Meet Kristen Kee, one half of the duo behind Bartleby, the new stop-motion short based on Herman Melville's story 'Bartleby, the Scrivener.' We met with the artist and film-maker and her dog, Butter, to talk about what it was like to make a world out of clay and the painstaiking process of stop motion filmmaking.
Tell us about yourself.
I live in Brooklyn in an old industrial union hall and I make art -- and now stop-motion films. My girlfriend and I have a fat little floof named Butter.
What inspired you to turn ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ into a stop motion film?
I’ve always been taken by Bartleby and stop-motion, the latter probably since watching Gumby reruns as a kid. I was raised Mormon, but dropped out as a teenager. And right around the time I was thinking about leaving the church, I found Bartleby -- the idea of 'preferring not to' made a ton of sense from that angle. In a stubborn, teenage way. Fast forward several years and I’ve just finished art school and am working a boring office job in Manhattan -- alongside my co-director, Laura Naylor, a fellow artist. We both definitely preferred not to spend all day in a cube, and almost literally rediscovered Bartleby as a kind of self portrait. So that’s how I found the story. And Laura’s background was in film, and mine was in sculpture, so stop-motion seemed to be this perfect intersection of the two. Plus Melville’s Bartleby is so open-ended, and so ambiguous in its visuals, it was ripe for an experimentation-friendly, build-your-own-reality medium like stop-motion. Or so we thought. We kept asking ourselves, “how does this not exist already?!”
What was the process of making this film like?
Honestly, it was slow. Stop-motion is pretty painstaking. On a good day, you get about 8-10 seconds of footage. It took us about 6 months to shoot the 11 minute film. The final product is comprised of around 20,000 still photographs, all strung together. To get that result we were cooped up in a dark, 15ft square studio for 6 months. Overall, it probably took us about two years to make, including fabrication and post-production.
What was the hardest part of the whole process? The puppets were a challenge. One of the things Laura and I found, after watching tons of stop-motion films before we started shooting, is that with stop-motion so often the puppets are where the production design falls short. Either they’re too wooden, like nutcrackers, or they end up familiar cartoon archetypes, as if the designer were trying to mimic Pixar or Wallace & Gromit. That’s part of why I wanted to sculpt them myself. Finding that look, not to mention figuring out how to make the puppets mobile AND sturdy enough to endure the hardships of constant manhandling for 6 months, that was a challenging one. They’re silicone, their heads and hands are removable, and they have wires embedded in them to allow for realistic movement. As a sculptor, I probably geeked out about those decisions over-much.The biggest challenge though was probably the medium: stop-motion. Laura and I went into it knowing that the level of predetermination stop-motion requires would be a beast. Unlike a studio art practice, where you can iterate your way to a final product, stop-motion requires decisions up front. Because the medium is so unforgivingly time and labor intensive, you have to make nearly all your decisions in advance. And that was a huge challenge for both of us -- especially given that both studio art and documentary filmmaking work basically the opposite way. You experiment your way through your decisions. I think that’s also what drew us to stop-motion, though. We wanted that challenge. It was a kind of sexy constraint.
What was the most surprising thing that came out of making ‘Bartleby’?
I know your work is often inspired by music, and we were actually blindsided by our sound and music team, in a good way. We were shocked by how rich our collaboration with our composers and sound designers was - the amazing Bryan Bender and Deniz Cuylan of Bright + Guilty. We would give those guys notes - a couple of artists and a few tonal descriptors (minimalist, dissonant, occasionally wistful, saggy w/ ennui) - and they’d consistently came back to us with clearer, purer, better versions of what we’d tried, but largely failed, to describe. We felt like we lacked the vocabulary to articulate what we wanted, but they understood us anyway. They made the film so much better.
You and Laura Naylor were the main forces behind creating this film, but who else was involved?
Laura and I wrote it, directed it and led the production design, but we could not have made anything without our team. We mentioned being trapped in a dark room for 6 months, well, right alongside us was our DP, Zach Poots, and our animator, Josh Mahan -- two wildly talented humans with surreal fortitude and a ton of stop-motion expertise. It’s really thanks to those two that the film is as polished, beautiful, and subtle as it is. And we would NOT have finished on schedule if it weren’t for Zach.
Our costume designer, Emily Geanacopoulos, is another amazing, talented human. She’s a designer who makes normal-human sized clothing -- and gamely signed up for the unforgiving challenge of designing and creating tiny, 10” human clothing. It’s amazing what she was able to basically teach herself to do. I think my favorite ensemble is the tiny spotted bespoke shirt w/ matching suspenders.
The past few months has seen ‘Bartleby’ traveling all over the world premiering in short film festivals – what’s it been like to introduce your film to new audiences around the world?
That part has been wonderful. It’s great to actually watch people watch it, to see what they respond to, hear their questions. The conversations around it, the dialogue, the feedback has been great. We’ve gotten a ton of great write-ups in the press, too. I mean you labor over this tiny thing for years and it’s like, “finally! the fun part, the talking and the parties!”
Let’s talk for a minute about your other artwork. You work a lot with neon and creating "jargon paintings." Tell us more.
Bartleby was definitely a departure from my studio practice. My sculptures are hand-bent neon. I try to make my neons as kinky and flawed as possible, to expose the materials and the process. Neon is essentially made of melty, contorted, stressed out glass - but with most neon they’re trying to hide all that and just spell Budweiser or whatever -- whereas mine are flawed little portraits of their origin stories, with burnt joints, spare parts Frankensteined together. Lately I’m working on using sensors and open source technology to program the neon creatures to respond to viewers’ movements -- say, to get brighter or flicker as you get closer, etc. That’s what I’m tinkering with now.And yes, I also make “Jargon paintings”. Though that’s my own term, it’s kind of a misnomer because there’s no paint involved - they’re made of canvas, thread, vellum, horsehair, and of course jargon. They’re Frankensteins of a different sort, though. The jargon bit is made up of obtuse quotes from our current president. The quotes vary in how recognizable they are - from more opaque lines like “I’m like a smart person” or “Just look at her” to classics like “Grab her by the pussy” and “I have the best words”. I weave these quotes into vellum and canvas such that the architecture of the words, the stuff behind the words, is exposed. I’ve always been interested in language as a medium in visual art but also in the putty-like nature of language. The jargon paintings are about all that.
Was the process of making ‘Bartley’ very different from your usual art making process?
With Bartleby, about the only thing I was qualified to do, at least at the outset, was sculpt puppets and draw things for the paper animation sequences. Yeah, it was a big departure and there was a huge learning curve for both me and Laura. And, like, I said earlier, my art making process had typically been pretty iterative and experimental -- testing what worked, what didn’t, tinkering and making things tighter as I went. Whereas with Bartleby, and stop-motion generally, you don’t have the luxury of making mistakes. It’s too time consuming. So you have to make all your decisions up front. That was a big departure.
What’s next for you? Are you planning any new projects?
Yes! Responsive neon sculptures, like I said, and the jargon is ongoing. So the jargon paintings are too. And I’ve actually started writing another stop-motion script. This one is based on my stuff instead of Melville’s stuff. The story revolves around a mormon teenager going on a field trip to do baptisms for the dead (look it up). Visually, it’ll be stylistically similar to the paper animation in Bartleby, but the story is less narrative-driven. So there’s a little more room for play, for being weird.
Check out Kristen Kee's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Allie Sarachene - @alliesarachene