Despite its soft and malleable aesthetic, Lina Kalcheva’s stop motion animation Other Half asks some pretty intense philosophical questions surrounding the nature of relationships in contemporary society. Fundamentally, Kalcheva’s short is an exploration of the pressures both society and we as individuals, place on the requirement to find a relationship. The short follows Ren, a lone individual who is on a heroic quest to find a partner with the hopes of becoming ‘complete’. This ‘completeness’ is manifested in Ren’s world through the merging of two people enact once they form a relationship. It’s a potent visual metaphor that asks questions of who we are and what we might lose when we become so devoted to another person. DN is delighted to share Other Half below alongside a conversation with Kalcheva where she offers us a deep dive into the process of making the film as part of her final years at the National Film and Television School whose 2021 Graduate Showcase is where we first fell for the film.
What interested you in exploring the nature of relationships and how they can challenge our individuality?
We wanted to explore the ways in which changing yourself to be in a relationship won’t make you complete and that true completeness can only come from within. It is essentially a coming-of-age film, but Ren’s romantic struggle isn’t just about ‘growing up’, it is about making peace with oneself and not defining one’s value based on one’s romantic relationships.
On a personal level, I’ve grown up with stories about epic adventures and quests, and they often felt like a point of reference for interpreting my own life experiences. I always related to the emotion in these stories, even if the subject matters themselves were far from reality. I was looking to express that perspective with this film, using the framework of Greek mythology and heroic journeys but making it about something very human, what are we really hoping to find when we are looking for love. The coming-of-age narrative fit perfectly within this structure of a hero’s quest, as romantic endeavours in our youth can seem like destiny, and failures can feel so epic and dramatic.
Did you draw on any classic Greek narratives or myths in your creation of the story?
The main inspiration for the film came from Plato’s Symposium and the Speech of Aristophanes. It tells the story of where love came from; that humans originally had two heads and two sets of limbs, but were deemed too powerful by the Gods, so the Gods split them in half, which is why we are all looking to reunite and become whole again.
The pressure to be in a relationship often makes us sacrifice and lose precious parts of ourselves that make us who we are.
Greek myths like these seek to rationalise and make sense of irrational thoughts, emotions, needs and desires through storytelling. They don’t focus on morality as much as other mythologies, but on celebrating admirable qualities through cautionary tales and this is what we wanted to achieve in Other Half. And so we came up with a world where the main mechanic of the story was a physical joining of two bodies, when you get into a relationship, you merge with your partner and stay physically attached. It felt like a clear metaphor to me, and the emphasis on learning a lesson and gaining a deeper understanding of the world and the forces within it, made Ren’s story feel epic and magical, but also personal and relatable, and got me excited to design and animate.
To me, it felt you were exploring both the character’s internal conflict and the wider pressures society places on finding a partner.
In reality, love, sex and romance are already so prominent in our culture, but we wanted to take that even further and really show that there is also an internal pressure to find an other half. This is why I wanted to set this love story within the fantasy genre, but also in a world structured around being in love, where love is the ultimate accomplishment and goal to strive towards. Setting the film in a made-up world also helped make Ren’s journey feel universal, of course this draws from my own experiences and relationships as a woman, but I feel that these are personal issues that everyone deals with; needing to prove ourselves, compromising our identities for someone else, seeking affirmation from our partners. Similarly, the love interests in the film, Narcissus, Icarus and Medusa, stand for archetypal toxic relationships that I feel apply to any gender; self-obsessed, inconsiderate, or possessive people that can take advantage of partners who are eager to please and to be liked.
Love often feels like an imperative from a very young age and the pressure to be in a relationship often makes us sacrifice and lose precious parts of ourselves that make us who we are. With this story we wanted to caution against changing yourself for other people because their approval won’t make you complete and ultimately won’t last – that affirmation has to come from within, and the feeling of self-worth is more important than just having someone to be with.
You made Other Half during your time at the NFTS, how long were you working on it in total?
Other Half was our graduation film at the National Film and Television School. We started development in November 2019 and completed it in March 2021 so it took about a year and a half from start to finish!
What did pre-production look like? Was it mainly a case of nailing down the story and having discussions with your various crew members about their respective roles?
During development my Producer Michelle Brøndum, my Writer Laura Jayne Tunbridge and I came up with the story together by showing each other films, books and art that inspired us and talking about overlapping interests. However, it was when the conversation started circling around mythology, which excited us all, that we finally found the core of the story. We developed a great back and forth; Laura would write an outline and send it over to us for notes; I would then often make some drawings, either based on what she had written or some new inspiration, which we would all discuss when we met to talk through the draft. It was a creative process that helped spark a lot of great ideas and it was inspiring to work in several different media parallel to each other. I feel very lucky that the three of us have so much in common and we always got excited about the same things. Even at the start, before we had solidified a story, I always felt like we were looking in a similar direction.
We wanted to caution against changing yourself for other people, because their approval won’t make you complete and ultimately won’t last – that affirmation has to come from within.
When we found the rest of our heads of department, we had story meetings with the team as a whole every week or so, where we’d discuss the latest draft of the script and I’d show any new visuals, drawings, moodboards, storyboards, to get everyone’s input, feedback and ideas. Before Covid and the lockdowns, we even had movie nights where we watched relevant films and chatted about them afterwards. I hadn’t worked with quite a few people from my team before and it was a really great way to get everyone on the same page and excited about the film so early on. Around that time we had started working out the technique, which I wanted to be something tactile and physical, but fluid so that the characters could morph and merge with one another.
I wanted to ask about the character models, what materials did you use? And how did you set up to shoot?
We ended up shooting on a multiplane with a variety of materials. The character models were sculpted semi-flat out of plasticine and painted with oil paint on top, including their faces; the animation of their expressions was done with a combination of paint and resculpting. The set was built with crafting materials, such as foam, wood, clay, wire, sand and others. We had quite a few different fantastical environments, which we made modular, we built many versions of the same object, so we could set up the shot to camera on the multiplane. For every new shot, the set was thus rearranged for the new angle and relit accordingly. Usually, we would aim to set up the shot in a day, light the day after and then start animating. We shot in a studio at the school and were able to split our room in two and have two units going at all times so that something was always being animated.
Unfortunately, we were only just getting started on pre-production and testing our technique when the UK went into lockdown, so the majority of our planning, testing and initial builds were done remotely without being able to see what everything would look like on camera. As we came up with the technique specifically for this film, this proved quite difficult to do and we had to make a lot of decisions without much to go on, i.e. the size of our multiplane, the scale of the set pieces, the materials we would use and the equipment we would need. Getting back into the school in the summer of 2020, we only had a few weeks to test before we had to get shooting, and we thus had to learn and figure everything out as we went along.
How did you end up overcoming that issue?
Since all the shots required different angles and scales of the characters, I sculpted them in between shooting, usually making new models for each new shot. As their faces were semi-flat, this meant the characters frequently had to be resculpted during a shot, for example when their face or entire body turned from straight-forward to profile. During this type of movement, the paint from the face would be taken off, along with any three-dimensional elements (noses, hair), then reattached in the next position and repainted. We would storyboard for bigger movements, and in general, try to avoid characters moving towards and away from the camera in the same shot, as this would mean resculpting the model for every single frame, as we couldn’t move the glass the characters were placed on. However, some shots did need this type of movement, so we found different ways to tackle this, i.e. supporting their limbs with wire if they were reaching forward; propping them up if they only moved a short distance; attaching the models or parts of them to the underside of the glass to create depth, moving them gradually between two pieces of glass, while reshaping the models; as well as the most time-consuming way, making completely new models for each frame. These shots were usually animated as a rough 2D reference first to increase efficiency during the stop motion shoot.
Since using too many sheets of glass with three-dimensional set pieces created a lot of reflections, a lot of our sets were suspended by wire, propped up with sticks from below or wedged between each other. We didn’t use any additional rigs for the set, which would have needed to be cleaned up in post since we wanted to achieve everything in camera. Lighting was complicated as we were playing with forced perspective a lot, both when it came to design and cinematography, to create a sense that the space was bigger than it was. On top of this, our DoP Ebba Hult, had to light between the multiplane layers or find various ways to bounce the light, as we couldn’t point directly at it. We also made use of some long LED strips tailored to the size of the multiplane, which helped us achieve flat lighting where necessary. The small LEDs were used for the crystals, and we also hid them to create a small glow in other scenes, i.e. in the magical portal that Ren goes through. We had a DMX box to control the LEDs and sometimes set up motion control programs to make the lighting change throughout the shot. Most of the camera movement was done by hand using the crank on the rostrum, but we used a slider for two shots where the distance was too great. Our other motion control device, the water rippler, was used for the entire underwater sequence. It consisted of two large octagons of Flemish glass, programmed to rotate in opposite directions in each new frame.
Every new environment required a completely different approach, from design to construction to lighting to animation.
Your characters move through many different environments too, was it a challenge creating all those locations?
We had a lot of different environments in the story and several different effects that we wanted to accomplish in camera, rather than digitally, the main one being the underwater effect described above. We used the same device to create a night sky with twinkling stars, by lighting only on our backdrop, which was covered in glitter, through the slowly moving glass. There were also a lot of shots of water from the surface, which was created with hair gel and animated either on timelapse, for smoother movement, or with brushes pushing it around.
Several shots in the film were also done in a more traditional stop motion set-up, rather than in the multiplane. The Cave of Faces sequence was filmed more traditionally, with a little puppet of Ren. We did this in two scales, one for wides and one for close-ups, with two statues and two puppets. We were able to have the statue at the end of the film sink by using a device built by our Production Designer Eva Calland-Waller. The statue was attached to this device, which could move up and down in pre-measured equal increments and was placed underneath the floor covered in kinetic sand.
We had started working out the technique, which I wanted to be something tactile and physical, but fluid so that the characters could morph and merge with one another.
Additionally, The amphitheatre background was shot upright, while the characters were shot on green screen. The theatre audience was also shot upright, but Ren’s character was done on multiplane and then comped in. 2D FX like smoke and bubbles were animated separately, the smoke made from felt and oil paint, and the bubbles from glue dots, and then comped into the scenes later on. We used green screen only when absolutely necessary, and mostly when the scale of our multiplane didn’t permit the shots we had planned.
Every new environment required a completely different approach, from design to construction to lighting to animation. Completely working from scratch without any frame of reference was challenging, but so rewarding when we managed to figure something out. I found it extremely helpful to stay focused on the project for such a long period of time. Not always knowing how we would pull something off kept me on my toes and engaged with the film and gave me confidence with the further challenges ahead.
How involved were your post-production team throughout everything? Did you create an animatic of the film prior to the shoot?
Our Editor Alejandro Liechty, Sound Designer Zoltán Kadnár, and Composer Oliver Wegmüller, all worked on the animatic, which was made as part of development during the first lockdown, and stayed involved throughout production, as well as post-production of course. They always gave me a new perspective on the film as it was coming together, Alex and I would edit each sequence as it had been shot, and it was so reassuring to be able to step away from the shoot and see that what we were doing, was working on a timeline. It was great to be able to periodically reassess the story during the edit and discover new ways of improving it. We would do the same with sound and music, and it was so much fun to come up with alien soundscapes and strange fantastical music for each scene. So often shifting things around in unexpected ways really brought the film together.
Not always knowing how we would pull something off kept me on my toes and engaged with the film and gave me confidence with the further challenges ahead.
Could you take us through your approach to casting your voice actors? What were you looking for from them?
For the voice actors we furthermore did a gender-blind casting, as we wanted to reflect the fact that the characters we had created in the script and on screen were gender-neutral. It didn’t matter to us whether a woman or man was to voice Medusa for example, while it is historically a female character, we didn’t think gender mattered in the world we had created and wanted to be open to new interpretations! In the end, we think this helped create a more universal and inclusive story, which is something we were all very passionate about and focused on from the project’s inception to delivery.
Final question, what can you tell us about any current projects you’ve got on the go?
I recently finished development on my next short animation Dawn Chorus, which was funded by the BFI. It’s a stop motion surreal horror with some absurdist and comedy elements. It’s a lot darker than Other Half, and I’m really excited to work on something more psychological and character-driven and to try a totally new genre. Quite a few people from the Other Half team are working on it as well which has been amazing! Late last year we won a prize in the pitching contest at Animarkt Stop Motion Forum, which will allow us to shoot the film in Poland, hopefully at some point this year! I also recently joined the director roster of the UK animation production company A+C Studios, so on that front I’ll be getting into some more commercial work too. At the moment I’m the artistic director for a short VR game called Tea is Served, which should be finished this spring; and I’m also working on a longer format game in earlier stages of development.