US-based animation director Anna Samo talks to Zippy Frames about her 2D animation short ‘Conversations With A Whale’. Watch the film.

Anna Samo has crafted a love letter to all independent creators in her animation short 'Conversations With A Whale'.

In this love letter to artists, their art, and their audience, a filmmaker is confronted with rejection after rejection until, at last, a beautiful fig tree bears sweet fruits. ‘Conversations with a Whale’ was created directly under the camera lens, using various analog animation techniques - Film Synopsis

ZF: It seems quite obvious to ask what motivated you to make a film like this. However, I wondered if there was a specific incident that triggered your creative energy or a feeling of just being fed up with all those letters.

AS: My first film after graduation from film school ‘The Man is Big’ did not do as well on the festival circuit as I hoped it would. Spoiled with the previous festival success of my student days I was expecting things to be the same for my new film. However, I found myself having to consume one festival rejection after another. At some point, completely overwhelmed by the number of negative responses, I created a folder in my inbox with the intention to collect and preserve those rejection e-mails for later use. Upset about my failure I was trying to understand the reasons for the scale of my depression and to find new motivation to continue to work as an artist and filmmaker. ‘Conversations with a Whale’ grew out of the necessity to reinvent my own creative process. I used to meticulously plan my animation, creating detailed animatics, and knowing where the film was going even before starting the process of animation. This way a big part of work – the animation itself would become just the execution of ideas that were born before and I would often feel like a prisoner to those frames - animation would be an obstacle on the way to a finished film. When making ‘Conversations with a Whale’ I was deliberately trying to keep the creation more intuitive, allowing things to evolve on the go. I did not have any storyboard, or animatic, only a rough idea, a feeling. For the first couple of months, I was just experimenting with different materials. The ideas for the film were discovered on the animation table while making animation. It was scary and annoying for me not to know exactly how the film would develop, but it also brought more excitement into each phase of the filmmaking.

ZF: Your character is very opaque with no identifying traits apart from the crown and the cloak. Is it just a placeholder for the average indie (animation) filmmaker?

AS: For me, this character represents an artist in general. Someone who creates a piece of music, dance, writing, painting, or a film, you name it - and needs to put it out there. And by doing so becomes vulnerable. For me personally, there is always this triangle: an artist, a creation, and an audience. If one piece is missing, the other two are incomplete. So my character could be a person of any age, any gender, and any nationality - it doesn't matter. The film talks about something familiar to every artist, that's why the character is a simple figure without particular traits. Besides, I like animating silhouettes. There is something very satisfying for me in having to move the whole body and rely on gestures rather than on facial expressions to convey emotions. I almost never look in the mirror when animating, but move and try to capture the feeling of my own movement.

ZF: You animate in 2D and stop-motion. Why the combination? Was it easier or more resourceful for you? And did it come naturally as a thought?

AS: I wanted to keep things as quick, easy, and fresh as possible. So every time I felt bored, or stuck I would add an element or adjust the technique. The character was at first just a black charcoal shadow, but after some time I felt the need for color and dry pastels came into play. When it was time for a plane to appear, it felt so much easier to make one out of paper and to move it frame by frame, then to draw it new every time. My pixilated hands became part of the film because I could not bear the idea of having to draw a two-second animation of a hand reaching for a plane. I thought it would take me the whole day to do that and wasn't it easier to just paint my hand black and do a pixilation? It took me just an hour to finish the scene! And I was excited to see that I could edit together the drawn character and the pixilated close-up of my own hand and some people did not even see it. Later this discovery that came out of a wish to simplify the process led to the story development I did not know about when I started making the film.

ZF: Why do you have a fig tree here? Is there a symbolism or do you just like figs?

AS: When ‘The Man is Big’ did not run in almost any festivals, I was so upset about it, that I started questioning if I was an artist at all and if anybody needed what I was doing. And in case nobody did if I still have the right to continue doing it? That summer we went to Spain, where my husband’s family owns a vacation house with a fig tree growing in its beautiful garden. If we were in the house around the end of August we would enjoy fresh figs for breakfast, bake fig pies, and cook delicious food you can prepare with figs. The tree would produce fruit and we would enjoy it. However not every year someone is in the house around the fig harvest time. Does the tree stop producing fruits, just because no one is there to eat it? That summer I was looking at the tree and thinking: If you are a fig tree, your job is to make figs, if you are an artist you have to make art. As simple as that.

Watch Conversations with a Whale:

ZF: You blur the lines between the creator and its content, by putting yourself animating within the film. Is it something that you do often, or did you feel this film really needed it?

AS: I haven't really done it before this film. It felt the most obvious thing to do here since it is about the artist and the creation. Animation is not something I do 9 to 5 and then forget all about it. It is the way I look at the world and try to understand it and my place in it. And since this film was also about changing the process of animation, I wanted to show some of it at the beginning. It's always a mystery for me when the character becomes alive. Something I love the animation for. And there is this very tedious process that might get in the way, making you miss this feeling of wonder that is happening in front of you. So I wanted to have this contrast of boring repetitive action of the hands and the magical appearance of the whale.

ZF: How was the film produced? Was there a grant/governmental support or simply an in-house production? And was it easy to find your partners in music and sound design?

AS: It was a combination of both. I had some funding from the German Film Funding Agency (FFA), which awards you money for the next project if your previous film did well in certain festivals. Funny enough ‘The Man is Big’ my “flop” film managed to get in a couple of “right” festivals that secured me some points with FFA and allowed for a little startup money. It was not enough to make a film, but it was too much not to make one. In addition to that, I received a grant from a Canadian sound post-production studio STAMP, based in Montreal. I got that grant as a prize at the Raindance festival for another film (The Opposites Game) that I made in collaboration with a fellow animator Lisa LaBracio.

Merche Blasco, who did the sound design and composition for Conversations with a Whale, is a multimedia artist and composer. We both met in 2017 through some mutual friends and liked each other’s work in an instant. When starting Conversations with a Whale I asked Merche if she was interested in composing some music for it. In the beginning, I wanted to create a non-narrative piece and I thought it would be great to have some kind of musical composition that would give me a structure. We talked a lot about the origins of the idea for the film and about the 52-hertz whale – the loneliest whale in the world whose calls can’t be heard by the other whales because its pitch is higher than that of the others. We talked about similarities between that whale and artists that can’t get their work seen by the audience. Merche composed a piece around three minutes long and it already contained some elements that would make it into the final mix. For example, she used the whale calls to create some layers of the ambiance and there was already the musical theme that we used in the film. I like that Merche is not coming from a classical film music world. Her compositions are more soundscapes than just instrumental music and the borders between sound design and music are blurred.

ZF: Whales can be thought of both as friendly and horrifying animals, simply because of their size. What do whales mean to you?

AS: One of the two main characters in my graduation film was a whale. I remember I had this little doodle of myself – a tiny person sitting on the back of a huge whale, saying that I had spent yet another day submitting my film to the festivals that would not show it anyways. And the whale in my doodle would just smile and reply: “That's all right”. As if reminding me about what really matters. The whales are mythical creatures for me, not particular species. Something mysterious and so much bigger than myself, my everyday troubles and worries. The story of Jonas being saved by the whale had a lot of meaning for me. Something about that image of being inside of a whale makes me feel like being one with the world, connected to what's important.

ZF: Do you think as a filmmaker that the selection system at film and animation festivals has reached its limits, with 2000+ submissions for each festival? And there is nothing that can be done about it?

AS: The selection system can be changed and adapted to accommodate this, I think. What worries me more is the dependency on the success of your previous work at the festivals for being able to make future projects and a feeling of self-worth attached to it. I need to be able to show off some recognizable festival laurels to get a fellowship, or a grant to make my next movie. The other thing that bothers me is that for indie animation films there are hardly any other ways to get your film to be seen by an audience. One can of course argue that the online life of a film could compensate for that, but if the film was not in a festival, was not staff picked by Vimeo, or featured in some outlet, it would very likely get lost among many others. Besides nothing can compare with the excitement of sharing your work with a live audience. I think after almost two years of online festivals we can all agree on that.

ZF: Are you planning to go on with your next project on this topic or should we expect something completely different?

AS: There might be some nods to the creative process and the relationship between creation and creator in my next film. I am not quite sure about it yet. I am also keeping the approach to making a film without a clear map, just figuring it out as you go and hoping that at some point you arrive somewhere.

Film Review (Vassilis Kroustallis)

The unsung history of everyday artistic failure is simply but brilliantly captured in ‘Conversations With A Whale’ by Anna Samo. The whales of personal conversation fight with the very humble but potent fig trees, and in the film there is a constant fight to channel the bad into the fruitful. Black-penciled characters with characteristic color touches co-exist with stop-motion scratched rejection letters and a fire that is about to consume everything. ‘Conversations With A Whale’ moves effortlessly from one narrative stop to another and has its empathy shown in all the right places -between external action (reading the letters) and subsequent internal reflection and through recycling. A really humane film about the art of filmmaking and its practitioners.

Credits:
‘Conversations with a Whale’, 2D animation short, 2020 (9’, Germany)
Art, direction, and animation by Anna Samo | Producer: Tom Bergmann | Music and sound design: Merche Blasco | Voices: Lisa Labracio, Merche Blasco Jason Patience, Biljana Labovich Jeremiah Dickey, Abdallah Ewis Bethany Cutmore-Scott | Sound re-recording mixer: Benjamin Beladi | Additional sound design, foley, and mix: David Jalbert | STAMP executive producers: Carl Vaudrin, Powys Dewhurst, Benjamin Beladi | Colorist Will Cox online editor Kevin Caby post-production services: Final Frame | Production: Tiger Unterwegs Filmproduktion

About Anna Samo:
Anna Samo was born in Moscow and moved to Berlin in 2006. In her first animation job, she witnessed how thousands of separated drawings put together, suddenly turn into a living character. She experienced the tickling feeling of surprise and wonder. This feeling has not left her ever since. Anna studied animation at the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf. As an independent filmmaker, she uses a variety of analog animation techniques to create emotional and poetic work. Her most recent films ‘OBON’, ‘The Opposites Game’, and ‘Conversations with a Whale’ have been screened and awarded at film festivals around the world. In 2021 Anna was granted the Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship. Together with her family she currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

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