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‘Negative Space’ Explores the Lasting Bond Between a Father and Son

“My dad taught me how to pack.”

‘Negative Space by Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter. All images © IKKI Films.

Negative Space is a new short film from Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata that depicts a father-and-son relationship through the act of packing a suitcase. Based on a 150-word prose poem by Ron Koertge, the five-and-a-half-minute adaptation employs handmade stop-motion animation to bring visual metaphor and subtext to the original words.

A filmmaking duo based in Baltimore, MD, Porter and Kuwahata have collaborated for more than a decade as Tiny Inventions, directing short films, TV commercials, music videos and comics. Produced by Ikki Films and Manuel Cam Studio in France, Negative Space is their fourth professional film.

Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter.

When reading Koertge’s text, Kuwahata connected with the characters on a deeply, personal level. As an airline pilot, Ru’s father traveled often when she was growing up and one of the most vivid images of her childhood is her father’s packing list pinned to the wall of his study. Max and Ru mined their own childhood memories of specific objects, textures and banal routines to portray the small things that make up a large part of life.

After the initial development of Negative Space, Porter and Kuwahata submitted a project proposal to the CICLIC Animation Center, a production residency located in Vendôme, France. Later, they teamed up with French animation production company IKKI FILMS and co-producer Manuel Cam Studio to realize the project over a nine-month period. The entire Negative Space team brought their artistry and passion into the compact narrative. Living and working in four different locations in France during the production, Max and Ru became professional packers.

Negative Space began its festival run in June and has screened at more than 85 events, winning over 25 prizes including nine Grand Prix/Best Animated Short awards. The short has qualified for Academy consideration by winning the grand prize at this year’s Anima Mundi. It also screened at the recent ANIMATION IS FILM Festival as part of a “Songs of Love and Death” package curated by Women in Animation.

Negative Space is available for viewing online for a two-seek window. Watch the full short through November 5, courtesy of distributor Arte, along with the trailer and making-of video below, and then scroll down further for a Q&A with Porter and Kuwahata about the making of the film:

How long did Negative Space take to produce, and how many artists worked on the film?

It took approximately two years start to finish, and the entire first year was spent on pre-production and applying for various grants in France. After that, the production fit into a nine-month schedule: three months building sets and props, three months shooting, and three months post-production.

During production, we worked with two assistants for the set/prop building phase, one to four people (animator, cinematographer, production assistant) depending on the week during the shooting, and one additional compositor any given time for post.

Then the sound department: VO actor, composer/sound designer, mix and recording, etc.

The two of you live and work in Baltimore, but the film was produced in France. How did that come to happen?

Max Porter: In the US, short films tend to be something you do when you’re a student as an exercise to learn the craft, or a professional labor-of-love designed to lead to something else. Shorts don’t really have their own intrinsic commercial value and, consequently, there’s not much of a support system in place for them. France tends to look at shorts as their own art form, recognizes them as important to their national cinema history (La Jetée, Red Balloon), and has built a strong grant system to support them financially. There are also great distribution models for shorts like the broadcast channel, Arte.

Ru Kuwahata: A friend of ours recommended that we submit our project to a competition organized by La Maison des Scenarists, and when we were selected, we had the opportunity to participate a producers round table session at the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival in France. A sweet encounter happened in during a conference there, when a lady spilled pot of coffee on my white scarf and a producer from Ikki Films, Nidia Santiago, helped clean it up.

Once we received an initial grant from CICLIC Animation Center and the producers at IKKI Films agreed to work with us, we were headed for a fun journey together.

How did you adapt a short poem into a five-minute script?

MP: Because Ron’s poem is so minimal -- only 150 words -- we felt that there was enough space to bring our personal experiences to the story with visual metaphor and subtext. We’re both skeptical of adaptations that feel too literal and wanted to make sure that we had strong reasons for transforming the poem into something else.

Many of your films are a mix of stop-motion and CG -- what initially attracted you to this approach, and how has that evolved over the years?

RK: Originally, we were interested in exploring how combining techniques (analog and digital) could create something different than the sum of its parts, sort of like rock-and-roll. We viewed the compositing process as being similar to collage: you’re pulling parts from different sources in an attempt to create a unified image.

Of course there was a practical reasons as well. When we started our creative partnership, we lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn, and with limits in space, time and money, hybrid techniques made it possible for us to work on independent films during nights and weekends.

As artists, we want to continue exploring new concepts, stories and techniques. That’s the joy of making.

Negative Space is wholly stop-motion, however -- why was that choice made? Were there advantages or disadvantages?

We felt strongly that the tone of the original text demanded a direct, distinctly human process. Being that the film is about a relationship through a physical process -- packing a suitcase -- we knew that we wanted to emphasize the wrinkles of a shirt, the crease of the leather belt and the crinkle of plastic. The technique was apparent from the moment we read the poem.

As we investigated further, it was interesting to reflect our own childhood. Our memories are closely connected to the sensations of texture and touch. We remember the itchiness of a wool sweater from childhood or the upholstery of our parents’ sofa from the early 80s. By animating real materials that flex and wrinkle, we hoped that we would activate the connections for the people who watch the film.

Lastly, we made a conscious decision to use scale to exaggerate the space that the father takes up in his son’s life, and how that presence changes over time. Stop Motion offers a unique physicality to space that graphic mediums do not, and was the most effective way to communicate that feeling.

Advantages and disadvantages: In digital animation, the advantage is the disadvantage: you can go back and edit endlessly. With digital techniques, it’s very easy to chase “perfection” and lose sight of the big picture. With stop-motion, the opposite is true. Because you’re working in a straight ahead process and revisions are costly, it’s easier to let go and direct the feeling rather than the details.

How do the two of you divide the work on a project?

We have been working together for over a decade and the way we split work naturally fell into place over time. Our writing process is a dialog of sorts; Max would come up with an idea, then Ru does drawings based on that, then Max builds on the sequence with new drawings. In the end, it’s difficult to know who was responsible for what.

After the initial writing and development phase, Ru guides the design, set/prop making and character animation. Max takes lead with the cinematography, early sound work, editorial pacing, post-production and the animation of objects/effects.

What were some of the biggest challenges to completing Negative Space, and how were they solved?

MP: It was important that the film feel personal and we were nervous that we wouldn’t be able to maintain that intimacy while working with other people. We doubled down on pre-production by preparing visual reference material and creating written explanations for all of our directorial decision, but at some point we realized that letting go a bit and encouraging our team to bring their own ideas and experiences to the film would only make the project better. The majority of the production happened at CICLIC Animation (Vendome, France) and IKKI Inc (Orbigny, France) where the team members lived with us during the week. This structure allowed us to become very close with the people we worked with and we ended up spending a lot time discussing our relationships to our families.

RK: Physically, the hardest part was that we worked in five locations throughout the production (including the pre-production phase in USA). Stop motion film production is demanding enough already and to add all the packing and moving was quite draining. But when we look back, it was such a nice experience to be able to live in many parts of France! It was also fitting that we were making a film about packing and we had become expert packers in the process. 

Lead animator Sylvain Derosne animating the waves of clothes.

L to R: production assistant Walid Païenda, cinematographer Simon Gesrel, co-producer Jean-Louis Padis and co-director Max Porter use gels and gaffer tape to control small lighting details on one of the largest sets created for ‘Negative Space.’

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.