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Interview: Paloma Baeza and Ser En Low discuss the BAFTA-winning ‘Poles Apart’

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UPDATE: Poles Apart has won the 2018 BAFTA for Best Short Animation, earning the National Film and Television School its fifth consecutive win in the category.

Coming from a background in live-action and performance, in more recent years director and writer Paloma Baeza has gravitated toward the powerful art of stop-motion animation, most notably with her 2017 NFTS graduation film Poles Apart that this week earned itself a BAFTA nomination, continuing a strong streak of success the university has enjoyed in recent years. Fabricated with the assistance and expertise of MacKinnon and Saunders in the construction of its ball and socket armature puppets, the film introduces us to Nanuk (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter), a starving Polar bear forced to tamp down her predatory instinct when she encounters a friendly Canadian Grizzly, Aklak (Joseph May).
To make
Poles Apart Paloma teamed up with producer Ser En Low to helm a talented production team, with a beautiful end result that has since screened at such festivals as Animafest Zagreb, Underwire, LIAF, Warsaw Film Festival, Encounters and Calgary International Film Festival, winning awards at the Savannah Film Festival, Anima Córdoba, Edinburgh International Film Festival and Rhode Island Film Festival as well as being among the contenders for both this year’s Annie Awards and British Animation Awards.
Skwigly spoke with Paloma Baeza and Ser En Low to learn more about the development and creation of this exceptional film.

Can you first tell me a little about your respective backgrounds before the film?

Paloma Baeza: I started of in live-action, firstly as an actor, many, many years ago. As I was doing that I wanted to make short films, working behind the camera, so I wrote a short film and made that. I made quite few live action shorts, then started making more longer form that went weirdly hand-in-hand with an interest in animation. A point came where I decided that if I wanted to pursue that then now was the time to do so, so I applied to the NFTS. It was a real change and shift, media-wise, but storytelling-wise it’s all part of the same narrative.

Ser En Low: I studied and worked in live-action films and after that I worked in VFX as a coordinator at Double Negative. I worked on some films, like Godzilla, as a coordinator and thought the process was quite similar to animation. So while Poles Apart is actually my first animation as well, the process of coordinating was pretty similar.

Paloma Baeza on set

Where did the idea for Poles Apart originally come from?

PB: We were looking for something that was achievable with the budget and the time we had. I knew I wanted it to be two characters as I knew that was reasonable, and then there was this news article that described this arial shot of the artic landscape, this white, vast landscape with this little brown dot. It was the notion of a grizzly coming into the artic, because the melting of the ice means
they come out of the woods and walk onto the ice and then can’t get back. This is happening more often, polar and grizzly bears are meeting and hybrids are being produced. ‘Pizzlies’, they call them, sadly though they’re infertile so they can’t then breed. So this was just a backdrop to the idea of two unlikely people with differing personalities coming together.

The characters are endlessly charming, what idea did you have for them both when you were originally creating them?

PB: Even from the start they were pretty fleshed out. (Aklak) was going to be the warmer, more friendly guy; if you were out on an adventure he’s the kind of guy that has all the stuff and the tent and gadgets. Then there’s the hardened other character who lives in the wild and doesn’t need all the stuff, just really experiences the environment.

SEL: We watched some documentaries also, and polar bears are always on their own. They live quite a solitary life.

Ser En Low, producer

At what point did you begin to collaborate, was it from the start or during production?

SEL: I was there form start to finish. From the original idea and outline to the script, through production and the end. As it was part of the film screen project, we got paired up as a producer/director team and then entered the process of outlining our script. We then pitched our idea to the crew and that’s how we got our DOP, production designers etc.

The puppets are wonderfully made, who created the puppets and why did you choose to make them in this way?

PB: I’ve always been a big fan of Fantastic Mr. Fox and those furry puppets, and MacKinnon and Saunders – who are just the world’s best puppet makers as far as I’m considered – made those. So I got in contact and they were very nice. I was hoping they could give us some advice. Myself and Ser En drove up to Manchester to show them the animatic and we got on very well. I don’t know if they started off thinking they would but as it progressed they became more invested and in the end they made the puppets for us.

SEL: We showed them the animatic and they just loved it.

PB: We were literally punching the air, it was so fantastic!

SEL: We did a lot of tests with the fur. Paloma did the designs of the puppets.

PB: Yeah, when we first went up Peter Saunders just gave me a box of plasticine and said “Go away and sculpt the bears”. I don’t really sculpt so I went away and made a rough version of the bears, that they took that away to base the design on and re-sculpted them to scale beautifully. Then we went back again to make changes to the face, so it was like a 3D sketch that I gave them that they made into a real puppet.

Nuria Bataller, animator

The sets are also pretty epic, did you make them in house and how involved in the construction where you?

SEL: They were all designed by our production designer Paula (Gimenez) and made at the film school
with some amazing volunteers who spent months and months sculpting sets. I think we had about seven big sets in the end and a couple of smaller ones.

PB: It was really about trying to get that sense of perspective and distance with mountains in the background. We did a lot of in-camera testing with our designer and our DOP to get that sense of scale within the film.

SEL: We had a bit of a challenge during the shoot it self, as we meant to use the smaller sets with smaller bears, but in the end the bigger puppets just worked so much better so we ended up building better sets to accommodate them.

PB: We’d sometimes improvise and take pieces from other sets. By the end the whole studio was just littered with strange pieces of ice on boxes! It’s amazing how you can trick the eye – you look at it and you’d think it was this massive, expansive vista but actually it’s just all pieced together.

Joseph May (Aklak)

You were able to secure pretty amazing voice actors can you tell me a little about how you approached Helena Bonham Carter and Joseph May to work on the film?

PB: Well, Joseph May I knew for quite a while because I’d done some acting with him a while ago and we’d also done some writing together as well. I’d written this Canadian bear with him in mind as he is Canadian and he’s so perfect for it, it he was such a good, instant fit. The thing about animation, it doesn’t require much time from an actor so you can aim quite high as you only need a few hours in the studio, so with Helena she really liked the script and thought she might be able to do something with it. She was like “I don’t know, I’ve never played a bear” but she was really game to try it out
with the animatic.

SEL: She tried it in a few accidents. I remember there was a Russian version.

PB: Oh yeah, it was fun to see how it might work, but you know it’s a concern even for the actor who’s giving their time. They want to make sure it’s a right fit, but she was very generous with her time.

Can you tell me more about your team?

SEL: We have a really fantastic team that Paloma will gush on about. They were all so passionate about the film and our sound designer (Morgan Muse) won the award at our graduation show so it was 100% from everyone in the team.
The shooting process is so long, it was nine weeks, which is a lot of dedication from everyone in
the team.

PB: It’s true, everyone really was so dedicated. I guess the other thing was that all the team were students, but animation-wise I was relatively inexperienced. So we managed to get two particular animators to give up their time, one at the very beginning was Alex Crowley who now works at Aardman. Usually an animator would be in a studio on their own but I just watched him and we would work out all the moves together, which was a really fun way of working. I we both got quite a lot out of it, because I have an acting background so we would be acting things out. Often people would come in and just laugh at us, because we were completely un-self-conscious, saying the lines and working out the gestures together. Then I’d watch how he did it, as when he had to leave to work at Aardman, I felt I had learned so much from him. Then Nuria Bataller came from Spain and worked for us for ten weeks. She’s just a friend for life, she was really incredible!

Alex Crowley, animator

How have the response from viewers and festivals been so far?

SEL: Really good. Our world premier was in Zagreb and then we went to Palm Springs and won at Edinburgh for Best British Animation.

PB: I went to the Edinburgh festival and saw the first screening. It was an audience award so it really feels meaningful. It was a full house where, because it’s a comedy, you can really feel how it’s going down in the room. The other animators we were up against were really strong and respected
and talented, so to win felt incredibly meaningful – it’s great! We’re really pleased.

What have you worked on since?

PB: I took the polar bear and made a music video for BEAK called Sex Music which was fun and quite liberating as it was really just me on my own in a basement experimenting. After Poles Apart which was so controlled, even though that was also me by myself a lot of the time I did also have a team of people around me – lighting, etc. – so this was just what I could do for not much money on my own. Actually animating with light was so fascinating what you could achieve with strobing and stop-motion.

SEL: Because with animation everything is so controlled, you’d plan everything down to each frame, so it was refreshing to see in the music video how more free-flowing things could be.

PB: It was really nice just trying things and seeing how things go when you try this or that, it was a lot of fun. Now though I have to get down to the really hard task of writhing something new, as the response has been quite surprising in terms of narrative driven people being interested in my tone. So there’s definitely interest and I need to come up with something good and new.

SEL: We see the characters in other scenarios and formats. Whether that’s another short or a series, or maybe a feature perhaps…

PB: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve sent the last of them – hopefully.

Visit the official site for the film at poles-a-part.com
The BAFTA awards will be presented on the 18th February 2018.  You can see this year’s animation category nominations and participate in our readers’ poll here.

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