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Interview with Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, Directors of Oscar® Nominated Stop Motion Short Film, "Negative Space"

Sam walks to his car in Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

Across the Baltimore-based director-duo Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s Oscar® nominated short film Negative Space’s 5 minute runtime, rooted in the profoundly emotional soil of the film’s essence, an extraordinary spectrum of deep themes are explored – death, grief, what one’s childhood means once one has “grown up” – yet perhaps none are as front-and-center than that which binds all of the film’s themes together: that of the relationship between father and son.

Negative Space, a film inspired by a 150-word poem of the same by Ron Koertge, is, at its heart, the story of Sam, a young man, as he internally processes his relationship with his father throughout his life as well as the grief and emotion that come with the loss of his father as he travels to his recently-passed father’s funeral.

Sam looks upon a toy taxicab in Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

Undoubtedly the primary visual motif as well as the crux of the film – both visually as well as thematically – is the practice and veritable art of packing a suitcase. The film begins, appropriately, with Sam as an adult packing in present day, sitting alone in the midst of his living room as snow falls outside, frosting the corners of the room’s windows and dulling nearly all sound of the world outside – a brilliant and subtle way of introducing the film’s theme of “negative space,” the absence of something that is both physical and, as the film progresses, an emotional absence or repression. It’s in this moment – in the midst of packing – that Sam looks up towards the camera and, breaking the fourth wall, begins to narrate to us, the audience, the words of Ron Koertge’s poem, which are, in that moment, Sam’s words, Sam’s story.

Surreal packing scene from Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

“My dad taught me to pack,” Sam begins, at which the film then launches into the first of its beautiful and memorizing surrealist sequences: That of stupendously animated clothes seemingly moving of their own accord to pack themselves into a suitcase while Sam narrates their actions – the way which his father taught him how to pack a suitcase, a most efficient and space-conserving method (Lay out everything. Put back half. Roll things that roll. Wrinkle-prone things on top of cotton things. Then pants, waist-to-hem. Nooks and crannies for socks…etc.).

A suitcase packed according to the way Sam's father taught Sam in Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

Yet, the longer Sam talks, the more we, the audience, come to understand that Sam’s act of packing with his father and for his father (so that his father can take a suitcase during his work-related travels) is more than simply an act. It’s a symbol for the bond which they share with each other, words impossible to articulate (as is, more often than not, true for parents and their children) cannot articulate the full meaning and weight without losing some element of its purest essence and truth. Or perhaps it is, quite simply, an impossible task – period – regardless of one’s proficiency in expressing oneself. Moreover, the film’s symbol of packing is not only what father and son bonded over, but a conduit – the conduit – through which they knew, understood, and expressed their affection for each other. That thing, whatever it may be (perhaps it’s “shooting hoops” or “talking about Chevrolets,” as suggested by Sam in the film) not only represents but is the relationship so many fathers have with their sons – quite a profound observation made by the film.

One of the surreal flashback sequences in Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

“It was kind of one of those perfect stories that is very minimal but tells a lot,” says Negative Space co-director Max Porter in this behind the scenes video as he discusses what exactly it was that compelled him about the film’s source material. “Ron Koertge captured something that is very true about father and son. There’s a connection through something else, it’s not just person to person, there is something in between to filter the connection.”

Thus, it perhaps should come as no surprise that, with packing being the thing through which Sam and his father bonded in Sam’s childhood as well as representing – moreover, being – their relationship in its very essence, that Sam should grieve his father’s loss through packing a suitcase as he prepares to travel to his father’s funeral, as he remembers better times of packing suitcases with and for his father, and that Sam should grieve the loss of his father as he finds himself thinking in terms of “packing” in which his father trained in him – a mentality geared towards conservation of energy and the minimization of “negative space”.

A young Sam lies down in a packed suitcase in one of the surreal flashback sequences in Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

Grief is often epitomized through metaphor as an “ocean” – painting the image of something that is beyond one’s control and that is far, far bigger than one, so much so that it sounds as if it could simply swallow one whole. So it’s no coincidence that a young Sam, in one of the film’s surreal flashback sequences as present day Sam is remembering his childhood with his father, is swept away by a torrential wave of unpacked clothes and is plunged into an underwater-world-of-sorts where animate clothes are the inhabitants of an “ocean,” through which Sam swims, fully immersed – with pants as kelp, socks as fish, belts as eels, and underwear acting as jellyfish.

A young Sam swims through an ocean of animate clothes in Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

Perhaps the film’s final note is also its most sobering – a chilling and emotional reminder of this whole business of how, quite often, father and son only relate their affection for one another over something through which they bond, such as, in the case of Negative Space, packing luggage. And it’s done brilliantly through a biting use of dramatic irony. In the final scene of the film, Sam, in solitary, finally reaches his father’s open casket in the funeral home which he has spent the entire film traveling to. At this moment we, the audience, except…well, what exactly? Some sort of resolution, of course. Perhaps because we’ve seen Sam seemingly suppress his grief up until this point – this very last scene – we’ll now see him confront his grief, face-on, and crack. Up until this point we, the audience, have watched Sam pack his father’s suitcases to take to his travel-related job. Thus, in a way, one might make the argument that the art of packing for Sam, all through his childhood, were small preparations for Sam to learn to let go of his father and to make peace with his absence. So perhaps this is the moment he’ll learn to relinquish his grief for his father’s passing. But, instead of any one of the variations of a scene where Sam lets go of his father, once and for all, we are confronted with the last line of the film uttered by Sam, accompanied by an image of Sam’s deceased father in his casket: “The funeral was terrible—him laid out in that big carton and me crying and thinking, Look at all that wasted space.”

Sam looks upon his father in the final scene of Negative Space. Source: Vimeo.

At that moment, we realize that the practice, the art, of packing a suitcase – the conduit through which Sam bonded with his father in his childhood, a mirror which Sam held up to examine his grief for his father’s passing – has proved, in the end, his downfall in the very respect of processing the grief of his father’s death: It – that thing through which father and son bonded – proves a wall, a barrier keeping Sam from fully processing his grief for his father’s passing. What was once their connection, the thing through which they bonded – luggage – is the thing that ultimately causes Sam to be unable to understand his own grief, to process his father’s death.

Perhaps the line is all the more biting for its potential meaning in relation to the symbol of of packing – the thing through which Sam and his father bonded – proving it to also be the end-all-be-all of what Sam’s bond with his father meant, as it was his bond with his father…Perhaps.

A young Sam (right) and his father (left) bond over packing luggage. Source: Vimeo.

Since its festival debut in 2017, Negative Space has gone on to screen at more than 160 festivals all over the world and has won some 75 honors and awards, such as the Grand Prix and Grand Prix for Short Film at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Film of Bilbao ZINEBI, Spain (’17), Anima Mundi, Brazil (’17), Association française du cinéma d’animation (‘17), Krok Animation Festival, Ukraine (’17), Taichung Int. Animation Festival, Taiwan (’17), Thessaloniki Animation Festival, Greece (’17), ReAnimania – International Animation Film & Comics Art Festival of Yerevan, Armenia (‘17), Monstra, Portugal (‘18), Multivision Festival, Russia (’17), Xiamen International Animation Festival, China (‘17), Indie Júnior Allianz Festival, Portugal (‘18), Tokyo Anime Award Festival, Japan (‘18), Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, US (‘18), International Film Festival of Uruguay, Uruguay (’18), and the Stopmotion Our Fest, Argentina (‘18).
Max Porter (left) and Ru Kuwahata (right). Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

In our interview, Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter discuss their approach to collaborating with each other as a director-duo under their name as a studio of “Tiny Inventions”. They also give us an in-depth look at how they approached adapting Ron Koertge’s poem into a short film, and how they worked with their extraordinarily talented team to bring the project to fruition, both in relation to the technical aspects of making the film to their personal relationships with the members of their creative team (whose perspectives you can read about by visiting Stop Motion Geek’s series of interviews with the film’s lead animator, cinematographer, composer, and producer). They also discuss their decision to find a French producer (who, if you would tangentially like to learn more about, you can read Stop Motion Geek’s previous interview with the film’s producer, Edwina Liard) and to ultimately make the film in France. You can read our interview below in full.

A.H. Uriah: Can you tell us a little about how Tiny Inventions came to be and how your creative partnership on Negative Space operated in the separation of labor?

Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter: We have been working together for over a decade and the way we split work naturally fell into place over time. Our writing process is a dialog of sorts; Max would come up with an idea, then Ru does drawings based on that, then Max builds on the sequence with new drawings. In the end, it’s difficult to know who was responsible for what.

With “Negative Space,” we had a great team assembled by Ikki Films in France.

Ru guides the design, set/prop making and character animation. Max takes lead with the cinematography, early sound work, editorial pacing, post-production and the animation of objects/effects.

Ru Kuwahata (co-director) building props for the inside of the car prop. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: You said in your “production notes” that, on Negative Space, you were “using handmade stop-motion animation to bring visual metaphor and subtext to the original words.” How did you go about translating the poem to a visual, stop motion film?

RW/MP: Ron’s poem is only 150 words, and because it was so minimal, we felt that there was enough space to bring something to story with animation. Still, it was a difficult balancing act to honor the simplicity of the text and bring something to it.

For example: there’s one sentence in the text “By the time I was twelve, if he [dad] was busy I’d pack for him. Mom tried but didn’t have the knack.” Though it wasn’t said outright, we wanted to imply that there was friction between the mother and father. Originally, we showed more of the mother at this moment, but felt quickly that the narrative was expanding too much and losing its spine. We ended up framing mother below the eyes to indicate her presence while keeping the story focused on the relationship between the father and son.

When adapting a poem, we needed to figure out the narrative structure for cinematic purposes. We experimented with a few versions but this structure was the first to came up with and the one we stayed with. In order to communicate this in 5min film, we decided to distinguish the two parts with different color schemes.

Nadine Buss (cinematographer) and Max Porter (co-director) are doing the final lighting check before shooting. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

The present scenes are in winter. The idea of snow covering up the sound and lifeless feeling suits the feeling of going to a funeral. In contrast, the past took place in the summer and, using orange as a foundation, the tone was warm and nostalgic. Even the transition and animation are adapting more magical realism as our memories fade and merge into one other, often emphasizing our emotions.

Max Porter (left, co-director) checking the final light of a scene. Nadine Buss (second to right, cinematographer) and Philippe Baranzini (right, production assistant) seem happy with it. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: With your team on Negative Space, what approach to collaboration did you and Max Porter find worked best to develop solid creative partnerships to best convey your vision for the final end product to your team? Was there a point where you just had to give up a certain amount of your control and to allow the rest of your team to bring their own ideas to the table?

RW/MP: It was important that the film feel personal and we were nervous that we wouldn’t be able to maintain that intimacy while working with other people. We doubled down on pre-production by preparing visual reference material and creating written explanations for all of our directorial decision, but at some point we realized that letting go a bit and encouraging our team to bring their own ideas and experiences to the film would only make the project better. The majority of the production happened at CICLIC Animation (Vendome, France) and IKKI Inc (Orbigny, France) where the team members lived with us during the week. This structure allowed us to become very close with the people we worked with and we ended up spending a lot time discussing our relationships to our families.

Luggage props made at various different scales. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: What kind of challenges and limitations – whether creative, budgetary, or practical – did you encounter or enforce upon yourselves while making Negative Space and how did you overcome and work within these constraints?

RW: Physically, the hardest part was that we worked in 5 locations throughout the production (including the pre-production phase in USA). Stop motion film production is demanding enough already and to add all the packing and moving was quite draining. But when we look back, it was such a nice experience to be able to live in many parts of France! It was also fitting that we were making a film about packing and we had become expert packers in the process.

Ru Kuwahata (co-director) fixing a broken puppet for the rotation scene. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

MP: From a technical standpoint – we were adamant that our characters have these large, bulbous heads and tiny feet. You don’t see those proportions often in stop motion because you’re asking the little puppet to defy the law of gravity. To deal with this, we had to use support rigs for every single character in every single shot. That became a post-production headache because we had to remove multiple overlapping rigs and shadows.

One of the largest sets, the pan of the suburb is being lit. The team is using gels and gaffer tape to control small lighting details. From left is Walid Païenda (production assistant), Simon Gesrel (cinematographer), Jean-Louis Padis (co-producer), and Max Porter (co-director). Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to produce Negative Space in France? What impact did France have on the final film?

RW/MP: At the core, this sort of goes back to the perception of animation and short films in the United States and Europe, and the way that the art forms developed in the respective regions. In the US, short animated films tend to be something you do when you’re a student as an exercise to learn the craft, or a professional labor-of-love designed to lead to something else. Shorts don’t really have their own intrinsic commercial value and, consequently, there’s not much of a support system in place for them. France tends to look at shorts as their own art form, recognizes them as important to their national cinema history (La Jetée, Red Balloon), and has built a strong grant system to support them financially. There are also great distribution models for shorts like the broadcast channel, Arté.

Max Porter (co-director) making tiny traffic cones for the highway scene. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

After spending years working nights and weekends to self-fund our projects in the US, we wanted to try a different route. In the past, we would work as just two people on our shorts over two or three year periods, and we were at a point in our lives where we wanted to learn new methods by working with other artists and get the projects done quicker.

All the background puppets for the funeral scene. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

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 scale you were working on, the design process, your animation set-up, and the kinds of materials that were used to create the puppets and their armatures?

RW/MP: Some of the props were made at three or four different sizes and the largest props were real world scale. It was a fun challenge to create something large enough to wear that still had the feel of a hand-crafted miniature. In order to control the scale differences, we dyed or painted all the fabric by hand and meticulously created identical patterns. We only purchased white cotton & linen as our raw material; this way we could control the exact color and texture for every scene.

There area bout thirty-five 3D printed mouth shapes. ©Victoria Tanto. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

The armature for the main puppet was a combination of small ball & sockets components and wire limbs. His head was originally sculpted out of a paper clay variant and then a resin cast was made to ensure it was durable throughout the production. All background characters had wire armatures and used the same plug-in arms and legs that were made out off foam latex.

Interior of the adult Sam puppet. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

Arms for the puppets cast with foam latex. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

All animation was shot in Dragonframe with Canon 5D Mark III cameras using manual Zeiss or Nikon lens. As for lighting, we used Arri for our principle light source and Dedolights for detailing. We tried to get as much as possible in-camera and used different types of fabrics to get atmospheric effects. Dragonframe’s ARC system was used to drive a Ditogear Omnislider for camera movements.

Ru Kuwahata (co-director) is dressing the set with snow powder before the lights are set up. Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

A.H.: What’s next for you and Tiny Inventions?
RW/MP: We are currently developing our first feature animation film. We had just returned from the 1st session of Torino Script Lab where we will develop our feature idea in the next 9 months with 1 week residency every 3 months.

Ru Kuwahata (left) and Max Porter (right). Photo courtesy of Ru Kuwahata.

You can explore more of Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s work as Tiny Inventions by visiting their website, Vimeo, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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.

You can watch the film’s “making of” video by going here. You can also watch a three-part series of interviews in which Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter interview Ron Koertge by clicking on the corresponding links for the corresponding parts of the interview: part one, part two, and part three.

This article is the fifth and last 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 second article in the series – an interview with Sylvain Derosne, the lead animator on 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 – an interview with the producer of the film, Edwina Liard – 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 You can also stay up-to-date with the blog by following us on Instagram or

Negative Space poster.

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