The combination of animation with themes of isolation in the hyper-digital age is proving to be a bountiful match. Anime titans Mamoru Hosoda and Masaaki Yuasa have conveyed this through their dense visual tapestries that have confronted our relationship with online space from both optimistic and pessimistic viewpoints. The flexibility of the animated form allows artists to truly capture the sense of disassociation felt through the limited window of online self-expression. This battle with identity is at the forefront of Richan Li’s animated short Babble Bubble, which sees a young girl detach her head and replace it with whichever animal-based persona her online profile requires. It’s a really fun, playful film that’s also enlightening on the discombobulating nature of social media performativity. DN is delighted to present Babble Bubble on our pages today and be joined by Li for a conversation which covers everything from the medieval imagery she drew from in developing the animal personas her protagonist dons to her inventive use of opposing sound effects.
What were the specific themes you wanted to grapple with in Babble Bubble and were there particular sources of inspiration you drew from for the film?
Inspired by Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow and Alex Grigg’s Phantom Limb, I work with vulnerable moments involving depression, anxiety, and fear. My work expresses these feelings in the narrative. The message is: You are not alone. My 2D animation Babble Bubble, uses the metaphor of a girl whose head detaches from her body and is replaced with different heads to translate a personal but not confessional mindset of not being mindful of daily life and splitting one’s identities and behaviours throughout different social media platforms. It is a reflection on the dissociation from self and intimacy in relationships that arises in response to hyper-mediated modern life.
During Babble Bubble’s production, I had lots of help from everywhere, school, family, and friends. Especially in 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic was going on, I suddenly found myself experiencing what Norah, my main character, is experiencing, social connecting relies on social media heavily, exercising at home on a yoga mat, retrospective and trying to be mindful. Fortunately, Babble Bubble’s production held my attention together and kept me away from being overwhelmed by all the information spreading on social media. And thanks to social media and technology, I am able to continue to study, connect with others, and do my grocery shopping through multiple online platforms. And so, to me, my film is a reflection on the dissociation from self and intimacy in relationships that arises in response to hyper-mediated modern life, however, it is not meant as a condemnation of the technology that allows us to stay in touch, but rather as a reminder for us all to stay aware of who we are.
What was the starting point for narrativising these concepts and themes into a story?
The initial idea for my animation started when I tried to express my feelings of not being mindful of life. Not being mindful for me feels like living in a water bubble, or having an invisible wall between me and my surroundings. The ideas were developed into the comics Sleepwalking Life just for visualization and I investigated a little of the physics of how the head and body’s relationship works. In this version, there was a lack of the cause of the detachment: not being mindful in life.
The visual presentation is reflecting Norah’s internal landscape.
“You don’t talk like you when you are on social media,” said my best friend in college, which frustrated me and inspired me. Social media and virtual reality were among the many causes for my not being mindful of the physical world. They could be very reasonable to be utilized as the trigger for my character’s head and body separation. In the comic, the story happens in Chicago, which was where I went to undergraduate school and where I started to notice the ‘not being mindful moments’ in life. The current version is happening in Brooklyn, where I attend my MFA studies at Pratt Institute. The interior design of Norah’s apartment was adjusted to what my Brooklyn apartment looked like. My notion is to create an environment that is familiar to my audience, yet the story happening in this everyday New York apartment is unusual.
Could you walk us through the process of deciding which alternative heads you’d use for Norah and their subsequent metaphors?
Babble Bubble is a story about the internal conflict of Norah, who wants to define her personality, but loses her real self. The response to the conflict lies in her embracing the different aspects of her personality. In the story, Norah literally loses her identity by having her head fall off from her neck and being replaced by other animal-like heads. These other heads are the profile images Norah chooses to set for her different social media platforms. She assigns these animals to represent some particular aspect of her personality. When these other heads take control of her body, not only does her appearance change but also her actions. They force her to act like she portrays herself to be on social media platforms.
There are five heads depicted directly on screen: dog, axolotl, lizard, pigeon, and monkey. Some other heads are bouncing or popping out of Norah’s devices in the background. They indicate Norah’s obsession with creating new personality images on social media. These animal heads are set as Norah’s social media profiles. The visual presentation is reflecting Norah’s internal landscape.
What was your approach to designing the aesthetic of those different heads?
The design of the animal heads is influenced by medieval illustrations of animals or grotesque manuscripts. The medieval artist depicted animals in a very bizarre way. The details of these animals are simplified and replaced by the artists with the subject that they are familiar with. They have the body shape of animals but the anatomy of their face is very human-like.
I really enjoyed the soundtrack and sound design too. It’s playful yet digital which feels apt for the story. Who did you work with in creating it?
The musician for Babble Bubble was Brennan Pollack. This is the first time for both of us collaborating on adding sound to a visual project. I really appreciate Brennan not only bringing out his creativity in sound but also his consideration for the concepts behind these sound elements. Brennan would write to me his interpretation of how the music and Norah’s mindset would associate, and work towards this idea. The current version has lots of foley sounds that are non-literal, and a well-established music flow. Brennan used an airplane sound effect for the axolotl head that Norah has put on. This is the first head Norah had mistakenly put on, therefore the airplane sound represents how her weird journey is taking off from this point.
When these other heads take control of her body, not only does her appearance changes but also her actions.
How was it selecting sounds that were unrelated to the visuals? What meaning did that conjure for you as a filmmaker?
We agreed on the idea of using sounds opposite to or completely unrelated to the visuals they were being connected to in the animatic, thereby representing the overwhelmed mindset of Norah, and delivering the same chaotic feeling to our audience. Whenever there is a new head on Norah, the sound effect and the music will change based on this head’s features. And no matter what the shot or angle is, the sound will continue in order to have the audience immersed in the story. Brennan cultivated this one-of-a-kind music from his creative language to give Babble Bubble a unique voice in storytelling.
How long did it take to make Babble Bubble?
It took around half a year to finalize the concept and script, and a year for the production.
Are there any filmmakers or artists that have influenced you as an animator? When watching Babble Bubble I was reminded of the animators Mamoru Hosoda and Masaaki Yuasa, who both use a similarly flexible animation style to tell stories about our relationship with digital culture.
Thank you! I indeed feel a Summer Wars and Mind Game vibe, really love these films from the two masters, totally mind-blowing and aspiring! Babble Bubble was mostly inspired, visually and conceptually, by Les Mots de la Carpe directed by Lucrèce Andreae, and World of Tomorrow by Don Hertzfeldt. The bouncy, stretchable, and exaggerated character animation best expresses and blends the boundary between realistic physicals vs. virtual fantasy.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
I am working on another bouncy stretchy 2D animated short called Is Duck A Flamingo? and collaborating with an actual game UI/UX designer friend Angie Liu to build a delightful digital realm. Please stay tuned!