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Interview with Director and Animator Kirsten Lepore

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kirstenHSKirsten Lepore is an LA-based animator whose work includes the short films Sweet Dreams, Booty Clap and – probably most famously – Bottle, a tragic love story between a sand man and snow woman created single-handedly by Kirsten herself. Her films have collated thousands of views across the world, both online and at festivals.

As well as her commissioned work with big names such as MTVNestlé and Heinz, Kirsten has graduated from CalArts with her short stop-motion film Move Mountain, which screened at a multitude of festivals including Montreal Stop Motion, GIRAF, Tricky Woman, Klik! Amsterdam as well as being nominated for an Annie Award. This expertly put-together film was released online earlier this month and incorporates the animator’s love of dance as well as her battle with chronic illness.

Kirsten’s work is a brilliant homage to the medium of stop-motion itself, in terms of creativity, experimentation and sheer fortitude in film-making. Skwigly had the pleasure of talking to bubbly Kirsten in depth about her work and her attitude toward animation as a whole.

You gained an MFA at the legendary CalArts, what did you learn there that you felt geared you towards how you work now?

I felt I was really lacking technically. I joined CalArts for grad school, and I’d gone to school at MICA for undergrad two years prior. I had a great conceptual education from studying at MICA but I felt I kind of left there not knowing anything in terms of stop-motion, like building a real puppet or a proper set.

So coming to CalArts, I felt I had mentors that had a tonne of expertise on the technical side of things as well as the conceptual. It was just a great experience being there and I feel like I made up a solid network of peers. As I had just moved out to California not knowing anyone it was just great to have the CalArts community there once I’d got into the swing of things.

Bottle was the first piece of your work I saw, which I guess was inevitable as it went viral. The choice of media was one of the things I think that really captured the audience’s imagination. You often use more unusual material like in in your other short film Sweet Dreams, when starting these films does the choice of material come first or the narrative?

That’s an interesting question, as for those two films especially it was a material choice first and then I built story around them. I feel a bit weird making a film like that as I feel that the story is paramount, the most important thing, but at the same time for me as an animator and a filmmaker the film has to be interesting for me to make, to spend a year or two on. So for me, yes, the material is very important, something I haven’t played with before is exciting to me. I usually make up a story around that kind of material challenge, so the whole process stays interesting for me.

You shot Bottle all by your self, do you create all your films with a one-man production team?

I sort of have so far; I have a helper for a shot or two occasionally. For my latest film the opening shot is really long and intense so I pulled an all-nighter to finish it but I also had a couple of friends come in in shifts to animate trees as there was so much moving at once. But for the exception of that I pretty much do everything myself, probably because I’m really stubborn (giggles) and also it’s kind of how I ended up working at CalArts as well. Also at undergrad in both the character and experimental department they kind of encourage everyone to direct their own films; Sometimes people will collaborate but most of the time they’ll just focus on their own project and see it through to the end. It’s nice because you get to learn all the parts of the process – how to edit, light all the different areas, they even encourage doing your own sound and you definitely need to do that on the first few films you do. So I‘m just in the habit of doing all these things myself. I’ve worked with other people on client projects, but for my own films it normally ends up just being me. However it is nice as you get to realise your vision, which is one of the compromises you make when working with other people.

You also work in Flash, do you enjoy working in digital media and can it be a break from the repetitive nature of stop-motion?

It’s both for sure. I’ve definitely had a few stop-motion projects where I would get too frustrated with them, so then when I get to do something in Flash I’d be like “This is so nice”! It’s like a vacation in comparison to stop-motion, it is such fun, because I can tune out. It’s not mindless but I can just come in, animate, leave for lunch, do what I want to do and come back and nothing will have changed; Stop-motion I always liken to surgery as if you’re on a shot you really cant leave it for more than 15 minutes as things will settle, so you have to go all that time with no breaks.

I actually started in Flash, I taught myself how to use it in high school just because I’d always been really fascinated with animation but never really knew how to approach it.

With that in mind do you consider what media you’re going to work in, or is there just something about stop-motion that draws you back every time?

I definitely always consider what media would be best suited to a specific idea, so there are some things that would be done so much easier in 2D. I’m not going to kill myself doing them in stop-motion if I think they would work just as well in 2D. That said, I love building with my hands and I also enjoy incorporating that in every stop-motion project, like I have these moments that are outside of the computer which are nice, like I’m physically making sculpture, so it depends on the story and the concept.

You’re currently living in LA and working with big names like Facebook, Toyota and Nickelodeon; How does your day run when you’re working as a freelance stop-motion animator? 

Wake up late, read emails until 1pm then eat lunch, then get to the meat of my work no earlier than 4-5pm! I normally work till really late, like 1am. I’ve talked to other freelancers, especially stop-motioners, and a lot of them work the same way. I am not a morning person and none of the people that I know are morning people either, they all really get into their groove around 8-9pm, then they can just go and keep working until it gets really late, until they finish up their shot. I think it’s because everything is really quiet in the evening after everyone else goes to sleep, basically. The normal working world goes to sleep, that’s when the animators come out of their caves and we have peace and quiet, with no-one calling us or bothering us.

Another factor that comes into play a lot in your film is dance. Booty Clap is a short test in motion but is a lot of fun to watch, was this a catalyst for the start of your newest film Move Mountain?

I’ve always played with dance leading up to this movie. Booty Clap, for example, was just a class assignment. I was taking a class were you build a puppet but the class was focused on animation direction, so you build the puppet in the first part of the class and in the second you animated a bunch of different scenes that are prompted by the instructor, so you get a chance to practice acting with this one puppet so that was the puppet I made. I purposely wanted to make one with boob joints and butt joints as I knew I wanted to get this bounciness from her, so I considered that when I built her. Which you have to do when you make a character, you have to think “What am I going to want her to do?” so you can build her accordingly. The test was probably the most fun I’ve ever had animating, I thought “I’m just going to hit these weird poses and let her go were she wants and take me through the dance”. One of the things I like to do with my friends is to have these impromptu little dance parties and do the silliest dance moves we can think of. So I wanted to incorporate this into Move Mountain.

What other inspiration or events lead to Move Mountain’s creation?

Mainly my whole experience with Lyme disease, I had this chronic illness for over a year, with five years solid where I was very ill. Lyme disease is super prevalent along the east coasts of America, it’s an epidemic that doesn’t get addressed much despite so many people having it. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, as it’s a disease that can take on the symptoms of all these other illnesses so is very difficult to diagnose. It was a long road but I feel I made it out healthy and I’m fine now, I definitely knew that I wanted to make a film that kind of addressed illness and chronic illness for that matter.

It’s about taking your illness into your own hands in order to get through it, which is often something you have to do when you have something that debilitating. Then there are some other themes there in play, but mostly the things that happen throughout the story which seem symbolic are just things I found helpful during my experience with illness, things that give you that extra boost and support to remind you to keep going and keep trying and not give up on your quest to get healthy, that was really the main thing it meant to me.

Something that really appealed to the animation nerd in me were all the notable characters in your new film, with puppets provided from people like Julia Pott and Mikey Please, how did you approach people about doing this film? And why did you want to include them in this film?

Everyone whose puppets I used in the film are pretty close friends. So it wasn’t a really big ask to get Mikey and Julia to give me their puppets as we’ve hung out over the years and they’re awesome. I was just really happy that everyone was really enthusiastic and on board with lending me their puppets for that scene. I just asked close friends to contribute characters, most of them were 2d designs that I had to convert into 3d versions. The only exceptions were Mikey’s puppets, he mailed me his Eagleman Stag guy and the guy from his Brooklyn Band TV video, which was also really cool as he works with ball and socket armature and I always work with just wire armatures as ball and sockets are really expensive in the US for some reason. So my puppets are really crappy and falling apart and his are pristine! I was like “I don’t want to mess up this beautiful puppet, it’s like a work of art!” So I got to animate it for a second and I felt very lucky.

The other fun thing about the puppets was I got all my friends in LA that contributed character deigns to come over and we had a puppet making party. This also made it easier for me so I didn’t have to make all the armatures. It was fun, some even got to make the foam build up stuff, then everyone left them as they were and I finished them off. A few people came back and sat with me for a few days to get their puppets exactly as they wanted them, so it was nice to be a little more collaborative on that scene.

Another factor I really liked was the use of traditional effects in your film, such as the cable pulleys system for the trees and replacement waterfall to give motion which were brilliant to see. Was there ever a temptation to use digital techniques?

As a rule I always try to do everything in-camera, just because I feel it looks better that way. I think if something is physically there – especially when working with a physical media like stop-motion – everything looks better that way. I also had to do a lot of green screen in this film, which I normally shy away from, I just didn’t have the space to build things as deep as I needed to.

In terms of using the traditional techniques in general, I think I just had more fun that way. I also wanted to play with all those processes like casting, so that waterfalls are actually not replacement but a flexible urethane that I cast and I put a little wire through. There are a few disciplines I wanted to practice and mess around with to see if I could do it differently. I’d never seen anything clear that was flexible being cast before, so that was a massive challenge making that work and looking right. I always want to find a new way of doing things.

So what do you want from the future? 

That’s a hard question; I normally say a house with a vegetable garden. Those are my realistic goals. I would love to carry on directing. I think I’m fortunate that I get to do what I want to do in my life, but I think there is room to grow and do bigger things. What I’m hoping to do for the next couple of years is work on bigger commercial things, or bigger personal projects maybe with a grant. I’d love to a music video and some live action to expand my animation more. I want to experiment more and try everything.

Thanks to Kirsten for giving us some time from her schedule to discuss her work. You can see more of her work at kirstenlepore.com and watch her newly released Move Mountain above or on Vimeo. Extended audio from this interview is also part of the Skwigly Podcast episode 19 which can be listened to here

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