The Big Picture of Little Theatres

I’ve been working on this project full time since June, so I’m starting to become aware of the phases I go through while working on longer-term projects.  One thing that’s interesting about taking on such a huge project essentially by myself is that I have to stay extremely focussed on very small things for a sustained stretch of time.  The attention to detail, in all stages of the production, is what makes a film.  And stop motion is nothing but details.  In building miniature sets, it’s the details that make them authentic and interesting and lived-in.  In making puppets, the details turn them into living creatures, and make them functional — one slip and they’ll be falling apart in no time.  In animation, well, all movements are being broken down to 24 images per second, so one can spend hours deliberating and creating a second’s worth of motion.  Details, details.

So, my vision becomes stunted.  I can only focus on tiny things so intently for so long.  I need to step back and breathe every now and then.  Writing this blog helps, but I need to write more, to stand back further.  Perhaps work on the animatic for a while.

Yesterday I switched from making the tiny hands to designing the final set of the film.  It’s a dining room.  I have a solid idea for it, but have to organize the details:  colour palettes, structure, etc.

But that’s not stepping far back enough.

Today I need to think about, and write about, why I’m making this film.

Helpfully coinciding with this phase — Erín Moure, the poet on whose work the film is based, was in town last night, to give a reading at a local art gallery.  This reading was just what I needed.  A door has opened and I’m staring back into the bigger picture.

She had told me her reasons for writing in other languages before.  Little Theatres was written in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq.  Watching George Bush talk of the weapons of mass destruction, and other phantoms of political jargon, made her not want to speak or think in English anymore.  English is the language wars are waged in; noone has ever waged a war in Galician.  So she went to Galicia for a while, to live in a different language, and write Little Theatres.

The Big Theatres, she says, are those of war and commerce.  George Bush speeches are written in English.  Advertisements are blaring in English.  The language becomes associated with everything that’s loud out there in the world, everything that has a “mass media” voice.  It becomes mindless chatter in the big voices of the everyday.  The Little Theatres are where where blades of grass speak.  Where a little girl making a soup out of cabbage is very important.  Where the internal voice is important, in its pre-language stage.

Erín said that she used to work at Via Rail, in the customer service department, listening to people yell and swear about train problems.  The way to talk to someone who’s yelling is to speak very softly and slowly, so that they can only listen.  Listening calms people down, while responding with a loud voice keeps them angry.  If the antidote to anger is softness, perhaps the antidote to war is something similar.

I don’t think paying attention to detail, to the small matters of everyday life, is a withdrawal from the world at all.  It’s a refocussing.  Read Vandana Shiva, Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, or (especially) Sharon Astyk for a while and you’ll see how the personal is political.  There are no solid lines between inner and outer, between domestic and public.  We’ve drawn (and redrawn) the lines arbitrarily.  Pay attention to where your food and water are coming from, and you’ll see how the simplest thing like the details of cooking a meal is of vast importance.  The simple things in life are not so simple.  Socially, politically, globally, these tiny details really matter.

So, in the end, taking a break, stepping away from the tiny puppet hands and set elements for a while to look at the bigger picture will take me right back, full circle, to the little picture.

Last night Erín said,

If you don’t understand Galician, it sounds like water.

In the end, I want this film to be like watching, and listening to, water.  Not that it’ll be impossible to understand or anything — there will be animated text to translate the Galician v/o — but I’m hoping that soft, fluid voice of life and simplicity and essentialness shines through beyond anything else.

8 thoughts on “The Big Picture of Little Theatres

  1. Shelley Noble

    I’m really loving your ability to take a higher altitude view on yourself in terms of both what you do and what motivates it, Stephanie. That’s rare.

    It’s interesting what you you wrote as well because it’s been dawning on me (slowly) the my project too is about a similar desire. I am realizing that the world I’m creating is also about the blade of grass moments, as it were. The details, the connection to the place inside beyond the modern life.

    It’s as though by making my world I am spending more time, in more vivid dimension, in that inner place I seek so deeply.

    Plus, on a practical level, seeing how expertly you build your things is both humiliating in comparison to mine and awe inspiring.

  2. stephanie dudley

    Hi Shelley,
    I think I’m taking a step back every now and then simply because I have to! I’m not used to working on such huge projects… In the past I’ve mostly done commercials and very short bumpers for TV (like 5 seconds), and mostly in After Effects. Much faster. A 3-minute stop motion film is pretty overwhelming! The only way I can do it is to stay super focussed on one-step-at-a-time type thinking, which can be stifling after a while. When I take a step back, I have to think about these types of motivations or else I can get panicked!
    About the blades of grass — BTW I stole that image from the book, Little Theatres — I’m so glad you can relate. I guess this is what “art” is about — finding that voice somehow.

  3. Shelley Noble

    Yes, certainly, I do relate. In mine; lack of external language, the ritual of soup making, transition from day into twilight, the little quiet moments of inner peace found in nature. I’ve been holding the intensity for this sort of expression too since 1994. How so long? I have no idea. Zip. I’m not a highly determined person normally.

  4. Mike Brent

    Hey Stephanie,

    Just saw your comments on my blog and followed the link here. Very interesting stuff you’re doing! I can hardly believe how tiny it looks like those puppets are!!

    Little Theatres… incredible. The whole concept reminds me of something Jean Detheaux wrote to me in the early days of my blog:

    “So may people interested in animation seem to be motivated by the desire to fit in an “industry,” very far from searching for one’s own little music (“to make the visible visble”).”

    If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to his excellent Notes From the Underground:

  5. stephanie dudley

    Hey Mike!

    Thanks for visiting my site… I’m actually really glad I found your site, too; I used one of your tutorials on my puppets, for making wire armatures! I think it was yours — the little guy with the died blue glove as a shirt.

    I really enjoy reading your thoughts on narrative structure in animation. And I started reading the series of articles you linked to here — there’s a lot of interesting stuff to take in there. Thanks.

    For me, I’m not really looking to fit into anyone’s expectations… I guess I’m lucky that I’m getting into it after many years of working in commercials and TV, so I’m very adamant that this film be completely what I want it to be… a personal antidote to industry thinking, more or less. Just exploring stuff. It took me a long time to get to the point where I could do that, though… It’s just a totally different way of thinking, which was hard to get used to at first. Ive always liked poetry, so it made sense to start with that, and find images to follow it.

    As for the puppet size, they’re not all *that* tiny… The 2 sisters are supposed to be ages 6-7 or so, so they’re kid-sized (maybe 6 inches tall?) and the adults will be about 10 inches tall. I didn’t know what to base this on, so I think I started with the scale of the set (to be manageable) and then worked my way down from there.

  6. Mike Brent

    Oh ok… that’s about the same range I work in then. Somehow I thought they were smaller. It’s exciting to see you going in your own completely personal direction!! Your blog is an inspiration. And it’s probably a plus that you have the industry experience, so a lot of the problems of making a stopmotion flick are already solved.

    Looking forward to visiting here often!!

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