Harvey Deneroff discusses the Making of Kate — The Taming of the Shrew, claimed to be the first stop-motion feature made in Italy, with Roberto Lione.
One of the more interesting films shown at this year’s Cartoons on the Bay animation festival in Positano, Italy, was Roberto Lione’s Kate — La Bisbetica Domata (Kate — The Taming of the Shrew), which claims to be the first stop-motion feature made in Italy. But what made it so appealing was the unusual form of stop motion it used, which utilized puppets and sets made out of brightly coloured construction paper — a sort of animated origami if you will — that Lione dubbed “Papermotion.”
The film, Lione admits owes as much to Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate and American popular culture as to Shakespeare, is a brash, fast-paced musical comedy which revels in its theatrical nature. Lione’s affinity for things American is really not so strange seeing as he spent 30 years in the US, mostly in East Coast cities such as New York and Miami, where his children and grandchildren live. The theatricality of the film, he says, stems from his strong love of theatre, proudly noting that, “I know the theatre and have friends who are theatre directors.”
Thus, it is no surprise that it is to another Broadway musical, Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, that provided the inspiration for Lione’s second animated feature, Pseudolus, which is currently in preproduction; for like the Sondheim work, it is based on the comedies of Plautus, the Roman playwright.
Intrigued by this new technique, I arranged to interview Lione for the first time the morning after the film was screened in Positano. (I also talked to him by phone during a recent visit to London.) He was obviously nervous and expressed impatience with the festival bureaucracy; I later realized this anxiety was likely due to the uncertainties about the film’s critical reception.
At the same time, his gruffness, if you will, reminded me of the sort of street smart guys I grew up in New York, who would brook no nonsense. And it also probably comes in part from the fact he came to animation rather late in life.
Lione first went to the US as a young man after feeling frustrated withthe way his early career was going in Italy; eventually he established himself as writer and director of documentary films, including A History of the Jewish People in Italy, The Egyptian Museum of Turin and Postcards from Ciociaria.
This interest in documentaries and educational films led, about seven years ago, to his involvement in “a research project on long-distance learning to teach languages at an institute in Ternia, in Umbria, that led me to look at animation as a teaching tool for children.” With the help of Francesco Misseri — “a maestro of every form of conventional cinematography — I developed a style of stop motion animation using paper puppets; and it was during this research project that I registered the name Papermotion and created the characters known in English as Obie and Bingie, or Taco and Paco, in Italian, which I much prefer.”
“The idea,” he says, “was to create a new animation style using Mediterranean colours, which can be achieved with paper and at the same time be different. Today, you have to be different to convey your message.”
At the same time, Lione who had a weekend home in Terni, decided to settle there and set up Crayons Picture (www.crayonspictures.com) to produce films using this technique. He recalls that, at the time, Rai, the state broadcaster, “was just waking up to animation and starting to put money into it.” And it was with Rai that Crayons made 52 x 5′ episodes of Obie and Bingie, a series aimed at pre-school children, 2-5 years old. (Many of these can be seen online at www.obiebingie.com/TVseries/TVseries.htm.)
Obie and Bingie, which features Obie, “a pensive crocodile,” and Bingie, “a busybody toucan” takes full advantage of the bright tropical colours the technique allows. The show also has a warm gentle nature, as well as a sense of discovery and freshness which seems to come from the animators’ sense of discovery as they explore the possibilities of this new technique.
In addition, to this series, the studio also made 10 Papermotion shorts, including A Nosy Relative, a Raccoon in the Fridge and Mushroom Soup for Everybody.
When I first talked to Lione, he was quick to say, “I don’t consider myself a cartoonist or somebody who makes cartoons, but just a filmmaker; this is because the technique I used, stop motion with paper, is a kind of cinematography that requires a deep knowledge of camera movements, lenses, lights — all the tools that you need in the making of a live-action motion picture.”
His aim in setting up Crayons, he says, “was to create a studio with a very distinctive style, something that would occupy a distinct niche in terms of animation; in other words, to do something like Italians did with fashion and industrial design. Italy, after all, has a very distinctive sense of colour, which I wanted to capture.”
“Animation in Italy, as an industry,” he says, “was almost unknown until 5-6 years ago. Since then, 4-5 features have been produced here using conventional animation.” Clearly, he felt the time was ripe for him and Crayons Pictures to make its mark.
Kate — The Taming of the Shrew tells of how Petrucchio, a self-styled Don Juan, tries to rid himself of his gambling debts owed to the Mafia by trying to marry Kate, the shrewish and very independent (i.e., feminist) daughter of a rich spaghetti manufacturer. Needless to say, their courtship and subsequent marriage prove extremely volatile.
Although the tale nominally takes place in Renaissance Italy, the action is full of anachronisms, with characters making free use of mobile phones and even skateboards. Unlike Obie and Bingie, the film is fast-paced and the action is, at times, almost non-stop. And, it turns out, much of this frantic pace was a result of Lione’s improvisatory style of directing.
“One of the most difficult problems a director has to face in making a stop motion film,” he says, “is how to move your characters from space A to space B. You have to remember that to move a character’s body 20cm, which is a very short space, might take 3-4 days to shoot. So, sometimes you have to invent something to do it quickly.”
“For instance, instead of having the characters walk, I decided to put them on skateboards or rickshaws or go-go carts. Why do they hop aboard a children’s wagon? Because, hey, I have to get them from here to there in a way that won’t take a lifetime to do it? It also makes it fun and funny.”
“These are, of course, decisions you cannot put in the storyboards, let alone in the script. These are situations which you confront on the set each time you prepare yourself for a new scene. It’s then that you realize, well, this is the space and this is the action. What do I do so that the end product is funny and pleasant?”
This sort of improvisation, which certainly comes from his experience as a live-action documentary filmmaker and his love of theatre, extends beyond just the way he moves the actors, but also to the way he stages a scene. For instance, he talks about a situation, “where there are crocodiles behind the set and I wanted to give the impression that this was not just a theatre, but a circus with clowns, animals and a ringmaster. However, the set was small and it was difficult to stage something like that. So, when the ringmaster has to make his exit, I decided to have the crocodiles eat him up. Again, this wasn’t written down, but created right there on the spot.”
Although the action is considerably faster paced and the intended audience much older, the film nevertheless retains the rich colour palette which was the hallmark of Obie and Bingie. The richness of colour is something he seems very conscious of, and when he talks of the fact there were 10 sets used to make Kate, “which were just two square metres large,” he is also quick to add there were also “30-40 light points to light each set.”
The film is due to be released in Italy late this year or early next year, which has already been booked in 300 theatres. In the meantime, he is preparing an English-language version for a Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles.
As for the future, Lione wants to continue doing both TV and feature films. “You have to make movies,” he says, “to build up your experience and to build up the studio financially; today, because of our experience making Kate, our production time has got much faster making short films for TV. So, for us, making a feature once in a while is paramount. Right now, I see us doing a new movie every two years, which is the time it took to do Kate.”