With 2012 Cartoon d’Or award winner, the hugely popular Oh Willy… available online from today, it seemed only right to revisit our interview from 2012 with one-half of its directorial duo, Emma De Swaef. Although we focused on many different elements of her filmmaking in the interview, it was hard to talk about her work without discussing Oh Willy… at great length – here are the highlights from that discussion and of course the film.

Fifty-something Willy returns to the naturist community where he has spent his youth to visit his dying mother. When she dies shortly after he arrives, Willy is confronted with the choices he made in his life. In confused sadness he flees away into the forest. After a rough start he finds the motherly protection of a big gentle hairy beast.

Completely made out of wool or textile, the combination of these materials with the nudism in Oh Willy… is a match made in heaven, but was nudism/naturism always something you wanted to include in your latest creation or was it more inspired by the materials you were working with?

The main inspiration source was Diane Arbus’ photos of people living in nudist colonies. The photos are as poetic as they are uncomfortably banal and confronting. We wanted to achieve the same tension between poetry and shockingly uncensored imagery by combining the wool with the theme of naturism and question of what it means to live in a natural way.

Whilst there is no doubting the unusual storyline that unfolds throughout the near 17 minute running time of Oh Willy… and it’s something you won’t forget very quickly, the story is always going to somewhat play second fiddle to the film’s striking visual style. It’s hard to even imagine how you go about creating a film entirely out of textiles such as wool and although you describes it as “a comforting, warm, forgiving material”, what was it really like to work with?

It did create some extra work. We wanted specific parts of the the wool to move at every frame, so even if there was no movement we asked the animators to touch the puppets before recording the frame- being careful not to touch any of the fibres on the set around it. Wool also ‘breathes’, so we couldn’t take overnight breaks, every shot had to be finished in one day: this usually meant very long days for the animators.

Nearly all the shots were conceived based on the limitations of the wool. We wanted to retain the fuzzy, wiry texture of the wool so green-keying was almost immediately ruled out. We have a very low-tech approach and wanted to create a sense of wide open space on set without relying too much on post-production. Every element in every shot was a real on-set element so we had to come up with all kinds of on-set solutions to make everything look ‘real’. For example, distant objects needed to be scaled down and diffused to create a sense of distance, we strapped wool to the lenses to create foreground fog, we made huge diffusion panels using cheap plastic and created clouds by suspending bits of freshly cut sheep’s wool on chicken wire.

Whilst Oh Willy… obviously stems from a style developed during you studies, you weren’t alone in creating this animated masterpiece. A year in production, you were not only aided by the talented team you surrounded herself with, but by co-director Marc James Roels. So how exactly where directing duties split on such a precise, time-consuming shoot?

Marc was DOP and I was in charge of the puppets, all the other things we just sort of did together. We’ve been living and working together for such a long time now the collaboration felt very natural, and we’re already busy making a new film together.

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