Known for their live action comedies Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, Jerusha and Jared Hess have, for the first time, ventured into the world of animation for their debut short as a directing duo. The film in question is Ninety-Five Senses and it’s as creative and visually driven as you’d expect, telling the story of a death row inmate who’s reflecting on his life through memories related to his senses. The film is structured across six different sections and corresponding animation styles ranging from soft, painterly visuals through to distinct, dynamic character-driven styles reminiscent of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. It really is a feast of a film on an aesthetic level, but it also leaves much to chew on in terms of its philosophical themes too. DN caught up with Jerusha and Jared on the road to the Oscars to learn more from them about their experience making Ninety-Five Senses, talking everything from the pleasures of working with Tim Blake Nelson to the challenges of cohesively sewing together multiple animation styles.

What intrigued you about animation after working in live action for so long? How have you found the process of expanding your filmmaking into this different art form?

To be honest, most of our live action work has an animated spirit about it so moving to animation has been very natural for us. We love the medium, it’s limitless.

Where did the idea for Ninety-Five Senses come from?

It began with the MAST accelerator at Salt Lake Film Society, a local nonprofit in our home town of Salt Lake City. A way to connect established filmmakers with emerging animators. The screenwriters, Hubbel Palmer and Chris Bowman, wrote this beautiful piece after watching real exit videos of death row inmates.

How early in the making of Ninety-Five Senses were you set on incorporating multiple animation styles?

From the beginning, even before there was a script. The animators were chosen as part of MAST’s accelerator program. That’s why the writers used the ‘five senses’ as a vehicle to tell Coy’s story.

Most of our live action work has an animated spirit about it, so moving to animation has been very natural to us.

Were any of the sequences particularly difficult to realise?

We were conscious of the disparate animation styles possibly not feeling cohesive. So we decided to use a single animator, Daniel Bruson, to animate the interstitial moments and connect each chapter. The hand-painted ‘Coy’ is both beautiful and grounding.

How was it collaborating with Tim Blake-Nelson on his performance? Was he involved early on?

We have loved Tim Blake Nelson for a long time, he’s as real as it gets. And he was our muse from the very beginning. So when he also felt a connection to the script we were thrilled. His performance anchors the entire piece, marrying the whimsical sense of memories with the gut-wrenching confessions.

Animation is notorious for its lengthy production period, how long were you both working on Ninety-Five Senses for?

It took several years, with a lot of work during Covid so there were for sure weird delays, but it also was a gift to make during the pandemic. Life and death were on the minds of the entire world and you can feel the universal humanness in each of the segments.

How did your process as co-directors play out in this short? Was it different to how you’d operate in a live action setting?

We haven’t ever co-directed. Co-written many times, but this was the first time directing together. It was such an amazing collaboration with the writers, animators, Tim, and producers that it felt really natural sharing the job.

Life and death were on the minds of the entire world and you can feel the universal humanness in each of the segments.

You both seem to be working on a whole host of projects at the moment. Is there anything you can tease us with about them?

We have a hilarious animated comedy, Thelma the Unicorn coming out on Netflix in May. Our eleven-year-old has been waiting four long years for this movie!

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