One of the many wonderful charms of animation as a form is how its visual style can intersect with its narrative, allowing both elements of the filmmaking process to complement and inform each other. It’s that unification of form which makes Animator Jenny Wright and Writer/Producer Jake Cunningham’s short film Blue Bottle such a delight. Their film tells the story of a lonely hot water bottle questioning their own purpose when they turn from hot to cold. This personal transition isn’t sudden, it’s subtle and fluid and becomes echoed in the film’s sparing and beautiful animation. If you can’t tell already, we’re big fans of this film and are proud to premiere it for the DN audience today alongside a conversation with Wright and Cunningham about Blue Bottle’s creative genesis, the importance of stripping the story back to create evocative moments, and the influence of Studio Ghibli on its meditative visual style.
Who had the idea for Blue Bottle first?
Jenny Wright: Blue Bottle appeared to me as a written side of A4 that Jake, the writer and producer, had been sitting on for a while. He asked me to be the director on the project, I said yes and then we went about trying to find someone who would back our project. The lovely folks at BFI NETWORK and Film London were willing to take a chance on the idea, something we’re hugely grateful for, as “hot water bottle going through an existential crisis” isn’t the most common idea out there. When we received the funding we went back to the story together and developed it into an animation script with a basic storyboard. It was a collaborative process from the start. Jake will tell you more about how he came about writing this hot water bottle parable.
Jake Cunningham: I came up with the idea like I’m sure lots of other writers do when I couldn’t fall asleep. When I was a child, I would have a hot water bottle every night during winter, something I still do now for myself and my partner. One night, when I was lying awake not able to sleep, the hot water bottle that was warm a few hours ago was now cold, and I began thinking about its strange little lifecycle. I started considering the relationship between human and hot water bottle and how I controlled its being – then I imagined, if it were to exist, what an independent, sentient hot water bottle would do with its life if I wasn’t controlling it. When I wrote it down, it sounded like one of my stranger dreams, but I don’t think it was…
I was instantly gripped when watching Blue Bottle as the visual style is so minimal and fluid. It feels almost meditative in its sensibility. What informed that visual approach?
JW: Stylistically, simplicity was important from the start of the project. Jake showed me the Studio Ghibli films Only Yesterday and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and how moments in them only visualised what was absolutely necessary. This became a core part of the film’s visual language. It is always satisfying when symbols and sounds in the film become part of the storytelling, and we wanted to strip the story to its most evocative visual and sonic moments. Using sound as part of the narrative gives way for stripping back even more of the visual world as the audience understands so much from a single sound (like our repeating motif of a streaming kettle). It’s delicate, like the visuals, but direct.
We wanted to strip the story to its most evocative visual and sonic moments.
JC: We wanted the film to be spacious, both in its framing and its rhythms. That it could do what hot water bottles do and offer gentle reassurance and comfort. It has a soft rhythm and deliberate pacing, because we want audiences to take time to reflect with the character and with themselves, and interpret the emotions of the story however they like.
That taps into something at the heart of animation as form I think. It has that level of artistry that allows you to tell stories at this pace because you have that total control.
JW: Animation allows us to observe our own lives from a different angle, and in doing so create a space for thought. For me, the idea of slowing down was a key part of the story. If we just create seven minutes for viewers to stop and be peaceful then that’s a success.
Jenny, what’s your technical process when creating animation? Do you specialise in any particular techniques or software?
JW: In terms of making the animation itself, even if the film is digital, I always sketch on paper first. It feels freer doing so. I also made an incredibly basic storyboard on paper to show Jake. Once we had that we started discussing the story more, and I built an animatic before we felt ready to move on to animation. The film was made during the pandemic and I had been furloughed, so there was helpfully ample time to sit with the story during this important first phase of filmmaking. I used TV Paint to animate the film, my favourite 2D software, then I export from there and build the film in Premiere Pro.
You mentioned that film began as a page of A4, was that version of the film close to the final product? And did that version need to be changed much for animation purposes?
JW: The core of what the film is about was on that page. We then developed it together into an animation script and visual world. Particularly as it is a silent film, we had to consider how to demonstrate what Jake’s words were saying through my drawings. As Jake’s not the strongest at drawing, something he very happily admits, we spent a lot of time evolving what the characters and spaces could look like, as well as how the story would unfold.
Minimal animation is often wrongly perceived as being quick to make, I’m curious to know how long it took for you to animate the Blue Bottle? Did anything in the narrative or style change as you began storyboarding and creating the animatic for it?
JW: It took months and months to animate Blue Bottle. In some ways it must be quicker to create minimal animation, of course, than more complicated designs. Stripping back the entire film to bare essentials visual wise takes time and considered decision making. With more poetic, symbolic and minimal films, part of the development is creating the language of your film. Perhaps the misconception of speed is that you can’t see this process but hopefully you can feel it by enjoying the film. In the same breath, the way that I draw has been a huge benefit to me in terms of being able to go back and edit parts of the film relatively quickly to alter the story.
The whole film uses the technique ‘boiling’ which is very time consuming but once you have decided to do it then that is how the film is made! Boiling means drawing over the previous image exactly on every frame even when the character is not moving to create a shimmery effect. Huge amounts changed in the narrative in terms of placement and rhythm. There was an understood freedom to the animatic that we could move sections around as needed. Style-wise, I don’t think it changed hugely once we started making the animatic. The section under the bed went through a few iterations but other than that we had the look down quite early on.
For Jake, I want to sneak in a Ghibliotheque question! How do feel your time doing the podcast has shifted your approach to filmmaking and other non-Ghibli aspects of your career?
JC: I don’t think this film would exist without Ghibliotheque. Being part of that podcast was my introduction to Studio Ghibli and of course Isao Takahata, whose expressionism and minimalist, emotional focus hugely inspired Blue Bottle. Takahata’s patient, some might say sloth-like, approach to filmmaking arguably inspired our filmmaking too. With production happening during lockdown, we had the luxury of having more time on our hands than expected, meaning we could spend a bit more time honing, revisiting and reshuffling the story and style, stretching out our production for longer than we expected.
Animation allows us to observe our own lives from a different angle, and in doing so create a space for thought.
As well as Takahata, the shorts and feature film work of Michaël Dudok de Wit were one of our key inspirations, and thanks to Ghibliotheque I was lucky enough to host an event with Michaël, and my co-podcaster Michael Leader, at the BFI Southbank. After meeting there, Michaël was kind enough to keep in touch and talk to Jenny and I about the film and help us examine the story we wanted to tell, how we could go about doing it and what his preferred methods of production would be. It was an incredibly insightful and generous conversation and would never have happened without the podcast!
Speaking of, what’s next for both of you within your filmmaking and other projects?
JW: Jake and I recently submitted a pitch for a new animated poetry project so fingers crossed and watch this space! I’ll be at Central Saint Martins this month teaching a few sound workshops on MA Character Animation. I’m looking forward to being back in the guise of a teacher. I would love to make more short films and music videos so I’m on the look out for those opportunities.
JC: I would love Jenny to make more short films too! Beyond the project Jenny and I have been pitching, I have a children’s adventure story that puts English folklore under a modern lens, that I’m hoping to develop to a feature. Elsewhere, Ghibliotheque rumbles on… we’re currently building our next podcast series and last year released our first book, which examines all the feature work of Studio Ghibli, alongside tonnes of beautiful, high-res artwork and imagery from their films.