DIY production tips for shooting a high-concept fantasy with an indie-film aesthetic.
A few months after making its virtual premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley were able to finally catch their new feature Strawberry Mansion IRL for the first time at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas, Texas. We caught up with Birney and Audley at OCFF to talk about their follow-up to their 2017 SXSW standout Sylvio (a film best known for its endearing imagination—and a titular emotive-less gorilla-man talk show host.)
In Strawberry Mansion, the writing, directing, and editing duo have found even greater room to create another imaginative world full of sci-fi dream machines, saxophone-playing frog people, and tattered VHS monsters. And while conceptually the film might feel on par with Terry Gilliam or Stanley Kubrick, it was shot with the DIY and indie film sensibilities of Michel Gondry or perhaps early Wes Anderson.
Along with sharing some insights into how they were able to “shoot a $20 million concept with an indie film budget,” Birney and Audley also opened up their sketchbooks to give a glimpse into their entire creative process for how they were able to create many of their hybrid DIY, practical, and creatively-CGI'd effects.
No Film School: As discussed following y’all's first feature collaboration with Sylvio, Strawberry Mansion very much feels like it comes from a different era with its retro sets, props, and many creative practical effects. When did the inspiration for this new project first develop?
Albert Birney: Well, I had some drawings very early on which I found on an old Tumblr account which goes all the way back to 2011 where I had some of the earliest characters like rat sailors, a frog waiter, the blue demon, and the VHS tape suit people. I was just beginning to explore those characters with these drawings and paintings before even working on a draft of the script. And once Kentucker and I started working together, it just began to evolve and become more of a collaboration at that point.
Kentucker Audley: Right, and I remember some collage-y type of poster images that you made of the house too. When I came to the project, you know with the script, I didn’t quite one hundred percent understand it, but I thought the drawings and ideas really spoke for themselves and just thought, Whatever movie that those drawings are part of, I wanted to be a part of bringing those materials to life.
NFS: Speaking about some of the more memorable characters and effects, they’re all so uniquely different, but in a way which kind of feels like they come from the same creative cloth—much in the way you might feel when watching a Michel Gondry film or the stop motion segments in Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic. In those early stages, did y’all look to any source material or anything else for inspiration on how to bring these sketches and characters to life on set?
Albert: We definitely talked a lot about The NeverEnding Story as it was one of both of our favorite films when we were kids, you know, long before we knew each other. But I think a lot of the inspiration just came from all those children’s fantasy genre of movies that you kind of barely remember but can still pull from at any time.
Kentucker: We weren't drawing too much from the surface of our influences but rather just sort of let them come up in an unconscious way. The only film I remember discussing directly was The Shining, which may be surprising because it's nothing like our film, but visually it was a reference point for our DP [Tyler Davis] in terms of lenses and trying to make things feel timeless in a similar way.
NFS: One of the more iconic effects (and characters) in the film is the stop-motion caterpillar which sort of serves as the tie between the framing narrative and the more fantastical dreamscapes. How did that particular effect come to be?
Kentucker: Yeah, so that one was actually a really late addition and it wasn’t even in the script originally. We basically invented an entirely new character as a way to connect two parts of the story together because, after already having done some work with our stop motion artist Lawrence Becker, who is a really brilliant animator, we realized that we could really let our imagination go wild with him and what he was able to bring to the table. For the caterpillar, Lawrence found a pipe cleaner that had the same coloring as the actual caterpillar we had already shot.
We wanted the caterpillar to look like it was jumping in and out of the water like a dolphin and Lawrence was able to do that, and used some cotton balls to add splash texture. And then we composited that into the ocean shots, adding some additional digital splashes to marry the two. The ocean shots, by the way, were stock footage drone shots that we purchased to give ourselves a bigger scale than we could afford. The super-wide shots moving over the ocean, and desert and a couple of the wide shots of the ship are stock footage, which we made cohesive with the rest of our visuals in color correction, and by transferring the whole movie to 16mm at the end.
Albert: Yeah, I think Kentucker was busy changing costumes or something and our DP and myself were just waiting in this field when I looked down and saw this fuzzy caterpillar on the grass. We quickly asked Grace [Glowicki] if she wouldn’t mind picking it up and holding it for a shot and that was when it kind of decided to use it throughout the film.
Kentucker: A lot of the visual effects just kind of came out of these sketches and from delegating these ideas to these artists that we know and love their work. It really became key to helping to make the movie feel bigger as we tried to welcome in the artistry and influence from these other filmmakers and animators.
NFS: Another cool one was the fly on the wall which talks to Kentucker’s character James Preble early in the film. How was that effect achieved with the mouth movements, but clearly practical prop design?
Albert: That came from one of the independent computer artists who worked on the film Matt Lathrom who was able to build that out. We shot it then physically gave him the raw materials like the close-up on the fly and he was able to enhance and animate it by adding the CG elements—which I’m not sure exactly how he did—but it turned out looking really cool.
Kentucker: I think when a lot of people use CG, they don’t use them with practical effects, so it can just feel really digital and modern. I think what we found was that when combining these practical effects like stop motion and this whole world of production design and handmade masks that they just feel less digital and more natural. Things just feel more incorporated into the world because you’ve proven that so much of what is on the screen is actually there already.
Albert: I’d say the sweet spot that we were going for would be for someone to watch the film and just not know how we did it. You know, like if you can combine live-action with animation, and add some CG to costumes and you put it all together digitally before transferring it to 16mm by the time you watch it on the big screen you’d really have no idea how they did all of it—which is cool.
NFS: There’s an important character that comes in later in the film, and without giving away too many spoilers from its role in the story, can you tell us a bit about how you designed and created the physically imposing Blue Demon?
Albert: Years ago I made a rough sketch of a demon character emerging from the water. Clockwork Creature, who made four masks for us in the film, took this drawing and put their own spin on it. Then we did some makeup tests to see what the body might look like with the mask.
Kentucker: Beyond the mask, it was a pretty simple green screen situation, like most of our green-screen shots were. We just shot our Blue Demon picking up a model ship, then added an ocean background, and found the right scale so the Blue Demon looked gigantic coming out of the water. And then handed it over to our VFX team to add the flames coming out of his head, and the water splashing around it. Again, very simple, but since it's such an elaborate mask, it carries the shot.
NFS: The film includes many homages to the bygone days of VHS, with characters recording their dreams on the analog format—and even some creepy VHS creatures. How did these characters come to be? (And how many VHS did you have to repurpose for these costumes?)
Albert: The first suit was made from a VHS tape that had Seinfeld episodes on it. I opened it up, unspooled the tape, cut it up, and glued the tape strips to an old shirt and jeans. I filmed my friend wearing it walking on the beach. The tape looked so cool blowing in the wind I knew we needed to have a scene with 30 of these characters walking in a field.
Kentucker: The VHS suits were very time-intensive, to unspool that many tapes and individually glue each strand. The week or two of pre-production revolved pretty heavily around making these suits and racing to get them finished, and even when we were filming, there was always someone on set gluing these suits together. We had originally envisioned the last shot of the film being 50-100 of these creatures walking in a field, so it was vital to get them finished. Of course, most things don't end up exactly as planned, so that shot didn’t quite register—it was a bit confusing what exactly the meaning was—so we eventually decided there was only one VHS creature, and that felt more resonant. However, we did get to use the shot, earlier in the film, in a more abstract way.
NFS: Wrapping up, since we are doing this interview here for No Film School, what kind of advice would you give to anyone who is just starting out on their filmmaking journey into how they should handle balancing their big fantastical ideas with their own understanding of practical filming limitations?
Kentucker: I’d say that you should just dream as big as you want, you just from there need to find the core of what you’re trying to say and find ways to visualize that. Sometimes that can be visualized in a very simple way that you can sort of experiment with yourself, whereas for other stuff it might be best to collaborate with others. I think for us the biggest thing was just finding people, stop-motion artists and VFX wizards, who have done things that resonate with us and could exist in the same world.
Albert: If you’re young and just coming out of film school or whatever, I think if you just love what you’re writing, you can embrace your limitations and have fun with the problem-solving it’s going to show in the final product. We’ve had people tell us that when they’ve watched Strawberry Mansion that it feels like we had a lot of fun making it. And you know even though it has this DIY homemade look it feels like it’s intentional, it’s part of the aesthetic because we embraced it. We weren't trying to hide the fact that we made it with our friends and with other super talented and creative artists, and I think that collaboration can help your own understanding of what it is that you’re wanting to make your movie about.