Despite the star power of Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” and the Pixar strength of “Lou,” “Negative Space” has emerged as the wild card in the race for animated short. It’s a poignant stop-motion work about a father and son bonding over the shared ritual of suitcase packing for his frequent business trips. It’s also the most acclaimed nominee, winning 52 awards throughout 137 festivals.
Appropriately enough, “Negative Space” became a case of life imitating art. Adapted from a poem by Ron Koertge, it was directed by the Baltimore-based duo, Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter (“Between Times”), who ventured to Vendôme, France, to make their short. They not only became expert packers but also efficient stop-motion craftspeople. They like the European vibe (they were previously artists-in-residence at the Netherlands Institute for Animation Film), and teamed with Ikki Films and Manuel Cam Studio.
Playing with Scale
The poem resonated with both directors, who grew up with fathers that traveled a lot. “For me, what resonated was the idea of ritualized connection. This thing that people connect through and not speak directly about emotion,” said Porter.
Therefore, the clothes are more animated and vibrant-looking than the father and son. They move, fold, or slither elegantly like characters. “We really wanted it to be like an efficiently packed suitcase,” added Porter.
The animators have collaborated for 11 years, mixing CG with stop-motion. But “Negative Space” marks their first fully stop-motion work. “The unique situation was that we lived and worked together and every three months the crew changed,” said Kuwahata. It went from the design team to a rotating shooting crew. “We got to know each other and it was very intense, but we got to focus,” she added.
According to Kuwahata, every shot had a change of scale, which proved to be the biggest challenge, with the need to rebuild or rotate objects. That included clothing, too, and the largest was real world size. “Even one living room had like five different versions,” she said. “We were constantly filing little pieces of wood for the parquet floor and then we had to make another one.”
The puppets had their challenges as well. Kuwahata made heads out of paper clay, which was not a durable material, requiring them to cast the heads in resin for copies that would hold up during shooting. The mouths were too tiny to sculpt, so they used a 3D printer for digital fabrication.
“For shooting, the characters were really top-heavy,” Porter said. “So they didn’t stand with traditional tie-downs and had to have support rigs in almost every shot. That added some nightmares. There’s a scene where clothing comes up on shore like a wave, and that was particularly difficult because the background was so minimal. You were just focused on the movement.”
It’s about compact spaces with little time for actual music. “And part of the reason is that the poem has a rhythm and the packing has a rhythm,” Porter said. “It’s almost musical. So we plotted out the actions with our animatic like it was a musical rhythm.”
For Kuwahata, her view of “Negative Space” is constantly changing, grappling with wasted time, if not space. “It’s sad but it’s sweet — they had something together,” she said.