Director Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99 issues a challenge to the audience: will viewers be prepared for a dramatic stop motion feature that holds its own against “live action”? Much as a drawing or painting reveals the inner character of a subject to a greater degree of precision of expression than might a photograph captured of the same setup, Rosenthal’s stop motion filmmaking offers audiences artistic and psychological depths not available via a live action treatment of the same material.
“It’s funny, it’s sad, and its made of silicon,” she says.
Over a number of acclaimed short films (watch: “Crazy Glue” and “A Buck’s Worth”) and now her debut feature, director Tatia Rosenthal has committed herself and her team to realizing the subjects of her films as people, rather than cartoons approximating people. She makes exhausting efforts as a filmmaker to document authentic behavior through her puppets, to capture the blemishes, asymmetry and awkwardness of actual life. And the results are staggeringly intimate and multivalent. Her film is itself peer to the creative achievement of Etgar Keret‘s highly acclaimed stories — the two-, three-page pocket-universes that are the source for the film’s script (developed and co-written with Keret).
People not familiar with puppeteering often confuse the act with the metaphor, thinking of the medium in terms of people controlling puppets. (Throwing gas on this confusion: Being John Malkovich (1999)) Serious puppeteers, on the other hand, follow the puppet. Behavior arises from something in the form itself, similar to Michelangelo’s notion that a potential sculpture already exists in a block of marble.
Tatia Rosenthal: “Your puppet is not going to have the hundreds of muscles that people have to express themselves with. They have a jaw that can go up and down, an eyebrow that goes up and down, eyes that move, and that’s it. I think sometimes the instinct would be to perform the part with symbolic gesture. ‘Oh, I’m sad.’ or ‘Oh, I’m so happy.’ A physical sign language that becomes symbols for those emotions rather than the actual expressions of them, the opposite of the subtlety of acting. [And] it was important for us that we make a realistic film.”
Rosenthal describes the making of stop motion animation — particularly under a condition of limited budget, tight schedule — as being itself an act of live performance. Even with years of development behind the script and months of pre-production, the logistics of stop motion requires shots to unfold in a linear progression, frame to frame. Days, even weeks, pass between “Action!” and “Cut.” Unlike computer animated or drawn animation, resetting the conditions of a shot in $9.99 to a previous position for a “re-shoot” can be next to impossible. Rosenthal faced unrelenting pressure as she committed herself and her team to bold risks over the course of an exhausting forty-week production period — an experience she doubts she could have survived without “the sheer discipline of dealing with so much stress for two years of army training.”
Talking about this process, she remembers the uncertainty of her daily work: “I picked all of the elements that felt right to me. But that is all you can do. You hope that it gels. But you never at any point have proof that it is all going to gel.”
Yet Rosenthal feels optimistic about the potential of audiences worldwide to engage her work: “We are entering the spring of emotionally subtle animation for grownups on the commercial stage. With Persepolis (2007), Waltz with Bashir (2008), and The Triplets of Belville (2003), it is all happening.”