An interview with animator Kirsten Lepore (Bottle, Sweet Dreams)

Kirsten Lepore’s animation shorts on Vimeo made my week, here delves deeper into the mind of Kirsten Lepore!!

Bottle first came to my attention via the recent Vimeo Awards and Philip Bloom’s Facebook page. The sound design and the use of (mostly) real sand and snow mark it out as brilliant accomplishment, but even more importantly I feel the characters and the idea mark it out as being inspirational – the effect Bottle and Sweet Dreams have on even the most hardened people is to melt their hearts. This is the mark of not just a great animator in the making but a great filmmaker. Here Kirsten talks about her craft as an animator and storyteller.

EOSHD: Where did the idea for Bottle come from?

Kirsten: I had the initial spark about two winters ago while I was home in New Jersey. I think I was just looking at all the snow in the backyard and thinking how cool it would be to animate a snowman. I’d never seen it done, and it was definitely something I knew I had to try at some point — When I got to CalArts and we had to come up with ideas for our first year films, I revisited the snow idea and thought it would pair nicely with a sand counterpart.

EOSHD: How do you begin writing a story and developing ideas for characters? Do you have a scrap book of ideas and some make it through, some not?

Kirsten: It’s different everytime. I do have a sketchbook (even though its mainly writing) or both rejected ideas as well as ones I end up using. Oftentimes I get the idea for a technique or materials which will inform an idea — that’s what happened with Sweet Dreams and Bottle.

EOSHD: Did the shooting of Bottle go well, any problems during production?

Kirsten: It was nothing but problems, actually: The snow wasn’t packable, the sand would crumble past 2 ft, the seagulls stole my props, my camera remote broke, the list could go on and on. I somehow found solutions and other ways of approaching obstacles that allowed for the film to be made.

EOSHD: How long did it take to shoot the sex scene in Sweet Dreams?

Kirsten: It was a day’s worth of shooting.

EOSHD: When you finished Sweet Dreams did you eat the characters?

Kirsten: Anything that was edible was either rotten by the end of production or stale and covered in hot glue, so no. I did do some snacking during production, though.

EOSHD: Are there any Japanese or Asian animators that inspire you?

Kirsten: I don’t usually watch a lot of Asian animation, but I recently saw Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” which I thought was visually stunning. I also enjoy Miyazaki’s films.

EOSHD: Ever visited Europe or the UK?

Kirsten: I lived in Italy for a bit, and have traveled extensively throughout Western and Northern Europe. I’ve only ever been at Heathrow airport in London, though, so I can’t really say I’ve been to the UK.

EOSHD: Did you grow up in LA and has it influenced your style of animation?

Kirsten: I’ve only lived in LA for year — I actually grew up in New Jersey. However, I do find the southern California landscape very inspiring, and it’s making its way into my films for sure.

EOSHD: When do you tell if an idea is worthy of 9 months work? Does it hit you as special straight away?

Kirsten: Yea I usually get a strong feeling when an idea “clicks” for me. It’s not something I feel often, but when I do, it usually gets turned into a film.

EOSHD: I like DSLRs since they put powerful tools in the hands of everyone, they’re very affordable. How did you first get started with animation?

Kirsten: Technically, I made my first animated films with the family camcorder in 5th grade. I tried doing a stop frame technique by pressing the red record button on and off very quickly. But you’d always get this annoying clicking noise throughout the film. In high school I started playing around in Flash and made a few films with the program (which I considered to be the coolest piece of software on the planet, at the time). It wasn’t until undergrad that I moved into hand drawn animation and real stop-motion. But DSLRs definitely made my transition to stop-motion possible. I probably wouldn’t be doing it right now if I had to work on film.

EOSHD: I’m not patient enough for animation that’s why I’m a cinematographer and filmmaker!! Is the detail and time consuming nature of animation something that attracts you to it or would you rather complete stuff quicker?

Kirsten: I definitely wish it wasn’t as painstakingly meticulous and time consuming as it is. But then again, I feel like when you finally complete something, it’s feels more precious than if it were something that were easy or quick to make. Putting all that time in makes the reward sweeter in the end.

EOSHD: I tried animation in Flash once. It was a disaster. I set it to music by Air and had a stick man falling into a cave, where he got on a boat and sailed through the cave, then I couldn’t think of what happened next so I have up and did something else. Half way through projects have you ever got distracted and diverted onto doing something else, or is it all-consuming?

Kirsten: I’m always distracted and diverted, but I usually always return to a project to finish it — otherwise all the hard work is in vain. I was working on “Story from North America” at the same time as “Sweet Dreams” and “Story…” always felt like a much needed break from stop-motion. Doing repetitive drawings became therapeutic after standing in a small, dark studio all day. Both projects got finished, but switching between them kept me sane.

EOSHD: Have you seen the animation ‘La Maison en Petits Cubes‘? I love it.

Kirsten: Haven’t seen it, actually! I need to, though…

EOSHD: Did the cupcake in Sweet Dreams steal or borrow the sugar cubes to build his boat?

Kirsten: Hmmm, never thought about it actually…but he seems pretty good-natured so I think he intended to borrow.

EOSHD: How do you light a scene, what kind of equipment do you need in the studio to do it well?

Kirsten: I’ve done a lot of super makeshift lighting in the past with cheap lamps, regular incandescent bulbs, home depot clamp lights, etc. It just takes longer that way because I have to play around with placement for a long time before I can get anything to look decent. Either way, it usually takes me a few hours to set up lighting for things before I’m satisfied. Now I have some mid-priced photo floods, but I should really invest in some professional lighting.

EOSHD: More creative at night or in the morning?

Kirsten: At night, hands down. I can’t get anything decent done before noon.

EOSHD: Did you enjoy the Vimeo awards?

Kirsten: Had an amazing time! So much fun. I hope they have another festival next year!

EOSHD: I am really surprised Charlie The Unicorn didn’t have a longer run on YouTube, just 3 or 4 episodes. Similarly we have Flat Eric rusting away, a great character who isn’t used any more. If you could bring back to life a recent character who would it be?

Kirsten: Ahh Flat Eric’s a good one — I love him. Hmm, maybe I’d bring back the dancing banana guy from “Peanut Butter Jelly Time”….although, has he ever left?

EOSHD: Where’s the money george? Do you think there is a tendency for businesses to employ creative people for free, because of the requirement to get portfolio work done for clients? Some say that the rate card is coming down because many people are doing work for free and that it’s being exploited by companies who can afford to pay – and should pay – for creative work. What’s your experience with this?

Kirsten: I think in general, artists and animators are always underpaid. However, companies need them to survive and sell their products — they’d be nothing without creatives. The problem is that a lot of artists are willing to work for free, and they need to start standing their ground. I’m definitely guilty of taking low paying work from high profile clients, but I never worked for free. It’s really difficult to charge for your work, but artists need to value their creativity and not give in to the “this will build your resume” line.

EOSHD: My friend is making robots at the moment in an effort to make a living. How do you balance your life between socialising and the huge demands of being creative and making a living, or do they go hand in hand right now? If so, has it always been like that or have you been locked in a dark room like Terry Gilliam for 5 years?

Kirsten: Most of the time I am working (or goofing off on the computer), but I definitely make time for socializing. Everyone needs to get out for some fresh air and a drink now and then.

EOSHD: Do you intend to get into live action filmmaking?

Kirsten: I’ve done a few live action projects in the past. For me animation is just a medium that suits most of the ideas I want to pursue. If I have an idea that would be best executed with live action, then I do it.

EOSHD: Who are your favourite (live action) film directors?

Kirsten: What? Movies? I don’t watch movies…

EOSHD: I’m impressed with animated work on Vimeo because they seem to have a much better grasp of characters, stories and the ideas are really imaginative. But I think the feel and the character of a piece of work comes from the same place as it does with filmmakers – I think it’s an instinct, an eye and ear for ‘feeling’ and design, and it comes from one’s personality and experience. Are there any tips you can give to young animators just starting out?

Kirsten: Make what comes naturally to do. Don’t get hung up on a specific style that you are trying to emulate. Also, the thing that drives animation is the concept or story — so I’d say focus on this as opposed to getting caught up in the technical or stylistic aspects.

EOSHD: How did your work for MTV and Nestle come about?

Kirsten: They contacted me; I think they saw my films on the internet.

EOSHD: Do you see a trend toward bite sized stuff on the internet, or is there room for feature length movies to get air time on places like Vimeo, where 15mins is considered quite epic by viewers?

Kirsten: I could imagine features moving onto sites like Vimeo in the future, however features already have their own place on the net (netflix, hulu?). Features also have a well established history off the net as we know, so it’s nice that sites like Vimeo and Youtube focus on the short format, which is often neglected outside of the online community and film festivals.

EOSHD: The sound design in your animations is universally brilliant – how much of a hand in the sound design did you have?

Kirsten: I usually do it all myself. With the exception of the song from “Story from North America” which was written and performed by Garrett Davis, I do all music, sound recording, and sound editing for my films.

EOSHD: Great to see some animation that isn’t all CGI – it has more character. But are you interested in doing something entirely computer generated in the future?

Kirsten: I’m taking a class in CG right now, and giving it another chance. I’d like to apply CG in subtle ways to my films, but I don’t foresee myself making an entirely computer generated film.

EOSHD: The pacing is fantastic on all your animations, especially Bottle and Sweet Dreams – that allows me to feel more than if it was all whizz-bang fast like an ad… it gives the animation a timelessness about it since it’s done right. How do you get a feel for pacing your cinematography in an animation when you have to do it frame by frame, is it something that takes a lot of practice or is it an instinctive thing?

Kirsten: It’s a mixture of instinct, planning, editing, and experience. The first time or first few times people animate, the action usually whizzes by in one second. It takes much practice (for me it took years) to finally get it through one’s head that 24 images goes by in the blink of an eye…I just made a rhyme.

EOSHD: Do you seek to push the technical level of your animation further and further, what’s your next step going to be?

Kirsten: Yes, there’s always more to learn and to push. To me, Sweet Dreams and especially Bottle are really unrefined and rough looking, mainly because I wasn’t working in a controlled shooting situation. My next film will probably be much more technically refined, since it will be shot in a studio…but as I was saying before, the technical refinement doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. It’s all about story — so hopefully I can pull off that part of it!

EOSHD: Big thanks for the interview Kirsten and all the best on future films.