I caught up with director, photographer, writer and animator Mark C. Smith of the heart-warming and surreal animated short Two Balloons for a chat on film, animation, stop-motion, the revelatory power of music, the beautiful interplay of all these things and an occurrence out at sea that influenced his film, and much more.
Smith’s credits include North, Denmark and A House, A Home. He has also spent many years filming winter expeditions in North and South America and co-authored the photography books “Osterlandet” and “The Powder Road”.
Two Balloons tells the story of 2 lemurs (Bernard and Elba) who navigate their dirigibles (air ships) around the world to a place where their reunion is threatened to be disrupted. It is a fun and touching piece that really grabs the viewer with its moments of tension, causing us to root for the anthropomorphized animal leads.
Two Balloons has screened at more than a few Oscar-eligible festivals, including Foyle Film Festival, FLiCKERFEST International Short Film Festival, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival, Anima (Brussels Animation Festival), Cleveland International Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and RiverRun International Film Festival.
I highly recommend checking Two Balloons out, as I am confident we will be seeing more from it in award’s season and more from Mark Smith as a gifted and deft film-maker.
Hello Mark and welcome to The 405! I was wondering if we might be able to start by getting an idea of your history. What got you into film? Also what got you into animation?
Photography lead me into film. I spent a lot of winters photographing ski and climbing expeditions. In 2005 while I was working on a project in Alaska and there was a need to get some film footage. I offered to do the filming and that was the beginning.
With regards to animation. I’ve always been fascinated by stop motion. Originally Two Balloons was intended to be a live action film. When the aircraft hangar we needed to accommodate dirigibles became unavailable we suddenly had a scale problem. I turned to stop motion as a solution and also a way to immerse myself in a medium that has always fascinated me.
That’s interesting how circumstance can force that kind of creativity. Favorite directors and films? I’m curious here about who and which works you would consider most influential on you as artists?
Wong Kar-wai’s work continues to influence me. Every time I watch In the Mood for Love and 2046 I see and feel more for those films. Franz Marc’s paintings mean much to me. Presently I’m reading a lot of John Berger. Rilke’s work is something I always return to. Ellen Von Unwerth, Eggleston and Steichen are photographers I admire.
Thanks for expanding that question to other forms of art too — I don’t ask my interviewees nearly enough about other forms of art. What makes a great film?
Appreciate the brevity and I agree. Getting into Two Balloons, I’m curious first about the spark for the story. What was the main impetus for this very dream-like and heart-warming story?
It was a song. During a long passage on a sailboat I saw a funnel cloud for the first time. It was probably about 400 feet high. As I watched the conical shape of the cloud skip across the waves, I was listening to a song in 3/4 time, the time signature of a waltz. The song was “Piles of Clothes” by the band Weinland.
Music has the ability to transcend intellect and take us to a place of intuition and often that place reveals ideas or inspiration that leads to an idea. I suppose it was a song, the ocean and a daydream that created the idea for Two Balloons.
Very interesting. Kind of off question 4, because it’s one of those things that makes you wonder where someone would get the idea (in a good way), I thought I’d ask, why lemurs for the main characters?
When Two Balloons transitioned from live action to stop motion and are characters became puppets I felt if they were animals it would help suspend disbelief. When we were discussing what our characters should be I remembered a passage from a book titled “The Unquiet Grave” by Cyril Connolly. I had read the book years before and when I re-read the passage the decision was easy:
“In youth the animal world obsessed me; I saw life through creatures which were in a state of grace, creatures without remorse, without duties, without a past or a future, owning nothing but the intense present and their eternal rhythm of hunger, sleep and play. The ring-tailed lemurs with their reverence for the sun, their leaps through the air and their howls of loneliness, were dark immortals of a primitive race…they held the secret of life to me; they were clues to an existence without thought, guilt or ugliness wherein all was grace, appetite and immediate sensation: Impressionist masterpieces which Nature flung upon the canvas of a day.”
Fascinating. What were the challenges like on the film, in both directing and producing? I don’t often interview people on animated projects so I was pretty intrigued about that too.
With regards to directing one of the biggest challenges was translating my imagination into the language of stop motion. Teresa Drilling, our lead animator, and I spent a lot of time studying silent films and footage of lemurs and birds. Our goal was to let Bernard and Elba be anthropomorphic to support the narrative and yet retain the magic Cyril Connolly witnessed when he was young. We were searching for a balance between human attributes and the feral beauty of lemurs.
I’d say that was beautifully achieved.
Time is a challenge with stop motion. A 10 second shot can take a month to complete. However, stop motion can grant you time also. With live action the meter is always running and sometimes you have to move on. It was nice to have the freedom to stop the clock and rehearse our shots over and over until we had a good take. We used live action video for blocking and reference. Teresa and I (and other members of the crew) acted out most of our shots before launching an animated shot. After we had a good take, the live action video would be onion skinned over the animatic and used as reference for the animators.
The challenge with production was creating the world that Bernard and Elba live in. We had to build everything. It was a good challenge because production design is my favorite part of filmmaking.
What do you hope audiences will take away with them from Two Balloons?
I hope they leave with an appreciation for the analog qualities of stop motion that the handmade attributes of the film resonate beyond the end credits.
Last, what is next for you?
One of the reasons I wanted to experience stop motion was to prepare myself for the adaptation of a short story by Dave Eggers. The story I want to adapt means much to me and I hope to get started on it soon.