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Interview with Annecy Cristal winner Niki Lindroth von Bahr (‘The Burden’)

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As part of our 2017 Annecy coverage we’re proud to bring you an interview with the winner of the Cristal for short film, Niki Lindroth von Bahr. Her latest short film The Burden is a darkly comedic musical that explores the monotony of underpaid jobs using anthropomorphic characters who sing, dance and muse on their existence. For fans of a certain world-renowned animated film festival held in the north of France, the director’s work may very well be familiar; Niki is by all accounts an Annecy regular, having served as a member of the Jury in 2015 with her last two films Tord and Tord (2010) and Bath House (2014) having screened in previous editions. 

As an artist – from sculpting and prop-making to costume design – who creates hyper real worlds with a sense of foreboding about them, Niki’s films have a haunting nature (since seeing her second film Bath House I have found it impossible to swim at a public pool without being reminded of her work). We were able to catch Niki between festivals to discuss the deeper meanings behind her work.

Can you tell me a little about your background and what first drew you to stop motion animation?

At first, around ten years ago I started out trying to be a prop maker, building stuff for theatre and films. That’s when I got into material and making stuff, so I got really interested in that craft. Later on I went to the Royal Institute of Art here in Stockholm for five years and studied Fine Art, but during those years I made three films. Actually my exam work during this prop-making course was a really basic, marionette puppet film, just to have some kind of portfolio work to show clients. So I did that film which did okay, it got accepted into the Göteborg International Film Festival and had a little bit of a festival run despite it not really being a film I had ambitions for. The film was called One Night in Moscow – I don’t think it s online as it was a very long time ago – it just made me realise you can make something of your own with your work, you can build and tell stories at the same time.

You also do large sculpture pieces and costume design – in fact you designed costumes for David Bowie’s last music video- how do you feel these discipline work together?

I don’t know actually! I think it’s two very different parts of what I do but I guess if you’re on the outside and you’re looking at my work side by side you can see similarities in these areas. I guess it really just has to with the interest I have in building things, because Nicklas Nilsson – who I work with on these projects – and I do very much sculptured costumes and glue bigger things on the artist rather than designing conventional outfits, I think that you can see in my films. Our first job was with Fever Ray, who we worked back in 2008, we made this scary monster/dumpster creature. That’s the job we still get work from now, as it was quite big at the time.

Where does your inspiration both visually and narratively come from?

I think my films deal with dark themes, like in The Burden it’s about low-paid jobs and existential anxiety and in Bath House, my previous film, it was kind of about the Swedish healthcare system that is kind of just falling apart, although it is about other things as well. Then Tord and Tord is about mental illness, so quite dark themes but I’m just interested in discovering emotions and feeling; that feeling of being in a familiar place and surrounding like, an office or a bath house or supermarket, but there is still something wrong. That idea has gone on throughout my work.

Bath House (Dir. Niki Lindroth von Bahr, 2014)

Your films often document humanity, why do you choose to use anthropomorphic characters instead of humans? And how to you choose the right animal for each character?

I think I want to use animals, partly because I like to see my films almost like modern fables, like traditional fables that seem to be about one thing but are actually about something moral or political. Also I think, to be honest, human puppets can be very scary, way more than animals. You also expect so much more as viewer from a human face then you do with an animal’s, so you get some sort of cuteness filter between you and the audience and I think that’s a nice thing.

Tord and Tord (Dir. Niki Lindroth von Bahr, 2010)

As far as my choices of animals, I have different themes for each film, so for Bath House I used quite recently-extinct animal species. I did quite a lot of research on these species that I wanted to use, that we’re not maybe that aware of, so not like mammoths or well-known animals but less famous animals that don’t exist anymore. Then for The Burden I used animals that are regularly used in medical experiments.

You have an amazing amount of detail and realism in your films, why do you choose to design or script things in this way?

I think also it gets to the point where you’re like “I’m not sure if that’s real or not?” I aim for that feeling as it has something to do with what I said earlier, about when you recognise things, but there’s still something odd about it, so I think it’s about that. I also really enjoy studying real surroundings and just seeing if its possible to make miniatures and still be believable.

Your most recent film The Burden is a musical, what prompted you to choose that genre?

I watched a lot of old school Gene Kelly musicals when I was growing up so I wanted to make some kind of homage to musicals and their very passionate way of dealing with quite serious and sad storylines. In fact, we kind of just destroyed the budget on day one as I wanted to record the music live with a fifteen-person orchestra, so we did that and then had no money left! I think it was worth it but also because I wanted to work with Hans Appelqvist who is a Swedish artist and he’s so talented, I was so happy that he wanted to work with me.

The Burden (Dir. Niki Lindroth von Bahr, 2017)

The film is incredibly complex, with dance numbers and multiple puppets; did you have much assistance on this film?

Yes actually, it wasn’t such a big team as we didn’t have very much money but I really tried not to animate too much myself as I’m not that good at it – or rather I know so many people that are better at it and it’s hard for me to keep so much in my head at the same time. So I did a lot of the direction and building of puppets and models. I had two animators who worked for me who were super talented, and I was really impressed because we did hardly any scenes with more than one animator. The fish scene we did with two, it was me and one other, but the eight monkeys dancing shot was just one person and I was so impressed with that, it was so good. So I learned something about how you don’t need many people working at the same time because that can also take time in itself.

The Burden was also a recipient of the Cristal at this year’s Annecy, congratulations! You’ve had quite a long relationship with the festival, can you tell me a little about this and what it means to you to win the award?

It really means everything, especially since this is my third film and my third film in competition. As I feel very passionate about the festival, as they have believed in me since my first film, they were the first foreign festival to invite my film and we’ve had such a good relationship. I was also in the jury in 2015, which was such an honour and a really nice experience. I mean, I never thought I would win, I’m just so happy to be in such talented company, with all these amazing films and filmmakers who are all skilled and professional with such high quality films. So I’m just happy to be there and it was such a surprise. It still hasn’t sunk in yet.

The Burden is just at the start of its film festival rounds, and with the Cristal under its belt it’s bound to do well, what are your hopes for this film?

It was in Cannes and Göteborg International Film Festival where it won the best Swedish short, it has a very successful start to the festival year, so I have no idea what will happen next, everything has been so crazy and I’m in shock really.

It’s probably too early to ask but do you have any plans yet for what you will do after you’ve finished the main bulk of touring with The Burden?

Well thank you for actually saying that it’s too early, because everyone around me is like “What are you doing now?” And I’m still just so tired – how can you think I’m making another film yet? Actually it’s been such a struggle to make this film, I worked on it for two and a half years with no payment at all. We just finished it four months ago, so we’ve just been trying to cover the black hole, which are my personal finances. I guess this prize opens me up to some new opportunities for financing my next project and new, interesting contacts, so I’m really looking forward to starting a new project. I think I want to make something a little different in format, like a series or something other than a short film, but I’m not sure yet. I would like to do something a bit more scary next, something that takes place in the finance world perhaps.

Keep up to speed with the work of Niki Lindroth von Bahr at

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