In her first year CalArts stop motion short Somebody Take The Wheel, Animator Kenzie Sutton takes the mundane regularity of day to day life and manifests it through the distinct visualisation of a literal cycle, the form of a large wheel which keeps on turning. Sutton juxtaposes this wheel with a series of vignettes that focus on the individuals who live upon it. For instance, we witness people getting out of bed in the morning and going to work regular jobs. The combination of these scenes with the wider shots of the wheel cleverly highlight the strange absurdity that comes with everyday living and the film’s stop motion animation style further compliments this, giving the representation of human existence a tactile, toy-like sensibility. DN sat down with Sutton as Somebody Take The Wheel begins its festival, including a screening today at Palm Springs ShortFest to learn more about how she made the film entirely by herself from start to finish.
What inspired you to make a film about the mundanities of day to day life?
I started developing the idea for this film while working a retail job at a women’s clothing store in 2019, I hated that job. I felt like an inflatable tube guy air dancer flailing around every day at work selling capri pants, mock neck sweaters, and freakin’ ascots I couldn’t care less about. That was the initial seed for the film.
What does the beginning of the filmmaking process look like for you? Are you scriptwriting and storyboarding or accumulating the aesthetic of the film?
I wrote and storyboarded it out Fall and Winter of 2019. I was beginning production, which in my process starts with fabrication, when March 2020 happened and the film deepened after that. I moved back in with my family for most of the pandemic and we were privileged to be mostly unaffected except for the staying at home performing routine tasks all alone-together part. The film I’d been working on felt eerily predictive of a reality we were thrown into. The entire film was shot and edited during the height of the pandemic, it added a layer of loneliness to the film which was originally plain existential dread.
The wheel shot and set is incredible! I’m guessing that took a fair amount of work, to say the least, to bring together and then manage and shoot practically on set?
Pre-March 2020 I had already built the bones of my four foot by four foot wheel set, and had left it in a shed for what was supposed to be three weeks. By the time I got my wheel out of that shed six months had gone by and it was covered in spiders. The stage I was supposed to shoot the film in was right next to where I’d built and stored the wheel but I no longer had access to that space because of Covid restrictions. Suddenly I was transporting this obnoxiously large wheel set around LA. Multiple friends helped me move it in and out of the U-Haul, I nearly took down my neighbour’s fence, and when I’d built it I hadn’t even thought about door widths but I got super lucky because it just barely fit through standard door frames.
I did everything on this film myself. Somewhat out of necessity and somewhat because I wanted to.
While I wasn’t shooting the wheel I had to live with it in my kitchen for months, it took up an eighth of my apartment’s footprint. I shot most of the film impromptu in my tiny apartment but the wheel scene required higher ceilings and a much larger space. Stephen Chiodo of Chiodo Bros Studio was amazing enough to let me shoot that scene in his studio. In order to animate the puppet on top of the wheel, I had to climb up metal stairs and prop my computer up on top of about 20 apple crates. I had to turn the wheel, move the puppet, and move anything else that was animated on the wheel like a car or lawn mower or the air dancer before taking the photo. Then I had to remove my puppet from the top of the wheel, change takes in Dragonframe, and take a clean slate of the set without the wheel for every frame of the film. And I shot that scene on 1 1/2s, it was insane, but once that scene was shot I was able to go into editing.
How many creative hats were you wearing across making Somebody Take The Wheel? From the sounds of it seems you were involved in everything.
I did everything on this film myself. Somewhat out of necessity, it was much harder with Covid restrictions to work in a group, and somewhat because I wanted to. Some parts of the process are really meditative like fabrication. I find it so fulfilling to make things with my hands in a tangible way. For this film I made my puppets’ heads out of resin splash casts and the bodies out of wire, foam, brass stock, and epoxy. Their hands/arms were silicone casts. I painted them with acrylic paints and their eyes were pieces of vinyl that I would lose constantly. I still find little eyeballs on my apartment floor sometimes. The wheel was made out of cardboard cement mixing tubes from home depot stretched over a four foot by four foot by four foot wooden frame. I then plastered over the cement cylinder and added sidewalks out of matte board. I made the houses out of foam core, balsa wood, and painter’s tape.
Which part of the process do you feel most engaged with? Is it during the conceiving of ideas or, like you just mentioned, during the practical hands-on side that comes with stop motion animation.
Other parts of the process feel really electric, like writing and boarding it. I get energized thinking about new ideas and ways to do them. Animating it gets me into a flow state and passes time in a really crazy way. I love adding in little replacement animation where I can. The dog pee is six resin cast pee splash sculptures I made. Editing is exciting because you start to really see this idea you had come to life.
What were both the challenges and benefits of being the sole creative?
The challenge of being the sole creator was the amount of physical labour there was to do and the amount of time it meant being alone in my studio. The positives were that everything came out in a cohesive style without any trouble because my hands were behind all of it. I was also able to work whenever I wanted and on my timeline and I got to tell the story I wanted to tell that was true to my experience.
From those days in the clothing store thinking up ideas through to the final edit, how long did it all take to come together?
Overall the production of this film started in October 2019 and the film wrapped in March 2021 so it took about 18 months to make. It probably could’ve been done sooner if the restrictions hadn’t messed the shoot up but I think it would have been a different film then. I believe in process affecting story and story influencing process. The labor-intensive, repetitive, lone work that this film required just lends itself well to the feelings in the film and I believe you can see that while watching it.
I get energized thinking about new ideas and ways to do them. Animating it gets me into a flow state and passes time in a really crazy way.
Important penultimate question, what have you done with the wheel since shooting? Surely you haven’t thrown it away!
The wheel lived in my apartment for a while but I have such small square footage that I eventually had to have a wheel funeral. I kept the houses and gave them to friends but the actual wheel is gone!
Will you be returning to the world of stop motion animation anytime soon?
I’m finishing up another film right now called Chutes that follows a similar story structure with vignettes but it has a bigger through-line. It’s my quarter-life crisis film exploring capitalism and the rules of society. It feels like a sister piece to Somebody Take the Wheel, it lives in the same world as the wacky waving inflatable tube man. I developed a new way to make my puppets for Chutes using paper clay and Crayola crayons. Very excited to share it!