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From Film Festivals to ‘I am Ramdeen’

For independent animators like Jahnavi and I, getting screened in film festivals is the best way to get our work seen. Getting selected for a film festival can be a difficult prospect, where you compete for a very limited number of available screening spots with thousands of other filmmakers. The anxiety doesn’t end there, once you are selected, it suddenly dawns upon you that your work will now be open to a live audience, and you have to cope with the prospect of watching your film alongside other people.

It was a year ago that we finished work on “The Sweetmeat Boy”, and in that time, we have been screened in seven festivals across the US, Europe and India. Our first screening was in the ‘The Cardiff Mini Film Festival’ held in the capital of Wales just a couple of weeks after the Brexit vote. ‘The Sweetmeat Boy’ was nominated and screened in the Fiction category, alongside some very interesting live-action and animated films by both established filmmakers and newcomers from Europe and the US. We had the opportunity to get to know other filmmakers here, like Barrie Willacott and Ian Lapworth.  One of the filmmakers we met was Robert Brown,  who had started his career working on one of our very favourite animated films, ‘When the Wind Blows’. His hand-drawn animated short, ‘The Tooth Fairy’ was screened alongside ours.

When the wind blows
When the wind blows
Rawhead Rex
Rawhead Rex

One of the most fun moments was a brief geek-out with George Pavlou, who directed ‘Rawhead Rex’. It is a 1980s Irish-English horror film about a monster who terrorises the Irish countryside. This is an adaptation of one of Clive Barker’s stories from his Books of Blood series, and while the film is not totally faithful to the original story, it remains a bit of a guilty pleasure watch with its bizarre plot and stupidly fun creature effects.

 

Not Elvira
Not Elvira

Our second screening was in Los Angeles, in the ScareLA film festival, as part of the annual ScareLA HorrorCon. We were screened here in the “Wicked Witches” category. My brother, Nipun, and his friend, Anirudh, attended the festival in Los Angeles on our behalf. Here’s a picture of them with an Elvira impersonator (apparently there was a two hour long queue to the real Elvira, and they hoped we wouldn’t notice that the impersonator looked rather different. Yeah, not bloody likely).

 

 

 

We were next selected for the Cyprus Comic Con, which we missed attending by a whisker, as the festival was held about a week after our holiday in Cyprus. Our friends, Melina, Thomas and Christina attended the festival in Nicosia on our behalf.

'The Sweetmeat Boy' Screening
‘The Sweetmeat Boy’ Screening
Purge Cosplay
Purge Cosplay
'The Sweetmeat Boy' Screening
‘The Sweetmeat Boy’ Screening

Apart from these three, we also got screened in the AxWound Women in Horror film festival in Vermont, the Fright Night Film Fest in Kentucky, the Broken Knuckle Film Festival and the Chennai International Short Film Festival.

And now, after a year of patting our own backs, we have decided to focus on the next few projects. We have a few ideas lined up and some are at a more concrete stage than others, but one of the more fun things we did recently was to experiment with live-action film making. Some members of our family volunteered to act, and be laughed at, in a very short horror-comedy that we filmed on our last trip to India. The film is called ‘The Jinn’. One of the most important things we learned while making this film was that working with actors, instead of puppets, presents unpredictable challenges. Patience becomes a very difficult virtue when an actor (or indeed one of the directors) breaks into a fit of giggles even as the all-important sunlight is fading, or when an actor, with otherwise great diction, bungles a dialogue just when everything else is perfect. No matter how many behind-the-scenes blooper reels one might have seen, the challenges of live-action film making need to be experienced to be truly appreciated. Although stop-motion animation is extremely hard, we now humbly admit that live-action film making is no stroll in the park either. We are currently in the post-production stages of this film and hope to have this out sometime soon.

Moving on to the most important project that we’re working on at the moment. It is another stop-motion animation short film on the death penalty in India. Jahnavi’s brilliant script is in Hindi, encapsulating the experiences of prisoners on death row. The tentative title of the film is ‘Jhakki Kisaan’ in Hindi and ‘I am Ramdeen’ in English. Making sure that the film is as effective in both Hindi and English has already presented us with unique and frustrating challenges, which are likely to only increase in the next few months. We are very excited to start filming, and are currently  in the process of story-boarding the script.  Next, we will move on to the music and the fabrication of the sets and characters and will keep clicking pictures of anything exciting to share on the blog. My upcoming few pieces will be about the process of making ‘Jhakki Kisaan’/‘I am Ramdeen’, from puppets to set-design to filming, so watch this space!

The Sweetmeat Boy – Trailer

Presenting – the trailer for our first film, The Sweetmeat Boy!

After a final push over the last few months, with a fair few sleepless nights and about 400 hours of work, the film is finally complete. It clocks in at 5 minutes and 38 seconds, and features folk-music sounds from India, including a piece by an excellent Yakshagana troupe. The film can’t be shared just yet, as we dive into the murky waters of the film festival circuit. For more pictures and production stills, head over to the Gallery.

Showreel #1

Here’s KhelaFilm’s first showreel, showcasing scenes from our papercut shorts and our upcoming claymation short “The Sweetmeat Boy”. We used our field recordings of South Indian temples for the music in this video.

 

Imperfection

We have been working on a short animated film, called ‘The Sweetmeat Boy’, for the last couple of years. The film will be approximately 2 to 3 minutes long, but has already taken a few thousand hours of learning, conception and execution! From the time we started, we have reshot the same scenes at least ten times; and now that the film is halfway there, we feel ready to share our experiences with those who are interested in this kind of film making, or those who are simply entertained by a good story.

The film is based on a Kannada folk tale that many a grandmother has repeated to her grandchild. It features an Indian version of the classic Eastern European ‘Baba Yaga’ legend, with a sinister hell hag (“Rakshasi ajji” in the Tulu language) terrifying an ‘innocent’, sweetmeat eating boy. It is a story with a strong visual element, and seemed an apt subject for a film. After playing around with a few ideas on how to bring this to life, we made up our minds to experiment with stop motion animation.

The first decision we had to make was around the materials that we were going to use, and the kind of stop motion that this was going to be – hand drawn, clay, silhouette or paper cutout. We zeroed in on clay animation almost immediately, since using real and tactile materials requires a much greater level of interaction with the physical world, providing the story that much more depth.

We decided early on to not use CGI or doctor the pictures we took in any way – all the animation would happen in camera, without anything being removed, added or enhanced. We had to be very careful with our sets and lighting, and figure out ways of hiding supporting harnesses, to avoid changing anything artificially on the computer.

First AppaDaMani Second IterationOn the left is the first iteration of the set and the puppet. The background here was watercolour on thick paper, with a painted tree and a very unformed puppet. The foliage was real lichen.

The subsequent puppet, on the right, had more articulation and features. The tree was now a combination of a watercolour painting and a clay front. The problem with this puppet was that it had no skeleton to support its extremities. The clay fingers would keep drying and breaking off in our hands.

Then we created a more advanced puppet with modular and movable parts built on a wire skeleton. Hello The arms, fingers, eyes, head and body were all separately baked and put together on an armature that we built with aluminium wire. There was also some fiddling about with cloth and thread to cover the puppet’s modesty. This puppet, while a lot more advanced than the clay one before it, could not move as smoothly as we wanted.
Animating puppets is anything but easy. Every second of filming requires a careful maneuvering of models, and a single faulty movement or a seemingly imperceptible shift in the set, teeming with tiny props, can break the flow completely, negating all the time and effort spent. We got our hands dirty with paints, coloured clay and polymers, picked lichen off of neighbours’ walls, and had countless this-is-the-end type arguments. We created and tore down background after background, stage after stage and remade our models over and over again. Let us not even begin to count the many hours spent brooding over yet another failed attempt. But finally, we had our very first scene. All our hair-tearing and hand-wringing was forgotten when we saw our puppet walking for the very first time – our own mad and tearful “It’s Alive!” moment.

Here is one of the scenes that we later rejected, using the baked puppet and a full clay tree. The sequence comprises of more than a hundred separate photographs, with minute movements between one photo and the next. It is an example of how the tiniest of lapses can lead to the whole scene falling apart. The tree just couldn’t support the moving puppet and began to sag, though that was not apparent while filming. The puppet itself, while much sturdier, had a few problems with its fingers. The tiny baked polymer fingers lacked pliability and the all-important fleshy feel; besides, it didn’t help that they kept slipping off the hair-thin copper wire!

Boy on Tree

And finally, after about eight iterations, here is our latest tree and puppet. This little guy definitely has it in him to be a star! Although they look similar to the previous version, the tree this time is sturdier and is made of wires and papier-mache instead of clay, and the puppet is a combination of modular polymer and soft clay parts, mounted on an aluminium and metal thread armature. The clothes have also been changed subtly to enable smoother movement.AppaDaMani_currentIt was interesting for us to review the unavoidable cock-ups of the first few attempts, they showed us not only where we went wrong, but also that in its rawness and honesty, the imperfect thing is sometimes the most perfect. Now when we look at our unformed first puppet, what we see embodied is our initial urge to tell a story, even if that involved a back-breaking process of learning to work with clay. We both agree that in its unabashed authenticity, our first and most flawed puppet is the best one that we have ever made.