Oscar-tipped animator Marlies van der Wel on exploring loneliness and self-fulfilment

The award-winning Dutch animator talks about her new short Emily and what has shaped her art.

A home stands in the countryside, surrounded by no other accomodation. A pinwheel blows in the breeze by itself. An elderly florist meanwhile, also alone, receives customers who come and go, before she shuts up shop and merrily flowers plants along a hill. At the top of the hill she takes a seat, and begins to reminisce.

So begins Emily, the latest animated short film from Marlies van der Wel, a Dutch animator and illustrator with awards to her name and a potential Oscar nomination in the works. Emily is a shoo-in for the Animated Short Film Category, being a touching treat for the eyes that stays in your heart long after its eight minute runtime.

Having been lucky enough to grab an exclusive preview of the full short (trailer below), we're sure that if the ambience of Amelie and Pixar films makes you all misty-eyed, then this tale of a florist who ponders a life mostly spent in solitude will do it for you.

"Emily is inspired by a couple of different things," Marlies explains after we reached out to her for an interview on the film, which comes produced from Amsterdam and Berlin-based production company HALAL.

"I wanted to explore concepts of loneliness and self-fulfilment (and) these themes came to me in the form of Emily, inspired by a song actually.

"There’s this one sentence in the song that really made it all come together for me: 'She watches her flowers grow, while lovers come and go – to give each other roses from her tree. But not a rose for Emily.'"

The song is by '60s group The Zombies; while it isn't featured in the film, music plays a central role in Marlies' creation, filling up the silence as no dialogue features at all in Emily, with composer Sjam Sjamsoedin providing the emotional cues into Emily's state of mind, and some fantastically anxious sound effects whenever she makes human contact beyond that of tending to her customers.

"I knew from the start I wanted to work with Sjam," Marlies says when asked about the short's wonderful score. "(He) excels in creating small melodies which can be bright and bouncy yet with a melancholic touch.

"The score was always going to be at the heart of the film, as there is no dialogue. The main challenge was to keep it happy and sad at the same time. I asked him to do something a bit different than what he usually does; write a pure piano composition. I’m still amazed by how well he nailed it."

The film's simplicity came from Marlies' desire to "leave space for the audience to insert themselves and their experiences into my canvas," a need that meant she had to move away from styles employed from previous films like the Toronto International Film Festival winner Jonas and the Sea, which won Best Short in 2015.

"I had to explore a new approach to the designs, and try to consciously create room for interpretation. My previous films have been dominated by really rich compositions, with plenty of tiny details.

Sketch work by Marlies 

"With Emily I tried to move away from this kind of ‘dense’ style to explore simplicity in its various forms and shapes. It forced me to ask myself questions like ‘How much detail do you need for a close up of a scared face?’ and ‘Are two dots for eyes and moon-shaped ears enough’?

"The sketching part was most important for me in investigating these questions, and an essential part of the process. I drew every shot on paper and scanned it into the computer to colour it. This way of working ensured that I was only working with what was necessary for the story. It forced me to employ simplicity.

"The coloured shapes that create the characters and objects in the film are all painted and scanned," she gives as example. "I tried to stick to those few scans to make sure I stayed true to a simplified colour palette.

"Each colour has its own sequence existing of multiple painted surfaces. They animate in the movement of the characters, and enrich the digital parts by adding structure and mood. I would describe this technique best as ‘digital cut-out’."

Marlies has been working in animation since a young age, working in her dad's studio every summer with Photoshop during her high school years.

Her heroes include Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, director of Ghibli's The Red Turtle, and Eric Carle of The Very Hungry Caterpillar fame. Eric's inspiration can certainly be seen in Marlies' use of patterns and cut-out elements to create strong characters.

When asked about how she'd describe her animation style, Marlies answers with the same humble humanity that defines her work.

"Messy bordering on clumsy, with a good dose of humour through the characters and their timing. If you ask the people I work with, it’s 'beautiful, detailed images animated with minimal but natural movement.'

"I try to address bigger themes in small packages, using humour and humanness to make difficult themes more approachable. I hope my overall visual language and tone of voice is testament to this: emotional (but not tearjerkers), universal (yet still personal) and light-hearted (with a healthy dose of humour)."

I move away from animation to ask about design, specifically the beautiful, detailed landscapes of Emily, which were inspired by a trip to Iberia.

"During the design phase, I wanted to escape with my computer and ventured to Portugal. Armed with tons of paper and pencils I barricaded myself in this little house in a tiny old mountain village. From my window, I could see how the autumn sun was casting yellow light over the village, where houses of white bricks - built against the mountain hill - were forming a pattern of geometric shapes.

"The Portuguese style brings this bright indigo blue, combined with white stone and loads of beautiful patterned tiles. The nature is spellbindingly colourful in contrast with the yellow sandy surrounding. It was the perfect way to start the design and definitely an inspiration for the colour palette of this film."

Nature and landscape plays a big role in Marlies' art, such as the African locale of her debut Sabaku and the watery environs of Jonas and the Sea. I ask her how the latter film changed her career shortly following its wins at both Toronto and the Huesca International.

"I think Toronto opened up many doors in terms of US based festivals and exposure. The film was already wrapping up a quite successful (without sounding too proud) European tour, and all of a sudden it went into a completely new phase, a next level almost, through Toronto.

"Visiting Sundance was a real highlight to me. It was great to be amongst so many brilliant filmmakers. Sometimes people tend to place animation in a corner of children’s entertainment. At Sundance, I really felt part of a film community, rather than just the animation scene.

"Everything was mixed together; animated shorts, live action documentary and feature films. Each genre received mutual interest and respect. To be honest, this experience made my drive to become a ‘serious filmmaker’ even bigger. It made me want to make my next film more geared towards an adult audience. That film became Emily."

As Emily makes its way as a submission to the Oscars 2019, I'm curious as to what Marlies sees as her next step.

"The last couple of years I’ve been quite excited about exploring the possibilities of working on a bigger production. My producers and HALAL are really supportive in this exploration.

"I would love to expand the team I work with and challenge my own boundaries. Creating a longer story based around multiple characters is a next step. As I’m making my first step now towards a possible next bigger production, I see it’s going to be a real challenge."

And what is she most proud of with Emily?

"I’m most proud of the team I was fortunate to work with. From the assisting animators, to the producers, the pianist, the composer, sound, PR - everybody is so involved.

"It’s great to feel you can make something together, and particularly with this film, I experienced the feeling of having the right people at the right places. That’s magical."

Emily will premiere at the 2018 Netherlands Film Festival this October.

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