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Interview with Niki Lindroth von Bahr, Director, Writer, and Animator of Stop Motion Short Film "Bath House"

In art as in life, when in the thick of something – a chain of, at times, loosely connected actions and consequences – it can be easy to miss “the point.” It’s often only in retrospect – the moment when one can contemplate, assessing and reassessing an event, whether mundane or abnormal – when one can discover meaning and a “point” to events in life as in art. When in the thick of something, things often feel commonplace, moments of actual weight sporadic, chaotic, and adrift, lost in the moment.

Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s Bath House – a 15-minutes-long short film – perfectly captures these feelings of disorder and inconsequential consequence in the midst of the mundane and seemingly aimless. This mood is further accentuated in the film by a disquieting lack of a soundtrack, using dialogue only sparingly which perfectly accompanies Bahr’s incredibly lifelike puppets and animation, together harmonizing and bringing to life moments and an atmosphere that are rarely (if ever) captured on film.

Playing into the themes of significance intermingled in the humdrum of everyday life, more than anything else Bath House seems to be a film about the “unseen” – the lives and experiences of “ordinary” lives of everyday people that are rarely depicted on film or in stories in which they are the heroes. Bath House helps to put on film the lives and the experience of those living in mundanity, exploring the stories of several individuals –anthropomorphic renditions of extinct animals – whose lives evolve around a Swedish bath house for the length of the film: several visitors and the custodian of the establishment. Consecutively, they each clash with one an other with an unpredictable ferocity.

Sketches and mood-boards for the characters of Bath House by Niki Lindroth von Bahr.

Perfectly epitomized by the film’s opening camera shots – a floor being mopped by the bath house’s custodian, a used Band-Aid lying on the floor, a dripping faucet – the film finds its essence and substance in the imperfect and the mundanity of the lives of the film’s characters. These themes are poetically punctuated by Bahr’s highly detailed and intricately crafted world – everything from each of the characters, impeccably arranged boxes of raisins and “PowerBars” that adorn the desk of the bath house’s caretaker, and also a vast array of highly detailed posters decorating the walls, many of which contain information that seem somewhat inconsequential and mundane.

The lifelike detail of the film’s characters and world solidly land it in a visual environment seldom explored in animation – an uncanny valley where neither the label of “cartoony animation” nor of a “lifelike depiction” seem readily applicable. Bath House’s unique concoction of animation and a caricature of a realistic world does a wonderful job at forcing the viewer to interrogate the imagery and themselves for answers to the questions raised by the film, further provoking a reexamination of each and every scene.

After being presented at the distinguished Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 2014 and the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, Bath House went on to make its online debut on Vimeo with a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere, where it was received with a flood of positive feedback.

Sketches and mood-boards for the characters of Bath House by Niki Lindroth von Bahr.

Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Niki Lindroth von Bahr has been at work now for many, many years as a stop motion artist. Bath House is her second stop motion short film, the first of which was Tord and Tord. Her most recent film is Min Börda (The Burden), which premiered earlier this year and opened to much critical acclaim, winning the Le Cristal d’Annecy at the 2017 Annecy International Animated Film Festival – the highest accolade given to short films at the festival. Aside from her work in stop motion, Niki has also worked as a prop maker and a costume maker for music artists David Bowie, Swedish singer-songwriter Karin Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray) and the band Mint Julep.

The Odd Couple characters from Bath House in the making in the midst of small pieces of fur being attached to the puppets with glue. Photo by Niki Lindroth von Bahr.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview Niki about Bath House. In our interview, she digs into some of the nitty-gritty details about the technical process behind Bath House and discusses her view on the themes of the film as well as her fascination with the silent performances in the film. You can read our full interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: One of the things about Bath House that I find particularly remarkable and that set it apart from the vast majority of stop motion films is its revelry in particularly subtle, highly detailed, and often silent moments – moments that simply “breathe,” in the sense that they do not bend to progressing a locomotive-like plot or serve any other apparent plot “purpose.” (Examples of these moments can be found throughout the whole film, but are especially evident throughout the first 4 minutes, such as the scenes of the dawn horse mopping the floor, waiting for her coffee to brew, and doing other such menial tasks. The scene where the two bear-like characters sort through swimsuits also comes to mind.) These moments add a certain realness to the film that are a rare find in the vast majority of stop motion films. (I assume the biggest reason for why most films do not include such moments simply has to do with the incredibly plentiful amount of man-hours that go into making a stop motion film.) Yet, in your film, these moments comprise a large swathe of Bath House, certainly playing a key role in the film’s aesthetic and allure. Their specificity and breadth in the overall film make me think that they are what you were “going for.” Can you describe why these moments were important to you and the process of planning and animating them?

Niki Lindroth von Bahr: When working with a new film, I always start with an atmosphere. The overall feeling is equally important for my films as the actual story. When making Bath House I was very interested in silence, especially uncomfortable silence. I wanted to tell a story where the relations between the characters were often expressed in the silence. I also chose to not have any music, hoping to leave the audience confused about what to feel. Like, is this funny or scary?

The bath house set from Bath House. (The pool floor is made in post production.) Photo by Niki Lindroth von Bahr.

A.H.: As you said in your interview with Vimeo a while back, when Bath House first premiered on the site, “All of the characters are actually inspired by extinct animal species that I picked out from sad, dusted stuffed creatures at a natural history museum.” This statement stands out to me as something quite significant in terms of the film, especially your designation of the word “sad” in relation to the animals you chose as the characters. Could you shed some light on what the themes of this film are and mean to you and how the characters in Bath House play into those themes?

NB: To me, the theme is about the state of Sweden right now. Many of our public bath houses were built in the 60s and 70s when the Swedish welfare system was still very strong and alive. Nowadays these bath houses are often in very bad shape, since they are not maintained in a good way. Some of them have almost become dangerous to visit. I saw this development as a symbol of our dismantled welfare. The extinct species are also, in a way, worn relics from a different time.

The changing room and the shower room sets from Bath House being put together for one sequence. Photo by Niki Lindroth Von Bahr.

A.H.: Could you dig into some of the “nuts and bolts” details of the technical process behind the film, specifically in reference to the animation set-up for the film and the design process and kinds of materials that went into creating the puppets and their armatures? You were working on a 1:7.5 scale, right?

NB: Yes, that’s right. It’s the perfect size to keep the surroundings and puppets very detailed, but still be able to make the sets in a very tiny studio. The technique is handmade stop motion animation, except for the pool water made by Ola Schubert. He used a mixture of After Effects animation and real water splashes, filmed in front of a black screen. I used a lot of different materials, (it’s a huge interest that I have to build these sets and puppets). Wood, cardboard, Air-X, Forex, Styrofoam and so on.

The vomit on a glass table with green-screen in the midst of being shot for Bath House. Photo by Niki Lindroth von Bahr.

A.H.: Can you speak a little to how you feel you’ve evolved as an artist over the years, particularly in your work in stop motion? In what ways have you improved your craft from beginning Tord and Tord to finishing The Burden and what, if anything (other than practice), contributed to the refinement of your talents?

NB: I think I’ve become more daring, I would never have thought of including a tap dancing scene as I did in The Burden when writing Tord and Tord. Not sure that I have much more technical knowledge now compared to before, but I have started to rely on the possibility of getting help with challenges that I can’t manage on my own. Trusting other people maybe, or just letting go of my most severe checking needs. When writing The Burden, I also decided to totally ignore the difficulties that may come with building certain surroundings. For example I chose to have one scene enacted in a huge supermarket, it was hell to make that set but the result turned out really good.

The swimming characters from Bath House attached to simple rigs in front of a green-screen, in the midst of being filmed. Photo by Niki Lindroth von Bahr.

A.H.: What advice do you have for new animators who are just starting out or who have just begun to consider a professional career in the stop motion industry? Do you have any resources you would like to recommend to them that you’ve found particularly helpful?

NB: Be VERY patient and put a lot of effort into the pre-production. It’s important to have a strong vision of what kind of film you want to make, because when you start to animate you will be totally occupied by technical issues. And that sound design is a huge part of the film, make it good!

Niki Lindroth von Bahr

If you’re interested in exploring more of Niki’s work, you can do so by visiting her websiteVimeo, and the website for Min Börda (The Burden).

If you’re interested in learning more about Niki’s work on Bath House, you can go read her interview with Vimeo’s Meghan Oretsky here, you can also go watch an interview with Niki at the Annecy Film Festival here and Teeh Pictures’ interview with her here.

A huge shout-out to Niki, who provided us with the wonderful behind-the-scenes photos that you see here and also graciously gave us some of her precious time to do this interview!

You can go watch Bath House by going here.

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