format to work out a way to end. I didn’t want to tie it all up because there’s no neat solution to this. [I wanted to] show that there’s another way, some hope.
I was wondering what you thought of this quote about representation in animation from Raphael Raphael Bob-Waksberg of BoJack Horseman fame in the context of your films (Squirrel Island in particular).
It’s interesting that [Bob-Waksberg] brings up background characters. At the moment, I’m drawing a graphic novel. This week I just finished the rough. The main character is a white male, and that’s a necessity because it’s partly a memoir. And because that was a necessity, it makes me just want to make every single other character not a white male.
It’s really the first time that I’ve made [art] with humans. So it’s been a challenge to start tackling those representation issues, and think about how I do that in a responsible way to make it – this story is very specific to this one character. It’s a thorny issue. I actually loved your article on Mulan. [Laughs.]
You know, women are massively underrepresented… I don’t know. It’s something I’m thinking about while I’m writing my feature.
Is the feature about humans? Animals?
Animals. Some are referring to it as a dystopian Wind in the Willows? So yeah, there’s animals. But if they’re talking, that necessitates you delineating. With language-free, animal-based work, it’s a real Get Out of Jail Free card.
Do you have a career goal from here? Maybe working in a slightly bigger garage, or a big studio?
[Laughs.] The real goal is to have my own theme park. That’s the overarching goal. So really I just have to make a bunch of movies to make that happen. I’m very into immersive, fantastical spaces. That’s what I’d really love to do: follow that Disney model, but do it a ecologically responsible way. I’d love to have a self-sustaining, fun theme park.
Wow. That’s not what I’d expected you to say!
So next step… [Laughs.] I’m writing a feature film at the moment. It is also stop-motion animation. That’s a pagan musical about landfill. I’m hopefully going to have a producer on that. I’m talking to Jessica Hynes — she’s a writer, producer. She might produce and we might co-write.
Are you approaching the new film the same way as Squirrel Island as far as production goes?
If we don’t get any money, it’ll just happen in the way that Squirrel Island happened. And if we do get money, then maybe we can afford a larger garage.
Where would money come from if it did enter the picture?
All funding sources are welcome. [Laughs.]
How do you know Jessica Hynes?
She’s an old friend. She was really campaigning to do voices for Squirrel Island but obviously… language-free.
Will the feature-length film have voices?
It depends on which way it goes. If it is “garage-based,” it will probably be just another impenetrable, language-free, non-commercial offering…
I think there’s way too much exposition in films. Crazy. I just saw The Red Turtle and that made me feel a whole lot better about the potential for making language-free features. I mean, Wall-E is language-free for the first forty minutes. Everyone talks about it being really brave [to leave out dialogue] — but you don’t need it!
There’s this weird view of the unstoppable march of technology in film. That once something has happened, that once a new way of doing things that makes it easier has been found, then there’s no going back. Why would you want to go back? To silent films, to black and white, to stop motion, when you can make your life easy.
I think in that talk you referenced, I quoted Don Hertzfeldt that so perfectly sums it up. I view animation as an art form and most other people do, too. But you would never ask a painter why they work in oils when they’ve invented acrylics.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly! “They’ve got a really good filter for that.” It’s weird that animation doesn’t get treated in the same way. People are so concerned with your process.
Well, it’s interesting you say that, and yet there are technologies that were popular in 1912 that are still in use today, like stop-motion. We’re still seeing major stop motion films come out after a hundred years.
My own process is moving a more technologically up-to-date direction. Last summer, I made a very short film called Polymer. That was commissioned by the SALT Festival. It’s a monster movie about plastic sea pollution. It’s basically imagining all of this plastic being washed into the sea, which I see all the time in Folkestone, and all the fish dying from it. And they all morph together into a giant fish monster to puke all of the plastic back at Folkstone and buries it under a layer of plastic puke.
Anyway, I made that film last summer, and had a very, very short, intense production period. I had eight weeks to turn it around. While I was making it, I became super aware of my process. I was trying to use all recycled materials. I didn’t want to make a climate change film while damaging the climate. It made me really examine my process and the things that I use. I use resins and horrible toxic materials to make puppets. Polyurethanes and all of that kind of stuff.
With digital animation, you might avoid some of those physical materials costs since it’s all virtual.
Yeah, although computers have built-in obsolescence, and all of that ends up in landfills. I mean I agree, and actually it’s hard to work out what’s better and what’s worse. Working on film [stock] isn’t ideal, you’re using chemicals to process it. Even though my camera is recycled because it’s from 1969, there aren’t many good solutions.
How is your concern for the environment factoring into how you make future films?
The project that I’m doing at the moment, which also sounds like a massive tangent but is part of the process… I’m setting up a plastic recycling unit in Folkestone. In a shipping container, we’re building a shredder, a compressor, an injection molder, an extruder. It’s there for everyone to use, but I can use it to 3D print puppet heads and whatever else. People can donate waste plastic and I can close the loop and not feel so bad. Because I’m so concerned about the fate of the planet, and because filmmaking seems like such a frivolous occupation in dangerous times, I feel like I need to salve my conscience.
You can find more news and information about Squirrel Island, Astrid Goldsmith and Mock Duck Stuidos on their official website.
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