ON-TIME WORDS WITH ALEXA LIM HAAS + BERNARDO BRITTO
Johannes DeYoung, Founding Editor, Lookie-Lookie
Johannes DeYoung: Let’s get this straight - you’re filmmakers, right? Not animators?
Bernardo Britto: I don’t know if I’ve ever felt very comfortable with either label. Feels too stressful to talk about what I am. I just make movies, and sometimes they’re animated and sometimes they’re not.
Alexa Lim Haas: Yeah I agree, I try to keep my label as fluid as possible and think of myself as an interdisciplinary artist or a visual storyteller. I use film as a medium in both animation and live-action, but more often than that I draw. I am still at a point of exploration with so many different mediums, I’m not sure how to brand myself yet. Right now I’m learning to sew, and one day I hope I can tell a story with a rug.
JD: I suppose it interests me to know what vernaculars artists draw upon in making their works. You both make screen-based moving-image work, and I’m really curious to know what drives your interests for the screen. Screen-based media has such enormous capacity to synthesize various histories and cultural currents, not to mention the variety of styles and production methods that are presented in your work.
BB: I think for me I’m pulling mostly from film and animation, and comic books. But I’d have to say that my interests are much more aligned with editing, sync sound, camera movements, and shot composition than any sort of specific scene design or mise en scene. What gets me most excited is the rhythm of the piece - the edit. I get very excited by the “cut,” by the juxtaposition of images. And being able to create an experience that is explicitly temporal, existing only in the movement of time.
ALH: Japanese anime was my entry point into filmmaking. I loved it as a kid because of its magical realist sensibilities and how seamlessly it moves from the subtle to magnificent. I constantly return to it for study because of the unique catalogue of expressions – for example the big sweat drop that’s used for embarrassment, contempt, or confusion, that we see in emojis 😓. I developed my emotional vocabulary through anime, imitating what I saw on the screen, hoping I was magic too like so many characters. Initially I came to the moving image as a way to create magic, and now I’ve been using the screen as a surrogate for my mostly quiet physical presence. I’m attracted to its likeness to memory and dreams, and use it as an intimate way to preserve an experience or to project a fantasy. For example, in Glove, we used quick cuts as a way to express fragments of memory. These very specific, self-contained, even tactile memories that don’t extend beyond much more than a glimpse.
JD: I’m really drawn to your film, Glove. There seems to be a strategy at play to present fairly emotional content through a fairly cool lens. I’m thinking especially of the narration that’s frequently third person, and the use of stylized, limited animation. I’d love to know more about how the two of you approached making that piece. Why animation? Why a glove?
ALH: Thank you! We knew it would be the most efficient for us to make Glove as an animation. The script is a stream of consciousness that allowed our imaginations to go all over the place and with animation we could easily explore all those different places. Animation lends itself to spontaneous decision making because there is no need for a big production or permits, the only concern is if it suits the story - if it’s the best way to represent a line in the script.
BB: Yeah, the only constraint really is time. Both the actual time we have to expend on the production and also the actual duration of the piece.
ALH: That’s why we work with limited animation because of how much you can get out of its minimal time commitment. We couldn’t really afford to spend more than 6 months on this. And we are still learning animators as well, and the limitation of ability.
BB: Our lack of skill, basically (laughs).
ALH: It requires us to be stronger visual storytellers - to be as concise as possible, and to communicate big ideas in small, bite-sized ways. And the reason why we chose a glove is because original footage of an astronaut losing his glove in space is what inspired all of it. But we also found that a glove, which conforms to the shape of a human hand with our uniquely opposable thumbs, is the perfect ambassador for humanity if maybe somewhere on the other side of space another sentient being were to observe it.
BB: Yeah, I think a glove is a great mix of the human and the material, and having it be an astronaut’s glove specifically makes it a really great mix between the ordinary and the fantastic, which are all things we are working with in this movie. We like the tension that comes from those extremes. The voiceover works in a similar way too, it’s detached but poetic, flowery but straightforward (or, at least that’s what we tried to do). If it ever went too far in one direction, the entire balance would be off - but we were always trying to hit that bullseye: somewhere in the middle of the venn diagram between how ridiculous and silly it is to have a glove say it met God and how sincerely beautiful it can be to watch this thing from a tiny factory in Delaware float off into the deep recesses of space.
ALH: Also, we’ve all lost a glove here and there.
JD: That's a touching sentiment. Alexa, you mentioned that animation lends itself to spontaneous decision making; it’s also an incredibly slow process. Character animators often describe the sustained acting moments in making their works as emotional suspensions that have to be lived for the duration of their shots. The same animators might spend a week or more animating a few seconds of footage that appears fleetingly on the screen, and in context with so much other activity. Something that draws my fascination in working with time-based media is the relativity of time itself - the simultaneous expansion and contraction of the temporal experience that’s conjured through an encounter with art. Beyond the inevitable grappling with time that happens in any art-making practice, there’s a poetic treatment of time in Glove that serves a broader narrative subject. Can you say more about that?
ALH: Yes absolutely, dreaming up an animated movie can be very infinite and spontaneous but executing it is a whole other story. Each new day comes with its own waves of emotion and circumstances, and it is all embedded in the work. It reminds me of a time our friend and fellow artist, Lucas Leyva, advised to “just make a decision and stick to it,” after ordering a ridiculously large cocktail at a tiki bar. As he put it, the product of your art is a culmination of a million little unrelated decisions. What would it all add up to if you acted on your first impulse? I personally struggle with committing to decisions because I am constantly battling with my own self-doubt. With animation you’re living in a millisecond at a time, and it is so easy to lose sight of the whole project. Halfway through a shot, a scene, or the film entirely, I start feeling unsure or bored with it, and I'm tempted to get wild and change it all up. I had to make rules for myself to limit that temptation. I tried different processes, such as working faster than I could react, or working with un-erasable tools to prevent becoming too precious with each frame; or if I started feeling frustrated, I’d immediately switch what medium I’m working in. These rules are meant to discipline my demons and stay committed to the idea I’m trying to fulfill.
BB: Yeah time is a pretty funny thing in animation because so many hours of work can go into 1/12th of a second. In live action, you’re more or less working in real time on set. But, yeah, we definitely talked a lot about time in general on this movie. Essentially, the whole story takes place in just a few seconds - just in the moment that the glove is floating away from the astronaut. But the feeling lasts much longer than that. In real life that’s how it works, I think - for me, anyway. Tiny, insignificant things from when I was a kid have played themselves out in my head for years and years, and years. And then also any time you’re talking about things like the infinity of time, there should be some acknowledgement that it’s not just infinite at the ends but infinite within each moment as well. And what the glove is able to do is preserve all of humanity, all those moments, all that time, throughout all of the history that eventually led to its making, in its little silicon fingertips - in this one still object. In that sense, it functions just like the movie itself: while the glove carries with it all of our time on earth, the film is imbued with the year plus of our lives that we spent working on it. The fire that nearly burned Alexa’s building is in it. The tragedies that our friends endured are in it. And all the hours spent drawing and scanning, and arguing and fixing are all definitely in it.
ALH: The fire nearly burned up all the animation frames, too. Five months into this project - so the box of animations was the first thing I tried to carry onto the fire escape, but it was too heavy.
JD: That’s really incredible. Animation is more than the illusion of life, when it’s your livelihood. I’m curious to know how each of you perceive the art and craft of animation; is it a medium, or is it something else for you?
ALH: I think animation is a medium. It is crafted images flashing before your eyes to create time and movement. But it’s still a very young medium, still very undefined and flexible. And it doesn’t necessarily have to concern itself with a story or behavior, it can be simply an exploration of time and movement. Sometimes I just want to recreate the sparkling of glitter, or to see what happens if I drag animated frames along a scanner. I also use animation as a mode of performance - for the shy performer in me and also to express beyond my body’s ability. It is a very physical and emotional practice - I animate in front of a mirror, and I am always feeling whatever I am animating. It requires you to mentally embody movement and emotions, and translate it into something communicable. You can turn a very abstract emotion into a very tangible and quantifiable expression, and emphasize even the most subtle behaviors into something very meaningful, like blinking.
BB: Yeah, animation is a tricky thing. Film in general is a tricky thing because it combines so many different art forms. I guess it is a medium. But it’s also it’s own discipline in a way. It doesn’t just have to be a medium to tell a story. Animation can just be animation. Creating life and movement out of still images. The real beauty of the art form is in the movement, in the frames between the frames, the invisible drawings that we never actually see but which somehow capture movement. So, I think it is a medium. It is a tool. You can use it that way. And you can create incredible worlds and special effects. And you can use it in film and video games, and virtual reality and whatever. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that it can also be its own thing, and that its strengths aren’t necessarily tied to storytelling. Maybe animation is a little like us, it doesn’t feel very comfortable with labels either.
JD: You both make drawings. To my mind that’s actually a central part of your practice. So, I’m wondering: when you spend months working on a project like Glove, what comes first, words or pictures?
BB: It’s kind of like… words, and then pictures, and then new pictures, and then new words, and then it all starts dancing together. For me it’s usually a line or a phrase, but for this movie it was actually just the image of this glove floating by itself in outer space. That gave me the feeling that I needed to write the rest - but then when I wrote it, it was just like blank voiceover without any pictures to attach itself.
ALH: I remember once Bernardo reminded me to always think about the moment of the glove being out of the astronaut’s reach. What does that feel like? That abrupt moment between the line of being able to grasp something and losing it. For this movie I think everything was centered around that feeling - all the words and images are very nostalgic and exist within that six second moment of losing the glove. Bernardo and I were never attached to a single line from the script or a single image, and we were flexible in changing those pieces as long as they stayed true to that feeling. Our processes vary in that Bernardo is very disciplined and logical, and can stick to the script, and I am more impulsive and flowery, always searching for a better idea - so tightening our hold on that single feeling kept us eye to eye.
BB: Yeah, it’s a constant push and pull. And it was also nice to be able to have a long design period. Where we (but really, actually, mostly Alexa) were able to come up with the overall style and feel of things. I must have seen at least fifty different gloves that Alexa drew. And I’m sure she didn’t show me all of them.
JD: Can you say more about your roles as collaborators? Collaboration can sometimes be a tricky thing to negotiate, but there’s such great energy in your work, and I’d love to know more about what sparks the charge.
BB: I think definitely the most important thing in any collaboration (or partnership, or relationship) is trust. You have to have trust in the other person’s skills and abilities, and also in the other person’s version of the movie. Alexa and I are not like how people talk about the Wachowskis or the Coen Brothers where they act like two halves of the same brain. I think we both have different instincts and different versions of the movie in our heads. And I think that’s where the “spark” comes from. Similar to the thematic tensions that I talked about earlier, there’s a tension between both of our respective instincts. Between Alexa’s boundless creativity and imagination, and my somewhat myopic focus (laughs). I think she helps me expand my idea of what the movie could be, and I help her reign it all in so that it’s still in service of the story. I’m like a lead weight to her beautiful balloon.
ALH: (laughs) That’s very nice. Yes, I enjoyed knowing that whenever I called Bernardo with a new “what if–” idea that I would be meeting some resistance. He still answers the phone with a lighthearted “what now?” attitude. But we’re not competitive with our ideas, it just took testing out the idea in the animatic and we’d both nod our head if it worked and laugh if it didn’t. That lack of ego between us was very fruitful for the work because we were both willing to enter the uncharted territory of the other’s version of the movie. Also, I cried most days working on this project. Like I said earlier, self-doubt is one of my demons, and Bernardo, being extremely pragmatic, would entertain my doubts, and we’d talk through the movie again and again. This was good for my sanity, and it also continually refreshed and reevaluated in our minds what this movie was really about, and what we were trying to do.
JD: You both crossed paths with John Canemaker when you studied at NYU. That seems to be an important experience. Are there specific things that you took away from that time that resonate in the works you make today?
BB: Yes, the most important thing to me was to make work that’s personal; to make work that means something to you. Independent animation can be such a wonderfully powerful thing because usually you end up with a movie made almost entirely by just one or two people, and when those people spend their months hunched over tables working on something that feels wholly connected to them, it can create something that is uniquely intimate. It’s the closest we can get to peering into someone else’s imagination and watching their daydreams. It’s not just about how well something moves, it’s how all of it - the sounds, the designs, the cutting, the everything - makes the audience feel. John also has such an enormous respect for all different kinds of animation. Along with another NYU professor, John Culhane, he really helped me appreciate the entire history of animation, where it came from and where we can take it. I would hope that we show that same respect every time we make a movie.
ALH: Yes, same with me. I was really lost by the end of film school, and Canemaker looked over my portfolio with me because I was applying to Dreamworks Animation for an internship. It’s not that he discouraged me from applying, but he urged me to remain personal with my work no matter where I ended up. He also told me to enjoy the process and that it’s not all about the end product, reminding me that he didn’t go to college until he was 30 years old. When I asked him what he did in his 20s, he looked up at the ceiling nostalgically and said, “I lived…” and that alone shifted the focus of my artistic practice. After college I moved to Shanghai, studied mandarin, holistic medicine, psychology, semiotics...using all different types of knowledge to inform my work. So that is something I really got from Canemaker, not only from his classes where his reference material often came from outside animation, but from just the way he’s lived his life.
Bernardo Britto was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and raised in Miami, FL; he studied film at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. His award-winning animated short films The Places Where We Lived (2013) and Yearbook (2014), have screened at more than 100 film festivals; Yearbook (2014) was awarded the Jury Prize for Best Short Film at the Sundance Film Festival.
Alexa Lim Haas is a multi-disciplinary artist and filmmaker from New York City. She studied directing and animation at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Her practice combines drawing, painting, collage, and moving-image. Glove (2016) is her debut short film.
In 2016, Glove received the SXSW Grand Jury Award for Animated Short; Best Animation at the Palm Springs International ShortFest; Best Animation at the Provincetown International Film Festival; and Best Animated Short at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Glove was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the AFI Fest, and Best American Short Film at the Champs-Élysées Film Festival, in 2016.
All images courtesy the artists.