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Interview with Mark Smith, Director and Writer of Stop Motion Short Film, "Two Balloons"

A still from Two Balloons featuring the character of Elba. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

As I sit, listening to Peter Broderick’s moving composition for piano More Of A Composition, I close my eyes and envisage an enormous funnel cloud skimming across the crystalline face of an ocean – the skies are murky and unusually dark, lightning crackles, spider-webbing across the darkened skies before then vanishing, and still, after its gone, an electricity continues to hum in the air and I simply know that it’s going to soon strike again. And as the scene presents itself to me, I suddenly feel something similar to what director Mark C. Smith felt when he saw the same image as he sailed to a small island called Grenada along with his wife in a timeworn sailboat. For him, in that moment inspiration struck, and the idea suddenly came to him for his heartfelt stop motion film, Two Balloons. For me, I open my eyes and feel as I did the instant Two Balloons faded to black – as if I’ve just woken from a stunning and beautiful dream, one I immediately mourn not being able to see again for the first time.



“As I watched it skate across the ocean I was listening to a song in 3/4 time and that’s when the idea for Two Balloons happened,” Smith tells Stop Motion Geek. “The time signature stuck with me and later, when I heard Peter’s song More Of A Composition, I immediately knew I wanted him to compose the score.”

The film stars two balloonists who happen to also be ring-tailed lemurs – Bernard and Elba – to whom, after their tender first encounter, happenstance threatens to disrupt their world.

Bernard and Elba’s 1950s-style handcrafted aerostats, props, and costumes were composited together  with hand-painted matte paintings and analogue sets made of black foam core, within which were made small pinpricks to give the effect of a bright and vibrant celestial body. The twinkling effect of the stars was achieved by filming strips of mylar suspended from C-Stands that fans were then used to make the mylar tremor, flickering and flashing its glittering material. The lightning effect seen in the film was made using Tesla coil. Each effect was then composited together in After Effects to craft Bernard and Elba’s world of a fantastical and dreamlike haze.

A still from Two Balloons featuring the characters of Elba (foreground) and Bernard (background). Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview Mark. In our interview, Mark elaborates on his inspirations for Two Balloons. He explains how he worked to keep himself and the rest of the film’s crew focused on the overall story throughout the production, as well as the pros and cons of his experience working in stop motion on the film, which marked his inaugural outing in the medium. You can read our interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: How did the idea of Two Balloons come about and evolve? I understand that you originally envisaged the film as a live-action production and that the idea for the film came to you after listening to a musical composition by film composer Peter Broderick. Is that true?

Mark Smith: While traveling through South Carolina, my wife and I found an old sailboat. After we got her back in the water we decided to sail to an island called Grenada. On one of the passages I saw a funnel cloud for the first time. As I watched it skate across the ocean I was listening to a song in 3/4 time and that’s when the idea for Two Balloons happened. The time signature stuck with me and later, when I heard Peter’s song More Of A Composition, I immediately knew I wanted him to compose the score.

Armature design. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

The film was intended to be live action but the aircraft hangar that was necessary to accommodate the dirigibles was not available. My friend, Andrew Brown, who created the storyboards for Two Balloons, met me for coffee to discuss options. When we left the cafe, Two Balloons had become a stop motion film with lemurs as the main characters.

A clay sculpture of the character of Elba. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

The finished fabricated puppet for the character of Bernard. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

The decision for Bernard and Elba to be lemurs was based on a paragraph from a book titled The Unquiet Grave by a writer named Cyril Veron Connolly:
In youth the animal world obsessed me; I saw life through creatures which were in a state of grace, creatures without remorse, without duties, without a past or a future, owning nothing but the intense present and their eternal rhythm of hunger, sleep and play. The ring-tailed lemurs with their reverence for the sun, their leaps through the air and their howls of loneliness, were dark immortals of a primitive race…they held the secret of life to me; they were clues to an existence without thought, guilt or ugliness wherein all was grace, appetite and immediate sensation: Impressionist masterpieces which Nature flung upon the canvas of a day.
– Cyril Vernon Connolly, The Unquiet Grave

The model aerostat as seen in Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

While traveling through South Carolina, my wife and I found an old sailboat. After we got her back in the water we decided to sail to an island called Grenada. On one of the passages I saw a funnel cloud for the first time. As I watched it skate across the ocean I was listening to a song in 3/4 time and that’s when the idea for Two Balloons happened.

Clouds made of wool rigged for Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

A.H.: Two Balloons is a silent film in the sense that there is not a word spoken between its characters, which means that the story is carried largely by the film’s score (composed by Peter Broderick) and visuals (everything from the animation and visual effects to the set design to the final grading and composite). Can you talk a little on the relationship of the film’s story to the visuals and musical score? How did the score affect the visuals, and vice versa?

MS: A song and an ocean created the idea for Two Balloons and that, in turn, created the motivation to have the score and production design shape the narrative. Music can take us to a place of intuition instead of intellect. I’ve always felt that production design has the same potential. I wanted the sets, sound design and score to take an audience to that place where our imaginations and instinct are the in-betweens for dialogue.



Music can take us to a place of intuition instead of intellect. I’ve always felt that production design has the same potential. I wanted the sets, sound design and score to take an audience to that place where our imaginations and instinct are the in-betweens for dialogue.

Three sketches of the characters of Bernard and Elba by Benoit Goode. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

Three profile sketches of the character of Elba by Benoit Goode. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

A.H.: On Two Balloons, how did you, as the director and writer, stay focused on the “overall whole” of the project in the day-to-day when your working on overseeing extraordinarily minute decisions? Furthermore, how did you help your collaborators make the decisions that were best for the overall end product?

MS: For 16 months, storyboarding, animatics, building sets, building a studio and fabricating puppets were the priorities. I was obsessive about preparation because I had never produced a stop motion project. Sometimes I saw pre-production as training for an endurance race I had never run before.

The prop mast and sail for Bernard's ship. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

Questions presented themselves everyday during those first months. They were like agitated grains of sand trying to make a pearl. We followed that dialectic until the questions resolved themselves and the answers we discovered informed future decisions during production. In some ways it’s like we split wood for 16 months and the rest of the time we just had to keep the fire going. Having a crew willing to be immersed in pre-production made it easier to overcome challenges during production because everyone understood what we were trying to put on the screen.

A miniature faucet as seen in Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

How did I help my collaborators make decisions that were best for the film? Our crew was made up of stop motion veterans and beginners. It was a mix of idealism and wisdom with no cynicism in the middle. That dynamic fostered a lot of experimentation and I worked at creating an environment where we’d have the time and tools to follow a good idea. We had our share of setbacks but some of our best work happened because we had the freedom to make mistakes.

The interior of Bernard's ship, as seen in Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

Sometimes I saw pre-production as training for an endurance race I had never run before. Questions presented themselves everyday during those first months. They were like agitated grains of sand trying to make a pearl. We followed that dialectic until the questions resolved themselves and the answers we discovered informed future decisions during production.

The set for Bernard's aerostat. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

A.H.: Do you have any advice and/or lessons that you wish you knew on Two Balloons before you started the project? As an extension of that question, do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers or animators in our readership?

In pre-production I saw fluid camera moves in the language of live action. I learned the hard way that the dance between the X, Y and Z axis’ is different in stop motion. Our motion control shots were more challenging than I expected.

The prop glasses for Elba. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

Our crew was made up of stop motion veterans and beginners. It was a mix of idealism and wisdom with no cynicism in the middle. That dynamic fostered a lot of experimentation and I worked at creating an environment where we’d have the time and tools to follow a good idea. We had our share of setbacks but some of our best work happened because we had the freedom to make mistakes. 

The character of Elba being animated in Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith. 

The character of Elba being animated by animation director Teresa Drilling in Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

With regards to advice, developing a past for our characters was helpful. With a backstory it was easier to build sets for Bernard and Elba because we knew their sensibilities. I also feel inventing a history can help performance because it gives an animator a more fully formed character.



A.H.: What’s next for you?

MS: Six years ago I wrote to Dave Eggers and asked if I could adapt one of his short stories into an animated short film. The story I wrote to him about means much to me and being a fan of Eggers’ books I really want to produce good work.

The aerostat set as seen in Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

One of the reasons I took a leap into stop motion with Two Balloons was to prepare for the Eggers story. I hope to get started soon.

Two Balloons set being framed by Reijean Heringlake, the film's Director of Photography. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

You can learn more about Two Balloons and you can see more behind-the-scenes material by visiting their FacebookInstagramTwitterIMDb page, and website.

Mark Smith has also released two behind-the-scenes featurettes for the film, the first of which – Two Balloons: A Stop Motion Ocean – can be seen by going here. The second featurette – Two Balloons:  Assembling a Miniature Storm – can be seen by going here.

The character of the bird being animated by animation director Teresa Drilling. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

If you’re interested in reading more about Two Balloons you can do so by reading Animation Magazine’s article about the film by going here.

To watch more of Mark Smith’s work, you can do so by going to his Vimeo page.

To view the film’s full credits, you can visit this page on the Two Balloons website.

Bernard's notebook prop. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

You can stream Peter Broderick’s album “4 Track Songs” which features More Of A Composition by going to Spotify.

Broderick has now titled his score for Two Balloons from the first in second acts of the film Bernard and Elba’s Waltz, which is the melody he based off More Of A Composition.

Two Balloons is not yet available to watch online. However, the trailer for the film is available to watch by going here.

You can stay up-to-date with Stop Motion Geek by following us on Facebook @Stop Motion Geek or by visiting https://www.facebook.com/StopMotionGeek/.

Bernard's ship being animated for Two Balloons. Photo of Mark Smith.

Final photo from Two Balloons. Photo courtesy of Mark Smith.

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