With its hand-drawn style and sparing use of colour, Ross Stringer’s animated short film Crab Day is an excellent example of how you can do so much with seemingly little. It follows a father and son who attend a yearly fishing ritual where, for the first time, the son must kill a crab in order to become a man and win his father’s approval. The short was created during Stringer’s time at the National Film and Television School and is a great testament to both the breadth of creative expression the school encourages within its pupils as well as the high level of quality the institution produces. That’s a feat not just acknowledged by DN either as the brilliance of Stringer’s short has been recognised with a nomination from Britain’s largest film awards body, the BAFTAs. With the annual event on the horizon, DN caught up with Stringer to talk through the creation of his animation, the decisions that informed the short’s distinct colour palette, and the reasons the film has resonated so widely with audiences.
How did Crab Day come to you as a concept?
It started with a workshop during my first year at the National Film and Television School. We were still working remotely due to the pandemic, so I was spending a lot of time in my hometown of Great Yarmouth where I grew up. We had to work with writers over Zoom to develop ideas from paintings we’d found online. I’d been drawn to images related to seaside towns and fishing because I’d been absorbing a lot of the heritage of my town. Specifically, the work of Cornish painter Alfred Wallis and a painting of a monster crab come to mind. From there we’d discussed a lot about the men I’d grown up around, and my memories of fishing with my dad. The film was a personal story and a response to my environment and my relationship with manhood growing up.
Could you take us through your animation process? How much of the film is hand-drawn and what kit/software did you use to bring it to life?
The whole thing is drawn on the cheapest animation hole punched paper and drawn with my favourite pencils, Blackwings. It was photographed under a rostrum with a DSLR and Dragonframe. I composited everything in After Effects, which is where I had a lot of fun with camera moves and syncing up the animated loops. The red of the crab was painted on cardboard which was an homage to Alfred Wallis’ painting technique. Hand drawing everything is important to me as it provides me with an intimacy with the film and my materials. I love naive art and wanted to channel my inner child.
How long were you working on the film for and how straightforward a production was it?
A little over a year, with preproduction and development included. I spent a significant portion of this time figuring out what style to go for. It actually went from being painted, to CG, to stop motion… there was definitely some panicking involved during production, but ultimately after all the experimenting, I went back to pencil on paper – it just fit.
It shows that it’s the main feature of the landscape, while also being the only thing of vibrancy in the boy’s life.
Could you talk about the decision to keep everything colourless except the crabs? Was that something you established at the beginning of making Crab Day?
I think so yes, I’ve always had a soft spot for monochrome pallets and using colour sparingly. It draws attention to important features of a scene or gives an object contextual weight. It shows that it’s the main feature of the landscape, while also being the only thing of vibrancy in the boy’s life. I think the red also highlights the rawness and violence and calls back to tribal symbolism – the scene with the giant crab was inspired by cave paintings and how size doesn’t necessarily just represent scale but also societal significance.
You made the short whilst studying at the NFTS, how did your time there inform the film?
I always thought that I would remain in the realm of experimental narrative, but the school definitely has a way of showing you how to tell a good story. I wanted to find a good middle ground between the two, but I think it leans more towards traditional storytelling. My tutors were incredibly helpful and we had many reviews of the film. The best thing about the school is the cross-department collaboration, they teach you how to work as a team which is incredibly valuable – you make films that would be impossible on your own.
I’ve always had a soft spot for monochrome pallets and using colour sparingly. It draws attention to important features of a scene or gives an object contextual weight.
I love the sound of the crab’s claws clicking. How was it developing the sound design as a whole?
I had Simon Panayi to thank for that. I never had to worry about whether or not our creative minds were aligning, he often just seemed to understand what was right for the film and knew how to create a sense of space. We always knew that their blinking was the language of the film so that sound was important too. We spent some time figuring out how to create the rhythmic scene at the beginning; syncing the visuals and sound proved tricky so we had to plan out the number of frames, etc. I also have to mention Siim Skepast and Jean-Marc Eck who jumped in at the end to help while Simon was working on another film. Siim voiced the angry mob which I think was a cathartic experience!
Tricky question but from the feedback you’ve been hearing, what do you think it is about the film that has resonated with audiences to the point of it being nominated for a BAFTA?
I get a lot of comments on its unpolishedness and simplicity, which I think is refreshing for some. The story and characters are also quite easy to project personal experiences onto. For some, it’s about masculinity, for others it’s about sexuality, or even just about leaving home. I think people like it because everyone goes through this process of learning how they fit into the world and the communities around them. It is often bittersweet, not just happy or sad, which I think is its own powerful emotion.
I think people like it because everyone goes through this process of learning how they fit into the world and the communities around them.
Lastly, what have you been working on post-NFTS?
I’ve been throwing around ideas with my writer and producer about something that potentially jumps off of Crab Day. I’m always looking for fun projects to get involved with and am open to working with anyone at the moment. I’m not just into filmmaking, I’m also an animator and artist, so I’ve been developing that side of my practice. Currently, I’m very interested in animation that is created as a performance alongside sound and music. I’ve been learning a lot of nerdy things about projecting and have done some live performance work that I’d like to explore more.