Animated films historically have fallen in line with fairy tales and stories of child wonder. The genre has grown, an animation not only opened up in the form of storyline but also technique. Stop-motion animation is an animation form that doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves. Not only is this a tangible film that incorporates all of the typical production fare, but one that requires intense attention to detail. I am always blown away by what these filmmakers are able to create on screen and the ambiance that bleeds from them.
The new film Two Balloons, directed by Mark C. Smith, is a beautiful blend of practical authenticity and animated whimsy. The heartfelt message of the film, paired with the splendid stop-motion work create a unique film. Set in the clouds, Two Balloons is a film about two lemurs who find themselves sharing an unexpected adventure as they reunite.
Smith’s filmmaking process on this film is fascinating. Two Balloons is set in the 1930-40s, and because of this the general influence of the film was pulled from analog. The two lemurs encounter a terrible storm just as they are reconnected. Instead of resorting to SFX film techniques, Smith and his crew created the frightful lightning by practically using a Tesla Coil.
“We carried the analog theme into the score as well (1st act). Because the sets were based on the 1930s and 1940s, we built an AM radio transmitter and broadcasted the score through a 1936 Philco 116 radio,” Smith adds.
That practicality is carried over into the story as it is told through deliberate yet meaningful action. The deliberate motion of the set pieces allows the individuality of each character to shine through their movements. Both are adventurous, but also cares about each other a great deal, and each move of these two adds an unexpected element to their characters.
The attention to detail exhibited in this film would suggest that this film was meant to be stop-motion, but it started out as a live action film. Two Balloons is a perfect example of how sometimes no matter how much you prepare for one outcome, the universe hands you a different set of cards. It’s what you do in these moments that allows true creativity to blossom. Smith had always been captivated by stop-motion, so he changed direction to create the film.
That captivation was also the initial spark of the story itself. Smith’s spark for the plot came from his experience of seeing a funnel cloud for the first time. Taking a trip on a sailboat, he came across a storm, and that may have been a scary experience for most, but for him the music he was listening to had a calming effect.
“As I watched it’s conical shape skip across the waves I was listening to a song (by Norfolk & Western) in 3/4 time, the time signature of a waltz, and that’s when the idea for Two Balloons happened. It was a daydream. The kind of daydream that only music can make you envision,” Smith explains. “Most of all it felt genuine as if the song held a truth that only youth can express.
The musical continued throughout the solidifying of the story. When Smith found himself at an impasse, he would reconnect Norfolk & Western. Laying and listening became a ritual of sorts for him, a way for him to let the story unfold as it should. In a seemingly serendipitous occurrence, Peter Broderick, once a member of Norfolk & Western, came on board as the film’s composer. Their connection creates an elegant waltz that helps the audience experience these characters through a playful tone.
Even though stop-motion can offer a plethora of choices, a lot of the story was created during production. The driving force behind their predetermined decisions was based on whether these added elements added something to the story. As Smith puts it, they “worked at simplifying our storytelling and I feel the elements we removed helped us tell a better story.”
That’s not to say they didn’t explore creative vortexes as they advanced towards the final product. Smith brought Kathleen Chamberlin, the film’s Art Director, along for several excursions down the rabbit hole. When everything is a possibility, it’s enjoyable to have freedom with the organization.
“The world the characters live in can help shape the narrative. I have this belief that production design can transport us to lyrical places like music does,” Smith adds. “The time lost chasing ideas was never wasted because our false starts and failed inspirations always led to a better idea.”
For me, this film mimics the journey of relationships (be it romantic or platonic), sometimes you have to weather a storm to become closer. Film is subjective, but through Smith’s creativity and storytelling I was able to see beyond the logistics into an emotional world. Stories allow the audience to experience a tale and interpret it in relation to their own life. There is beauty in that openness, and Two Balloons is the ultimate example of that idea.
“I think we experience the difficulties of love at some point because everything that is meaningful is difficult,” Smith says. “The storm is the metaphor. If you can make it through to the other side, yes, you emerge closer. I suppose that’s when love becomes more understandable. What I like best about Bernard and Elba is that they risk themselves for each other.”
Films are an alluring exploration of emotions through impactful stories. What Mark C. Smith was able to express through Two Balloons is breathtaking, and will leave you speechless. Every aspect of the film blends together with perfection, elevating an imaginative genre to something else. A story of two lemurs reconnecting, physically and emotionally, through a terrifying storm becomes an exploration of life itself.
Written by Lisa Mejia
Image provided by London Flair PR