Orchestrating animation techniques
An interview with Massimo Ottoni, the author of Steinway (Lo Steinway, 2016)
Kristian Božak Kavčič
Why the brand Steinway?
The brand Steinway was already in the short story the film is based on. It's a story by Andrea Molesini. I think the brand Steinway was chosen instead of any other because it was always famous, even in the period of World War I.
How did you find the short story? Why did you decide to make a film out of it?
Molesini is a famous Italian novelist who often situates his stories in the period of World War I and that is what always interested me.
Did you want to be as faithful as you can be to the story or did you include yourself in the adaptation?
I included many new things. Molesini is otherwise a very good writer but he never wrote any screenplay for animated film before. I collaborated with him closely. There are a lot of my personal ideas in the film but it was also the first time I worked on a subject that was not my own so, it was a bit difficult at first to deeply understand what the writer wanted to transmit in his story. After all, I think I found my own way to understand it and to develop a story.
I thought of it as an anti-war film. Many other anti-war films are – like yours – situated in World War I. Why?
I think the story in Steinway could be translated into other wars but World War I was particular. Especially because of the relation between Italy and Austria-Hungary. The two fronts were very mixed – there were Italians fighting for the Austrio-Hungarian side and vice versa. We are used to think about the war as battles, battles, battles but most of the time it was just waiting in the trenches, doing nothing in particular. It was a specific war because in this long period of waiting soldiers tried to pretend they are not in war. In the end, I think the story wouldn't be so different if it was happening in other places, other times because its »aura« is something universal.
It seemed like the film was shot on a big set.
How long was the whole process?
Months. The entire production (the screenwriting part not included) took 9 months. It took somewhere around 4 or 5 just to build all the sets and create all the props.
How big were the puppets?
About 25-30 centimetres tall. Regarding the size of the set I can tell you that every part of the trenches was about one meter and a half long and the biggest part of the set was the kitchen, where the piano took place.
Did you make the piano?
Yeah. And it was technically the most difficult part because I wanted to make a keyboard that could be animated. When we were shooting the scene, in which a character is playing the piano, we had to move every single key. It was a nightmare (laughter).
So, does it really function, the piano? (joke)
Yes, in a couple of scenes it really does play … (laughter) No, it doesn't. (laughter)
What about the puppets, what are they made of?
We had to create a lot of puppets and with a limited budget it is difficult. We couldn't afford professional puppets so we had to make them on our own from wood, aluminium wires etc. However, for the first time we used silicone and plasticine for noses, cheeks, mouths and so on.
How did you animate blinking?
You sculpt it. You add little pieces of plasticine on the eyes. Then you have to remove it and clean up the eyes so, it takes time. The scenes that were most difficult to shoot are the ones with a lot of dialogue and facial expressions. With this approach you can reach a range of expressions that are difficult to obtain with standard silicone heads. Obviously, now if you have a million dollars you can print it in 3D and so on. (laughter)
How did you choose the voice actors?
There are two versions of the film. The German and the Italian one. The latter is made by professionals and for the German version we used some non-professional actors.
I watched the German version and it didn't seem like it was shot with non-professional voice actors.
I think some of their voices are quite smooth but this matches with their characters. So it works.
Were there any problems in the editing phase? Did you throw away a lot of material?
We used almost everything because we didn't really have much time to shoot it. Just a couple of static scenes were not included in the final version of the film.
How did you decide to use two different animation techniques?
In animation the technical needs and expressive needs are often very connected. We cannot make everything in stop motion – there are not enough animators, there is not enough space to build more than two sets etc. In Steinway I wanted to use two different languages in the film. The stop motion part is the more realistic one in the narrative aspect of what it portrays – everyday life of the soldiers. And when a soldier starts to play it opens a world of another, more lyrical way of (non-)narrative with which you can effectively show dreams, memories and so on. I think that switching from stop motion to 2D drawing animation represents the difference between realistic and surrealistic elements.
How long did the drawing take?
About as much as did the other part. We had two guys – including me – working on the stop motion and two others on the 2D part. It did not take much time because technical-wise it is not the most difficult drawing style – it resembles the style of soldier sketches that are very rough, with not a lot of movement. It was also within our financial capabilities...