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Stranger Things: A Conversation with Kirsten Lepore

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews

Since her promising beginnings with the viral hit Story From North America (co-directed with Garrett Michael Davis in 2007) and breakthrough student short Bottle (that to date has picked up 39 awards and counting) in 2010, Kirsten Lepore‘s animation career has flourished, notable jewels in the crown being her auteur short film Move Mountain (2013) and last year’s Adventure Time episode Bad Jubies. 2016 also saw the launch of the second anthology Strangers from the independent collective Late Night Work Club, to which Kirsten contributed her own unique interpretation of the theme with the minimal stop-motion short Hi Stranger. Released online this week as a standalone short, the film – a zen, reassuring monologue delivered by a mysterious, naked, hairless entity – has been enchanting, delighting and befuddling audiences the world over. We caught up with Kirsten to learn more about the origins of the latest addition to her filmography.

What have you been up to since we spoke to you last?

The biggest highlight was getting to write and direct an episode of Adventure Time! Getting to do that episode was the highlight of probably the past couple years of my work life, it was really, really fun.

Coincidentally I think when you were first on our podcast the other guest was John DiMaggio (voice of Jake the Dog)

Oh yeah, he’s awesome! It was really great working with them and pretty exciting to write something all on your own in your bedroom with these characters. You kinda hear the voices in your head and are like I don’t know if this is gonna work – then you get into the booth with them and you hear them say the lines that you’d come up with in your cave and it’s bizarre!

Adventure Time: Bad Jubies (Dir. Kirsten Lepore)

Had you done much dialogue-driven stuff before that?

Not so much, I usually tend to shy away from dialogue, I think it’s just my natural tendency. I feel that language can sometimes be limiting, not only limiting your audience to English speakers but there are a lot of limitations to just what language can communicate. So in that sense doing this eleven minute Adventure Time episode that was totally dialogue-driven was really kind of scary for me going into it, but I have done a couple pieces with dialogue here and there, mostly more comedic things. I was definitely nervous going in but I feel like hopefully the jokes worked and everything came out okay. It took a while for me, it was a struggle, for sure!

From the social media response to that episode at the time, people were clearly quite besotted with it. With Adventure Time and also other shows like Gravity Falls and Gumball, shows that embrace other mediums and step outside of themselves a bit, I think people are always keen to see them go in new directions like that.

I think it’s always fun to see characters that people know and love and are familiar with brought into these new spaces, there’s always fun to be had there.

With this new film Hi Stranger, where did that character come from?

I was going through some old sketchbooks to see if I had jotted anything down that was exciting that I wanted to come back to. I found this Post-It note that, actually, Kent Osborne (who’s the Head of Story on Adventure Time) had had on his desk when I came in for the project. It was pretty much the same frame – this guy with a weird butt kind of looking over his shoulder at the camera. Something about this character, it was really simple, I couldn’t take my eyes off it! I asked Kent about it – he just doodles all the time, so for him that’s no big deal, and he was like “Do you want it?” So he gave me the Post-It and I put it in my sketchbook and totally forgot about it until I flipped through looking for ideas. Immediately when I got to it this character just came to life for me and I had all these ideas. So I emailed Kent to be like “Hey I have this whole idea for a film based on this Post-It note you gave me, is it cool if I adapt this character?” and he was totally cool with it. So I changed to design a little bit and messed with it and sort of created a personality for this simple doodle that was just on a Post-It note. That’s kind of where the design came from, basically.

Original character doodle by Kent Osborne (L); Reworked sketch by Kirsten Lepore (R)

In terms of how the puppet itself was made, was it a different process to what you usually do?

It’s definitely a process that I’ve used before, initially I’d really wanted it to be a silicone puppet, just because I wanted this really silky, smooth, soft-skin look. But as the deadline was impending I got nervous that I wouldn’t have time to make the silicone puppet – because it’s pretty labour intensive and expensive to get a working puppet – so I went with an old technique that I’d used before, which is really not the best way to do it, but sometimes you can get more expressiveness out of the puppet. It’s actually just clay over the top of a wire armature. But I also used the wrong type of clay! I use polymer clay, which is kind of like Sculpey, because it has a translucency to it that plasticine doesn’t have. So I kind of did everything the wrong way just because I needed to do it quick and dirty, to get it done. But I still didn’t want to compromise that skin-soft translucency that silicone might have.

There’s also that quite elaborate vista cutaway, what were some of the economics of putting that together?

I really did just have to throw it together last-minute, so things like the mountains I had a roll of brown, paper-bag type paper in my studio and I just crumpled it up, hot glued a couple of paper cups under to give it some structure, spraypainted it black and threw it on the set, so that ended up being the mountain!
I did want to give a little more attention to some other areas so all of that is actually pretty much practical and in-camera for the most part. I actually lit with a blacklight, I splashed the backdrop with different colour blacklight reactive flourescent paint to illuminate it and give it this otherworldy feel. I think I added a couple tiny mountains way in the background that I did in Flash or Photoshop but besides that it’s all practical.

So with Garrett Michael Davis doing the voice, of course you did Story From North America together, between then and this project had you guys worked together on other stuff?

I don’t think we had, actually. I think the thing that brought us together was I was just trying to figure out who should do the voice for this character and I actually had a specific type of voice in mind for it. So I wracked my brain for who could do this voice and suddenly it was clear as day – this is totally a Garrett voice! Luckily he was on board to come over and we recorded it one night, I made him dinner as a swap and he gave me an hour of time and recorded it. I think it makes the whole piece, having his voice in there, so I’m really happy that he agreed to do it.

It’s a great fit with the dialogue.

Yeah, definitely! I knew that he could tackle the tone that I was going for and the sort of weirdly intimate, weirdly creepy kind of gender-ambiguous voice I was going for, and he really nailed it. I couldn’t be happier!

So as far as what you’re up to now that this is done and out there is there anything you’re working on that you’re able to talk about?

I have a big project coming up this year, I don’t think I’m allowed to say what the project is but I can say that my role will be animation directing and it’s an indie stop-motion feature. This will be probably the largest-scale project I’ve ever gotten to work on, I think it will be really fun and it’s for a studio I really like and I’m really excited about it!

Would you potentially be up for being involved in the next Late Night Work Club anthology?

Oh yeah! I definitely function well when I have deadlines, I wanna be like that goodie two-shoes that delivers on time! So yeah, if someone keeps giving me deadlines I’ll keep making things but if I’m left to my own devices I’ll probably just be lazy and float away and go watch movies and things.

See more of Kirsten Lepore’s work at

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