Q&A: Director / Writer Mark C. Smith on his animated short ‘Two Balloons’

By Josh Morris

Two Balloons is a stop-motion animated short film that follows two dirigible-sailing lemurs on an adventure amongst the clouds. Director/Writer Mark C. Smith answered some questions about his exciting film.

Informer Media Group: How did you come up with the idea?

Mark C. Smith: An ocean and a song created the idea for Two Balloons. During a long passage on a sailboat, I experienced a weather event I had never seen before. A funnel cloud formed a few miles ahead of the course line I was on. It was the kind of beauty that is simultaneously daunting and calming. As I watched the cloud’s conical shape skip across the water I was listening to a Weinland song called Piles of Clothes. The music and undulating waves lulled me into a daydream and that’s when the idea for Two Balloons happened.

Informer Media Group: There’s such a beautiful romance between the two lemurs. I’m taken with the reference of animation (the rose) as an expression of love/courtship. What inspired you to make an animated film?

Mark C. Smith: The inspiration for the film came from music and the environment. The animation element happened out of necessity. Originally Two Balloons was supposed to be a live action film (with human actors, not lemurs). When the aircraft hangar we needed to accommodate the dirigibles became unavailable we suddenly had a scale problem. I turned to animation as a solution and also as a challenge. I’ve always been drawn to stop motion but I’ve been intimidated by it too. Stop motion is a wonderful medium to tell a story but it’s not as accessible as live action.

Informer Media Group: Why was stop-motion animation specifically the preferred way to bring your vision to life?

Mark C. Smith: Portland, Oregon is dotted with animation studios. They connect like a family tree and lead to Will Vinton, who brought stop-motion to the city in the 1970s.  The animation community in Portland influenced my decision to embrace stop motion. Key members of our crew used to be on the roster at Vinton Studios. I don’t think I could have produced Two Balloons in another city. If I did it would be a different film.

Informer Media Group: What’s your favorite stop-motion film?

Mark C. Smith: It’s difficult to pick only one. I like the short form so that’s where my favorites are. My deserted island 10 would be: Papageno, Lotte Reiniger; Food, Jan Svankmajer; The Burden, Niki Lindroth von Bahr; Western Spaghetti, PES & Javan Ivey; Inspiration, Karel Zeman; My Strange Grandfather, Dina Velikovskaya; Ferda in the Anthill, Hermína Týrlová; Strings, Wendy Tilby; Bottle, Kristen Lepore; Tale of Tales, Yuri Norstein.

Informer Media Group: I’ll have to check those out! A few things really struck me about Two Balloons. The first is the music. It so perfectly expresses what’s being seen on screen. It’s a narrator in itself. Can you tell me about the score/composer?

Mark C. Smith: The score was inspired by a song titled More of a Composition by Peter Broderick. I listened to the track a lot during pre-production and contacted Peter to ask if he’d be interested in composing the score. When he said yes, More of a Composition became the pulse of our animatic (storyboards placed in a motion picture timeline). We used the 3/4 time signature of Peter’s song as a metronome while animating.  Our lead animator and I worked out the beats per minute of Peter’s song and placed three beats per measure into the timeline to accompany our reference footage (we acted out our shots and filmed the rehearsals).

The audio of the reference footage was literally a metronome- Da-da-da, Da-da-da. Each beat equaled 12 frames. When the reference footage and click track was brought into Dragonframe (stop motion software) it gave our Lead Animator/Animation Director, Teresa Drilling, a musical cue to work with.

Teresa is an accomplished animator but she also comes from a dance background. She connected with Peter’s music and that connection is expressed in her animation. In some ways, her fingertips danced with Bernard and Elba for 2 1/2 years. After the picture was locked and Peter sat down to compose the score, I feel there was a tacit harmony between his music and the animation because they were already entwined.

Informer Media Group: The next thing that stood out is your production design. As I’ve watched the film, my mind goes to “atlas rural” and “log cabin sailboat” as descriptors of what you’ve created. Can you tell me what you might refer to it as? And what you’re trying to convey?

Mark C. Smith: We actually had a reference image of a log raft with a canvas tent that sheltered a wood stove. You see it as we saw it.

I’ve always been enamored by the nautical and aviation aesthetic of the 1920s-1930s, the Art Deco period of planes and sailboats.  I wanted the production design to support the daydream emotion I felt when the idea for Two Balloons happened. The 1920s-1930s was my go to because photographs from that era make me dream, make me want to step through time. I collected thousands of photographs from the ’20s and ’30s (the ’40s and 50s too because they hold what came before). Details from the stills began to connect to each other and slowly the sets took shape, revealed themselves.

We worked at designing the ships to reflect the personalities of our characters, Bernard and Elba. The roughly hewn attributes of the hulls were there from the first concept drawings. We wanted to suggest that Bernard and Elba built their ships- to further the idea that their ships are an extension of their personalities. Two Balloons has no dialogue so we leaned on production design to help shape the narrative.

Informer Media Group: Can you tell me more about this world you’ve created? Things the audience may not be able to learn from the film itself? (I don’t want to minimize the imagination of the audience, but my reaction to this film has been a desire to visit this world again or learn more about it; I doubt that I’m alone in that.)

Mark C. Smith: The maps Bernard and Elba use to navigate do not list the names of oceans or islands; however, the charts are real. Bernard and Elba meet above the North Sea, near the Shetland and Faroe Islands. Their world is fantasy but it is inspired, in part, by summer in Iceland and Scandinavia.  The summer winds of those regions somehow gather light, and the color of the horizon is without end. Everything behind is darkness and everything ahead is a beacon urging you further north. Maybe it is the light and the shifting colors that make explorers want to reach the poles.

Our Art Director, Kathleen Chamberlin and I focused on color as a way to express the moods of high latitudes. That process informed other aspects of production design. There is a difference between communicating a narrative and a lyrical sensation. The distinction is necessary to shape a story that originates from a daydream. Dreams are interesting to the dreamer but not so much to the friend you tell them to and that’s because dreams are often too abstract. Experimenting with color helped clarify the intent of the story. The way we approached color and the conversations it created sifted the abstract out of the narrative.

Our hulls were made of MDF and high-density foam, machined, sanded by hand and primed white. It was the same with the majority of our props, everything began bare. It was a great opportunity because it gave us the chance to connect our exteriors and interiors. For us color became a form of dialogue.

Informer Media Group: By the way, why lemurs?

I wanted to have characters that would help suspend disbelief. As we were making a list of character options I remembered a passage I had read years before. It’s from a book titled The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Veron Connolly. When I re-read the passage the decision to have our characters be lemurs was easy.  This is the passage:

“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.”

Informer Media Group: I am fond of the bird in your film … is it a seagull?

Mark C. Smith: Stormy started as a snow petrel and evolved into a unique seafaring species, part snow petrel, and part seagull.

Informer Media Group: The bird reminded me of a sort-of re-imagining of the symbolic white dove which was both the representation of Aphrodite (goddess of love) and the messenger to Noah that the storm was over…. Am I over-thinking that?

Mark C. Smith: The beautiful part of the film is that it’s open to interpretation. All of us have a broad range of life experiences that shape our perception. We discussed symbolism in different parts of the film but we approached the bird character (Stormy) in a direct way, as though he had a canine personality. Stormy was intended to be a friend to Elba and Bernard and a means to communicate between their ships.

Informer Media Group: Any plans to explore this world further?

Mark C. Smith: Not in the short-term. There is another project that I want to focus on.

Informer Media Group: What’s next for you?

Mark C. Smith: I’ve been working at adapting a short story by a writer named Dave Eggers. I’ve always seen the story as an animated film. I’m looking forward to getting started.

Informer Media Group: Where can people learn more about you / your projects?

Mark C. Smith: On the Official Website, on Instagram:@twoballoonsfilm, and on My Vimeo page

 

 

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