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Short Films in Focus: The Fabric of You

Josephine Lohoar Self’s stop-motion animated “The Fabric of You” tells the story of a grieving tailor who has lost what may have been the love of his life. Michael (voiced by Damien Molony) works alone in a little shop where “everyone always wants the same thing.” When Isaac (voiced by Iain Glen) enters the store, he cannot help but notice how wonderfully specific the suits are and is doubly impressed when he learns that Michael made them all himself. Isaac talks about how a suit can hide a person’s true persona, while also revealing. Michael and Isaac fall in love, during a time when same-sex relationships could result in persecution and violence.

Also, they are mice.

I saved that tidbit for last because the film never makes a point of underscoring it. Frankly, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Instead, you find yourself more focused on their faces and how soulful they look as they share a forbidden passion and an experience with grief and loss. The overall physicality of these characters becomes less and less noticeable as the film goes on. Of course, it actually does matter that they’re mice, but rarely in the moment. 

Self tells the story as visually as she can, with minimal dialogue. The editing is full of beautiful visual links that tie the past and present together as the film drifts between the two. The design of the film gives the viewer a sense of a dark and dreary cityscape and populated by characters in trench coats, some of whom have companions, others searching for a place to feel safe. The confined apartments provide little relief.  

Self’s film is a beautiful and aching piece that showcases two strong performances from its vocal cast as well as the mice we look at, which, we often forget are the work of many animators working many hours to get it right. I suppose when you don’t notice the animation, that’s sometimes when it works best, and “The Fabric of You” works wonders in unexpected ways. (Note: This short is really not for kids). 

Credit: Marilena Vlachopoulou

Q&A with director Josephine Lohoar Self

How did this film come about?

Three years ago, I read the critically acclaimed graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. In it, Speigelman depicts his father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor, where all the Jewish people are portrayed as mice and the Germans as cats. It is drawn in a highly stylized postmodern style and morphs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, fantasy, and reality.

After reading the novel I wanted to explore these ideas further and write a story about grief with an animal as its vehicle. For the setting of the film, I took inspiration from Will Eisner’s epic graphic novel A Contract with God, which revolves around a poor New York City tenement.

Having lived in tenement blocks myself, I found that Eisner masterfully creates atmospheric drawings of the confined tenement spaces in which his characters live. I based the set of “The Fabric of You” on Eisner’s drawings, as well as Hitchcock’s "Rear Window." I wanted the confined environment to reflect our main protagonist Michael’s grieving mental state.

How did the film get made?

The Scottish Film Talent Network (SFTN) cropped up on my radar while I was researching how to get films funded during my final year of university. Funded by Screen Scotland and the BFI, SFTN ran a mentoring and financing scheme to help Scottish-based emerging filmmakers make their first short film.

After I submitted a proposal, I was shortlisted for the scheme and underwent a number of workshops to develop the script. Towards the end of the summer in 2018, I was lucky enough to receive funding for my short and worked on it full-time for the next couple of months.

I was really fortunate to have Paul Welsh attached as an executive producer to the film. He played a pivotal role in the creative development of the project and has since acted as a sort-of mentor since the film’s completion.

I have my thoughts on this, but some might see this and think, This could have been done with humans, so why did she choose mice? So, okay... why mice?

I found Spiegelman’s approach to telling his father’s story through anthropomorphic mice incredibly effective. Spiegelman’s depiction of Jews as mice was highly politicized. Deriving the mouse as a symbol for the Jew from Nazi propaganda he wanted to emphasis the absurdity of dividing people along such lines.

For me I wanted to use the animal of a mouse to best reflect my protagonist’s personality while also emphasizing the bleak, hovel-like living situation he finds himself in. Similar to “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, animals can symbolize and reflect elements of human behavior often far better than human characters can.

For a film like this to really work, the faces of the mice have to convey a lot while saying little. Was the character design a challenge at all?

Definitely, making “The Fabric of You” was a real baptism-by-fire experience for me. A lot of the techniques I wanted to deploy in the film I had never done before so I learnt a lot making the film. In terms of the puppets, I basically learnt how to make them from watching YouTube videos from behind the scenes of Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” film. I also think that despite a puppet’s simple design, a lot of emotion can be worked into the animation depending on how experienced the animator is. I recently worked on a short Christmas film with another skilled animator who showed me that with a little imagination and resourcefulness, you can convey a variety of movements and emotions despite a puppet’s simple design. 

What has the response been like to the ending?

I’ve gotten a range of responses about the ending. I think if I were to rewrite the film though I think I might have changed it. To be honest, the part of the film which gets most people talking is the sex scene which I think the majority of people do not expect from a short stop motion film. When I made "The Fabric of You," I wanted to challenge people’s expectation of what they thought the stop motion animation could be especially as it’s typically associated with films made for children. 

What’s next for you?

Last year I also moved out to Berlin to start research for a short film project with support from the British Film Institute. Since then, the project has evolved into a feature film and I am now working towards developing a first draft of the script with two producers. 

This year I have also been lucky enough to gain representation from Casarotto Ramsay & Associates for film and television work as well as representation from Cardel Entertainment for commercial and music video work. I hope to have the opportunity to pitch for projects to cut my teeth as a director while also pursuing my own film projects.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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