Q & A with Mark Smith

Mark Smith, director of ‘Two Balloons’, discusses the journey from a dream to his first stop-motion animation

Two Balloons is a stop-motion animated short film about two lemurs who fall in love mid air; a story about sticking together when life gets rough.

Mark, could you please tell us how this idea originated?

Of course! I was on a sailboat and I saw a funnel cloud for the first time in my life. As I watched it move across the water, I was listening to a song titled “Piles of Clothes” by Weinland. The 3/4 time signature of the song and the motion of the sailboat lulled me into a daydream and that’s when the idea for Two Balloons happened.

Would you say your vision for production design and the soundtrack shape the narrative or vice versa?

The production design and Peter Broderick’s score definitely influenced the narrative. When we were storyboarding I was searching for songs in 3/4 time to try and expand the emotional motive I felt when I was on the sailboat listening to the Weinland song. I found a song on Peter’s first album titled More of a Composition and on the first listen, just a few measures in, I could see the film better and immediately knew I wanted the score to be based on the song. I called Peter and asked if he’d compose the score and when he said yes, More of a Composition became the pulse of the film.

We placed More of a Composition in our animatic and actually used the song as a metronome for our character animation. Our lead animator, Teresa Drilling, and I worked out the beats per minute of Peter’s song and looped three beats per measure into the timeline of our reference footage.

With regards to the production design I’ve always been drawn to the nautical and aviation aesthetic of the 1920-30s. I wanted the sets to support the daydream emotion I felt when the idea for Two Balloons happened. The Art Deco era was my go-to because photographs from that era make me dream, they make me wish I could step through time.

Towards the middle of pre-production I met Katherine Chamberlain, our Art Director. That meeting evolved into a wonderful collaboration because our sensibilities about the look of the film were similar.

How did you manage such a long project?

Production was just over two and a half years and I would say that we managed to reach the last frame through the kindness of strangers. The animation community in Portland is amazing. We received a lot of support.

Managing the length of production was really a matter of setting short term goals. We looked forward as far as possible to avoid continuity mistakes, but to protect morale and maintain a positive ambiance in the studio, we approached each shot as a movie in itself. We had 89 shots and some of them took over a month to complete.

How did your original idea change when the film became a stop-motion production, if at all?

Initially I saw Two Balloons as a live-action film with human actors and full scale ships. When the aircraft hangars we needed to accommodate the dirigibles became unavailable we suddenly had a scale problem. I chose stop-motion as a solution because I’ve always been curious and passionate about the medium.

Stop-motion didn’t change the original idea for the film, but it definitely helped the idea evolve because stop-motion gave us a better opportunity to suspend disbelief. The world we created for Bernard and Elba, for the most part, is handmade and that gave us the chance to build a world that was out of reach in live-action. The handmade theme became a priority for everyone on the crew: we wanted to build the most analogue world we could. For example, the ocean in Two Balloons is a 350 square foot, wood framed table.

Were there any times in particular when you regretted making a stop-motion film, or was it something you completely fell in love with?

I’ve always been fascinated by stop-motion but I’ve been intimidated by it too because it has its own language and doesn’t translate directly to live-action. I enjoyed the solitude of the process. At a certain point during production, the making of the film became an escape.

The studio hushed the frenetic pace of outside life and somehow slowed time. About six months into production, when our crew was really connected, getting Two Balloons from the page and onto the screen became secondary to experimentation. It was as if we were making the film for ourselves.

Now, this is something I personally find quite interesting when working on a project: did you have any happy accidents?

Yes! Most of the happy accidents happened by subtracting, simplifying what we wanted to express. Removing what is extraneous should be easy but for some reason it is difficult. I think it’s because you convince yourself that every detail is essential.

Lastly, do you have anything planned for the future?

There is a short story by Dave Eggers that I’ve always pictured as an animated short film. One of the reasons I chose to produce Two Balloons as a stop-motion film was because I felt it would be good preparation for the Eggers story.