Stop-Motion with a Human Touch: A Conversation with Anna Mantzaris

Melancholy and offbeat, Anna Mantzaris’s stop-motion animated short Good Intentions tells the tale of a woman involved in a hit-and-run accident that sparks a chain of strange occurrences. Using chubby-cheeked felt puppets that might suggest a more charming, whimsical type of story, Mantzaris creates something unexpected: a dark portrait of human nature in all its complexity. This week, we’re presenting Good Intentions on the Criterion Channel in a pairing with another film about the moral dilemmas surrounding a road accident, Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist. In anticipation of Mantzaris’s debut on the Channel, I spoke with her about how she arrived at her singular aesthetic and tone, and how she stays connected with a project during the lengthy and laborious process of stop-motion animation.

How did you first get interested in animation?

I have always been into drawing and crafty stuff, but it took me some time to understand what you could do, or become, in this field.

I went to art school for two years, which was very fun. It made me realize that I don’t want to become a painter or illustrator, but I still wanted to work in a creative field. So I applied for a BA in animation. I barely knew what that would involve, but something drew me to it. I think I liked the combination of elements: it’s art but also storytelling—and much more.

After that I worked a few years as an animator on series, commercials, and feature films and got to know the industry. But I felt more and more that I wanted to direct and be creative on another level, so I started to turn down all the animation jobs and went back to do a Master’s at the Royal College of Art in London, just to get some time to develop my own work again. Since graduating from there I’ve been able to take only directing jobs, and I also have a studio space where I go and work on personal projects in between my directing commissions. I like to balance commissioned and personal work.

Tell us about your technique. How did you create the puppets, and how long did the entire process take?

I work with stop-motion, which involves creating real puppets and sets, and moving them little by little and taking still pictures. Working on a few personal projects with small budgets has shaped my style—in a good way! I often work with felt and wool for my puppets; I love the softness and sympathetic nature of those materials, and they allow me to render the characters in a simple style, without feeling harsh or stiff. Most of the time I make the core of the puppets in aluminum wire and balsa wood, and I make the eyes out of small beads. 

The project is often divided into four parts: preproduction, construction, animation, and postproduction. For each second of the film we need twenty-four or twenty-five still images, so for a normal day you are lucky if you get five seconds. That’s 125 photos!

Unlike in live action, the edit mostly happens in preproduction. Because of the time it takes, you can’t shoot extra footage here and there and play around with it. You need to plan it in a very detailed way and know the exact length of each shot before you start. How long a project takes depends on the crew and budget, but a one-minute piece can take four to six months, from beginning to the end. A short film is normally around a year of production.

I really like working in this style. It has more or less become my core style, but I also think that it keeps evolving and changing all the time.

What was the inspiration behind this strange, sad, guilt-ridden story?

I had just made a very funny film called Enough, so I was curious to try something darker and more ambiguous, more thriller-like and surreal. I had seen a lot of good thrillers that year. And I wanted to find different ways of doing ghost stories. Do you need to be dead to be a ghost, or is it possible that you are now a ghost of who you used to be? I also liked the idea of things ending up bad even when the main character has good intentions. And exploring the ways in which the feeling of guilt can consume you.

The story was originally longer and more complex. My boyfriend and I wrote it together, and the time was limited, so we ended up cutting out quite a lot, and the things that had to go were the funnier parts. So it actually ended up being darker than I had intended!

I really enjoy searching for what is human. And for me, that always involves imperfection and a mix of emotions. We never feel only one feeling at a time. Humor is better if there is some small element of melancholy, and melancholy is better if there is a small element of humor in it, even if it’s very, very subtle.

I love all the tracking and aerial shots. Can you tell us about working with the cinematographer?

Tracking shots in stop-motion make a big difference; they can give a sense of depth and atmosphere. But they’re also very time-consuming, so I can’t do too many!

It was very important to have the opening be a tracking shot that just follows the car for a bit until the crash happens. Because of spatial and budgetary reasons, we couldn’t do a full-scale track; that would have meant building a huge set and having huge camera sliders. Instead we built a miniature version, where the car was only about three centimeters, and that enabled us to do the shot.

I work with a cinematographer named Donna Wade. We have made a few projects together. It’s great when you find people to work with who get your style and what you want to do but are also creative themselves and have suggestions and ideas that you have not thought about.

How do you stay connected to your original idea during the painstaking and lengthy animation process?

That is something I’m always working on. If you don’t stay connected to the original idea, or if you stop caring halfway through because it’s taking a long time, then there is not really any point in doing it at all. So you have to.

But once the puppet is being made, or a new scene is animated, it’s fun and satisfying! And you remember again why you wanted to make the project. Even though it’s very demanding, you get fed those satisfying bits throughout the entire process, which keeps you motivated and inspired.

I also try to stay open to smaller ideas throughout—just details that you haven’t planned. Once you start to build something or set up a scene, you see things that can be funny and that will add something extra.

I read that you worked on Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. What was that experience like, and how has it helped you in your career?

I was a student when Fantastic Mr. Fox came out, and I was so impressed by it! It was very cool to be a part of his next stop-motion film. The crew was big and everyone was very talented.

I had just come out of making a personal film, almost alone, for one year. On that project I had practically been a one-woman band, filling all of the roles. Going into a production with over 100 people and just having a small role was like experiencing the other extreme!

I met a lot of people from the industry whom I became friends and coworkers with, and I ended up hiring them for my work after that, including for Good Intentions.

Which filmmakers do you consider to be major influences?

I love the humor and atmosphere in many of Roy Andersson’s films. He manages to create something that’s funny and tragic at the same time. He shows us how silly we are as humans, but in a compassionate way. Another filmmaker I love is Taika Waititi; I just think his sense of humor is amazing. There is a warmth in his films that I really like. He also creates very imperfect and awkward characters, which I’m a big fan of.

I also love David Lynch. And the work of Andrea Arnold. I love the realness of it and that it has a great balance of darkness and heart. 

Also, Ulrich Seidl, who captures the flaws of humanity in a fantastic way. And I love the style and tone of the animation filmmaking duo Marc and Emma; their work always has an amazing feeling and look.

You’ve made a number of very successful animated shorts. Will you continue working in this form, or are you planning to make a feature? Would you ever work in live action?

I’m not sure about live action. Stop-motion is the language I use; it’s my voice and I think in it, so for self-initiated projects, that will always be my preference. But if I get an offer or opportunity to try to direct something in live action, I would be up for trying it out.

I love making shorts, and I’m sure I will make more of them. But yes, I would love to make either a series of them or a feature! Those are definitely on my list of things I want to do next.