Friday, March 28, 2014

"Miss Todd" Takes Animation to New Heights: An Interview with Filmmaker Kristina Yee

In October, BMFI launched its inaugural Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest to encourage emerging filmmakers and celebrate cinema’s rich history. From over 280 entries, four finalist short films have been chosen: "Miss Todd," "Wrong Number," "Redemption," and "Sonus." In April, see these remarkable short films on the big screen before the features that inspired them, and learn more about the finalist filmmakers on BMFInsights.

"Miss Todd" Takes Animation to New Heights

By Kerri Grogan, Staff Assistant

Inspiring is the best word to describe the story of "Miss Todd," a stop-motion, animated, musical short that is one of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s inaugural Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest finalist films. Director Kristina Yee's award-winning short, which uses beautiful, hand-drawn puppets and handmade sets, follows the compelling journey of a young woman who dreams of flight. The project was her graduation film from the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England, and was the first animated film to win a Gold Medal for Best Foreign Film at the Student Academy Awards. The short will be shown with the feature that inspired it, the beloved musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), on the big screen this Tuesday, April 1 at 7:00 pm.

I caught up with Kristina via email to ask her a few questions about her film. Keep reading to learn about the challenges of stop-motion animation, what attracted her to the story, and what inspires her.

Director Kristina Yee earned a 2014 Annie Award nomination for her film.
"Miss Todd" is based on the experiences of a little-known historical figure, Lillian Todd, whom the New York Times identified in 1909 as the first woman to design airplanes. What drew you to her story?

I came across Miss Todd almost by accident. I was perusing articles about this particular time in aviation history because I was doing research for another project that involved flying, and kites particularly, when I came across Miss Todd. I wondered why I'd never heard of her, and the more I read, the more her story smacked of injustice. I thought it was amazing that she accomplished so much, and yet is so forgotten by the history books. The mystery of what happened to her after her plane flew also drew me to her—I wanted to believe that, as we've portrayed in the story, her disappearance wasn't a tragedy, but an adventure.

What made you decide that you wanted to tell her story as a musical?

I had been thinking of making a musical for my graduation film, but when my writer and I decided to tell Miss Todd's story, a musical seemed perfect in a lot of ways, mostly because it's very much a story about literally not having a voice. When Miss Todd sings, she's communicating all the highs and lows of her experience in a way that only music can communicate.

What would you say is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

I'm not sure I could name a favorite part—I genuinely love every step. I suppose the best part is when you feel that all of your collaborators are really united in making the film and are each using their own gifts to bring out the best in the story. I had a fantastic team for "Miss Todd," and that made the entire process a real pleasure.

You used a stop-motion style of animation that uses paper cut-outs and built sets. What made you choose this style? Did you have any particular inspiration for the visual look of the film?

Well, there were certainly practical considerations when we chose this style. We wanted to do stop-motion because we thought there was something really wonderfully tactile in this world of inventions and machinery. The textures of the real sets really invite you to be a part of her world. We settled on paper cut-outs for two reasons: we needed to be able to do lip-sync and wanted to have facially expressive characters, and also because, in a more abstract way, there was something about the limitations of the movements of the paper puppets that seemed fitting for the time period in which the film is set. Plus, the paper in the sets looked amazing!

Miss Todd dreams of flight, but her aspirations may be forever grounded. This beautiful animated film was done with no use of green screen, and only minimal post-production retouching.
What are some of the challenges of working in this type of stop-motion style?

Well, my editor was really disappointed when I told him we couldn't do a 360 shot around Miss Todd. There are certainly logistical things you have to think about when your puppets are flat! But I think the challenge was mostly that it was a bit experimental, so we were learning as we went along. We were also trying to do things that are difficult to do in stop-motion, even in the best of circumstances, on a shoe-string budget and a tiny animation team—things like lip-syncing (lots of it!) and flying. One moment I was proudest of is that, in order to create realistic motion-blur in the take-off sequence, we had loads of friends helping us to "pull" the grass of the airfield the moment that the shutter closed, frame by frame, so that the grass would appear to be racing by for the take-off. We also had to make sure that the wheels and propeller were spinning as the shutter closed, which became the special responsibility of our amazing cinematographer, Nick Cooke.

What filmmakers have inspired you and the way you work?

As with all animators, I'm a huge Miyazaki fan. I only hope to one day be one tenth as accomplished as he is! I also love Billy Wilder. In particular, I love The Apartment, which is one of those films that is completely perfect just the way it is. I hope one day I'm able to write the kind of witty, snappy dialogue that he and his collaborators always seemed to capture. I grew up watching old musicals, which have nurtured my love of grand, sweeping moments in film. I also love the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; I think I've watched The Red Shoes more times than any other film! I love their sense of imagination and artistry.
Thank you, Kristina!

See "Miss Todd" and the classic feature that inspired it, Singin' in the Rain, this Tuesday at 7:00 pm. Join us on April 27 for our ACTION! Dedication Celebration, where we will announce the Silver Screen Inspiration Short Film Contest winners.

Kerri Grogan is BMFI’s Staff Assistant. She studied animation at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and moonlights as a dice-rolling, video gaming geek, blogger, and comic artist.