‘Jöns and the Spider’ dir. Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits & Soyoung Hyun

A little boy gets locked in a house in the forest by his master, who has ordered him to make violins. The boy painstakingly builds violins, longing for his freedom and the sweet sound of their music, when a spider appears in his life to give his dreams a sprinkle of hope.

Country: UK
Writer-Director: Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits and Soyoung Hyun
3D Animator: Gergely Wootsch
Sound Designer: Tom Lowe

C8: Where did the idea for ‘Jöns and the Spider’ come from?

MMT: Soyoung and I made this film between our first year and second year at the Royal College of Art. We had just finished our first year films and assisting the second year students with their graduation films, and thought of taking on a small project over the summer. We also felt the need to experiment with a new technique before jumping onto our final year and our own individual graduation films, since we both worked on paper until then.

When you get a tour of the college, before applying, you get shown the basement floor of the building, where there are three rostrum cameras and a multiplane. The cameras get used once a year at least for a project we have to produce on film, but the multiplane often just sits in the back, dusty, and waiting to be brought back to life by someone. It is such a beautiful piece of engineering, and we both wanted to try and use it for a project before we left the college, as we would probably not find another opportunity to work on one again.

[For those unfamiliar to animation, the multiplane is like a two metre chest of drawers, only that the drawers are planes of glass, that you can take out and reposition according to your needs. There is a lightbox on the bottom of the multiplane, which allows you to backlit your work, and lights on the top of it and on the sides, in case you need to front-light it. On top of the multiplane sits a rostrum camera, which is connected to a computer, and allows you to preview and shoot your stop frame animation.]

Unfamiliar with both the multiplane and stop-frame puppet animation, we decided to write a short story that would allow us to achieve a short film within the two summer months. We chose a keyword each, which were ‘violin’ and ‘spider’, and then wrote the story together in two days. It is something very different to what we usually write, as we both create films taken or inspired by personal experiences. Writing something so different, however, was also part of the need to experiment, and go into an area that none of us was comfortable with.

C8: The film feels a lot like a fairy tale. What inspired your visual style?

MMT: We had both seen films by Lottie Reiniger, that we really liked, so we were keen on the back-lit, monotone style and the flat puppets. Our tutor, Joan Ashworth, showed us how Lottie used to create joints for her puppets, and we then had the idea of drawing with ink on acetate, to create a texture that would allow some of that back light to come through. We sat in the dark for several days, testing the different possibilities of acetate, tracing paper, ink and their relationship with that lightbox, until we found a style we found interesting to work with. We also felt those quite rugged, almost wooden textures, connected well with the theme and the feel of the story.

C8: The sound is instrumental in setting the tone. How much free reign did you give sound designer Tom Lowe?

MMT: Soyoung and I had the idea of using a violin to create all the sound effects that we would need for the film. We generally wanted the sound to feel as tactile and as organic as the film itself, and that is something we were very strict with from the beginning. After buying a violin, we had several recording sessions where we tapped, knocked and blew into the violin, trying to get as much variety as possible in terms of sounds, that we could then use for wind, footsteps, carving, and many more effects. We then collaborated with Tom, explaining how we had envisioned the sound, providing him with our foley recordings, and giving him the creative space to produce something he felt was right for that material. I had collaborated with Tom in the past and trusted his work and ideas a lot, so working together was a very easy process. We seem to have a very similar way of thinking about sound, so it was a very pleasant collaboration.

C8: For those unfamiliar with animation how long did this film take to animate? And what was the most challenging aspect?

MMT: As I mentioned, we started working on this film during the summer of 2009. We probably worked on it for a month and a half then, which involved a lot of pre-production (designing, preparing sets, and doing tests), and some animation.

In September 2009 we had to write and develop our individual graduation films (My Mother’s Coat and How Life Tastes), which means that Jons and the Spider became a side project that we worked on in the weekends, or whenever we needed a break from our hand-drawn films. It is thus difficult to point out how much time it took us to animate the film, but in total we worked on it on and off for one year. That lack of continuity was definitely the most challenging part of making this film, as it is always difficult to leave something unfinished and have to come back to it maybe one month later, when your mind has been occupied with something completely different.

In terms of technique, on the contrary to other animated films we produced, where we had to plan our scenes very strictly, in order to not waste any production time and work, we saw Jons and the Spider more as an experiment and a platform for us to explore new possibilities. Having that in mind, we had planned what we wanted to have in each scene, but had not restricted ourselves to what the acting would be like, or how much time we needed for it. We would start animating a shot and then improvised on the spot about what acting could look nice, or how much time we should leave between different actions. That of course involved more editing time in the end, but allowed us to work in an instinctive, not restricting way.

C8: What was the hardest thing about getting the film made? What obstacles did you come across, before, during and after production?

MMT: The problems we encountered were mainly technical ones, and things that we could not try and solve ourselves in that university environment. Equipment was a problem at some stage, as the college only had a certain amount of cameras. Jons and the Spider not being a graduation film, meant that it often didn’t get a priority in the technician’s lists and that we had to wait for the more important projects to be finalized before we could get the help we needed.

In the middle of production, we also had to quit shooting for several weeks, as the basement floor had to go through some refurbishing for health and safety.

The funniest thing, however, was that we battled, for a while, with the lightbox as we realized that in every still we took, the light had a different intensity. That created a flickering effect that gave us a great frustration, but in the end we decided to work with it instead of against it. I don’t remember what we did exactly to tone it down a little bit, but we finally embraced it even thought it gave the film a very dreamy and eerie atmosphere. It was a happy accident.

C8: If you did the whole process again, is there anything you would do differently?

MMT: Three years have passed since we finished the film and we graduated, in which we have learnt a lot more about animation production and about character animation. When I see the film now I notice all the things I would have animated differently, but what is important is to also have something to remind you who you were at the time, what kind of skills you had, and thus what progression you have achieved since then.

I would have concentrated on the animation much more and I would have been much stricter with editing, but then again it would have been a different product, and would maybe lose some of its spontaneity.

C8: ‘Jöns and the Spider’ was written, directed and animated with Soyoung Hyun. What was the collaboration process like?

MMT: Soyoung and I became good friends in our first year at the RCA and shared the same interests in animation, drawing and storytelling. We both felt the need to leave our pencils and the lightboxes down for a little bit, and get our hands on something completely new, especially technique-wise. Stop frame animation is much more physical, as your whole body gets involved and not only your wrists and hands. It was also so liberating to be able to play back your animation straight away, and thus review your choices on the spot.

Working on your own films can also get very lonely, so we were looking for an opportunity to work together on something and keep each other company. Being friends meant that we could tell each other comfortably when we thought something was working or not, or who should animate certain shots or not, depending on our skills. We wrote the script, designed, animated and edited the film together, so we were always next to each other from start to finish, which was really lovely.

C8: Could you tell us a bit more about your filmmaking background? Where are you from and what filmmakers have inspired your work?

MMT: I was born and raised in Athens, Greece, with a Greek father and Italian mother. I lived there until I finished school, and then I decided to come to England to study Art and Design, having illustration in mind as a pathway. I never felt neither 100% Greek, nor 100% Italian, so coming to England was quite a liberating experience for me. I went to the Kent Institute of Art and Design, then studied Illustration and Animation at Kingston University and finally went on to do an Animation MA at the Royal College of Art.

In Kingston I had the chance to have brilliant teachers, who taught us how to translate our drawings into movement in a non-conventional way, and raised my interest in documentary style illustration and animation. When I applied at the RCA, I wanted to develop what I had taken from Kingston, and make more films based on interviews and personal experiences. I made two films while I was there, Eric, do you exist? In 2009 and My Mother’s Coat, my graduation film, in 2010. They are both very personal films, concentrating on my family, and using drawing as a medium to interpret feelings and memories. They were both animated traditionally on paper, and taking drawings straight from my sketchbooks or life drawing classes.

The animators that inspired me to work in this way initially have to be Jonathan Hodgson and Stuart Hilton, Susan Young, my teacher Tim Webb, and others from that generation of animators who showed that animation and drawing within it could be something different and much more intuitive than conventional animation. I also love Oskar Fishinger, In terms of live action I  really like the Italian neorealist film-makers, Ermano Olmi, Vittorio de Sica, and Giuseppe Tornatore, and I love Woody Allen’s earliest films. One of my favourite films is Kitchen Stories by bent Hamer. I think what I like about all these people is the honesty they present in their work.

C8: If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?

MMT: I think I am already collaborating or have collaborated with the people I really want to be working with in animation, which are my friends Daniel chester and David prosser, whom we have Moth Collective with, Soyoung Hyun, and Daniela Negrin Ochoa, that I have a very similar understanding of animation with.

This year we worked on a live action feature documentary with Moth, called Maidentrip, which is the kind of work I would want to keep getting involved with.

I think I would also like to collaborate with more orchestras or dancers at some point, something which involves collaboration with people who are still creative, but from completely different backgrounds, and with who you can thus create an interesting dialogue with about how to bind your two arts together. I used to dance for years, so I would like to work on a non-dialogue piece one day that concentrates solely on rhythm and symbolism.

C8: What, in your opinion, is the essence of a good collaboration?

MMT: I think the most important thing is to have the same vision about something with the other person. You might have a lot of disagreements in the process about details, but if the feeling and the mood you are looking to communicate is the same, then you will find solutions and compromises in the process. It is also important to be in the same wavelength with the other person, not only in your work, but also in your personality. If I feel a connection with a certain person I know that I can create something interesting with them.

C8: If you could give emerging filmmakers any piece of advice what would it be?

MMT: It would probably have to be to be open to advice and suggestions but not compromise on what you want to say. That is what makes you different to the other film makers, and if you suppress it to please a third party, then you lose connection to your work. Negotiating is something that takes a lot of time to learn though, and that I am of course still learning myself.

C8: What’s next for Marie-Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits?

MMT: I just finished a film for the NSPCC that should be launched soon, and we have a few projects with Moth that we are waiting to work on soon. So hopefully we ll have more interesting projects to show you very soon!