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Interview with stop motion filmmakers Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels

Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels are a stop motion animation duo based in Ghent, Belgium. Their 17-minute magnum opus Oh Willy… (selected last Animac 2013) traveled all around the world in the festival circuit and its wool animation inspired a new wave of stop motion animators. In celebration of Animac 2019’s theme, we interviewed Emma and Marc during last Annecy 2018 to discuss their stop motion work and their latest short film / feature film, the 44-minute-long This Magnificent Cake!

 

 

Marc de Roels and Emma De Swaef (right in the middle) hold the
André-Martin Award for This Magnificent Cake! last Annecy 2018

 

Animac Magazine: Thank you so much for your time! The first question might be an obvious one but it's something that we want to ask all stop motion artists: why stop motion? What’s your personal connection with stop motion as a technique?

Emma De Swaef: For me, it’s really about the puppets. I was making puppets before I was actually doing animation – I was studying film and making puppets. Puppets are a really exciting thing: just making something and then imagining that it comes alive… that's the beautiful thing for me. And stop motion, of course, allows you to not just imagine that it comes alive, but it really comes alive for people to see as well. So, for me, that’s the big draw.

Marc James Roels: We also come from a live-action background, which is kind of a very intuitive way to work. We're not really good at drawing in a stylized way, so we're much more comfortable with the camera and the character and the lights and everything else. So, for us, animation is more of a spontaneous way of working.

Emma De Swaef: It’s basically like a live-action film, but being in control of everything. You decide every element within the frame as a conscious decision. There's nothing left to chance. We like this way of working.

Marc James Roels: But still, we also like the fact that you can see what the materials are. There's this kind of balance between what they look like and what they depict. There is always this tension: you can see that it’s all wool, you can feel how small it is. But then we show a huge landscape and you forget about it. It’s fascinating to see things like that, and we like to play with it.

Animac Magazine: And wool is also a material that comes with a lot of technical challenges. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? What are the biggest challenges you encounter on during a shooting?

Emma De Swaef: There are two challenges. One is that the wool, of course, doesn't stay fixed – it moves. The second one would be that it’s not very flexible. But these challenges also offer gifts. When the animators touch the puppets the wool moves a bit, and it creates a style: this windy wool style that makes the characters feel alive because you always feel the hand of the animator. Regarding the inflexibility, we’re working to improve that. Of course, we're lucky this time the characters are not nudists anymore (note: all characters in Oh Willy... were nudists) while in our new film The Magnificent Cake! they have costumes, so we don't have a problem with the body being inflexible anymore. And the big challenge of this film was dialogue since we had speaking roles and characters. We had to invent this technique to make it work, by putting plasticine behind their mouths and making the wool a little bit wet so it regains a bit of the flexibility so we can sculpt the mouths into shapes. It's nice that every new film has a new challenge: we didn’t really know how we would do the dialogue.  And you can see the very first ones are a little bit rough and towards the end, it's quite sophisticated. We hope that in every new film we can push ourselves to go a bit further. Actually, it was the same with the elements: the water, the mist that’s moving… We didn't know how we were going to solve these problems and then we just did, you find a way!

 

 

Animac Magazine: In terms of staging and lighting, your approach not only comes from live-action but also documentaries! How did all that previous experience shape how you approach animation?

Marc James Roels: Even while we were making Oh Willy… we always had the idea of a little film crew, where the cameras would always be on the characters’ level, no crazy camera angles, something that people can easily like relate to. It’s very natural for us to shoot like that. Maybe it's not so imaginative compared with the possibilities of CG animation, where you can go very far, but sometimes it becomes a little bit… distancing, I think. This is our way of telling stories.

Emma De Swaef: And our rhythm, as well. Live-action people think our film is very fast and animation people think it’s very slow. [laughs] There’s this interesting example: the pigmy character in our film, and one of my favorite characters. It was really important for us that he speaks an actual obscure language from Congo. So I started contacting my documentary friends who also did stock images about pygmies and they said: “well, in Europe you’re not gonna find a single pigmy.” There are very few, and even in Congo it’s a community that's disappearing, so we had to find a solution. Some people suggested using just another African language – “no one will notice it!” – but this was very important to us. And then we found this music group that once a year comes to Europe! They’re actually singers and they give concerts in Geneva and in France. So we waited a whole year until they came, we invited them to the studio and we recorded the dialogue with them. And, since they're singers, we thought: “let's have them sing a song!” And we included the song in the film. That’s the beautiful thing about documentary: you never know what you're gonna get, and you invite reality in and it gives you gifts. We’re very happy with that scene where the pigmy is singing to the dog.

Animac Magazine: That’s wonderful. We’re also curious about your experience in Japan – you both went to an artist residency in Tokyo. Which project did you develop there? And how was the experience of working in such a different country, where stop motion is not the most… traditional technique?

Marc James Roels: It was an amazing experience. It was difficult to do stop motion, so we used that time to basically develop the idea for This Magnificent Cake!, and we started working on the script there. But while we were there, we saw so many different things that we found and explored ideas for different films, and we ended up making those first for a whole year, and then we came back to This Magnificent Cake!

Animac Lleida: How long have you been working on This Magnificent Cake!?

Emma De Swaef: For a very long time. If you consider the inception of the film until now, it’s been six years. A lot of that was writing and financing, and we’ve been in production for the last two years. A six-month construction period in France, an eight-month shooting period in Belgium, and the rest was post-production and sound, which was a really long process. You have nothing to start with except the voices, and then our sound guy –  Bram Meindersma, a very talented Dutch guy – just started designing everything. He actually comes from documentary as well! Sometimes, animation people are exclusively focused on foley (sound effects) and music, but Bram was focused on atmospheres and soundscapes. And, luckily, he also went to Africa a lot to shoot documentaries: he knew he was going to work on our film and he was getting all these sounds from Africa for a while.

Animac Magazine: In terms of storytelling, what comes first for you in your creative process? Do you start with a character, a theme, a setting? We would love to know more about your writing process.

Marc James Roels: With This Magnificent Cake! the starting point was the setting. We wanted to set the film specifically in colonial Africa and capture that time period. We were reading lots of books set in that era like, obviously, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Or the works of French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a very controversial writer – very anti-Semitic – who has this brilliant autobiographical book called “Journey to the End of the Night”.

Emma De Swaef: The character is an army deserter and he goes deep into Africa to hide away.

Marc James Roels: It’s the way he describes being there: everyone’s dying, all the horrible European people running away from something…

Emma De Swaef: And they’re all drunk and drugged with medication because no one can handle the extreme climate in Central Africa.

Marc James Roels: The heat, the fever, the diseases… It’s a book we could work with. But actually, all the characters and the narrative came much later. We first wanted to make it with no story: just fragments of people doing things, a bit more experimental. Until we started to miss characters, we missed telling a story!

Emma De Swaef: So we took our five favorite scenes and merged some of them together and then developed five different stories that were all sort of connected.

Animac Magazine: How can you combine such serious matters as colonialism and postcolonialism with humor? Because, after all, your film is full of politically incorrect humor! Is humor important in your work?

Marc James Roels: Humor is always very important in our work. Humor is a way to disarm people and make them more open to seeing something beyond. Because when people spontaneously laugh they feel an emotion straight away but they are also confronted by a very hard reality. When you see very inhuman things happening to people, I think it’s more affecting if it’s combined with humor. Because if it's just combined with drama, it has this distancing effect – it's happening to someone else. Humor makes people a lot more aware. You laugh and then you ask yourself a question: “Wow, why am I laughing?”

Animac Magazine: There’s also this magic realism element. Where does it come from? You also did it in Oh Willy…: something that could start as a realistic story and then it goes way beyond.

Emma De Swaef: I think it’s in the Belgian character. [laughs]

Animac Magazine: Really? You cope with pain with surrealism or…?

Emma De Swaef: We don’t think about it consciously when we’re making our films, but then you look at Belgian artists and you find all this Belgian surrealism. This type of humor is very Belgian, it’s in our tradition.

Animac Magazine: It’s bittersweet. There’s a strong feeling of guilt.

Marc James Roels: It's a subtle, disarming way of confronting the audience with these issues.

Emma De Swaef: I also think audiences are not used to seeing a film like this, where we’re straight talking about colonial history. And it’s not about the single white character who is enlightened and is going to help black people. Usually, that’s kind of the door for people to go see this kind of films, and it's easier to watch because you're like: “we were actually the good guys!” There’s none of that here, it’s more extreme. So we make sure we can keep a balance. It confronts you with your past. It’s not so easy to look at it straight into the eyes.

Animac Magazine: We would love to know more about your commercial work, which you keep combining with bigger projects. Which opportunities does advertisement give you in order to explore or experiment? What kind of challenges do you bump into?

 

 

Emma De Swaef: Well, commercials always have to happen very quickly, so we developed this different technique of puppeteering – which has existed for a long time. We animate characters in a real setting with sticks and then afterward we take out the sticks digitally. Shootings are really quick, while post-production is longer. Still, it’s nice to work in real sets and explore different styles of animation. The commercials we’re the proudest of – for instance, The Garden Ape – were commercials without a budget. We did it because we liked their mission – it was a nature awareness campaign, promoting green gardens in Belgium – and you get the freedom to whatever you want.

Marc James Roels: The commercials that have the biggest budgets are financially more interesting, but there’s always this big committee who really want to know what's going to happen with their money. So ideas get watered down and diluted. It’s not really something we enjoy doing so much, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Emma De Swaef: It pays the bills!

Marc James Roels: There’s also our fighting film, with these two little wrestling characters. That's actually something that came from Japan: we went to a wrestling, sumo match and we saw these guys fighting and we thought: “we can make something with that!” We had enough budget to buy lights, and we built a little set in the basement of our house. We animated our little wrestlers and we had a lot of fun, but we didn't earn anything. [laughs] So, yeah, we like doing commercials if we have total control.

 

Animac Magazine: Just one last question – what’s coming next? Any new projects on the line? Are you taking a break?

Emma De Swaef: We have a little spark for a new idea. It's the thing that makes us happy now: we don't have to think too much about the film’s reception, we don’t like getting obsessed about that and we just get excited about something new. So we’re brainstorming whenever we have time!


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