Alessia Cecchet and Josh Tuthill Illambra Interview

Conversation with a creative duo from Santa Cruz, California: Alessia Cecchet and Josh Tuthill talk about their work with mixed media, motifs and inspirations of their films and about filmmaking in general. You can check out Josh’s “Black Dog” and Alessia’s “Onikuma” in our online library: https://www.illambra.com/programs/black-dog-3b2410 https://www.illambra.com/programs/onikuma-fa58b9

ILLAMBRA: Tell us a bit about your work together. Do you share a common interest in the themes and visual language of your films?  In which way do you collaborate?

AC & JT: We met while studying for our MFA (Master in Fine Arts), and we immediately clicked because we shared a passion for stop motion animation, the visual arts, dark/introspective things, and absurd/surreal situations. Now, after many years together, we still share the same interests, and we keep exchanging new ideas, finds, and inspirations. We collaborate by exchanging ideas and freely talking about our projects. On a more technical level, Josh often helps me with sound and animation technique questions, while I help with my knowledge in cinematography and with some construction manual labor – like finding branches to use as trees or shaking rocks and foam pieces in a box to create realistic-looking bricks for a miniature wall. Additionally, when we are in the post-production phase, we are the first to see each others’ rough cuts.

Josh Tuthill

ILLAMBRA: Stop motion in the digital age – benefits of this technique?

JT: It allows me to work in both worlds, the digital and the physical. So while the final film and its various shots come out digitally, the tactile nature of the process is still imbued in each shot. This relationship is an excellent benefit for me. It allows me to continue to work in a very physical sculptural practice while giving me the ease of access to working digitally. I see stop motion as giving me the access that I want for both of the worlds.

AC: Using my hands! In digital filmmaking, I struggle with the lack of a material connection with the tangible world. Sometimes I can feel alienated because digital film lacks a connection with the tangible (for example, there is no loading of the film camera), and as an artist who finds inspiration in the textures and materials around me, I find this difficult to deal with. Working with sculpture, stop motion and fibers, allows me to stay connected with my practice throughout the process, stay inspired and happy 🙂

ILLAMBRA: Does animation, especially stop motion, which many would still observe as a technique for children’s films actually emphasize motifs in your films and in which way? Why did you choose it in the first place?

JT: It helps to emphasize motifs and themes in my films. I grew up watching a lot of animation and stop motion, and I think that it has always had some sort of effect on my work. But, I don’t feel like I ever made a “first” specific choice to work in stop motion. I fell in love with working with sculptural forms, and this organically led me to start to bring movement to these sculpture pieces. It wasn’t until experimenting more with stop motion as a tool that led me to work with narratives and building the stories around these objects. I still love the surrealism of cartooning and try to add it to my characters and worlds as often as I can.

AC: I love stop motion because it allows me to maintain a material connection with my film. Stop motion allows me to animate objects and fibers and also carefully depict these through a lighting setup that is cinematographic. I love cinematography, and being able to use my knowledge in this field to craft tridimensional images that have a photographic quality is essential to me. Additionally, stop motion animation allows me to create images that would be otherwise too difficult to generate without a big budget – and I am not a big fan of CGI anyway. 

ILLAMBRA: Working with animation in a way offers a lot of freedom, in terms of organizing your shootings, successful working with limited budget… a lot can be achieved by the author herself/himself. Is this an ideal of independent filmmaking?

AC: Personally, animating through stop motion is my favorite part. It’s much less stressful because I can take my time, and be alone while doing it. It’s akin to an artistic studio practice, and I find that very fulfilling. I don’t think stop motion animation is, however, an ideal form; one still needs the space and the time to shoot – which, depending on where one lives, can be hard to achieve. I think there are other modes – for example, working with found footage or found images – that are easier to work with under limited access to resources. At the end of the day, I think independent filmmaking is achievable under most circumstances as long as the filmmaker is flexible and is able to realistically look at what they can be achieve given the available resources – that is when one can make the most out of film and create unique visions.

JT: In some ways, I think it is animations ability to allow a filmmaker control over every aspect of the film intoxicates a few of us independent filmmakers and artists. The opposite of that is the slow pace that comes with working with animation independently. There is undoubtedly a relationship between the two that a filmmaker needs to understand before jumping into an animation project. The process is just so slow at times, and you can feel like you have fallen into a hole and are slowly digging yourself out a frame at a time. I still love it; even with the daunting nature of the process, the freedom and control make up for any drawbacks you have with time.

ILLAMBRA: A question for Alessia: you often work with mixed media, combining real footage and animated sequences with no attempt to bridge the stylistic and technical differences. These shifts are obviously on purpose, representing different levels of experiencing reality… Can you tell us more about that?

AC: I believe that the idea that humanity has all the answers is anthropocentric, patriarchal and oppressing. For this reason, one of the guiding principles of my artistic practice is to portray the world as complex, ambiguous, and sometimes, unknowable. I reject a binary understanding of the world and I embrace opacity, open-endedness, and lacuna. In my work as a filmmaker, I employ an array of media that allow me to render a partial, ununified and fragmented perspective. Stop motion animation, sculpture, fibers, found footage and original footage all contribute to a non-unified experience that, both in the form and content, allow for the viewer to step in and actively work with the piece in order to create meaning. If taken, the invitation to coauthor the artwork creates a personal version of the artwork that the viewer is more keen to make theirs, which hopefully translates into something they care about. I use this mode of expression in my work with animal representation because I want to promote an understanding of the animal other that looks at the animal as an individual and not a general species.

Alessia Cecchet

ILLAMBRA: And another one for Alessia: tell us a bit more about “Onikuma”, your synopsis reveals just a bit, yet there is so much hidden beneath its haunting images and atmosphere… 

AC: The idea for Onikuma came to me after I read a short story by Curzio Malaparte, an italian writer and war correspondent known for mixing reality and fiction. The story told about a frozen lake on the Eastern front during WWI, where soldiers would go to admire numerous horse heads that stuck out of the surface of the lake. The legend said that these horses had fled a fire and had run into the lake; the water was so cold that the horses worked as a catalyzer and made the water freeze instantly, trapping them inside. The fictional phenomenon refers to the real phenomenon of supercooling, which is when water is so pure and so cold that it does not become frozen until an external element enters it. Although this phenomenon could never occur in the real world but only in a laboratory, the image of the frozen horses was so evocative to me that I started thinking about how I could transform this image into a film. It took me three years to write and shoot Onikuma. After the initial impression of the frozen horses, other images started to appear and a loose narrative started to form in my mind. I wanted to engage with storytelling, deceit, lies and power dynamics. At the same time I wanted to recreate the sense of contemplation that emerged from the original short story, so I decided to make a film in which all the moments of action were gone and viewers would only see the moment before and the moment after an event. In my view, this decision allows for viewers to decide for themselves what happened in the narrative and create individual versions of this film. Versions that are more personal, and rely on the viewer’s past experiences, dreams, fantasies, memories, and trauma.

ILLAMBRA: Two questions for Josh at once: both of your films, “Black dog” and “The sexual practice of the trees”, feature fantastic scenery, light setting, and very expressive “protagonists”, that together with other elements create a unique surreal atmosphere. In your biography you’ve mentioned the influence of David Lynch’s films to your work, could you tell us a bit more about the inspiration for the whole visual language you’ve created? And also, about the process of creating your “film sets” and puppets you use?

JT: Lynch is someone who has inspired me among other artists like the Quay Brothers, Gerald Scarfe,  Katsuhiro Otomo, Pink Floyd, Goya, and John Frame. Most of these artists have a very oppressive and dark aesthetic that defines their work. But it is also playful in their way, and this is something I have always strived to have in my work. I spend a lot time researching visual material that will help me define the language of the films. Goya has always been a significant influence on me, and I often refer back to paintings to set up a specific tone for a shot or a set and puppet. The initial building process is where I work through many of the concepts that I want to portray in my film; it is a very intuitive practice that allows me to respond to things that I am building and let that feed into the film. This enables me to work with ideas both mentally and physically and to see which ones I respond to the most in a significant way. The building process for the puppets is very reminiscent of a typical sculptor’s process. I work through the general builds in clay and other materials, create molds if necessary, and finalize with silicon, usually, for my puppets and then put everything together on an armature.  I try to build as much as I can, but I do, at times, source outside materials to reuse for my films. I like finding old Barbie and GI Joe clothes to dress my puppets. It realy depends on what I need and what I think will work. For sets, I tend to build things out of simple everyday materials and work them to fit the final shot. Most of my time on sets is spent trying to figure the most dynamic way to create the necessary perspective and then creating the scaled models that fit that need. This is always a challenging but fun problem to work with as everything is being built up. I also spend a ridiculous amount of time playing with how the lighting will look. I tend to be very slow with lighting my puppets and sets, and I think it is because it becomes incredibly vital to convey the world through the camera. 

I view the construction process as a sort of meditation of working with my hands and constructing concepts, while I sort of feel the narrative that these characters and locations will inhabit. This way, I respond organically to the things that I am physically building and the concepts that I have jumping around in my head. It is not a fast process by any means, but I like how the sculptor part of me and the filmmaker side have this kind of ongoing conversation.

“Black Dog” 2017

ILLAMBRA: And now the question we use to ask other authors as well: Most probably, it is easier to make a film made than to get it seen, shown and distributed. Can you tell us some of your experiences with the audience, audience feedback, and the channels you used to get your films to the people?

AC: As independent makers, we are very grateful for platforms like Illambra, which allow us to show our work to a wider audience while maintaining our true artistic vision. I have thought many times of trying to do something more “commercial” but I really don’t think I am the right person for the job. I like work that creates new neurological connections and sparks unexpected love affairs between neurons – so I am ok with having a limited audience. Film festivals are definitely a wonderful place to share my work and I like to meet those 1 or 2 individuals who appreciate my work. At the end of the day, the most important thing to me is to make work. After it’s done, I like to release it into the world – but at that point it is it’s own entity, out there, on its own.

ILLAMBRA: For the end, could you tell us about your plans for the future, about some upcoming projects and collaborations?

AC & JT: In 2019 we made this bumper film for a festival – a very short animation about Bigfoot finding love in the form of a hunter. For some reason, a lot of people seem to like that 2-minute animation, so we are thinking about making that into a web series made of little everyday vignettes that represent ordinary life for Bigfoot and his hunter partner. However, at the moment we are both busy with individual projects – I am working on a trilogy of short films while Josh is currently working on another stop motion short about a man who is brainwashed into believing his own greatness by political and social rhetoric. – so the web series might have to wait a bit.

ILLAMBRA: Thank you both for this lovely conversation, we hope to see more of your future projects in our online program and also running in the film festivals worldwide.

The film “Onikuma” by Alessia Cecchet is available for streaming in our online library: https://www.illambra.com/programs/onikuma-fa58b9

The film “Black Dog” by Josh Tuthill has been recently added to our online library and also available for streaming: https://www.illambra.com/programs/black-dog-3b2410