Earlier this year, BA (Hons) Animation student Jessica Mehler was invited to screen her animated short film Catawampus at Encounters, the UK's leading animation and short film festival.
The festival discovers, supports and develops new talent in filmmaking, providing a platform for emerging and established filmmakers from around the world, and a unique meeting place for the industry. This year, the jam-packed programme featured a diverse selection of short film screenings, feature films and Q&As alongside an intensive industry event programme with high-level masterclasses and workshops. We caught up with Jessica to find out more...
Why did you choose to study at Plymouth College of Art?
I’m German and French, and have lived in those countries most of my life but I really wanted to study in England. After I did a film course at the European Film College in Denmark I was comfortable speaking English, and so learning animation in the home country of Wallace and Gromit seemed like a great idea.
I looked at several schools and planned a trip to England to attend a few open days, where I really enjoyed visiting Plymouth College of Art. The college gave off good vibes and it was really sunny on that day so the city looked lovely!
Where did your love of animation come from?
I grew up watching a lot of Studio Ghibli and Disney films. Spirited Away was probably a key film because I loved the main character, I saw the film when my family had just moved to France so I felt like I could identify with this grumpy little girl who doesn’t want to move to a new home.
Later on, anime was a great gateway into animation, more complex than children’s films and cartoons. They would always have complicated plots with dark themes that are just perfect when you’re a fifteen-year-old trying to be edgy! Not all anime is like that, but those are the ones I was drawn to.
I then discovered stop-motion through Henry Sellick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, but Mary and Max from director Adam Elliot was probably one of the main films that made me want to be an animator. I also remember being shown Yuriy Norshteyn’s Hedgehog in the Fog and being absolutely blown away by it, so I’d have to add that to the list.
What was the inspiration behind Catawampus?
During one of our modules, we were working on re-interpreting the story of Little Red Riding Hood. During my research I came across the story of Baba Yaga, who is a character from Russian folklore.
I just loved the idea of a house with chicken legs and the dangerous force of nature that controls it. I like that Baba Yaga is a boogey monster to frighten children but sometimes she is helpful, so you never really know where you stand. I was attracted to that kind of ambivalence.
Tell us about the process of making your film Catawampus?
I spent the Summer testing materials and mastering how to make puppets, and then I wrote the script. The story went through multiple edits because I had all these big ideas which unfortunately wouldn't fit my timescale, I finished the script around Christmas.
After that, I still had to build most of my assets. I decided to keep the forest setting really simple, so I just had some paper maché trees with leaves made of painted foam and a painted canvas for the background. To contrast that, Baba Yaga’s house was quite detailed and realistic. I had help from Julia Claxton from the film programme for that set, I don’t think I would have been able to do this on my own.
A lot of the furniture in the house was hand-made, so it was the perfect scale and looked the way I wanted.
The Baba Yaga puppet was easy to make and only took a couple of days. She is made of wood, aluminium wire and a bit of foam and latex. I also glued some dried leaves on her to be her clothes. I wanted her to look very natural to represent how she is such a big force of nature. Catawampus is a story where the old meets the new, the little girl had to be a bit more complex and modern so I utilised the state of the art equipment at Fab Lab Plymouth to create a 3D printed head for her.
Before I started shooting I did a lot of test shots to get the lighting and feel of the film right. The actual shooting took about six weeks, and then editing and compositing took an additional two weeks.
What equipment did you use?
I shot on a Canon 700D and I lit the set mostly with LED panels. All my equipment came from the college which was very helpful and the stop-motion software we have at the college is called DragonFrame, it’s brilliant and I’m really happy we have access to that.
How did it feel to hear your film would be screening at Encounters?
I was really excited! I have been going to Encounters since I moved to England and I love it, so actually being part of the selection is a huge achievement.
Did you attend the festival?
I did, the highlight was probably getting to meet and talk to so many people but I also really enjoyed watching the films. Catawampus was in a pretty cool category, showing alongside another animated film called Ugly, it was one of my favourites from the festival and ended up winning the Grand Prix.
What's next for you?
I just started working at Yellow Mouse Studios in Crediton. It’s a really fun place and it’s nice to still be surrounded by animators. When you’re in art school you kind of get used to having all these creative people around and everyone bouncing ideas off each other, I’m really glad to be somewhere where I can still have that now.
Any advice for aspiring animators?
Just try lots of different things and make lots of stupid little tests that might not lead anywhere, that’s where the best ideas come from. I think especially in stop-motion when you start you tend to feel a bit intimidated by all the equipment. You can’t just sit down behind a computer you have to go and get lights and use a camera and physically set your scene. I remember being a bit intimidated by it all when I was in my first year, but if you keep working at it you'll become more comfortable and find your style.