Monday, November 16, 2009

More Than Your Money’s Worth: Tatia Rosenthal Talks "$9.99"

On Thursday, November 12, Bryn Mawr Film Institute hosted the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s screening of the innovative stop-motion animated feature $9.99. Based on the short stories of and co-written by famed Israeli author Etgar Keret, the surreal, existentialist drama “offers slightly less than $10 worth about the meaning of life.” The screening was followed by a Q&A with director and co-writer Tatia Rosenthal, as well as a special look at one of the puppets used in the film. Keep reading for highlights from the Q&A with Tatia.

Filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal signs BMFI's guest book

$9.99 is filmmaker Tatia Rosenthal’s feature debut. Born in Tel Aviv, Rosenthal is now based in New York where she graduated from the NYU Tisch School of Arts with a BFA in Film & Television in 1998. Her first short stop-motion animation Crazy Glue (1998) was also based on an Etgar Keret story. While working as an animator for Nickelodeon and Scholastic, she directed A Buck’s Worth (2005), an interpretation of the opening scene of $9.99 that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Rosenthal has received the $100,000 Richard Vague Production Fund Award and the 2002 Maryland Producers’ Club Award, and was a Fellow of both the Sundance Writers and Directors Labs in 2001.

Highlights from the Q&A with Tatia Rosenthal:

What was it like to work with Etgar Keret?
It was great. I brought a book of short stories by Etgar Keret with me on the way to film school in New York. I finished it all on the flight, and I said then, “I must work with him.”

How did you finance the film?
We wrote the screenplay together in 1999, but it took seven years to finance. Producers said, “Make it for under $1 million or don’t make it at all,” so we didn’t make it at all for seven years. It eventually got financed because a producer wanted to make the first Australian-Israeli co-production. The final budget was $3.5 million and it took six months for him to get it financed.

How do you work with the puppets and simulate things like water and fire?
They are silicon puppets with metallic skeletons called armatures, so they’re poseable. Everything was on a 1/6 scale, so the puppets were 11”. There were about three or five puppets created for each character. Their clothes are sewn separately and can be changed. It took two years to produce the film with five animators working at any one time, nine total. We shot it with consumer grade still cameras downloaded straight to computers. The water droplets are KY Jelly—there’s nothing better to simulate water in stop-motion animation—but the bodies of water and the fire were computer generated later.

Top: Tatia Rosenthal shows off a puppet used in her stop-motion film $9.99.
Bottom: The same character (on the left, in a different outfit) in a shot from the finished film.

Why do stop-motion animation?
I’ve always liked it. I love the textures. You don’t get that the same way with computer animation, although that is changing. Now, the more money you have for your production, the more that computer animation can look like stop-motion animation, and vice-versa. I never got into hand-drawn animation; I'm not that great of an artist.

What do you think the film means?
I think that Etgar is a very ambivalent writer, but I think that there’s a real emotional basis to these stories. You may not have one solution to the meaning of life, but as long as you get up in the morning and there’s someone who loves you, you’re doing okay.

Which character do you empathize with the most?
It’s funny, Etgar says that when a director makes a film, it’s about where they are in life. When I was making the short, he said I was about “if I don’t get the money I’m going to shoot myself.” [laughs] It’s not the plot [of $9.99] but the multi-organism nature of it that fit where I was. It is a bit melancholy—I was homesick, making the film in Australia far from the people that I loved. So maybe it’s not as funny as it could have been. But there’s hope in it, too.

In $9.99, the live-at-home slacker Dave buys a book for the low price of $9.99 that offers him the meaning of life, and he wants to spread the knowledge. However, his family and neighbors—including his father, a retiree with a live-in guardian angel, fighting fiancés, a debt-ridden magician, a fetishistic supermodel, and a little boy with a dream—are too absorbed in their own lives and quests for happiness to listen. Their intertwined stories are voiced by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia, and a cast of talented Australian actors. The exquisite naturalistic animation took nine animators from around the world forty weeks to complete, working at the rate of four or five seconds of completed footage per animator per day.

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Gershman Y, is the second longest running, critically-acclaimed series of its kind in the United States. The  complete schedule is available online at

Find more information about $9.99, Tatia Rosenthal, and the process of creating stop-motion animation at

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