A Conversation with Animator and Director Anna Mantzaris Explores Her Penchant for Nuanced Emotion and Finding Humor in the Mundane
November 18, 2020
Colossal contributor Laura Staugaitis spoke with Anna Mantzaris via Zoom in late September 2020. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Shown above is a still from Mantzaris’s “Small Decision, Big Impact” for Honest Tea.
Laura: Could you share a little bit about how you got interested in animation? What was the point at which you really identified that it was the creative direction that you were going to move in?
Anna: I didn’t have the path of always knowing that I wanted to do animation—it wasn’t something that I was anticipating seeing in my life. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, but I wasn’t aware of animation. I always liked to do things with my hands and drawing. After I graduated high school, I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I enrolled in a two-year Art Foundation course. At that time, I would have thought of drawing and painting. I really liked to do creative things, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with that. And then I just started to think about animation—maybe someone suggested it to me. I don’t remember.
I applied to a Bachelor of Arts without really knowing what I was getting into. When I went there, I thought I would focus on 2-D because I come from a background of drawing a lot and painting. When we had a stop-motion workshop in the second year, I realized it was so much more fun. You get to do all the aspects: you get to draw when you design it, but you also get away from the computer, and you work with your hands and different materials. I don’t know if I was sure that I could do it or not, but it was what I wanted to do.
Laura: I hadn’t thought about that, that there’s a 2-D step in the process before you move into the three-dimensional characters. Is that always how you work?
Anna: Yes, I always sketch the character design, even though the level of details varies in different projects, and I always do a storyboard. So there’s two aspects to that, storyboarding and design. When I do work for myself, I don’t always do super-specific drawings. But when I direct a commission, I have to do it because someone else has to interpret my drawings and make a puppet. So I have to be really clear on paper.
For example, with “Enough,” I didn’t have the character design, really—I just started to make a character, and as I went along I would say what looked nice or not. It was more improvisation as I was doing it. So I would notice, “Oh, this looks funny when the eyes are like this,” or, “I’m going to do the hair on this character so it looks funny.” Drawing and spontaneity are both always an element of my work today, but the amount of it depends on what type of project it is.
Laura: Have you always worked in felt, or is that something that you evolved towards? You have this very signature look now of your characters—how did you get there?
Anna: Not always in wool and not always in one way. My first film “But Milk is Important” is when I discovered needle felting, and we did that for one of the creatures. But we didn’t consider it for the characters, as well. It was just a really nice material. I didn’t think about it until later, but my mom is a kindergarten teacher in a (Waldorf school) kindergarten, and she always would needle felt characters for all the kids, especially for spring or for Christmas. I haven’t thought about it. I don’t know if there’s any connection there. But it’s quite funny that she’s been doing that, and then I discovered it for me.
I think I saw other films that inspired me to use it a bit more on the characters. I was like, “wow, this is really nice and such a beautiful texture.” I love working with felt, and I do it for most of the films. Also what happens when you do something that is successful, like “Enough,” you get commissions, and people want you to do things like that. So it’s also become my signature, and I think when I do my short films, I use that technique. Sometimes for commissions, people just want it because they have seen what you have done before, while I maybe would have liked to try more weird stuff. If you do one successful thing, you get requests to do it. It’s over and over, but I don’t mind it.
Laura: Do you feel like you’re able to ever push back and explore a different way of doing something if it’s a commission project, or do you feel like you need to stay in the lane of what they’re looking for?
Anna: It depends on the project. Sometimes they approach me like, “Oh, we love this style that you have with felt, and it would fit perfectly.” I don’t feel like I could say like, “Oh no, let’s do them like shiny plastic.” When I did one job for Honest Tea, that was more of a process where I developed the characters with them. They didn’t have something super specific in the beginning so we sort of developed together, and I ended up being pushed to do a different kind of style in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have imagined if I just sat down with a blank piece of paper. Because they said, “Oh, how about if they’re more like this or like this,” it was quite fun for me, as well. I got pushed to try something different.
Laura: Your films don’t tend to have any kind of verbal narration, whether that’s from an omniscient narrator or from the characters themselves.
Anna: I don’t have to have dialogue. I don’t feel like I need it—I think more in images and in actions and in the acting of the character, so it’s less natural for me. I’m not a vocal or written person in that sense of it. I think about how the characters are going to look, how they are going to act, how I can show something because it’s a visual medium. It just feels natural and organic for me. I don’t have any principle that I don’t like voices or speaking and so on, but for me, it’s more interesting to just explore it through the acting in the characters.
“Most important is my gut feeling, which I’ve learned to trust more.”
Laura: How do you determine if a character is conveying the idea or emotion that you want?
Anna: A lot of times, I record reference videos of myself or other people acting out how we’re imagining. So even if I’m animating, I just record myself a few times on the laptop to get the essence. I don’t copy it with animation, but I have it as a reference. If I’m working with an animator who is animating for me, I try to explain things and make it as clear as possible how I want it to feel. A lot of times you can see it (taking shape) because it takes a long time to animate: maybe three to five seconds a day. So sometimes we can notice, “Oh, actually, he needs to look a little bit more like this.” You don’t usually need to restart, but sometimes things feel wrong, and you start the scene over.
Laura: Do you work with other people to gauge the reaction or is it something that you’re more looking at your own reaction?
Anna: It’s both. Most important is my gut feeling, which I’ve learned to trust more. In the beginning, it’s more like, “What are people going to think?” and now I’m just more like, “No, this is what I think.” I also really like to bounce it off someone if there’s an animator or someone around when I’m shooting. I always like to hear what they think because I know so much about it. Maybe I read more into it than it is to something like this. It’s not so much that I need the other person’s approval, but it’s good to know how other people read it.
Laura: When you’re working on a project, do you tend to draw from your existing inventory of ideas, or do you go out and gather new inspiration?
Anna: When I know what I want to do, I like to have a vision or a sense of how I want to feel, even if it’s not crystal clear. I like to look a lot at references like live-action films, and I like photography a lot. Also from everyday life: I like small things that happen in everyday life. Sometimes I see people and think, “Oh, this person is really funny.” Like, I saw this person driving on this electric wheelchair. But he was driving so fast, wearing really cool sunglasses and with long hair that was blowing in the wind. I try to memorize situations and then try to implement it in what I do. I find how I want it to feel and then research and look at a lot of things and see if there are things that are similar to how I’m imagining it. I try to use that to build something. That can also be going out and looking in the world or looking online for references.
Laura: That’s interesting that you mentioned photography and live-action as big reference points for you as opposed to other animators. Do you intentionally kind of put blinders on and not pay too much attention to what other animators are doing?
Anna: No, it’s not at all intentional. It’s just that there is so much more live-action. It makes it easier to find some gold bits there. Not that much stop-motion being made and a lot of it is family films or like really dark and creepy stuff—which I love, but it’s not exactly what I do.
“Sometimes reality is better than your imagination. Sometimes when I try to make things up, I cannot make them as funny as a really good observation of something that happens.”
Laura: Who are some of the photographers you follow and the elements that you are drawn to?
Anna: I like when they capture things that are very human and is a mix of humor but also empathy for the character. Like the British photographer Martin Parr. His stuff is really funny and very human. There’s just something so hilarious and charming about it. And the Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjörk—I think his work is also weird and human and humorous.
Sometimes reality is better than your imagination. Sometimes when I try to make things up, I cannot make them as funny as a really good observation of something that happens. You’re like, “This is too good to be true. This is so weird.” I find that a lot with photography compared to illustration, for example. Illustrations tend to be more polished and nice. Photography can have more humor to it.
Laura: Yes, I can be more surprised by a photographer— an illustrator is in charge of the whole world, whereas a photographer is kind of at the mercy of all of the random things that are happening around them.
Anna: Yes, just observing other things and just trying to capture it.
Laura: I saw that you worked on the Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs. How is your process different if you’re working on a really big project like that, as opposed to something where you’re owning it all yourself?
Anna: Yeah, it’s super different. It’s like night and day. I was working on “Enough” when I got the offer to work on Isle of Dogs. I just paused”Enough,” and I went for four months to work on Isle of Dogs. Then I went back to finishing up my film, so it was even more contrast. With “Enough,” I was alone every day in a dark basement, and also I was in charge of everything—I was fixing this, animating that, building the props, fixing things, setting up sets.
Then I went to Isle of Dogs, which is a hundred-person crew where everyone has a super-specific role. I got assigned this shot to animate, and I have a brief on how to do exactly this shot. Normally, you have to know how to do everything on the set of stop-motion. Everything in the set is hot glued to not move, and if it comes loose, you just pick the glue gun and fix it. But (for larger productions), you have to find an assistant director, and they have to call a set-dresser and walkie-talkie the dresser to come with a glue gun to glue a little branch or something.
My fingers were itching a bit from being used to solving everything, but it was also a really nice break to not be in charge of everything. When I did “Enough,” I would go home and (the project) would stay in me—I wasn’t free from it all the time. I would think about how to do a shot, and what I’m going to work on on Monday, and what my plans are to solve this, and track my progress. It was really nice to go to Isle of Dogs where my only responsibility is to animate this little character. I have two days, and I don’t need to care about anything else.
It was also really inspiring to be around so many talented people. I was trying to absorb all the knowledge like a sponge—how they do different processes, build amazing puppets, and set the lights.
Laura: What are you working on right now? What’s on the horizon for you?
Anna: I’m working on a short film. We didn’t start to produce it yet, but I’m working on the storyboard and then putting it together as a sketch film so I know how long each shot is going to be because I don’t want to animate too little. I do the editing with a quite detailed storyboard. I got a little bit of funding from Sweden to do the pre-production development, and then I’m going to try to apply for funding to produce it. It will be my first short film outside of studying, which I really enjoy to have more time. When you study, you have to present an idea on a Monday and then you have something new—it’s so tightly scheduled. Especially with the lockdown, I had extra time to really marinate my ideas and let them mature.