What techniques did you use to make this short film?
Stop motion with puppets. We felt strongly that the tone of the original text demanded a direct, distinctly human process. Being that the film is about a relationship through a physical process – packing a suitcase – we knew that we wanted to emphasize the wrinkles of a shirt, the crease of the leather belt and the crinkle of plastic. The technique was apparent from the moment we read the poem. As we investigated further, it was interesting to reflect our own childhood. Our memories are closely connected to the sensations of texture and touch. We remember the itchiness of a wool sweater from childhood or the upholstery of our parents’ sofa from the early 80s. By animating real materials that flex and wrinkle, we hoped that we would activate the connections for the people who watch the film. Lastly, we made a conscious decision to use scale to exaggerate the space that the father takes up in his son’s life, and how that presence changes over time. Stop motion gives a unique physicality to space that graphic mediums do not have, and was the most effective technique to communicate that feeling.
How did you work on the human characters?
The movements of the clothes and objects are very expressive and bold and, in contrast, the acting of the human characters is more understated. We wanted to portray a sense of distance between the father and son – that they couldn’t connect directly. Through the act of packing a suitcase, they are able to express themselves fully.
What got you interested in the father-and-son relationship?
We based the film on a 150-word prose poem by Ron Koertge. We felt that the subject was specific, yet still had a universal truth for all relationships. Here is our personal connection to the parent-child relationship.
Ru: As an airline pilot, my father traveled often when I was growing up. I don’t really remember things like trips to the zoo or theme parks, but the image of him packing a crisp, white shirt is burned in my memory. I remember my dad adjusting his watch precisely before leaving the house and I remember the packing list that he pinned to the wall of his study. My most vivid childhood memories are connected with objects, textures and ordinary routines.
Max: My connection was less directly tied to the packing routine, but the text still spoke honestly to me about the way parents and children often ritualize connection. We’ve heard people refer to the father-son relationship in Negative Space as cold or strange, and maybe it is by some standards, but that doesn’t negate the importance of the connection to the main character. Negative Space made me consider my own relationships and the small things that represent a big part of those connections.
What motivated you to tell the story of this relationship through loss?
When somebody’s gone (whether it’s death, physical distance, or emotionally apart), we have the emotional distance to see the relationship in a new light. Through the mourning process, the son is able to get a sense of clarity about who the father was to him. The original poem ended at the funeral, so we decided to create the narrative structure of present-past-present, where the main character is traveling to the funeral and reflecting on transformative moments of his childhood.
Is “empty space” a recurring theme in your work? Are you planning to make more films about it?
In realizing Negative Space, we explored the physical and metaphoric space that a parent takes in a child’s life and how that space changes over time. I don’t know if we’ll continue to explore the idea of Negative space specifically, but I’m sure we’ll continue to investigate the complexity of interpersonal relationships.
What sort of freedom would you say the short format allows?
The format for short films gives the author freedom to experiment and explore with storytelling. Whereas long-form projects tend to be locked into three-act structures and other conventions, short films can simply focus on efficiently delivering a message or meaning. It’s probably similar to the difference between a poem and a novel. In poem, one word or one phrase can paint a whole universe. In Negative Space, we used visual transitions to transport the spectator in and out of memories. For example, how the driving scene turns into a small car opening up the zipper on the suitcase. Or when the camera is panning across a suburb depicting various father-and-son relationships, it slowly changes the scale and shows the suitcase with clothes. Our mind is very fluid with time and place, and we wanted to depict that visually.
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote or story from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
In fact, I met my producers, Nidia Santiago and Edwina Liard from IKKI Films at Clermont-Ferrand! I participated in the “short to long” writing competition with La Maison des scénaristes who organized meetings at Clermont-Ferrand. It was still in the early phase of Negative Space and I had a hope of finding producers who believed in us and our project. During Euro Connection, somebody accidentally spilled coffee on my white scarf, and Nidia grabbed napkins and helped me clean. A few minutes later, I saw Nidia and Edwina presenting their projects on the stage. I thought this was meant to be!
Bonus: discover the video presentation of the film by the directors.