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Interview with Quentin Haberham, Director and Animator of "Homegrown," a Stop Motion Short Film About Over-Protective Parenting

Francis (left) and his son (right) in Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.


There’s a moment that comes in the life of most, if not every child, along their staggering yet steady steps taken towards a weird and mystifying future – one often mistaken, by both children and “grown-ups,” as a permanent destination – that we call “adulthood.” It’s every parent’s dread, but perhaps that’s only so because it is, in many ways, as certain – in the sense that it undeniably will come, whether one wishes for it to or not – as it is uncertain, in the sense that the face of that fear could simply be encapsulated in that one word: uncertainty. The certainty is that there will come a point at which both child and parent realize that there is something that living one’s own life – autonomous from a parent’s governing eye – can give one something necessary that a life curated at every step by a parent cannot. It’s the moment that comes in most, if not every parent’s life where they have to learn to let their child go.

Award winning director and animator, Quentin Haberham, in his recent 9-minute stop motion short film, Homegrown, perfectly balances these themes – both that of the emotional difficulty that comes for both parent and child at this extremely formative time in a child’s life – and does so with extraordinary nuance and beauty by drawing upon striking visual metaphors and the handmade nature of the medium.

Quentin Haberham animates Francis's son on the set of Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

Homegrown tells the story of Francis, an overly protective father – although perhaps justifiably so – who parents his only child within the seclusion of their home, where he teaches his son tend to their large assortment of houseplants which veritably swamp the whole of their house. In many ways, Francis’s parenting style could act as a metaphor for the way in which he nurtures his plants, as he carefully provides for each of their needs within close confinements and in a securely controlled environment. In fact, his station as a gardener is so much a part of him that moss has begun to grow on his clothes, as it does his son as his son grows older. But metaphors only apply for so long before they begin to break down, a lesson which Francis quickly learns as his son reaches adolescence.

“My co-writer Tim Fraser and I brainstormed about the theme of overprotectiveness and the tendency of some parents to overly care and control,” Haberham tells Stop Motion Geek. “We could both relate to the subject and this is what led to the story for Homegrown. We were both very interested in how these dangerous qualities of overly controlling and protecting can come from such good intentions.”

In one the film’s superb use of subtly, we – the audience – never get to see the impetus for exactly why Francis is so overly protective, although we are given subtle hints throughout the film. Most notably, Francis continuously wears a wedding ring, despite the fact that the boy’s mother never appears in the film or is otherwise alluded to, suggesting that he is perhaps very much still in love despite the fact that his wife has passed, and has perhaps passed in a way that would given him grounds to fear that his son could come to the same fate if he didn’t keep him inside at all times.

Homegrown began its festival run last year, and in the time since has won the Best Animation Prize at the Watersprite International Student Film Festival 2018, the Special Jury Prize at the Bend Film Festival 2017, the Best Animated Short Film Award at Olympia International Film Festival For Children 2017, as well as an Honourable Mention at the Dublin Animation Film Festival 2017, and at the Oxford International Film Festival 2018.

Quentin Haberham modifies an armature for one of the characters of Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

In our interview, Quentin discuss how his path in life led him to find his passion for stop motion and animation as a whole, as well as the idea for Homegrown came about and developed. He also gives us an in-depth look at how he and his creative team managed to create, from start-to-finish, the 9-minute behemoth (in stop motion terms) that has become Homegrown over the course of a year. He also tells us about the challenges he and his associates faced on Homegrown and the lessons that he learned while making the film, as well as much, much more. You can read our interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: Hello, Quentin! Thank you so much for doing this interview! I would like to start off with a simple question: When and what first fueled your desire to craft a career for yourself in the animation industry – specifically in the stop motion animation industry (which your films largely are, although you have worked in other mediums in the past, such as CG animation) – and how did your journey into the animation world lead you to get where you are now – a director and animator of critically acclaimed short film, as well as an animator on Wes Anderson’s stop motion feature film Isle of Dogs?

Quentin Haberham: During my design studies at the Utrecht School of the Arts I kind of naturally transitioned to animation where I found characters to engage with. This is where I first fully understood the notion of storytelling through characters. I’ve been fascinated by character studies and performances ever since. After working freelance as a 3d character animator I applied for a postgraduate in Directing Animation at the National Film and Television School to learn more about storytelling. In the first year you work on different animation exercises animating straight-ahead in sand and pixilation. The transition from 3d to stop-motion came relatively easy to me so I decided to stick with it for my graduation film Homegrown. That film eventually led to working on some stop-motion adverts and as an assistant animator on Isle of Dogs.

The set for Francis's house from Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

A.H.: How did the idea and narrative for Homegrown come about and develop, from original concept to the animation stage? What was it specifically about this story that made you passionate about telling it and willing to invest what is a relatively large swath of your life to getting it on the screen?

QH: My co-writer Tim Fraser and I brainstormed about the theme of overprotectiveness and the tendency of some parents to overly care and control. We could both relate to the subject and this is what led to the story for Homegrown. We were both very interested in how these dangerous qualities of overly controlling and protecting can come from such good intentions. What was difficult for me during the writing process was choosing the perspective of the story. We decided to tell the story from the perspective of the father. His journey related most to the theme we were interested in.

During my design studies at the Utrecht School of the Arts I kind of naturally transitioned to animation where I found characters to engage with. This is where I first fully understood the notion of storytelling through characters. I’ve been fascinated by character studies and performances ever since. 

A.H.: On Homegrown, you performed many tasks, among them that of a director, the sole animator, a co-writer, as well as one of several puppet makers. To me, this sounds like an incredibly large workload, especially considering that the film’s runtime is 8 minutes long. Firstly, how long did the film take to complete, from start to finish, and how much of that time was dedicated to animation? Secondly, how did you manage your schedule on a day-to-day schedule, and how did you personally manage to stay motivated throughout the entire process?

QH: It was definitely a large workload but I think I was just very excited to learn and practise all these aspects of stop-motion animation. Generally for final year animation students, their graduation film is all they think about while awake and asleep. You just somehow make it work. Also for a young filmmaker I think getting your hands dirty is a great way to learn about yourself and your work. You learn about what you like and you start defining your visual and storytelling style.

The film took a year to complete and about 5 months were dedicated to animation. This meant a lot of animation had to be done a day but I limited the animation style in a way that would allow me to get enough done while still getting enough expression from the characters. Caroline Bartleet, the producer of the film, scheduled which shots needed to be shot per week. The order was determined by the order of the sets being built, camera angles and character availability. Within that weekly schedule, Tom Doran (cinematographer) and Violet Elliot (production designer) and I would be relatively flexible in building, lighting, shooting and striking the set.

DOP Tom Doran lighting a set for Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

The most difficult part of the process for me was preproduction and story development. It was difficult to determine whether what was there on the page would actually work as a film. Fortunately I had a great editor (Emil Gundersen) who helped me figure out the structure of the film in the animatic. Seeing all the individual bits become a film in the edit was a very motivating thing, especially after having to go into incredible detail while animating.

My co-writer Tim Fraser and I brainstormed about the theme of overprotectiveness and the tendency of some parents to overly care and control. We could both relate to the subject and this is what led to the story for Homegrown. We were both very interested in how these dangerous qualities of overly controlling and protecting can come from such good intentions.

A.H.: As a flip-side to the previous question, it should be mentioned that you worked with a rather large team on Homegrown. How did you, as director, manage to stay on top of all the tasks that your associates needed to perform and make sure that they were delivered on time? Secondly, did you find any particular ways of communicating with your team more beneficial ways of collaborating than others?

QH: Even though I did a lot of the animation and puppet making myself, I had a great team of talented artists to help me out with all the other elements of production. Caroline took responsibility for the planning and smooth running of the production. Besides handling the schedule and logistics she was very good at making sure everyone worked to the same deadlines. Violet ran a very effective art department with a handful of assistants to help us build set pieces and props. Camille Bloch, a graduate from the London College of Fashion, came on board to make the clothes for the puppets. The post production team all were very strong specialists who besides being great collaborators, appreciated working by themselves in their dedicated studios. During production I would often meet with them in the morning and animate for the rest of the day. I guess it was the relatively small scale of the project that allowed for this workflow.

Production designer Violet Elliot working on the set of Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

The most natural way for me to work with a team like this was to create a welcoming work environment where everyone’s voice counts. We all work towards the same goal together, feed off of each other and inspire each other to do our best.

Generally for final year animation students, their graduation film is all they think about while awake and asleep. You just somehow make it work. Also for a young filmmaker I think getting your hands dirty is a great way to learn about yourself and your work. You learn about what you like and you start defining your visual and storytelling style.

A.H.: Homegrown is essentially a silent film: There is no dialogue except for one intelligible off-screen line, which is a very risky choice for a film of considerable length, such as Homegrown’s 8-minute long runtime, where you have to convey depth and change in a central relationship. How did this creative choice impact your approach to the animation and the pre-production process, especially in relation to the development of your two main characters’ relationship? Secondly, what did you learn from this discipline and how do you think your use of silence on this project will affect your work in the future?

QH: I don’t think it’s a risky choice, necessarily. In a way it would be more risky for a beginning filmmaker to use dialogue, because there is a pitfall to tell the story through dialogue instead of showing it through actions. Not using dialogue is a good exercise in cinematic storytelling. You really have to show a story. Many of my favorite short films are without any speech. I actually often prefer these kinds of films over films where the story relies heavily on dialogue. I like when a filmmaker shows us the story, through acting, cinematography, design, etc. It works more on the senses and is much more engaging. I’m not saying I’m against dialogue at all. It’s just important to use it as a way to express character. Not to literally tell us the story.

The story of Homegrown is relatively simple and we felt like it didn’t need dialogue to make the film work. However I think dialogue is a wonderful way to express character so I’ll definitely write dialogue when a story needs it.

Francis's son in Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

The most difficult part of the process for me was preproduction and story development. It was difficult to determine whether what was there on the page would actually work as a film. Fortunately I had a great editor (Emil Gundersen) who helped me figure out the structure of the film in the animatic. Seeing all the individual bits become a film in the edit was a very motivating thing, especially after having to go into incredible detail while animating.

A.H.: I noticed that Francis, the father character in the film, wears his wedding ring, although we never see his spouse or the boy’s mother. This suggests that perhaps one reason for why his father wants to protect his son by living in isolation is that something terrible happened to Francis’s spouse that he fears will happen to his son if he doesn’t keep his son inside the house at all times. Can you talk for a minute about your approach to subtly and subtext on Homegrown, both narratively (in elements of the production such as model making, set design, cinematography, and sound design) as well as in the performance of animation itself (in relation to your characters’ incredibly subtle performances)?

QH: That’s right. It was basically our background story for Francis. In such a short format we felt like it was more important to show the story of father and son and leave out a scene of what had happened in the past. It’s definitely important to know what your character’s background story is in the writing process though, so it can feed into the story. It informs you about a character’s looks, how they behave, interact and what their environment looks like. It will all add to the believability of the film. This project was a great learning curve for me in learning how to really design all the aspects of a film to enhance the story. That might sound obvious but it was a real eye opener to me how subjective you can go in designing your film to express the mood and perspective of your character.

Armatures for Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

Not using dialogue is a good exercise in cinematic storytelling. You really have to show a story. Many of my favorite short films are without any speech. I actually often prefer these kinds of films over films where the story relies heavily on dialogue. I like when a filmmaker shows us the story, through acting, cinematography, design, etc. It works more on the senses and is much more engaging.

A.H.: One of the elements of Homegrown that I found incredibly enjoyable was the “boiling” of the characters’ hair and clothing, as it immediately calls back the earliest days of stop motion, such as the work of Willis O’Brien and it gives an aura of life that can only be seen in stop motion. I felt that this was immediately connected to the character design itself, which feels organic and almost “rough,” both of which seem to tie directly into the theme of organic growth and maturation. Can you speak a little on these two elements of the film – the boiling in the animation and the edged character design – and what led to you and your associates eventually making the creative decisions to have these elements in the film?

QH: The boiling of the cloth wasn’t so much a creative decision as it was a result of the style. When designing the puppets it was never my goal to hide the fact that they had been handcrafted. The beauty of animation is that you show your viewer right at the beginning that this is handmade. It’s fake. Yet if well crafted and animated, the characters will come alive and pull the viewer in. As long as the world and characters are believable, your viewers will care for them as if they were real. And hopefully the specific style of the animation will only add to the believability of the world of your story. I knew that as long as the boiling did not distract from the believability and performances, it would be acceptable within the style.

Quentin Haberham on the set of Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

A.H.: Lastly, I would like to ask you about what’s getting you excited these days. What films and short films – whether animated or live-action – have you watched recently that have made a big impression on you, and what about these films/short films has specifically inspired you and what lessons have you learned from them that you plan on implementing into your career from this point on?

QH: I love the (recent) work of Lucrèce Andreae, Špela Čadež and Anna Mantzaris. They manage to push the boundaries of animation in different ways. What I love about their work is that it is so characterful and relatable. They focus on the imperfections that make us human, often using thoughtful visual metaphors to effectively draw us into their character’s experiences. This is something I would like to do more in my own work. They are definitely a big source of inspiration.

The beauty of animation is that you show your viewer right at the beginning that this is handmade. It’s fake. Yet if well crafted and animated, the characters will come alive and pull the viewer in. As long as the world and characters are believable, your viewers will care for them as if they were real. And hopefully the specific style of the animation will only add to the believability of the world of your story.

Quentin Haberham animating on the set of Homegrown. Photo courtesy of Quentin Haberham.

You can explore more of Quentin Haberham’s work by visiting his website and Vimeo.

Homegrown is not yet available to watch online in full, although you can watch the trailer by going here, and you can learn more about the film by visiting Haberham’s website 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.

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