Mascha Halberstad at the premiere of Knor at the Berlinale. Photo: Dirk Michael Deckbar
family movie grunt, about a girl and her piglet, feels remarkably real. Not only thanks to the concrete character of stop-motion animation and the recognisably Dutch setting, but also because of the psychological realism. “Children can really have something.”
It’s all like this Real. That is the surprising impression of Mascha Halberstad’s long animation debut, family film gruntwhich is further enhanced by a tour in studio Holy Motion in Arnhem (which she founded in 2020 with producer Marleen Slot) and a conversation with the director.
The real thing is in several things. To begin with, the stop motion (grunt is The Netherlands’ first long stop-motion film). Of all known animation techniques, stop motion the most real. Because it is concrete. What you see is what is there. that chair really exists. That piglet is real. You can touch them, pick them up, spin them and put them back. Or give them to someone as a present, like Halberstad did with the dolls out her video clip for The Prodigy’s Wild Frontier (2015), which she donated to bandleader Liam Howlett. That is different from figures that only exist as lines in a computer.
That wonderful difference in reality between what you know is made up – that piggy isn’t really alive – and what you can see that actually exists, is where stop-motion gets a large part of its persuasiveness. Your mind gets a little tricked: the concrete of the objects becomes the real of the world becomes the believable of the animated life.
As Halberstad says, when I speak to her in the studio: “What I love about stop-motion is what you see is what you get.” She points to a set up that has been set up: “Here too: you put the camera down, you put the light on it and that’s it. So you can also approach it more like live-action, because you stand in front of a set and think: I want the camera a little more like this, or the light a little like that. It is super concrete.”
Really very small
The slowly growing popularity of stop motion in times of computer violence (think of the Aardman Studios, Studio Laika and Wes Anderson movies like Isle of Dogs, 2018) is reminiscent of the triumphant return of physical effects in action films. Of course we know that these are controlled explosions and not actually dangerous – but experiencing them physically with the actors in the same room cheats our brains in a similar way: it increases the tension and therefore credibility. Those computer effects were never there Real. You saw that and you felt it.
I ask Halberstad what kind of hair the ideal size is to work on? “I work quite small, for stop-motion. That started because I was working from home, with little space. And I’ve gotten used to that. At Pedri Animation, who make the dolls for us, they were grumbling: why do they have to be so fucking small?! Because Knor is really very small. At Studio Laika, the dolls would be two or three times the size. And then they also become more refined.” But that’s not what Halberstad is looking for: “Everything is so perfect at Laika, and they polish away so much in post-production that it almost looks like computer animation again. While with us you just see the seams. I don’t want to brush that off either. You can see it was made.”
Which gives you a world that looks like you can touch it. Especially because it’s all that ordinary stuff. Which of course is not necessary: you can also make stop-motion as strange as you want. But with Halberstad, only the faces are really caricatured; the rest is realistic. Her world is ours. “I’m really looking for that realism,” she says. “In grunt for example, is a dining room scene. And I think it’s great to make that scene so self-evident – while in animation, of course, nothing is self-evident – that you forget that it is animation. It just becomes a movie. I got that grunt also heard people say: I had completely forgotten that I was watching animation. Then I think: it worked!”
Shock of recognition
What surprised me, upon watching, was a small jolt of recognition. Apparently I didn’t expect this level of familiarity with a long animation. Main character Babs (voiced by Hiba Ghafry), who gets a piglet from her suddenly reappeared grandfather (Kees Prins), does not live in a country far far away, but in the Netherlands. And moreover, not the classic polder landscape (as Halberstad used for her touching short film Hello Mr De Vries, 2012), but a typical residential area. With that typical terraced housesThat recognizable interiorsthat inevitable Canta LX.
Suddenly the Netherlands exists in stop-motion, much like England exists in Aardmans Wallace & Gromit. “It’s actually an ode to my childhood,” says Halberstad. “Not the Netherlands of the tourists, but the Netherlands that we know. Only I chose a terraced house from the fifties and sixties, while I myself lived in one twenty years later. Because I liked it better.”
Walking around the studio confirms that familiarity. That fence. That display in the butcher shop. That street with sidewalk and drains. Animator Jasper Kuipers, who is working in the studio, points out the wear and tear of some frequently used parts. And says he likes that. And it’s true: that patina reinforces the impression that these things have had an existence.
Farts and poo
Halberstad also searches for authenticity in the characters. Because although grunt scenes with gossip and slapstick (and an impressive amount of farts and shit), especially the smaller moments, the everyday interactions, are rooted in psychological realism. My favorite character is therefore Tijn (Matsen Montsma), Babs’ boyfriend, who reacts so subtly from the sidelines that it gives the whole story more color. With a bit of disappointment here, a touch of suspicion there – small, layered emotions instead of big, unambiguous ones.
It is also because of that psychological realism that some scenes in which a child is extensively cheated by an adult confidant, hit harder than you might expect with these caricatural faces. Halberstad does this consciously: “Children are increasingly being protected against everything. But they can really have something.” Although she admits: “If you had done this in live-action, you would not have gotten away with it.”
That it is possible in animation, according to Halberstad, is also due to the voice actors. Especially Kees Prins, who despite everything makes grandpa a “charming bastard”. Natural voice acting with room for improvisation (because the actors are not recorded separately, but are together in the studio) forms the basis of Halberstad’s approach. The importance of sound is underestimated, she says: “Certainly if you have a lot of dialogue, more than half of the quality is determined by the audio. That will carry you along. You are more likely to look at something with good sound and worse picture than the other way around. I’m more into the sound myself. Animation is actually stage for me: I direct more on emotions than on violent camera movements. It does have an action scene gruntbut that is not the most important to me.”
Do it yourself
She came up with animating herself as a director, with a project of this magnitude (grunt lasted seven years, of which a year and a half was animation), little matter. It is something that Halberstad, despite all her enthusiasm, noticeably lacks. “Marleen and I happened to be talking about maybe doing something smaller again. After we Munya in me had looked back.” That is a short film by Halberstad from 2013, which is also recognizably set in the Dutch built-up area. “Munya is the film I am most proud of. It’s not as perfect as grunt, but he comes straight from the heart. That is what the film radiates.”
Given her technical skills and penchant for realism, also psychologically, a mature long animation would not be a far-fetched next step. Halberstad hesitates. “With children’s films you can get away with more. Things that adults might find cliché. Then you have a valve.” But she agrees that her great example, Wes Andersons fantastic mr. Fox (2009), does just that: psychologically realistic animation, also for adults, with a slapstick valve every now and then. “Working for an older audience is also a real challenge. We are now making a prequel about how Babs’ parents fell in love, which is already more for adolescents.”
She doesn’t rule out anything, she just wants to say. Also a possible series of grunt not – but he may be directing someone else (after so many years of production she’s done with it herself for a while). She also likes merchandising of the extremely cuddly piglet, if asked. “Of course there are rights issues attached to it, because it is based on Tosca Menten’s book. But of course it would be crazy. The film was sold to Japan and they asked for merchandise there, so who knows.” Because if there is one country that is good at cute merch, it is Japan. And then maybe everyone will be able to hold a small Oar for themselves. In real life.
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Mascha Halberstad about Knor – Filmkrant
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