Taking 4288 short films and curating them down to just 11 makes Cannes’ ‘in Competition’ programme one of the most elite selections in the whole of the festival circuit. To have your work chosen to play in such a competitive line-up is a real honour for the filmmakers involved, so here at Directors Notes we were excited to see DN regulars Karni&Saul AKA Sulkybunny included in the 76th Festival de Cannes official selections, with their BFI-funded short Wild Summon. Narrated by Marianne Faithfull, the film combines elements of the wildlife documentary with some impressive CGI animation, to portray the ‘dramatic lifecycle’ of wild salmon (in human form). Eager to discuss their novel premise and how they brought it to screen so vividly we invited the filmmaking pair back to our pages to delve under the surface of their short.
Having followed your work for over a decade on Directors Notes, we always expect something a little surreal when we watch a Karni & Saul film and I’m always fascinated by where your ideas come from. With that in mind, where did the motivation to make this blend of wildlife documentary and fantasy film, which follows the lifecycle of wild salmon (in human form), originate?
Where ideas come from is a complex subject… this specific idea originated from a combination of spending time on rivers, and in nature, with kids, wanting to work with a concept that was connected to the natural world, and wanting to inject that element of fantasy we put in all our work. In retrospect, it is quite obvious that our work has always dealt with home (us being in effect immigrants) and travel to and from home. Nature is a super crucial topic now that we are parents and it gives us much joy that we spend so much time in forests, seas and rivers… so it makes sense to represent it in a film. We wanted to try and convey something meaningful in a new way, using that impact to shock people and make them feel something. It’s also a road trip too… and we love the idea of a fish on a road trip.
We see anthropomorphism in animation all the time, but the decision to depict these aquatic creatures in human form is inspired and really amplifies the audience’s engagement in the film. Was it always the plan to portray them this way or did it develop over time and what do you think this depiction adds to the story?
This depiction is what gives the film its impact and it’s a shock tactic as well. It’s not the Little Mermaid and it’s not Watership Down… we were lucky to come up with a concept that walks the line between all of these great examples and has a dialogue with both the classic tradition of animation and the natural history film.
Filmmakers have a lot of power in storytelling and we want to make films that are cutting-edge, but that could also make a difference.
Another aspect of this switch is the issue of empathy. As humans, we seem to have less empathy for creatures that look very different from us, like fish. So in a deep sense, the film is also raising questions about empathy for the foreign and making us think about humanity’s connection with nature. How we connect and why. The people who live on the land, and indigenous people, don’t separate man from nature, it’s all one and we believe that too. It’s the only way to care and to try to save the world, a little bit at a time. Filmmakers have a lot of power in storytelling and we want to make films that are cutting-edge but that could also make a difference.
That makes sense, as I feel a strong connection to wildlife and the environment in a lot of your work, do you feel somewhat of a duty, as filmmakers and storytellers, to create films that tackle these themes? And what’s the message you want an audience to walk away with after watching Wild Summon?
We’ve always made very personal films, never political or anything which deals with big social issues. However, on this project, we were trying to go bigger and wider and make something that delivers an eco message in an engaging and refreshing way. We love nature, so it’s less of a duty and more love poems to the environment. We don’t like telling the viewer what to think or feel, but feeling anything would be good. That’s a success. We are so bombarded with images and content, that to make any kind of mark or impact is already an achievement.
In a deep sense, the film is also raising questions about empathy for the foreign and making us think about humanity’s connection with nature.
Thematically, the film had a big impact on me, but it’s also a short that impresses on a visual level, with its seamless blend of live-action and CGI. The photography is particularly important in grounding this fantasy tale in real life – can you tell us a bit about where and when it was shot and by who? And what was the brief for the shoot?
Thanks. This was a short we got commissioned by the BFI just as the pandemic was hitting and we had to delay the plates shoot for a whole year because of lockdown. So when we traveled to Iceland for an art residency we turned it into a road trip for the family and shot the film then.
It’s what we call “pirate filmmaking” and it’s the only way we know
It was important for us to make this film into a real experience, something to remember, so we worked with our son Yuli, 15 at the time, who is a talented drone pilot, and shot all the aerial cinematography. We took our time to learn and train for the underwater filming, which was awesome! Being in the rivers and the white waters is something none of us will ever forget. We really did become like fish and traveled the journey the salmon would around Iceland. When you immerse yourself in nature, you feel and document in a different, more organic, way. It wasn’t always easy, but it was intense. It’s what we call “pirate filmmaking” and it’s the only way we know. We were all DoPs, all art directors and editors, and that filters into the film. It’s a project of the heart.
Watching the film I was really fascinated by the care that had obviously gone into making the computer-generated elements blend with the live-action photography, with the textures and lighting particularly impressive in the CGI. What was the biggest challenge in post-production and is there anything you’d do differently if you were making the film again?
Again thank you. The whole thing was a challenge from start to finish and we enjoyed facing it every single minute…well, nearly every minute! Luckily, being in the middle of Covid, as hard and scary as that was, allowed for a certain amount of time and calm during production. Technically, I would say the biggest challenges were the water and crowd simulations, both fields that really belong to big film studio crews, rather than one guy in a shed. 😉
To be honest, looking back, we wouldn’t do anything differently. This process was like a fine art process, with hours on the road and in the studio labouring on our art. Being immersed.
We have a very particular way of treating animation and we make sure the plates aren’t made for animation but stand alone in their own right. A photographic filmic lead to even the most fantasy-led films. That’s a very different approach, nonconventional, and it comes from the combination of us being photographers, filmmakers, and animators. It’s a hybrid, just like our films.
Another part of post-production I absolutely loved was the ever-present score, as it feels like a character almost in itself, driving the film forward. What was the inspiration/motivation behind the music?
The music is another element that steps away from the classic Natural History documentary. As you say, music is like another character and it felt right to give it a strong direction. Our inspirations came from road trips, journeys, and Home. Home being the Middle East for us and our DNA is connected to the music from our homeland and that’s where the mix of Oud and exotic scales in the Wild Summon score come from. Though Saul was lead on the music and even sang, we also collaborated with the wonderful Vilk Collective to record additional instruments and some vocals. Karni’s breathing is also in the film too. It’s very much a reflection of us, a self-portrait of our journey as humans through the pandemic. The survival of humans too.
We just approached her and she said yes. Sometimes it happens like that.
Finally, how can we talk about the film and not mention Marianne Faithfull’s voiceover? How did you get the actress involved and what do you think her narration adds to the film?
Marianne needs no introduction. She is iconic, with a strong female voice and presence. We knew we wanted a female voice, but one that was powerful and has its own journey of survival and that’s exactly what Marianne has. The journey is female-led, so the voice is a knowing, older voice to guide us through. It’s rough and you can tell it’s had a ride of its own. Like a female Tom Waits. To get her involved, to be honest, we just approached her and she said yes. Sometimes it happens like that.
With Wild Summon screening at Cannes this month, are you already working on new projects, if so what can we look forward to?
We are in recovery from two years of Wild Summon. We’re trying to make money and get back into other work. Karni has just released a photography book on motherhood called Eye Mama with photographers worldwide. We are also developing a feature and a series based on Wild Summon. We also love making music videos. We have our hands and fingers in many pies, but the balance isn’t simple with two kids and an artist’s life. There’s always some juggling, but also it’s one long adventure and we love that.