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In his series of lockdown interviews, Joseph Norman talks to Croatian/British animation artists Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson of the acclaimed short Imbued Life.

We caught up with Ivana Bošnjak and Thomas Johnson, directors of the exquisite stop-motion film ’Imbued Life, which had been scheduled to screen at Cardiff Animation Festival, prior to the start of the international lockdown. Based in Zagreb, Croatia, the directors normally work out of the Bonobo Studio, but were in the UK this week. In conversation, the directors cited influences ranging from live action directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Krystof Kieslowski, in terms of brooding atmospheric lighting and composition, as well as a deeply emotional symbolism lying at the heart of the work; in addition, they referred to the stop motion worlds of Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, in the use of surreal juxtapositions and jarring storylines.

In terms of division of roles, the directors very much share the creative process, but usually take responsibility for specific scenes and characters within a film. Their pre-visualisation begins with drawing storyboards and animatics, but they find it essential to retain some fluidity in the production process, allowing them to go off on a tangent, in order to deeply explore character acting and emotional expression.

Bošnjak describes a healthy animation scene in Zagreb over the past 10 years, with a new wave of fresh young animators coming through. There is a strong network of independent animation, leading to more artistic work aimed at an adult audience, but less commercial work available locally. The main funding source is the Croatian Audio Visual Centre and also from local government. Production and living costs are much lower in Croatia, and animations are often made by small teams or solitary animators.

The ideas for Imbued Life arose through a visit to a market, where Bošnjak and Johnson bought a stuffed pine martin as a gift for Thomas’ father. Noting that the animal evoked a strange and unfamiliar reaction in each other, the directors began to research taxidermy, and a dialogue ensued which planted the seeds of ideas for the film. The story follows a young woman who is searching for her own connection with Nature; she uses taxidermy to make her own natural world, and is able to keep each animal’s memories through a kind of photographic surgery process.

The animators explained how they use drawings to map out a film’s rhythms, and share a long term wish to move away from using traditional narrative structures. For Bošnjak, atmosphere is key to affecting the audience, and through lighting and colour (evoking El Greco’s discordant pallet), a disquieting atmosphere is formed. The soundtrack by Andrea Martignoni brings a new layer of textural eeriness, a spooky score that feels almost like it plays backwards and heightens a growing melancholy, reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s disturbingly atmospheric scores for David Lynch’s films. Foley is highly visceral, bringing to life the cutting and tearing of fur and flesh.

Bošnjak states that she wishes to explore new ways to push the puppet, to express its own world, to step away from pure puppet mimicry of acting. For Johnson, animation brings the ultimate freedom to experiment, and to use mistakes as turning points, revealing new possibilities. When they were looking for a photo-chemical effect to use in Imbued Life, they were shown how to use bleach onto photos by Zagreb University Professor Ana Hušman. In the film, this drenched bleaching process signifies a dissolution of readability, as the photographic image bleeds and flows.

The animators recounted how in animating water, they chanced upon the effect of dust particles, and how this revealed an uncanny magical quality, specific to the material basis of stop motion. Bonobostudio have been highly supportive, where Vanja Andrijević produced both Simulacra and Imbued Life. Working closely with the DOP Ivan Slipčević, with whom they share a deep aesthetic, and editor Iva Kraljević, who was integrally involved in developing the timing and structure, the directors have produced a mysterious and evocative film.

Bošnjak and Johnson previously made the short film Simulacra in 2014. Centering around a young man who is lost wandering within a labyrinth of dirty broken mirrors, as a trail of wool unravels from his clothes. The film shares the same adult-oriented qualities, through disturbing production design and a spooky storyline.

Their new stop motion project, Apathy, has been selected for funding in Croatia, and aims to poetically explore a young girl’s internal struggle with her own emotional state. We are really excited in anticipation of seeing this new film, and to experience more of their wonderful, discordant and deeply emotional journeys told through stop motion.

contributed by: Joseph Norman

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