Way back in the day, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski started what would become one of the more peculiar comics VICE has had the pleasure of publishing. It was called The Untold Tales of Yuri Gagarin and they wereobstensibly about the Russian astronaut. In those days, Chris and Maciek were just two dude's making puppets and drawing comics, but a little over 10 years later they made one of the most accomplished stop-motion films ever. Anything they’ve put their hands on is worth checking out, but Madame Tutli-Putli is special. It was their first official short film, made back in 2007, and it is still getting programmed all over the world and in film festivals. This weekend it’s playing at the inaugural BASILICASCOPE Film Festival at Basilica in Hudson, NY.
Chris and Maciek started working on Madame Tutli-Putli in 2003, with many ideas in their minds but very little knowledge of what the final product would be. Both explorers of the absurd, they set out to create something that would function as a springboard for their collected theories, film craft, and experiments.
Madame Tutli-Putli is a film in which Jungian archetypes can act out their internal desires. Basically the short is a woman’s metaphysical journey to come to terms with fate. Since the narrative is an amalgamation of moments, which perpetuate the mood of the film, the atmosphere becomes the guide to how one takes in the film. If it all sounds too cerebral, it’s not. It’s visceral. There’s a beauty in the filmmaking when you realize that each scene—whether it features a has-been pro tennis player making sexual gestures with his hands or a moth circling a light bulb—is 16 images carefully and equally executed. Each flickering shadow, oil painted background, felt garment, quivering hand, and sound had to be created from scratch. Of course, it’s not simply a well-made traditional stop-motion. As the filmmaker’s will admit, the key to the mind is through the eyes. Understanding this, they made what is likely to be one of the films lasting legacies—they superimposed human eyes onto the puppet’s face. The eyes had the uncanny effect of making everything else about the puppet seem more lifelike, giving her character a humanity that could never have been animated.
Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski’s are the creators of Madame Tutli-Putli, which is the first official short film of their production company Clyde Henry. The film killed on the festival circuit picking up the Canal+ Grand Prize for best short film along with the Petit Rail d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. It went on to win a bunch of other fancy awards and got nominated for an Oscar in 2008. I highly recommend checking out the making-of videos, especially how Jason Walker tracked the eyes onto the Madame.
The duo have worked on a number of commercial projects, adapted Higglety Pigglety Pop! by Maurice Sendak (which is available online or on Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are DVD), and used to make comics for VICE.
Anyways, I’m pretty much obsessed with the Clyde Henry guys. I had the pleasure of talking to Maciek about Madame Tutli-Putli and how he’s spending his days now.
VICE: How was Madame Tutli Putli conceived?
Maciek: One day you’re slapped with an idea. Sort of the perverse mechanism of an artist kicks in and you create. When working non-narratively you’re not working with story structure, but rather creating a suspended emotion. Once the puppets found their groove they would reject certain ideas. It’s a strange thing to say, but the puppets very much start leading their own way. We worked on the project for four years. When you do something that long you have to leave room for discovery or else it would be very dull.
Why a madame versus a man or a child?
Sometimes we like to pilfer a little idea from the past. There was a play written from the early 20th century with a woman of that name. We never read the play or anything, but we loved the name and reinvented her for ourselves.
Was the story born out of a desire to utilize new technical innovations—like tracking human eyes on puppets—or were the innovations developed to better tell the Madame's story?
It comes from building a puppet. Once the puppet exists, you give it a lot of authority. If it’s good, you look into its eyes and start to imagine its life, past, and memory. In the absence of dialogue we wanted the eyes to talk. We needed those kinds of eyes for her character. Some stories are best told with a drawing, a sculpture, a novel, or a puppet. The means supports the story. The means becomes the story. Animation is an illusionist’s device. It’s ideal to tell a magical story.
Why stop-motion? Why puppetry?
Puppets have always been there for us. Having grown up in Poland, I was always making puppets and seeing puppet shows for children. I’d also see grotesque stuff like the Quay Brothers. Madame Tutli-Putli is a classic stop-motion in a lot of ways, like the European puppet films. Though, its point was not to address our heroes. When we started making the film we wanted to use our knowledge to make a classic puppetry film. It’s intricate, because that’s the way we’ve always worked. In a lot of ways Madame Tutli-Putli was sort of our graduation film in puppetry. We nailed down the basics and can now explore the abstract. In the abstract arts I tend to trust someone who can also do a nice portrait. If one goes straight to abstraction, I feel like it’s cheating.
Was there ever a point in production when you were going to give it all up and kill yourselves?
Of course, but it has more to do with being in the dark than hating our work. However tiring or draining, it’s an amazing thing to work on your dreams during the daytime.
What are you working on now?
Chris and I have been working with Guy Maddin on his séance Spiritismes film. We’ve known Guy for years and he has always been very supportive of our work, so it’s exciting to work with him on this. He’s been very upset about the storage and archival of old silent films so he started this project to reimagine them. Every morning we hold a film séance to invite the ghosts back into the films. One film every day for 12 days. It will ultimately be turned into a feature film, but will act as an interactive project. It’s a very fucked up and complicated thing, but it’s going to be magic. Also, our new short film Cochemare premiered at Annecy Film Festival in France last month. It’s 11 minutes of madness—sci-fi, porno fantasy with monkeys. Who doesn’t want to see that?
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as an art and film curator. He is a programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and screens for the Tribeca Film Festival. He also self-publishes a super fancy mixed-media art serial called PRISM index.
Previously - I'm Short, Not Stupid Presents: 'The Bowler'