Steffie Yee Talks The Lost Sound, Hiromi Itō And Working With Strata-cut Plasticine

ANIMATOR and illustrator Steffie Yee stops by on Close-up Culture to discuss her new short film The Lost Sound.

Q: Your animated short film The Lost Sound is inspired by the poem On Ç by Hiromi Itō. Can you tell us more about the project and what inspired you to put animation to Hiromi’s words?

A: I HAVE always had an idea in mind for an animation project that would be musically percussive and visually focused on pattern-making. When I came across Hiromi Itō’s series of poems in her book Killing Kanoko, her rhythmic and repetitious style of writing caught my attention because it mirrors a similar feeling to what I had in mind for my animation. In particular, the poem On Ç resonates with me as it highlights Hiromi’s experience of gradually losing a language, which resembles my own experience as a second generation Australian. It seems Hiromi’s experience is quite common, but not really talked about, so it felt natural to create The Lost Sound.

Q: Hiromi narrates the film. How did you get her onboard and what has it been like working with her?

A: EARLY in the project, I contacted Hiromi and Jeffrey Angles (who assisted with translations in the film) to find a way to record narration for the film since they are situated in the US. Conveniently, they had planned a trip to Australia at the time to visit Canberra, so I ended up going down to Canberra to meet them and we recorded a few readings of On Ç. I’m so grateful for their generosity and enthusiasm for the project! I really feel like the narration plays a huge part in the film.

Q: I find it interesting that The Lost Sound uses strata-cut plasticine – a type of animation we see less of in an age of computer animation – to tell the story of a language that has become partially extinct. Was this connection part of your vision for the film?

A: I NEVER actually thought of that connection! But that’s a really nice way to look at it. The hand-made element of my film was more inspired by the incredibly tactile language that Hiromi uses in On Ç, which lead me to experiment with tactile media. I’ve been intrigued by strata-cut animation for years and used the project as an opportunity to experiment with the technique.

I have to thank David Daniels for generously sharing his knowledge of strata-cut animation online. His videos have become a really useful resource for me and have directly influenced my process.

Q: The film was created using strata-cut plasticine, coloured pencil, paper and ink. Can you tell us more about the process of putting a film together with these tools? I imagine it is long and painstaking work.

A: I ACTUALLY struggle to sit still in a chair and look at a computer screen for long periods, so even though the practical processes were time consuming, I found it quite fun and rewarding. In saying that, it was also extremely stressful when it came to meeting deadlines, making sure I had enough plasticine in stock (it’s expensive to buy), and preparing for shoots.

The pencil and ink animations were fairly straight forward since I animated them on a computer, printed the frames, then coloured and shot the frames under a rostrum camera. The strata-cut blocks were more laborious since the animation needs to be planned ahead, then sculpted as an “extrusion” out of plasticine.

I planned through sketching and making test blocks out of old scraps of plasticine. Once the shape and timing of the animation was decided, I would convert frames to millimetres, which would determine the size of the final strata-cut block. The scary part is the final shoot because you only get one take, and you’ve spent so much time building the plasticine models hoping that they will animate correctly when you slice them open.

You can see more photos of my process on Instagram.

Q: What did Amy McNickle and Donny Janks bring to the soundscape of the film?

A: AMY’S piece of music You that I used for the film is completely created with vocal harmonies and body percussion, with only slight digital manipulation. Donny’s piece of music featured in the trailer is also comprised of percussive vocals and parts of Hiromi’s narration that have been edited to be rhythmic. I’ve always been fascinated with a cappella music and since the film is about language, pronunciation, and sound, I looked to Camille for inspiration. Amy and Donny’s work really nailed what I was imagining.

Q: What originally drew you to animation and illustration?

A: I HAVE loved drawing and craft from a young age, and I studied classical piano and have an interest in music theory and composition. Animation is great because you can combine visuals with sound and both complement each other as narrative forms.

Q: The Lost Sound is screened at MIFF 2018. I just had spoke with Tobias Willis whose similarly titled documentary Now Sound, about the vibrant Melbourne indie music scene, will also screen at the festival. What is your perspective of the arts scene in Australia at the moment?

A: FROM all the films I’ve watched at MIFF 2018, it has been really amazing to see the diversity on screen and it says a lot about the direction in which the arts/media/film scene is heading in Australia. Representation in media is extremely important and quite frankly isn’t always done well, so to see a leading film festival set an example is really promising.

Q: Do you have your next project in mind yet?

A: I HAVE been taking a little breather since finishing The Lost Sound, but I do have a few ideas under my belt for the near future.

Discover more of Steffie’s work:

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