“In Italian playgrounds a song is sung that dates back to World War I. This paint on glass animation tells the dark tale of a soldier who returns home from war to find his girlfriend has left him.”
Tess Martin is a film-maker whose work ‘The Whale Story’ we featured last summer. We are thrilled to have not only an online exclusive of Tess’s new film ‘Mario’ which premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival on 24th May, but also an interview with the film-maker herself.
Alys Scott Hawkins: So, Tess, tell us about your new film…
Tess Martin: My new short is called ‘Mario’, and it’s based on an Italian children’s song which translates as ‘Everybody Calls Me Mario’. As far as I can tell, it’s a song that started out as a folk song in either in WWI or WWII. People don’t really know how far back it stretches. It references war and a specific battle, but there are several different versions of the song with different lyrics so the origins are kind of mysterious, but it comes from the northern part of Italy, either near Torino or near Venice. It kind of mutated into a song that children sing in elementary schools, and when they sing it they also play a hand clapping game.
That song and that game is something that I played because I grew up in Florence. We were living in Italy because of my dad’s job and I was at an Italian elementary school, and this was one of those playground games, but I remember even at the time thinking that this is kind of a weird song for kids to be singing, because it is quite dark. Kids relish dark things, I think, which is probably why it was popular. For whatever reason it stuck with me, and I always remembered it even after years had passed. At a certain point I started doing research into the song, to see if I could find anyone else who remembered singing the song, and where it came from.
Then I got a grant from 4Culture, an arts organisation in Seattle, so that’s when everything really started. The research I tried every which way, and there’s not a lot of information out there about this song. But it definitely exists – it wasn’t a figment of my imagination! There is one recording of some people in a village, that an ethnomusicologist recorded in 1960, and this is held in an archive in Rome, but it’s not accessible unless you go there in person. There is also a version on YouTube, but it actually has quite a different tune from the melody that I remember. But you can find people on the internet talking about the song and discussing the different lyrics they remember from their childhoods. Clearly its one of those things that’s mutated so much that there are now different lyrics, and different melodies, and no-one really knows where it came from.
It’s a really haunting story of a soldier who becomes enraged with jealousy at his ex-girlfriend. It has a lot of connotations, like was he just a jealous person, or did it have to do with the fact that he’s been at war? And the girl is clearly the subject of his obsession but we never hear her side of the story. It’s just from his point of view, so she remains a mysterious figure. We don’t really know did she actually do something wrong to him or is he just really over-protective?
And at the end there’s this last stanza where he addresses his mother [laughs] which is just such an Italian element to it! And he asks for forgiveness from his mother for having committed this crime. I don’t remember that stanza, that wasn’t in my version, but I found it in most of the other versions and I decided to include it because it seemed like an appropriate conclusion that he ends up repenting in some manner.
I had been working with some techniques that were modified base techniques, mostly marker-on-glass and ink-on-glass, but I hadn’t tried proper paint-on-glass before. There was something about the old fashioned tone of the song that made me feel that paint-on-glass would be appropriate. I worked on it over about six months, and I found the technique quite challenging and so I had to do a lot of experimentation, and in the end I combined it with marker-on-glass technique, so you’ll see some scenes that have both a paint fill, but also a clear marker drawing outline of the characters.
I ended up finishing the film here in the Netherlands, just because I moved here in between [to begin a Masters course in Animation at St. Joost, Breda], and I finally got it finished a few months ago because I’ve been juggling my course and the film.
ASH: Could you tell us anything more about the production process?
TM: Well, the first stop was doing the storyboard and testing the paint technique, but at the same time I spent a lot of time on the audio, because I knew that was going to be a very important part of the film. So I started scouring Seattle for Italian speaking children, and I finally found a few and taught them the song and recorded them. It was super fun, but I realised I needed a strong voice to be the main voice, because it was such a singular point of view, from his perspective and I felt that one strong singer would be really appropriate.
And then I moved to the Netherlands. Luckily I have an Italian friend here, and I was at his house in Torino for new year and his mother agreed to sing for me. I had sung the song as the temp track, to get the rhythm down and start storyboarding and planning the animation. But I am not a talented singer, so I was really looking forward to being able to switch out my temp track for an actual singer. I had Anna listen to my version on headphones as she was singing, so that she could know exactly what the tune was and the tempo. It was pretty easy! We just did four takes, and the fourth one is the one you hear, and then I added in the kids’ voices where I felt it would be good. And then I worked with a very talented composer who I’ve worked with before in Seattle, called Jason Staczek and he took the audio recordings and cleaned them up and added his own really simple score, because he said this thing was so powerful that it didn’t need a lot of elaborate instruments. That was a really important part of the process. I feel like the film didn’t really come together until I got that singing on tape.
ASH: Can you talk us through the rest of the process?
TM: The whole process was me singing the song to myself on the temp track, just to get it down in an MP3, just to figure out how long the different sections were. Then I make really basic storyboards: brainstorming, just figuring out images that might be appropriate for that part of the story. I had to figure out how to visualise the different elements. How could one moment transition into the next and how could I make it a cohesive story? I hit upon the metaphor of the birds because one of the lyrics is ‘I had a girlfriend, she left me like a swallow in the spring’. That’s right at the beginning of the song, so we see the girl but then she turns into a bird and flies away but then the bird comes back in various forms throughout the song. Once I hit upon that it was a good thing to hang the rest of the visuals on to.
After the storyboard then I started testing with the paint, asking ‘what can the paint do? Is the paint better for detailed close ups or rough smudgy imprecise drawings?’ You also see a lot of texture, so there are a couple of scenes where the paint fills the screen or the paint is being erased, and that’s just fun to do. Then I started animating and I completed about half of it before I moved to the Netherlands, but I didn’t have my same multi-plane stand here, so I had to figure out how to deal with that.
At first I was a little bit worried about it, but I liked the layering of the paint and marker together, and I had just recently, finally, properly learned how to use After Effects, so then I realised I could just composite the two together. The scenes where that appears towards the end were animated twice, once in paint and once in marker, so instead of doing them both at the same time on a multi-plane I animated them by themselves and composited them together.
I definitely used post-production more on this film than I have in the past. Most of my previous films were pretty straightforward frame-by-frame techniques. There’s really not much post-production needed – it’s just ‘straight ahead’ animation. For this one, because I was trying to solve various problems, it was actually really fun, it was liberating. There were a lot more possibilities, I found, if I opened myself up to this filter or that layering technique, for example.
ASH: It sounds like you’ve learnt a lot in the making of this film?
TM: I always like it when it turns out that way otherwise it’s boring! It’s true that whenever I start a film I do think about new ways to animate that I haven’t tried before; and I know some people disagree with that approach because it means you’re learning on the job. But I love it because to me that’s the most fun and exciting part about animation: figuring out how to do something and what can this technique do and that another technique can’t, and how to take advantage of that. And those are the types of animations that I most enjoy watching – the ones that really are exploring and stretching what animation can do. It’s true that it is a gamble, if you happen to suck at that particular technique, then it’s a challenge to make it work.
ASH: At the storyboard stage everything is potential, but sometimes the production stage can be like just carrying out a set of instructions if there’s nothing new to discover along the way.
TM: That’s an excellent point, and I know that a lot of people don’t have that flexibility, like maybe you’ve got funders or producers breathing down your neck, who are worried about your creative choices, or you’re working with other people and you need to make all those decisions earlier so that they need to know what’s going to happen. And, to be honest, part of the reason why I’ve never worked that way is that I don’t like being tied down so much. I’ve always been super-open to collaboration and I’ve always collaborated with sound designers and musicians and post-production people to a certain extent, but in terms of true collaboration with a capital C, that hasn’t really happened for me yet. Partly you need to meet the right people but also for that reason: I really like being able to change my mind when I want to!
ASH: So how much did the funding you got for this film tie you down to what you’d proposed? To what degree did you have to specify what the film would be like?
TM: I was quite lucky that while I was living in Seattle, I was just applying for artist’s grants, which painters and sculptors and poets are applying for, and these are very open. You have to show a sample of your previous work, and you have to describe the film that you want to make, but then after that they pretty much leave you alone, you just have to finish it. That’s something that I have come to realise, since moving back to Europe, that is quite special. Here in the Netherlands there are the film funds, but it’s more like a live-action granting organisation where you have to have a producer, and a budget, and prove that you’re going to be employing so many local film-makers and contributing to the local economy and so on. And I’d love to get a Dutch film funds grant, so I’m happy to learn how to do it that way, but there’s definitely a little more planning involved.
ASH: It’s really interesting to hear this behind-the-scenes part of the process which is not usually visible. Funding and the limitations it imposes always make an impact on the work produced. It sounds as though the loose nature of the funding allowed you to develop the film in a fluid and flexible way?
TM: I think I didn’t know how lucky I was! Of course there might be downsides to it as well. If you were to try to fund a film the more traditional way, and have a producer who is applying for grants and perhaps a co-producer from another country, and then you can apply for their country’s grants; it all takes forever and a lot of people are involved. I find the main advantage of that system is not actually the funding but the distribution part of it. With all the funding advantages also come the distribution advantages, so you will actually have someone who will try to get your film seen, and try sell it to the various TV markets and actually submit to the correct festivals in the correct order. And that of course doesn’t come with the loosey-goosey art grants. They just give you a pot of money and then you’re on your own! Unless you’re really smart and you use that money to hire in a producer to do that for you…
It would of course be great to have the best of both worlds, but there is no magic solution. Each route has pluses and minuses, and you have to figure out what’s best for you. I’d still love to work with a producer properly, but once I do that, perhaps I’ll find out that that experience wasn’t as amazing as I expected!
ASH: I know a lot of film-makers – myself included – who dream of finding that Holy Grail of a producer, the person who understands and champions your work, finds the funding, can identify where you work will be well-received and so on…
TM: It’s a nice dream to keep an eye out for that person. Something that I admire about live action film makers is that they’re generally bumping into those sorts of people more, because their structure is already set up for that; that they are more used to finding producers and trying out different relationships. Doing what I do, I don’t really need a producer, so it makes it more something that you have figure out, and then find people who are actually interested in this brand of weird independent animated shorts which aren’t going to make any money! I do sometimes envy live action film-makers because I feel like they have more of a support network around them.
ASH: Do you describe your films as animated documentaries?
TM: I don’t think I’ve ever called them that. If someone asks I say they’re documentary-style films, because that makes it a little clearer to people what I mean. So for example, ‘They Look Right Through You’ which is a film about people and their pets; I went and interviewed people, and I used the interviews as a basis for the audio, and in that respect it’s quite documentary – it’s real people with real pets. But it’s very much a philosophical meditation on the topic. It’s still quite non-narrative, not like I’m following one person and their relationship with their pet.
Most of my work is I would say is more ‘documentary in style’. Not because I don’t want to be considered in that category – I am honoured if people think they are animated documentaries – but because I don’t want people to expect an actual documentary! I’m not a journalist, I don’t have the same ethical constraints that a ‘proper documentarian’ might have to deal with.
ASH: So can you tell us what’s next? What lies ahead for you?
TM: I’m finishing up my masters degree, and my graduation film is using a cut-out technique. I’d call them photo cut-outs, so it’s using real actors but cut out of paper. It’s based on a medical case of a man who had a neurological disorder which meant he couldn’t form new memories, and had also lost 30 years of his memory, so he thought he was 19 years old when really he was 45. Every few minutes he would reset and say “Where am I? Who are you?”. It’s a film exploring what it must be like to live in that way and how it affects the people around him. It’s based on a true story, but at the same time I’m taking some creative liberties with it and using actors and animation, so it’s definitely not a ‘proper documentary’, but I hope that it retains that ‘true’ feel to it. And then I’ll probably end up hanging around Netherlands or Europe for at least another year after I graduate, just because I can with my visa. After that, we’ll see!
ASH: Is Seattle the place you call home?
TM: I think it is now but I only moved there about six years ago. Seattle is great, it’s a beautiful place and there’s a community of independent animators there. In fact I have been touring with a programme of their films while I’ve been here [in Europe]. I’ve showed films in Brussels last weekend, and before that Amsterdam and Budapest, and Prague and Vienna. It’s been really great to show people what is being made in Seattle. But home is such a tricky question for someone who grew up living around the world. I love Europe and being so close to everything. That is the struggle when you’re living in the north-west of the States. Everything is so far away and so expensive. Trying to make films anywhere is a challenge, and learning how to make films in different countries and systems and communities and funding bodies and criteria is definitely a learning experience!