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Interview with Sylvain Derosne, Lead Animator on Oscar® Nominated Stop Motion Short Film, "Negative Space"

The main character, Sam, standing in the vestibule of his apartment building after packing. Source: Vimeo.



If there’s one steadfast truth about the medium of animation as a whole and about the inspired act of animating, it is that the probability for novelty is infinite, the possibilities boundless.

In animation – unlike in the medium of live action film – the laws of physics don’t apply – or at least they don’t have to. The potential for strange new worlds to be conceived of and explored has no ceiling, nor does the expressiveness with which characters walk, talk, and emote. So whenever an animated film – particularly a stop motion film – of artistic excellence is released like Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s Oscar-nominated short film Negative Space – which is a film that explores a father-and-son relationship and the burden of grief through a lens that is, more often than not, grounded in a reality not unlike ours – it should imbue us, the audience, with the ardor to observe, and the attentiveness to ask the question that is immediately provoked in the back of our minds: Why?

In regards to the actual animated elements the film, Negative Space is a curious case study in that it resembles the aesthetic of “grounded” performance seen in live action films more often than not, and especially in relation to its small cast of characters.

Sam, his father, and his mother in one of the flashback scenes. Source: Vimeo.

The five-and-a-half minute long short follows the emotional and psychological journey of the character of a man named Sam, who, throughout the film, breaks the fourth wall by narrating his inner journey directly to the audience (a monologue that is, in truth, the poem by Ron Koertge upon which the film is based), telling us about how he and his father communicated their relationship with each other through a very unique means: packing a suitcase.

“As in live action movies, there’s animated film that rely a lot in characters performance, we see them crying, exciting, wanting, etc.,” Sylvain Derosne, the lead animation on Negative Space, tells Stop Motion Geek. “In here it’s all about inside and nostalgic feelings, how characters dealt with life until now, but they never had any choices to do in the film. After all it’s a film about relationship between father and son and how they indirectly expressed feelings to each other during their life, just by being there, doing something together. What matters for understanding who they are is the story itself more than how they act in it. So what I tried to do most of the time was just to make them exist and look alive but never over act anything.”

One of the scenes that transition into one of the surreal flashbacks. Source: Vimeo.

A theme throughout Negative Space is something that Stop Motion Geek discussed in detail with Bram Meindersma, Negative Space’s composer and sound designer, in a previous interview– that of incorporating “negative space” into the film itself. In the animation itself, the theme of “negative space” can be seen in what is largely Sylvain’s animation (although Kuwahata and animator Eric Montchaud contributed to the film, as well) – extraordinarily subtle movement, and, in the case of Sam’s character, subdued and conservative movement.

When pondered, the whole concept behind Sam’s conservativeness in the way he himself moves and expresses himself is perfectly understandable and quite thematically resonate – the entire film centers around Sam’s relationship with his father and how their relationship centered around the act of packing (and, more specifically, how Sam packs for his father whenever his father leaves home), which is, in itself, an art whose very lifeblood is conservation. Moreover, in Negative Space, Sam’s packing in his early years for his father that proceed his father’s absences are, in many ways, preparation for what is the great dramatic irony of the film – Sam, on his way to his father’s funeral near the middle of the film, recalls packing for his father, is in way preparing himself to confront his father’s final absence: passing away.

“I think Max and Ru didn’t wanted audiences to see the character having emotion,” Sylvain goes on to say in our interview, “but to guess how could he feel, for example they really didn’t want the audience to have pity on Sam.”

Sam in a surreal flashback scene. Source: Vimeo.

Another great irony of the film is the language that clothing plays in this film during the packing scenes – the materials through which Sam and his father indirectly expressed their feelings for each other are much more lively and expressive than either Sam or his father. Even during the scene (which can be seen in Negative Space trailer) where clothes rest on the ground, lain out next to a suitcase, the fabric “boils” (an stop motion animation term that means that one can perceive the animator’s hands animating the puppets even though there is nothing in the film itself that physically appears to move the puppets, or, in the case of Negative Space, the clothes), as if Sam and his father’s feelings for each other have imbued the every shoe and belt with a life of their own.

“Clothes are in some way more lively than characters,” says Sylvain, “because it’s the heart of the film. It tells how packing was important to Sam, how it caused stories in his childhood, and how as an adult it’s still very powerful to him. For me the packing part at the beginning is the real characterisation of Sam.”

One of the packing scenes in which the clothes "boil". Source: Vimeo.

In our interview, Sylvain tells us about how he first became interested in stop motion animation, and how, as he explains, it was only by coincidence that he discovered his love for the medium. He also talks about how his relationship with his own son influenced his animation in the film, as well as how his interactions with Kuwahata and Porter changed his approach to his animation on the film. Furthermore, he gives us his tips for success in the stop motion industry for aspiring animators. You can read the interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: Hello, Sylvain! Thank you so much for doing this interview! I want to start out by asking you what specifically led you to become a stop motion animator? How did you first become interested in the medium, what did your early dabbling in the stop motion look like, and how did you get from your early dabbling to the stage in your career you’ve now gotten to – the lead animator on the award-winning short film, Negative Space?

Sylvain Derosne: Hello, thanks for doing interview, it’s always a pleasure to share the behind the scene with audiences. To be honest, I came to animation by coincidence: I first entered a school in France (ENSAD) for learning architecture, and discovered animation in this place. I found this technique fascinating and decided to continue, even though I never had the idea of making films before. What interested me was the making of the movement and for me stop motion was pure movement making so I naturally specialized in it. I started stop motion with 2D cut-out exercises and then for my graduate film I went to puppet: an animated naturalized black rabbit which was mixed with live action. From there I worked on a lot of different projects, shorts, advertising, video clip, TV series, experimental projects (you can see few on sylvainderosne.fr)… but I didn’t made any classical stop motion puppet before Negative Space. That was another reason why this project was so exciting for me, I really wanted to do it after many years of stop motion.

Sylvain Derosne (lead animator) animating the wave of clothes. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: Animators are, in very many ways, like actors, in that they have to find and portray a character’s personality, motivation, mood, and desire in any given scene. You have done a beautiful job with characterization on Negative Space, particularly through very subtle ways. In many ways, watching the characters in Negative Space reminded me more of live-action acting rather than of animation. Can you tell us about how you found out who Sam and his father were as characters? (What kind of conversations you had with the directors of Negative Space, Max and Ru, about these characters? Did you do any test animations?)

SD: We talked about acting at the beginning of the project with Max and Ru. They didn’t wanted so much acting or “big emotion”. I felt the same when I saw the animatic, the film didn’t needed the character to deliver big performance. As in live action movies, there’s animated film that rely a lot in characters performance, we see them crying, exciting, wanting, etc.… In here it’s all about inside and nostalgic feelings, how characters dealt with life until now, but they never had any choices to do in the film. After all it’s a film about relationship between father and son and how they indirectly expressed feelings to each other during their life, just by being there, doing something together. What matters for understanding who they are is the story itself more than how they act in it. So what I tried to do most of the time was just to make them exist and look alive but never over act anything. I think Max and Ru didn’t wanted audiences to see the character having emotion, but to guess how could he feel, for example they really didn’t want the audience to have pity on Sam.

The main character walking out of the apartment building. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: As a second part to the previous question, on a technical level, how did you go about portraying the characteristics of Sam, his father, and the rest of the characters in the shots themselves on Negative Space? Do you primarily rely on intuition or do you consciously think very much about character motivations, desires, and attitude while animating? If the latter, can you give us a few examples of scenes from Negative Space that you animated and what kind of thoughts went into characterizing Sam and his father?

SD: As I said, for me the characteristics of Sam was given by the story, and the story was already told in the animatic. So in the shots it was more intuitive, I felt like I knew Sam and how he should act. Maybe the moment I had to really think on how Sam had to act was the last walk across the funeral room, slowing down near the coffin, with a mix of apprehension, sadness and bitterness. This moment had to prepare for the final twist, so it was the only moment I gave a bit of emotion. I think it was the first walk I animate in the film and the shot took 2 days to be done, so maybe we can feel also the emotion of an ending long shot!

For the little Sam, I relied on the remind of my son (he was two years and a half at this time). The ironic thing was that I had to leave home every week for the shooting to animate a puppet of a child at the same age as him… whom the father was regularly leaving home in the story!

Sam and his father in a flashback scene. Source: Vimeo.

Max and Ru told me main things about Father and Mom, they were serious people on a cold relation, so anyway they wouldn’t have been expansive. Mom smokes a lot and it tells enough about her. We added some small details here and there like Father cleaning dust on his suit but that’s all!

I made floating little movements on close ups. Maybe that’s the thing that make you feel like live action.

Sylvain Derosne (lead animator) animating the main character leaving his apartment. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: From an animation standpoint, can you talk about the language that clothes, objects, packing, and fabric play in this film? I noticed, for instance, that clothes have a particular “life” to them even when characters aren’t moving them. A good example of this is at 00:23, when clothes are resting on the ground, they still boil. Did you address the clothes as characters in their own right in this film?

SD: Yes of course, it was a will of the directors from the beginning. Clothes are in some way more lively than characters, because it’s the heart of the film. It tells how packing was important to Sam, how it caused stories in his childhood, and how as an adult it’s still very powerful to him. For me the packing part at the beginning is the real characterisation of Sam.

So we manage to give them particular life, we personify them, like the snake/belt, the quick socks team, the jellyfish/underpants etc., and we also manage to don’t let them die when they don’t move. Wrinkles were very important for this. The clothes were a very pleasant and funny part to animate, more cartoony sometimes, like for the shoes, or wavy for the underwater shots. I think that make generosity and sensitivity of the film, as the characters are very reserved, the objects and clothing are more expensive.

The underwater surreal flashback scene. Source: Vimeo.

A.H.: Negative Space plays with the scale of puppets, objects, and sets quite a bit. For instance, one of my favorite scenes in the entire film is the juxtaposition of the large taxi to the small taxi from 1:35 to 1:36. To me, that scene seems as if, even as an adult, Sam feels smaller than his father. Can you tell us about how you, as an animator, viewed and addressed the constantly changing scale of puppets and sets? Did this present any unique challenges to you?

SD: Actually the puppets didn’t changed scale, only the sets and props did, so for me there was no big deal in the change of scale for the puppet part. Some of the clothes were very small and turned out hard to animate and rig. I often had to go with the tweezers for these little things. But I think the big challenge was for Ru!

One of the surreal packing flashback scenes. Source: Vimeo.

A.H.: What advice do you have for the aspiring stop motion animators in our readership? Do you have any resources that you would recommend to them, lessons that you wished you had learned earlier in your career, or talents and skill sets that you would recommend learning?

SD: First, be sure that you really want to do this crazy job! It can be magical and fun but also very annoying and frustrating sometimes...

Then, I would recommend the classic Animation Survival Kit from Richard Williams. I think I’ll still learn things from this book for a long time!

Sam packs his suitcase in the beginning of Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

More specifically for stop motion: try to animate (simple things) without video feedback. It forces you to concentrate and it forges confidence, also you forget about detail and go straight to the point. It can be pure animation pleasure! I think we rely too much on the video feedback today and not enough on us.

Copy what you like to learn how it’s made.

When you’re still young do internships. You’ll learn every tips there. And try to go directly to the most prestigious (for you) internships, even if they’re far away. It’s worth it.

Sylvain Derosne (lead animator) animating the main character when he was 5 years old. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

You can explore more of Sylvain’s work by visiting his website and Instagram.

You can now rent Negative Space in full online by going here. You can watch the trailer for the film by going here, and you can visit the webpage for the film by going here.

This article is the second in a series of interviews coordinated by Stop Motion Geek with the creative team behind Negative Space. You can read the first article in the series – an interview with Bram Meindersma, the composer and sound designer of the film – by going here. You can read the third article in the series – an interview with Nadine Buss, the cinematographer of the film – by going here. You can read the fourth article in the series – an interview with Edwina Liard, the producer of the film – by going here. You can read the fifth and last article in the series – an interview with Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, the directors of the film – by going here.

You can stay tuned for the upcoming interviews and articles by subscribing to Stop Motion Geek via the “subscribe” button at the top right corner of our homepage, or by following us on Facebook @StopMotionGeek, or by visiting https://www.facebook.com/StopMotionGeek/. You can also stay up-to-date with the blog by following us on Instagram or @stop.motion.geek.blog.

Negative Space title sequence. Source: Vimeo.

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