Interview: Anna Mantzaris

Interview: Anna Mantzaris

11 | 10

Anna Mantzaris: I am drawn to things which are imperfect and human

Swedish director Anna Mantzaris, whose student films Enough and Good Intentions were awarded twice at Anifilm in the previous years, returns to the festival as a juror of short and student films. She uses stop-motion animation to make her films, which are characterised by subtle humour and melancholy. You can read about how she empathises with her characters and about her experience with both small animation projects and high-budget animated films in an excerpt from her interview with Natalia Něudačina. 

When did you first realize that animation is something that speaks to you?  

I was never into it as a kid, unlike many other people that I studied with. I was always rather into drawing and crafting things, making small books etc. Only when I went to Art Foundation course after high school I knew I wanted to do something with art, but I didn’t want to become a solo artist, who spends a lot of time in the studio and paints. So that was the time I realized that animation was something that intrigued me and that’s why I went to study for a BA in animation and I really liked it. I found animation very versatile and artistic. You make images but you can also create a story in so many formats. Sometimes you can be more useful and deliver some important information and other times you can focus on sound and movement. What I like about it is that it has so many aspects that you have to master, which makes it fun and it doesn’t get boring. 

You use stop-motion animation in most of your films, was it your favourite technique from the very beginning? Have you ever thought of switching from stop-motion to something else? 

When I started I actually thought I would be rather doing 2D animation, because I used to sketch a lot and I even specialized in 2D character animation. I did not consider stop-motion until I attended a workshop dedicated to it. I remember thinking: “This is so much more fun and I want to do this instead!”. I just really enjoyed working with my hands and building real objects. So far it’s been the medium that I always think of when I come up with my ideas - it’s the language that I use, so I don’t think I would switch to a different technique with my personal project, but if I got a commission which would really fit into a different style, I would still be happy to direct it.

You often deal with topics such as social anxiety, guilt, repressing one’s emotions… But you always explore them with subtle humour and melancholy. Are these themes something that that you personally deeply relate to or is just something that you often observe and find it fascinating? 

I think my approach is more observational. I just try to show things that I find interesting and I am drawn to things which are imperfect and human. I have never been so much into superheroes because of how perfect they usually are. I like focusing on people that have a lot of flaws, that are doing wrong things or are a bit insecure, because I feel like we all can relate to that. We often feel wrong when we experience these feelings and I think it’s really fun to show that. That’s why I use warm humour to show that we all have our flaws and how hard we try to cover them up. 

As you mentioned yourself, your characters are often awkward, imperfect, but they are also tender and vulnerable, which is something that people find relatable. As a director, you show them struggling with their honesty and you are very understanding or rather empathetic, you don’t place any moral judgement on them. Do you think that honesty and empathy is something that the current society lacks? 

Yes, of course, who wouldn’t want more honesty and empathy in their lives? But it’s not my primary intention to show this lack of empathy. The reason why I personally empathize with my characters is because I create them with flaws, so they are just like everybody else, like me or you...

Do you enjoy watching films that deal with these topics also as a spectator? I have read that you like the works of Roy Andersson and Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels, which seem to have influenced your work (both visually and thematically). Are there any specific animated or life-action films that you find inspiring which deal with similar themes that you could recommend to the fans of your own work? 

Yes, I do like watching things that are a little bit similar to my own work, things that are sad and funny at the same time. I think it’s not too common to see characters like that without making fun of them or slipping to parody. Apart from the directors you mentioned I like films made by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, such as Dog Days, Animal Love or Paradise: Love. I usually take inspiration from a lot of different things. I love films by Taika Waititi, like What We Do In The Shadows or Hunt for The Wilderpeople. I recently saw She Dies Tomorrowby Amy Seimetz, which I loved, or I would also recommend Involuntary by Ruben Östlund

An international success of Enough was enormous. Did you think that the film would do so .well? 

I was hoping that it would do well and that it would be really relatable, cathartic and enjoyable, but of course I did not expect that it would be so successful and would be spread so widely across the Internet. It was my first film made at Royal College of Art, so my expectations were actually quite the opposite. I thought that it would be a film that people would care less about and so I allowed myself to  experiment a bit, to get slightly weird and to try to be less classic and see if it works… Maybe that was the reason why it went so well, because I wasn’t as pressured and didn’t have that many eyes on me, so I could play around a lot more. 

So did you feel pressured when developing Good intentions then? Or was it the other way around and you rather felt confident after the success of Enough?  

I don’t think I felt really that different, but I always feel a bit pressured when working on my projects, because I know that people will compare it to my previous work. That’s why even when I work with a certain style or theme I always try to make my projects a little bit different from each other, so that they don’t exactly follow the footsteps of one another. Of course you become nervous when you’ve made something that people really liked and you come up with something new, but I try not to think about it that much, because I don’t find it very effective - I think you should stick with what you want to do instead of worrying about people's reaction to it.

How different was the filmmaking process with Good Intentions in comparison to Enough, where you did almost everything by yourself?  

With Enough I had a bit of help from my boyfriend, I worked with one cinematographer and one animator, who helped me to animate a few scenes, but otherwise I did everything by myself. On Good Intentions I collaborated with the same cinematographer, but then I also worked with a few model makers and we had more animators involved. But Good Intentions was quite an ambitious project, the original script was much longer and even though I already had a slightly bigger crew, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to finish the film by the given deadline. I had to edit down a lot of scenes from the film and I actually ended up working on it the same amount as on Enough. 

You work with materials such as wire skeleton, mattress foam, felt and wool when making the puppets, which makes them look softer, gentler, sometimes more fragile than their surroundings. How difficult is it to animate puppets made of such fabric? I am asking because their movements and facial expressions seem very smooth and natural.  

The good thing about my puppets is that they are quite simple and stylized, so it’s not as hard to work with them as with realistic puppets, where you can easily mess up their movements and the final result feels creepy or strange. So the simplicity works to my benefit - it also allows me to simplify the animation, but it could still read as human. It’s rather fiddly than difficult to work with my puppets, because they’re not very big. I don’t really animate their faces that much, mostly just the eyebrows, but their hair and body language makes them seem natural too, I guess.

Do you also work with real actors in order to get all of the movement details right? 

Usually I am the model actor, haha. I use some photo booth app on my computer, I act some movements out a few times and then just film myself or, if I work with an animator, then we capture each other’s movements. Then I look at the footage, I may film it again with some changes and then I use that as a reference.

You were involved in Wes Anderson’s film The Isle of Dogs. How different was working your own short film projects in comparison to a large production like this?

It was the exact opposite. I went from doing Enough, when I spent crazy hours in my studio in a basement with no sunlight, just being alone with my puppet, to working with 80 or 100 hundred people on set of The Isle of Dogs. When I was working on Enough, I had to be on top of so many things - I had to think about how the set should look, how to put this up, how to glue this and animate that, whereas on a production like this you have twenty different professions and each is in charge of something else. It was a great break for me after Enough - just to be there. Also I met a lot of amazing, talented people there that I’m now friends with, and I truly loved the style of the film, so the whole experience was very refreshing. On the other hand, when you work on a film like The Isle of Dogs you always have to ask for permission when you do something, so you are in a completely different position. But I liked the contrast, I enjoyed absorbing the atmosphere, seeing how all of the puppets were made and gaining lots of new knowledge. 

Would you be interested in collaborating on a similar project like The Isle of Dogs ever again? 

I’m not sure, I have previously worked on a feature film in Norway and I enjoyed it too, but I feel like I have always wanted to direct and be in a more creative role, which I think I recently managed to achieve somehow. I can make a living making short films and commissions at the moment, which suits me fine. However, if I could be a part of an amazing project made by a director I really admire, I probably wouldn’t say no. At the moment though I think I am at the stage when I can do what I like and do my own work, so I would prefer to focus on that.

And are you currently working on a new project (either with Passion Animation or your own)? If so, can you reveal anything at all about it?  

Yes, I am doing a pre-production of another short film of mine, the first one outside of school. I am also trying to find some funding for the production. We are going to try and make it a co-production between the UK and Sweden, because I come from Sweden originally. I am currently working on animatics, storyboard and design for the film. It takes quite a lot of time, but it’s fun and I all can say is that it’s about love and connection, haha.

Would you also like to make your own feature film in a foreseeable future?

Yes, I would love to! I actually have an idea of what it could be about. But at the moment it’s too early to talk about any details.

This year’s edition of Anifilm is dedicated to sound and music in animation. How important is the sound for your animated films? How much time do you dedicate to perfecting the soundtrack? 

It is very important for me, I think that sound and music makes at least half of the film. I invest a lot of attention and energy into both, but I am not sure about how much time it usually takes - it varies. I work closely with the sound designer and we always go through a couple of rounds when he sends me a sound record, I listen to it, I give him some feedback and we discuss what to do next. With music it depends - sometimes we find the right music with the composer quite quickly and other times we try a lot of different things, so it takes longer. 

You have been collaborating with composer Phil Brooks on all your films. How did you two meet and what made you realize that he was the right composer for your work?  

My friend Erik Grønmo Bjørnsen, with whom I made But Milk Is Important, met Phil when he was on an exchange in Cardiff. At the time I was on the exchange in Denmark and after we both came back we started working on our film together and Erik asked Phil to make music for it, so that’s how we met. We were so happy with the collaboration, so I wanted to work with him on Enough too. I think his music is amazing, he has a lot of sensitivity and understanding. The communication between us is great, he understands my films very well and he comes up with his own ideas, but he’s also happy to take direction. When I ask for something, he knows what I mean and he tries to implement it in a good way.