This article is available in: French
Creating a short film in stop-motion/Pixilation with human-sized puppets as well as real humans: this is the daunting task that director Daria Kashcheeva was facing when creating her short film Electra. This 26 minutes long short film is selected at the Cannes Festival, as well as at the Annecy Festival. It will also soon be screening on TV channel ARTE (more on that at the end of this article).
A few weeks ago at the Festival National du Film d’Animation in Rennes, France, Daria Kashcheeva shared with us some details about the making of Electra. In this article, you’ll get behind the scenes and learn more about the experimental approach used to create the short film.
Table of contents
Electra: pitch & trailer
Electra is inspired by psychoanalysis / psychotherapy and the notion of Electra complex, named after the greek Greek mythological character Electra, who had her mother killed in order to avenge her father. It is proposed as an equivalent to the Oedipus complex, for girls and women. Daria Kashcheeva explains that she wanted to explore this idea of a trauma created by the loss or departure of a father or of a man from the family, which can hurt both mothers and daughters. In this short film, Electra dives into an artificial world, turning into a mannequin.
Electra rethinks her 10th birthday, mixing memories with dreams and hidden fantasies. Is our memory just fiction?… Or a myth?…
Before Electra: Daughter
Daria Kashcheev already made a name for herself with her stop-motion graduation film Daughter, which won an award at the Annecy Festival in 2019 and was nominated for the Academy Awards.
Centered on a father-daughter relationship, the film is a both a technical and artistic feat. It relies on a handheld camera style, a bold choice choice which poses many technical challenges. Daria Kashcheev did not have a high enough budget to use modern motion control tools, and she explains that the teachers had strongly advised her against using this style.
She nevertheless held firm. This visual style was an important part of the overall aesthetic. Moreover, as she explains, she was inspired by Dogme films (an artistic movement aimed at creating movies without expensive special/visual effects, and focused on the story and performances). This is why using a non-static camera made sense. But since it was a stop-motion project, camera motion still had to be carefully controlled. In the end, she used a mechanical system that can be seen in the making-of video below.
It should also be noted that the eyes of the characters are painted frame after frame, so that they are animated.
Daughter shows that Daria Kashcheev isn’t afraid to use technical tricks and to experiment, if this can help her stay true to her artistic vision.
Electra: a challenging project
Following her short film Daughter, Daria Kashcheev directed Electra, yet another challenging project since she wanted to use human-sized puppets, as well as pixilation (in other words, humans in stop-motion).
Acting & Pixilation
First of all, humans can’t really stay still, which means that their body will move from one frame to the next. This can create unwanted effects: a major challenge was to find solutions to prevent them.
Daria Kashcheev relied on trial and error to find the right tools for this job. At first, she attempted to use a harness system so that the actors would stand still, but it had serious side effects (the lead actress was fainting). She therefore had to switch to using supports that the actors could lean against. Magic arms weren’t rigid enough, but she did end up finding adequate supports, such as the rig seen below, nicknamed “the torture chair” by Daria Kashcheev.
The acting also caused a few issues, since an actor can’t really hold a pose for a long time. When playing back the pixilation footage, the faces were shaking too much. Which is why on many shots of the short film, the choice was made to ask actors… Not to act.
It should also be noted that each frame was shot as the actress or actor had breathed out: this way, their belly would not move from one frame to the next. This requires some synchronization, but the end result is worth the effort.
In a nutshell, as Daria Kashcheev explains, actresses and actors became stop-motion puppets.
Daria Kashcheev wanted to move the camera when filming, but you ideally want to do this at 24 frames per seconds, in order to get a smooth motion. The director used various workarounds. For example, instead of zooming while a scene was shot, she would shoot at 12 frames per second, duplicate frames in post then apply a digital zoom by cropping the frame at 24 frames per second.
How to fake pixilation
Some scenes were shot outside or had full shots/medium full shots: using supports was out of the question. The director used a completely different trick: she faked pixilation. basically, she shot actors and actresses in slow-motion, and she would then speed up the footage (about five times) while keeping the same framerate that was used in the pixilation shots. This way, the acting is slightly chaotic, which mimics the stop-motion/pixilation visual style.
As an example, this technique was used for a subway sequence shot in a studio, and in a sequence where the main actress is walking in a tunnel, shot on location. We should note that other tricks were used in combination with this fake pixilation technique. For example, since walking at one fifth of the typical human speed is quite tricky (you will usually lose balance), the main actress would be standing on a platform dolly. She would move and pretend to walk. Carefully framing the actress would then do the trick.
David Roussel, a stop-motion pupper maker who worked on Electra, also attended this making-of conference. He mainly works for companies such as JPL Films and Vivement Lundi !, and during his career he had the opportunity to work on a wide range of stop-motion films, using various techniques and visual styles. He recently worked on the stop-motion feature film No dogs or italians allowed.
Electra was quite a challenge for him and the other artists involved, he explains, since the puppets are human-sized and therefore heavier than regular stop-motion puppets. The team tasked with creating the puppets used shop mannequins as a starting base. The specific model they chose has articulated knees, shoulders elbows: a wide range of motion can be achieved.
Heads were created specifically for the short film, in part due to the fact that you can’t move the mouths, eyes, eyebrows of the heads of regular shop mannequins. Building these heads required lots of back and forth between the artists and the director. The team first created 3D models using ZBrush, then 3D printed faces. These faces were then used to create molds, and heads could be cast in these molds, using silicone. They also had a mechanical jaw.
The heads were almost entirely built in France, before being sent to Czech Republic, where the short film was shot. The last touch-ups were done on location, which allowed the director to make sure the color of the eyes or of the eyebrows were just as she wanted them to be. The eyebrows, by the way, were created using a fine layer of silicone: this way, it was possible to stick them on the head and to peel them off as needed.
In other words, these giant puppets have a wide range of motion and expressions, even if, as David Roussel explains, facial expressions are a little bit limited by the use of silicone. Furthermore, since the puppets are big heavy, using them for stop-motion can be a bit cumbersome.
Where to watch Electra
A mixture of techniques, unusually large puppets… It is quite clear that Electra is not your typical stop-motion short film. To watch it, you can attend the Annecy Festival. The short film will also be broadcasted on ARTE channel June 10, during a TV show dedicated to short films that are in the official Annecy Festival selection.
Electraby Daria Kashcheeva is a Czech/French/Slovakian production by MAUR film, Papy3D Productions, FAMU & Artichoke. The short film is distributed by Miyu Distribution.