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Interview with Roos Mattaar, Animator, Puppet Engineer, and Set Maker on "Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)"

After Joseph Wallace was entrusted with the job of making the music video for the band Sparks’ song “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” – a song off their new album “Hippopotamus” – the first person he looked to for help in bringing the project to life was UK-based Roos Mattar, who was originally brought on to craft the puppets. However, once Wallace and Mattaar came to realize the ambitious scope of the project in the sheer workload it would take to give justice to the complexity of the video’s many shots and sets, they assembled a team of talented animators, set fabricators, and prop makers, such as Aiden Whittam, Katrina Hood, Heather Colbert, and Mary Murphy, who, together with Wallace and Mattaar, worked around the clock to finish the project within a transient schedule of six weeks.

A final still from Edith Piaf in which the character of the Bird - a puppet engineered and fabricated by Roos Mattaar (minus the beak, colors, and final details of the puppet's head) - scales the side of the Eiffel Tower

Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), after premiering at the Paris International Animation Festival, went on to accrue an abundance of praise from individuals such as Aardman co-founder Peter Lord and Oscar-nominated director Barry Purves, and was also featured on BBC One’s “The One Show.”

As she explains on her blog, Roos first discovered stop motion while growing up in the Netherlands, “[I] was fascinated,” she says, “by its crafts and skills and the magic of bringing my own creations to life on screen. I started building sets and puppets in my bedroom and learnt what I could from online resources.” She eventually moved to the UK, where she accrued a thorough education in the medium at the Bristol School of Animation. At college she made her graduate film, an exquisite short entitled Moonbird, which won the respected Royal Television Society West of England Student Animation Award. Following graduation, Mattaar has gone on to work on several stop motion features, including as the upcoming films Isle of Dogs and Early Man, as well as television shows such as Postman Pat and Twirlywoos, adverts for companies such as Sainsbury and Wacom, and music videos for artists such as Father John Misty.

Mattaar, an artist who we have featured on the blog before in a discussion of her work on the Father John Misty music video, Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution, was heavily involved in Edith Piaf, originally having been brought on by the music video’s director, Joseph Wallace, to engineer the film’s puppets – the puppet envisages of Sparks’ Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, and a wholly original character dubbed “the Bird” – and, upon completing the puppets, was then contracted to stay on the project to animate and create some of the sets. During the film’s shoot she was also responsible for setting up and lighting the shots she had animated. (A good example of one of these shots appears in the scene where Ron Mael crawls under the table in the café – the behind-the-scenes picture for which is featured below.)

The Ron Mael puppet peers under a tablecloth in a shot set up and animated by Roos Mattaar

As she explains in detail in our interview and on her blog, Mattaar built the Bird puppet – a character designed by Wallace – by constructing “an armature of aluminum wire, small tie downs in the feet and blue foam core pieces with fitted K&S for rigging points. The body was covered in feathers all cut out and painted paper on blackwrap, and finally painted in neon paint for the glow effect under UV light in the final shoot.” To complete the puppet, Wallace, “worked on the final colours, beak and head details.” Mattaar also made the armatures, bodies, and costumes of the Ron and Russell puppets, which were designed by Wallace and who also made their hands and heads, as well as applied the final paint.

As a part of Stop Motion Geek’s recent series of interviews with the crew who worked on Edith Piaf, I had the opportunity to interview Roos. In our interview we go over her experience working with Joseph Wallace and his vision for the film, the process and decision-making that went into making the puppets, as well as the challenges she faced while working on the project, how she overcame them, and what lessons she learned from them, such as learning to not be too precious with an idea if it gets in the way of actualizing the rest of project (as well as much more). Our interview, along with many Edith Piaf behind-the-scenes photos provided by Mattaar, can be read below in full.

A.H. Uriah: First of all, thank you so much for doing another interview so soon after Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution! It’s really a wonderful thing to see Edith Piaf getting all the attention it has been getting – for Sparks, you, Joseph, and the others individuals who worked so hard to bring the music video to fruition (not to mention the stop motion community at large). Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about your work on the project and your collaboration Joseph Wallace in the making of the film? Wasn’t this another down-to-the-wire schedule for you, similar the schedule for Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution?

Roos Mattaar: Thank you! I had known Joseph and his work for quite a while, but we had never worked together before. He approached me first as he was looking for some help building the puppets. He had a clear vision for the style and look he wanted to achieve, but was concerned about how to translate that into puppets that would hold up for the entirety of the shoot. They would need to be able to perform all the walking, jumping, running and bold movements he had planned for the video.

Roos Mattaar and Joseph Wallace in the midst of fabricating the Ron and Russell Mael puppets

I got excited about the project and was keen to stay to animate too. Joseph soon realized that, with the scale and ambition of the project, to get everything done within the tight time frame he needed extra hands.

We had maybe double the time as for the Father John Misty music video, but we had to do everything with a much smaller crew and in a much smaller space. Nearing the end of the shoot I was staying over at Joseph’s house just to cut out any extra travel time, and didn’t see more than a glimpse of daylight (despite it being the middle of summer!) on my way from his flat to the studio. It was definitely full on, but it has been great to be so involved with the project from start to finish, which made seeing the final results and the positive response to it even more satisfying.

A.H.: Can you tell us a little bit about the puppets – the bird and the Mael brothers – and the creative process and decisions that went into making them? What specific materials and technical processes did you apply to make them?

RM: Sure. When I joined Joseph on the project the first thing he had made for the pitch of the video were the Mael brothers’ puppets heads carved out of cork. These were approved already from the pitch, so I was working with Joseph to build the rest of the bodies and costumes for them. Joseph had sketches and concept drawings both for the Ron & Russell figures and for the bird.

Designs for armatures for the puppets of the Bird and Ron and Russell Mael, engineered by Roos Mattaar

Whenever I work on a puppet based on a specific design, I start with working out all the practical and functional aspects. The process will start with discussing things like the scale of the puppets, their size in relation to each other and what sort of performance and movement is required of them. A lot of the decision making process is about function and often finding a compromise between the desired style and what is possible to achieve within the given time, budget, etc. to build a functioning puppet.

Armatures engineered by Roos Mattaar

Armatures engineered by Roos Mattaar and their accompanying fabricated puppets

The Ron & Russell puppets appear pretty much in every shot of the video and they are doing a lot of active and expressive acting and moving around. Since they have no movement from their face or hands, everything had to come from their body language. So it was important to build a strong armature that would last the duration of the shoot, while also being flexible enough for subtle movements.

We decided that we would need doubles of the puppets, so that we could shoot more than one scene at a time. It added some work time to the puppet making, but we would never have been able to finish the video in time with just one set of puppets.

The costumes of the puppets were especially challenging. Initially a costume designer came in to make the costumes out of fabric, but in previous projects Joseph had worked with paper and he didn’t want the costumes to look like ‘doll’s clothes’. The paper wouldn’t be strong enough to hold up throughout the shoot, but the fabric wasn’t working for the look he wanted to achieve. Time was ticking and there was not much time to develop completely new techniques or to experiment and try out lots of different materials. I did eventually come up with a method that seemed to work. The costumes are a combination mainly of black wrap (black aluminum foil used to block lighting) and tights. The black wrap is great for miniature work when combined with fabric to create convincing folds and wrinkles for the scale and even to animate it. I used this previously for example for the scarf of the girl in the Father John Misty music video. In combination with glues and final painted details we managed to get the right look for the costumes, while besides some minor repairs the costumes also held up well during the shoot and didn’t restrain the puppets too much from performing all their jumping, running, pointing and falling.

A costume for the Ron Mael puppet created by Roos Mattaar

Puppets and costumes fabricated by Roos Mattaar (the heads of the Ron Mael puppet and the hands of both the Ron and Russell puppets created by Joseph Wallace)

The Ron (left) and Russell Mael puppets, created by Roos Mattaar

From the bird there is only one copy. It would have been too time consuming and very difficult to copy her exactly, and she was not required in every shot as was the case with the Ron & Russell puppets.

The armature for the Bird puppet, engineered by Roos Mattaar

Armature for the Bird, engineered by Roos Mattaar

It was an interesting challenge to build the bird. I have built a variety of bird or otherwise winged creatures as puppets, but each has been completely different and posing different kind of challenges. For this bird I had to forget about everything I knew about actual bird anatomy and instead interpret Joseph’s drawings of this creature, resembling the idea of a bird. I essentially tried to translate the concept drawings straight into a working 3d puppet. I knew I wanted to keep it as light as possible as the bird would have to be used on a rig a lot of the time. I used a lot of hard foam for solid parts of the body so there would be something to hold on to when the puppet was covered in its feathers, without squashing and disturbing these too much during animation. The puppet needed rigging points of course, ideally from every possible angle, which were then strategically hidden under the feathers. The feathers were made of black wrap and painted paper. After all the feathers were applied the bird was given a final coat of neon paints, which give her the glowing look when using a UV light pointed to her on set.

The puppet of the Bird, created by Roos Mattaar, in an early stage of fabircation

A.H.: What were some challenges for you on this project, how did you overcome them, and what did they teach you? What advice can you give stop motion animators who may be facing the same or similar problems as you were on this project?

RM: There are always many challenges on any stop motion project. Some of the challenges during the puppet construction I have just mentioned. During animation there were many challenges every single day. Where to start…

We shot everything in Joseph’s studio, which isn’t a very big space. Space was the first hurdle to overcome. We installed an extra desk space so that we could accommodate for more people coming in to help with the model making. During the shoot this even doubled as a 3rd very small shooting space. It was certainly not ideal, but lots of good lessons to learn in terms of making the most of the space you have available. We did end up using an extra small studio space which Joseph could rent for a month. This is where we did all the ‘big’ shots. Still the space was very small and often lighting stands were crammed against the wall. We used the motion control rig here, and it was a constant puzzle to make everything fit.

The climactic scene in which Ron and Russell Mael fall from the Eiffel Tower in Edith Piaf, set up and animated by Roos Mattaar

Every day we had to re-visit the schedule and look at what could be shot in which space by whom. Because the team was so small I was closely involved with this whole process, often sitting down at the end of the day with Joseph going over the storyboards, schedules for the next day, etc.

The time pressure of this kind of project provides many valuable lessons I think. I am quite a perfectionist, and it can be easy to get very precious about little details. When you know you should ideally have finished three shots by the end of the day, it’s very important to work efficiently, make decisions quickly, look at the overall picture and just get on with it.

Another interesting lesson came from Joseph’s unique way of working. Instead of spending a lot of time on building set bases and solid structures, a lot of the set pieces were simply elements that we clamped and hot glued into place in front of the camera. Sometimes it meant we were still missing something and I’d quickly have to paint an extra corner of a building or cut out an extra silhouette out of black paper to put into the background. We were creating the look of the shots in front of the camera instead of meticulously planning it all out in advance. We re-used many elements from different angles in different shots. It really looked like a mess sometimes when you looked at it from another angle, but in front of the camera it worked. I think this can be a great lesson in how much you can achieve with very simple set pieces. There were trade-offs though, some set pieces and props were not very stable so it made animation more difficult, especially where the puppets had to directly interact with them. It also required a lot of clamps and magic arms to hold things in place. 

The set for the scene in which Ron and Russell fall from the Eiffel Tower, set up and animated by Roos Mattaar

A final image from Edith Piaf in which Ron (top) and Russell (bottom) fall from the Eiffel Tower

We were very lucky there were some really generous fellow creatives who were lending us equipment, from black drapes to magic arms and extra lights as well as even the complete motion control rig. I think it’s a good lesson to not be afraid to ask around. If you are working on an exciting project, there will probably be people willing to help make it happen.

Roos Mattaar animating the Ron and Russell puppets in the scene where they fall from the Eiffel Tower

You can learn more about Roos and her work in the medium by visiting her Vimeo profile and website. You can read the articles on her blog about her contribution to Edith Piaf by clicking the following links for the corresponding posts: overview of Roos’s work on Edith Piaf, Roos’s work on fabricating the Bird puppet, and Roos’s work on fabricating the Ron and Russell puppets.

You can go buy and stream Sparks’ “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” and the rest of their recent album, “Hippopotamus,” on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and the Spark’s store. You can also learn more about Sparks by going to their website.

If you’re interested in learning more about the behind-the-scenes process on Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), you can do so by going and watching the excellent behind-the-scenes video here.

It should be noted that this article is the third in a series of interviews on Stop Motion Geek with the incredible artists who worked on Edith Piaf. You can go read the other two articles in the series by going here to read our interview with Joseph Wallace (director of Edith Piaf) and here to read our interview with Aiden Whittam (an animator and set maker on the film). These articles also feature a plethora of supplementary behind-the-scenes materials, such as photos, videos, and links to other interviews and articles about the film.

You can go watch Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) by going here.

A still from the final Edith Piaf music video in which Ron (left) and Russell (right) fall from the Eiffel Tower

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