There's going to be a lot of life to
the movement. Everything will have
this pulse, this natural breath to it.

interview and photography
by peter young for dragonframe
Dragon Frame Stop Motion Software

PY: Everything was in-camera?

KL: Yeah, totally in-camera editing. I think my first stop motion project was when we were supposed to go to the movies but it got canceled. I still had this pack of jellybeans that my mom bought me and I said, "We have a few hours to kill. I'm going to make a stop motion movie." I remember setting this whole thing up. I just made the jellybeans come together and make all these shapes and pictures and stuff. The ten year old me thought I was so clever. That was kind of where the stop motion started. It was always just fun to put an object on the table and make it float around. I liked the absurdist quality of it too.

PY: But then you went to college for drawing?

KL: I went in as an illustration major at MICA. I enjoyed painting and drawing. My portfolio to get into school was all paintings and drawing, except there was one animation because I started dabbling in Flash in high school. My first animations were in Flash and I thought, "This is really fun. I like doing this." But I didn't think that I was going to pursue it. Looking back on it, I don't know where my mind was at. I took an animation class in my first year at MICA and realized, "Hell no, my major has to be animation. I love this!" Well, I found out later that I didn't pick the best school for practical animation, but it was good that I was at MICA. It ended up being more of a conceptual education, which is what I really needed at that time. I think it gave me a much better foundation in the way I approach stories and I think about ideas and meaning.

PY: Did you get any hands-on training?

KL: There was no technical training at MICA. I was sort of figuring things out myself and doing everything the wrong way but still making it work. I think there were 18 kids in my graduating class and almost everyone was into CG and gaming. I was one of five people that were actually making films and the only person making a stop-motion film. The advantage of that was I got my own windowless 9' x 9' studio for an entire year! I could build and shoot everything I wanted. You couldn't get that at CalArts! At CalArts you get two, three weeks of a shooting space, maybe, if you're lucky. I had my studio for the entire semester when I shot "Sweet Dreams," the cupcake one. I wouldn't have been able to do it without that space.

PY: Right, to shoot ten minutes in two weeks...

KL: That's why people end up shooting stuff on tabletops in their apartment or wherever when they can. What can you really get done in two weeks in terms of animation? That's one of the reasons I have all my set-ups here. I end up working at home most of the time anyway.

PY: Did you have any exposure to still photography?

KL: I actually had a photo class when I studied abroad in Florence, Italy in my junior year of college at MICA. That's when I finally took my first black and white photo class. It was a straight up 35mm black and white course. It was really cool because we had this Italian guy teaching us about apertures and shutters and it was the most ridiculous and romanticized class because he insisted, "You must look through the lens." It was seriously the most out-of-a-movie thing, and it was great. "Look at your depth of field. Make sure it is appropriate for the subject. We must go out in the morning in the fog and shoot the dew on the flowers." At first I thought "Are you kidding me right now?" But it was good, actually essential, for me to learn about. I took a 16mm black and white film class and even having that experience with the Bolexs has totally shaped and enhanced my knowledge, when it comes to the digital side.


Kirsten Lepore grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. She received a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and is currently in the masters program at CalArts. Her last short film, "Bottle," the touching story of two entities coming together against all elements, has garnered numerous awards over the past year. I had the opportunity to sit down with Kirsten at her home studio in Valencia, California on September 25th, 2011.

Peter Young: Kirsten, you have already enjoyed some incredible successes on the film festival circuit at a very young age. What early influences moved you in the direction of stop motion animation?

Kirsten Lepore: I think the root of it took place around fifth grade when my dad introduced me to the family camcorder. He taught me how to use it; how to press the red button, do the fade in and fade out properly and he let me make whatever I wanted to make. I have two younger sisters and they were always my actors. I mean, I could already boss them around anyway. It was a natural directorial situation! We started making reenactments of Cinderella with Barbies but we always put our own quirky spin on it. Then I got really into these stupid practical effects with the camera. Like the most simple stop motion trick, where you put your hands out and then stop the camera, then you put something in your hands and poof, it’s there!

PY: So you were kind of a camcorder-auteur?

KL: Ha! I was really into getting all I could out of that crappy camera. I remember playing with and exhausting every visual effects feature that was on it, trying to get to the limit of whatever the camera was capable of. It was like "Yeah, I'm going to use that and then I'm going to superimpose this thing over their head. It's going to be awesome." You should have seen what effects those cameras had. Anyway, I started making some stop motion films that way too, where you would click on and off and on and off. I didn't have any editing software.


sweet dreams

PY: Even just going through the trouble of renting a 16mm camera, checking it out from school and getting the film processed ...As things have evolved with digital means it's so much easier.

KL: I'm super appreciative I had those classes even though at the time I didn’t know how valuable it was going to be. Now I totally understand, I need to make an image look a certain way and I think, "Oh, I know how to do that because I took that class in still photography." It definitely all relates and it was important to have that basic understanding. It helped once I got on the stop-motion path.

PY: You were originally doing 2D animation at MICA. Do you simply prefer stop-motion?

KL: I guess I have sort of focused on stop-motion lately but I do like 2D too and I do like live action and I think I will eventually make more of both. For me right now, stop-motion has been really fitting as a medium for a lot of the ideas I've been coming up with. But, I will go for whatever medium best suits the idea.

PY: The waves in "Bottle," for example, were live action.

KL: Yeah, the waves needed to be composited in. I thought it would flow better using that live action. But ultimately, for "Bottle," I felt the idea made the most sense in stop-motion. The same thing with "Sweet Dreams." There were many times when I thought "F- this, I'm doing this in 2D. This is too hard!" But then I realized, "No, I can't. It has to be real food, that's the whole point. It has to be the actual objects." I try to pay close attention to the medium, making sure it is well suited to the idea. One advantage to stop-motion is that you can photograph something from multiple angles and you can move the character sort of quickly, as opposed to in 2D, where if you want multiple angles you have to redraw those multiple angles. It is nice to take advantage of stop-motion in that way. The other reason I gravitate towards stop-motion is because I'm just not that good of a draftsman! There are so many amazing 2D animators at CalArts who blow my mind. Yes, I grew up drawing but I feel like stop-motion comes more naturally and I can get more bang for my buck when I'm just building something with my hands and then lighting it.

When people like something, I think, "Thank God that you like this because that just took years off my life."

PY: I’ve been hearing people refer to you not as an animator, but rather as a filmmaker...

KL:  That's cool because truth be told, I don't know if it’s the older I get, but animating kind of sucks sometimes! I don’t always have so much fun when I’m doing it. On the other hand, it is really exciting to have moved this object incrementally for hours and then watch your playback and realize "Oh my god, it's alive ...I did that!" That hasn't worn off for me, which is good because the side of it where you're standing up for 10 hours straight is just physically tiring. Shooting "Bottle," I couldn't even take a bathroom break because I had all this equipment and I was alone. I had to shoot until the sun went down, so no breaks whatsoever. That was totally grueling, but you do what you have to do to get the film done. One of the reasons you can't take a break is, inevitably your set will settle and things will shift. You get the cleanest shot if you just go all the way through. I actually liken it to surgery. Surgeons have to be on the operating table for 12 hours at a time without a break. Stop-motion obviously has less gravity, and in the end, is it even worth all those hours? I don't know. Maybe. I hope people think so. That's why it's nice when they like something I make. I think "Thank God that you like this because that just took years off my life."

PY:  Who are the people that inspire you and bring inspiration?

KL: I feel many ideas, especially smaller ideas, come from conversations I'll have with family and friends. If I think something is funny I'll try to develop it from there. Visually, I'm inspired a lot by other short filmmakers and music video directors. I end watch a lot of short films. I really love PES's stop-motion stuff. I really like this Dutch guy, Paul Driessen. I love his stories. They are sort of simple, but visually very clever, and the sound design is amazing. A lot of peers and friends are making some awesome films as well so I feel like I'm constantly inspired by the people around me.

PY: When approaching a new project, what is the point of genesis? Is it the materials or is it the story?

KL: I think for me, I wish I could say it was the story, but usually it is the materials. In "Bottle," I knew from the beginning I was going to animate with sand and snow because they're interesting to me and I hadn't seen them used before. The same with "Sweet Dreams." I thought, "I want to animate with food and so I'm going to come up with a story idea that uses food" which, in truth, feels like a backward way to do things.

PY: Maybe you're just more process driven.

KL: I think for the audience watching the films it is more about story, which is how it should be, but this is one of those things that I have to justify for myself. I do value story, but for me the animation process has to stay interesting. I need to keep working with new materials or have new challenges where there is lot to explore for me in the process. It isn't important to the audience because they watch for 5 minutes and then it's done, but for me it's a year. I have to stay interested for a year, and for the past few films I've tried to use materials that are non-traditional to keep it fun for myself. It is important to me that the story is very connected to those materials. I don't want to use the materials for just as a gimmick.

PY: "Sweet Dreams" and "Bottle" both have themes of romance in them. Talk about this recurring theme.

KL: Ah, the romance elements. Everybody says, "You always do romance." Actually my new film, which will be coming out in a year, if everything goes as planned, is not a romance. It is still important that there's some sort of relationship between characters though. This one is about the power and value of friendship in a lot of different ways. I just like it when characters connect. In the past I've tried to keep everything as simple as I can because everything about the process is so complicated. For me, two characters are enough.

PY: In both "Sweet Dreams" and "Bottle," it seems there is a message that transcends the simple love story.

KL: In "Sweet Dreams" I think people are actually pissed because they don't end up together and I guess people are pissed in "Bottle" because ... Actually I view the ending of "Bottle" differently than everybody else does. I didn't intend for it to be sad. Everybody thinks it's sad but for me they end up part of the same material. They’re all mushed together in the water now. That's the only way they are going to be together anyway. But everybody else thinks they that they just dissolved into nothing. I like having the interpretation be up to peoples' personal experiences. Yet, I guess it has to be sort of autobiographical if it came out of my brain.

PY: In "Sweet Dreams" it feels like there is a taboo love that isn’t supposed to be...

KL: I have had one or two of those, so maybe it is related to me. I came up with this story so something about it has to relate to my life even if I'm not conscious of it. But I think you take something out of every relationship you have. You grow naturally. Even when you get hurt you're still growing, still learning something from it. So in "Sweet Dreams," he had this experience, he learned from it, he is obviously changed physically, but also in how he thinks about things. They don't need to end up together. That’s not what it's about. For me, it’s about the experience and what he learns from that experience.

 There's a landscape to body analogy taking place. There's going to be a lot of life to the movement in the animation.

PY: That is what I thought was interesting. At first I thought, "Oh, poor cupcake" but then things turns around and he ends up changing his community. The romance was a vehicle to get to an incredibly strong overall message. But now I’m curious about the status of your new film ...

KL:  It’s stop-motion and the projected length is ten minutes. The characters are mostly built, but I need to build a ton of props and lots of sets. And there's going to be these waterfall elements that I need to make. I never know how much to say about it, but I will say that there's a landscape to body analogy taking place. There's going to be a lot of life to the movement in the animation that's happening in the background. Everything will have this pulse, this natural breath to it.

PY: Ten minutes is incredibly ambitious, even though you’ve already accomplished that with "Sweet Dreams."

KL: Yeah, professors at school, try to talk students out of doing anything over 6 minutes but since I've done it before I think they give me a little bit of a pass. I know if I hadn't done "Sweet Dreams" I would totally be freaking out right now because there is so much work to do. You really can't totally wrap your head around it. It’s like trying to fathom the universe or how many numbers exist in the world or something. It happens every time I make a film. It’s crazy on my part that I think I can do this thing and I have no idea how I'm going to get it done, I just know I'll do it.