I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Animating, Kabuki, and Being Really Really Frustrated Sometimes: Sol Friedman and Junko's Shamisen

by Paige Brocious
June 9, 2011

Network Awesome had the privilege of talking with Sol Friedman this week. Friedman is the writer, director, and animator of the Kabuki-esque short film, Junko’s Shamisen, that has been blowing up the festival circuit. Junko’s Shamisen tells the tale of a young girl in Japan on a quest to avenge her grandfather’s death. He uses an intricate stop-motion animation style layered on top of live action. The film incorporates characteristics of Japanese culture, which has been a major influence for the director. It is certainly a gracefully constructed film that can and should be enjoyed by all. Here is what Sol had to say about the project and his inspirations as a filmmaker:

NAmag: This film has been getting a lot of attention, notably at sxsw among other festivals. How does it compare to your earlier work?

Junko's Shamisen is by far the most ambitious project I have worked on to date. My background is in animation, so for the most part I tend to work by myself in the dark. For Junko's Shamisen, however, we had 35 people on set for one of the days and because it was all shot on greenscreen,  a good deal of my time was spent in trying to communicate properly with the cast and crew. Those concerns aren't as pervasive when you're working by yourself.

Earlier work was more in the realm of experimental filmmaking, whereas this project explores a linear narrative. It's a huge challenge, because you can't just try to win people over with visuals, the story has to have at least a bit of substance too. In spite of the challenge, it's definitely a more fulfilling approach.

NAmag: It seems to combine aesthetics from comic books, live theater and film. What was your reason for doing this?

As a showpiece of my writing and animation skills, I tried to put everything that I do into this project. As a result, the film defies easy classification. It has played in over fifty international film festivals; some focused on animation, some on horror, and just last week it played at Sprockets - TIFF's film festival for children. So I hedged my bets on the fact that there's at least something for everyone in the visual treatment.

I also was heavily influenced by an affinity for Japanese culture. I studied Zen shiatsu after high school and when I was visiting in 2008, I had the opportunity to see a Kabuki performance. The sets, the pacing, the costumes, the makeup and most importantly, the stagehands, really sold me on taking this approach.

NAmag: One thing that I think is so unique about this film is the meticulous drawing elements combined with live action. How would you describe your animation process?

I am a self-taught animator, so everything you see in the work is cobbled together from a few years of playing around with the Adobe After Effects. Of course, since I began using the software, I have learned a lot, but I still try to approach each project with the same naivete that I had when I first started. There's something liberating about not understanding the limits of the software. For example, the last shot of the film was constructed of over 1200 layers in After Effects. That's more than double the amount that I had ever used before. No doubt, it did cause a lot of problems when rendering, but based on the results, I'm definitely happy that I didn't take a more informed and well thought-out approach.

The hand drawn animations, which were a last minute addition, were easily the most frustrating and satisfying technique that I worked with. Frame by frame, I drew raindrops splashing off Junko's hat, and when it worked out nicely, it was really exciting, but if I got the timing wrong, it was a huge and discouraging waste of time.

NAmag: Who and what are your biggest film influences?

I appreciate directors that use visual or storytelling techniques in exciting and unexpected ways. There are really too many to name, but I have been a big fan of Michel Gondry's work for some time. I am particularly excited in the way he plays analogue against digital. Some of the "film" sequences in Be Kind Rewind made me so jealous.

Paige Brocious is studying English at Northeastern University. She is an avid lover of all things food (especially seafood) and Red Hot Chili Peppers-related. She currently works part-time as an editorial assistant at Aptara Inc., a textbook publishing company. Her favorite hobby is dancing, both performing on stage and taking classes (and sometimes for no reason at all). She also really likes pickled things.