It’s not often that we feature student work on the blog but we’re always thrilled when we happen to come across an exceptional piece that allows us to support student work in this way. “Waste Away” is the BFA thesis film of Elly Stern, a BFA student at Massachusetts College of Art & Design. With a haunting Musical score by Daniel Hass, the piece is a dystopic short with timely social, environmental and public health themes.

Stern describes “Waste Away” as, “A surreal stop motion short about a homeless woman who becomes pregnant with a fish in a trash-filled city. The responsibility of motherhood gives her the strength to fight for survival, while the forces of nature threaten to overtake her. The setting of urban neglect emphasizes the pervasive alienation between people, and humanity’s destructive impact on their environment.”

When we asked more about how the found-object-filled piece was created, she told us, “My film was executed with a mix of stop motion and digital compositing in After Effects. Some of my shots were made completely in-camera, like the alleyway scenes, some were in-camera with green screen keying in post-production, like the beach scenes, and some were more heavily digitally composited from multiple stop motion elements, like the underwater scenes.”

A short with emotion and poignance, the roots of Stern’s connection with trash go deep: “As a child I would always pick up things on the street that would excite me, treating every piece of trash as a treasure. Thematically, I made most of the props for ‘Waste Away’ from found objects and garbage.

“The bicycle is made out of plastic cutlery, the dumpsters out of recycled cardboard, and the water out of plastic wrap. The city is inspired by Tel Aviv, where I grew up. In order to capture the essence of the cityscape, my set design features rundown concrete buildings, leaking air conditioners outside windows, and exposed wires on walls.”

The biggest hurdle she faced on set was in trying to express the mood of a long, dreary, and intimidating alley. “I had to create a huge set with walls measuring 32”x 80,” she told us. “The challenge was in developing the forced perspective view on such a large scale, ensuring that elements such as windows and air conditioners were correctly scaled down as the alleyway recedes.”

As legitimate and monumental a task as that sounds in the student-animator world, Stern also told us of trouble from “real world” at large. “An unexpected challenge was posed by the rise of COVID-19. Given 48 hours notice before my school was shut down, I needed to complete the remainder of my stop motion shooting with extreme urgency. After long hours bent over a multi-plane, moving pieces of trash incrementally while gulping down cups of coffee, I succeeded in putting the production part of my film to rest. The post-production was completed in quarantine.”

We’re impressed! Looking forward to seeing what’s next for this new talent and wishing her the best graduating into such an uncertain time. With so much persistence and skill, we’re to be seeing her work again in the near future.

For more behind the scenes, check out this video of Stern’s alleyway set with the Volo motion control system: