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Immersed in Movies: Signe Baumane Talks ‘Rocks in My Pockets’

Immersed in Movies: Signe Baumane Talks 'Rocks in My Pockets'

Getting animated about depression is the subject of Signe Baumane’s acclaimed indie, Rocks in My Pockets, which has qualified for Oscar consideration and was Latvia’s submission for best foreign language film. Employing a beautifully textured combination of papier-mâché stop-motion and classic hand-drawn animation (with inspiration from Jan Svankmajer and Bill Plympton), Latvian-born Baumane has produced a poignant and twisted tale of mystery, mental health, redemption, and survival. 

Bill Desowitz: Where did the idea of “a crazy quest for sanity” come from? 
Signe Baumane: Rocks In My Pockets is a personal film, it depicts the history of my family, with the bits of history of Latvia. It is nearly impossible to tell 100 years of a family’s history without giving a historical context. But I didn’t start out thinking I’d make a film about my family and its secrets. Initially I thought I’d make a film about my thought process, I’d go inside my head and laugh at the weird, absurd thoughts that I have, like, how I would or would not kill myself. When you think of it, there are so many ways to kill oneself, but since one can only do it once or twice, one has to be very selective. And it has to be right for you personally.  For example, I would never jump under a subway car because that would delay all the people behind me. How inconsiderate! I wrote five pages of a kind of a dark comedy but it was not quite the material that could make a feature film, so I thought I’d write a few more pages about where those thoughts come from — that I’d just write a little bit about my family’s rich history of mental breakdowns. Once I started to write about my family, I couldn’t stop and after 36 pages of that all the other material had to go.
BD: It’s so free-flowing yet it has to be structured so you don’t go off the rails, right?
SB: It is actually a highly structured material: it’s just not organized by the standard screenwriting formula. When I was preparing to write a feature film, I looked through those books that everyone recommends for screenwriting, and thought that this screenwriting formula (which is effective, no doubt!) has been overused and it makes all films look, smell, feel the same. Even when watching independently produced films I recognize: Oh, this is page 3! Oh, and now we are on page 12! There can be no formula in arts (I define art as a work created by a human that has a unique point of view and discovers something that was not there before). Formulas are for factory mass productions. There are no discoveries in already discovered formulas. By using formula in filmmaking we are admitting that film is not art. And I disagree with that. (I guess for major film industry players a film is a money making devise, so using formulas assures them that their investment will have returns. A lot of big studio films are created by formulas and committees, stripping away any individuality or personality from the work so that they could appeal to most everyone on there planet but to no one in particular.)
Regarding Rocks In My Pockets’ screenplay, my concern was to have the film’s audience engaged from the moment the film starts till the very end. I decided to write the Rocks In My Pockets script the way I did my Teat Beat of Sex episodes, as if I was telling the stories to a trusted friend. Once an audience feels that you trust them like you trust a friend, they do become your friends. Or so I thought (it’s complicated  –the film has had a polarizing effect on people).
Since it was important to me that the film connects with an audience, we did four audience tests: one after recording the voice-over, two after all the animation was done but before the film was entirely colored, and the fourth after the final edit. The film’s structure is very simple: sequential stories of five women in my family, all told from my point of view — the narrator trying to find answers while uncovering 100 years of familial secrets.

BD: So you began with rehearsals with theater director Sturgis Warner. How did that go?
SB: I am not an actress, the thought of having to read 36 page material in front of an audience was quite intimidating. Also, since at that time we had almost no money, we had to be very efficient with the time we spend in the recording studio (renting a recording studio can be $50 – $150 per hour). So I asked Sturgis to help me to prepare. Sturgis started with me just reading the text and pondering over each paragraph, making the material visceral. As I got more comfortable with words I was able to focus on the deeper meaning of the text and characterizations. Slowly, the character of the narrator started to emerge (and her manic, urgent need to tell this story). Sturgis helped me to discover the other characters as well. There are no short-cuts for going from an animator to an actor (or at least to trying to be an actor). Even if you have a gift, it’s nearly impossible to become a good actor in just a few weeks of training.
We rehearsed for seven weeks, five hours a day. And each day I did the best I could. It was nerve wracking  and full of self-doubt — there were three times when I broke down and nearly gave up. But Sturgis kept his calm (he has seen it all in theater) and I felt the story was too important to give it up, so we continued on. At the end of the rehearsal period we had a reading for 30 people to see if the material works. Based on their feedback I made cuts, adjustments, and changes to the script.
BD: Then you recorded the voice-over track, which is 90 minutes?
SB: We went to the sound recording studio well prepared and did recording in 10 hours. The recorded track was exactly 90 minutes. We used it as a blueprint for the visual part of the film. And once we got neared the production end, started to look into making cuts. In the end, I feel we still may not have had enough breathing room, but I think my next film will have nothing but breathing room to compensate for the lack of it in Rocks
BD: But when it came to storyboarding you only did it in spurts to maintain the improvisational aspect?
SB: With my personal work I prefer not to work from storyboards because being a director, producer and animator in one person  I don’t have to communicate my idea to anyone else, I can keep the feeling of the story, the story arc and structure in my head. Also, storyboards are kind of inflexible, once you finish making them you have to stick to them.  Since animation takes such a long time you become a slave to a storyboard that was created four years ago while as an artist and storyteller you change, you have new ideas. So I thought why not allow new ideas to come into the narrative, rather than having to stick to the ideas from four years before? We had the recorded voice-over, it was the story’s blueprint / structure and so I was able to experiment and improvise with visuals, go wild without losing the attention of an audience. I do love improvisation, I love when I find an object in my studio or kitchen (look, a tea sample’s tiny glass jar!) and instantly incorporate it in a project. It makes me feel creative on an every day basis.
BD: Talk about the 2D on 3D look: hand-drawn characters placed on top of photographs of 3D sets that were hand-crafted.
SB: A few years ago an Italian fashion designer Aspesi saw some of my films, liked them and asked if I could do papier-mâché  sculptures for his store. I don’t know how he got the wacky / genius idea that a 2D animator could do stuff like that. Of course, I had never done anything like this before but I like to be dared so I said yes. He flew me to Milan and I made about 30 sculptures for him, all  pretty big (about my size and  I am not small) and loved every moment of making them. It unleashed the part of creativity that I didn’t know I had. I loved the crazy imagination it required and the three-dimensional aspect of it. It was also the time when I was obsessed with photo cameras, lenses and taking pictures of everything I put my eyes on.
So towards the end of this three-dimensional adventure I thought how could I bring these two new for me art forms that I love so much — sculpture and photography — together into my animation work. It took some figuring out as it required new skills and knowledge I didn’t have, like lighting, stop-motion. But in the end it was very simple: I made large papier-mâché sets (they are large because my papier-mâché has wrinkles and those wrinkles / texture give away the scale of objects if they are small), Sturgis did the lighting (his theater expertise for animation projects extends far beyond directing voice-over, he is also great lighting designer, carpenter and stop motion animator) and I took pictures of the sets with digital camera (Nikon 80, to be exact, with variety of lenses). For stop-motion zooms and pans to make the moves smooth we used a special stop-motion reel that was lent to the project by Jimmy Picker. I had a lot of stop-motion advise and help from my stop-motion friends. After taking pictures I selected the best, printed them out for reference and did quick layouts on top. After that I animated everything traditionally, on paper. I love how the texture of paper looks (it also matches textures of papier-mâché) and I love the tactile process. 
BD: Then you scanned 30,000 drawings in Photoshop and brought the files into Premiere. How were you able to match everything?
SB: The drawings were scanned in Photoshop, after which we did b&w line test in Premiere where we edited the new raw footage with the voice-over, so  that they interacted. Then we colored the drawings in Photoshop and brought the colored files and the stop-motion 3D footage into After Effects.
We matched backgrounds and colored drawings in After Effects. In the digital age almost anything can be done. This kind of project would be impossible to do on 35 mm film.
BD: Talk about the process of coloring, compositing, and editing.
SB: The project’s color designer, Rashida Nasir, chose colors and colored most of the drawings in Photoshop. The compositor, editor Wendy Cong Zhao, composited the drawings in After Effects (she output and later edited the Quick Time movies in Final Cut Pro). Our everyday production team was very small but hard working.
BD: At what point did you initiate the Kickstarter campaign and how much did you raise? Where did the initial financing come from?
SB: Fundraising was one of the hardest parts of making the film (although distribution and marketing were even harder). Rocks received two grants — one from New York State Council on the Arts and the other from Jerome Foundation. The project also was lucky to receive the fiscal sponsorship from Women Make Movies early on, which helped us tremendously to raise money through private tax deductible donations. We did a few fundraising events. By September 2011 we had raised around $160,000 and I thought we had enough funds to finish the film so I stopped fundraising. But by December 2012  I realized that my calculations were off and that we were running out of money. So, in January – February 2013 we ran a Kickstarter campaign and, with the help of 800 backers, raised just over $50,000.
BD: The score by Kristian Sensini captures the mood quite nicely. What was it like collaborating with him?
SB: Kristian was the greatest gift to the project. It was a thrill to work with such an extraordinarily talented composer who was willing to try new things and understood visual storytelling. Rocks was a difficult film to score because there is so much voice-over in it. Kristian treated the voice-over as a soprano and he scored it accordingly, making it part of the melody, sometime even harmonizing with it. In effect, the music and voice-over feels as one — one extended song. The other challenge Kristian had with scoring Rocks was that the film deals with a very difficult subject, but it never sinks into self pity or despair. Kristian’s genius was that with his music he was able to accent the comedy, the lightness of the story (for example, my grandfather Indulis’ back story), but also he was very capable of going into deep dark places. (For example, his music for my cousin Irbe’s story is so haunting that I sometimes wake up at 4:00 am hearing it.) The ability to understand and deliver comedy and tragedy is extremely rare in one composer. So, we got two in one.
BD: You must be thrilled by the wonderful reception for Rocks.  What has been the takeaway and what are you planning next?
SB: I call 2014 my bi-polar year —  there have been many great ups and great downs in 2014. A wild ride. But since the premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film festival in July and limited release in the US in September through Zeitgeist Films — and after screening  the film in more than 60 film festivals around the world (the film’s international rep is New Europe Film Sales), I see that  the film has connected beyond my expectations with audiences and I am thrilled about it. That Latvia selected Rocks as the country’s official Oscar entry for best foreign language film is an amazing honor. We are looking forward to bringing the film online, as a VOD and DVD so that even more people can watch it. It is on the schedule for January 29th, 2015.
As to my next project – I would like to make a film about gender roles and secrets in a marriage. But I am also talking to producer Pierre Poire about turning Teat Beat of Sex into a feature film. Secretly I wish someone gave me two months and a large room, lots of old papers, lots of glue and asked to do make a paper mache installation / magical maze. On the other hand, I am making that maze with my films. It just takes longer. 

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