We all know her, the fashion doll and international cultural icon. Her life in plastic is fantastic, and sold as everything a girl should want. She’s blonde and thin, with impossibly long legs. She’s glamorous, uber-feminine and very rich, or how else could she afford so many clothes? She’s in a relationship with the equally perfect Ken, and her Colgate smile always stays on.
Kai Stänicke‘s stop-motion short animation „B.” takes a peek underneath the suffocating perfection, as Barbie comes to life and longs for a break from conventions, and for the love of another woman(-doll). I saw the film at Encounters Festival in Bristol last autumn, and its concept of re-imagining Barbie as a queer heroine stuck with me. The story is a lot of fun, full of pulpy twists and turns, but it also looks great, a fully realised toy world with its own aesthetic that still remains recognisable and familiar.
Kai tells us more about how „B.” was conceived and made:
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this film, and why did you decide to use stop-motion animation? I noticed that the other films listed on your website are live-action.
A: I was always fascinated by animation, and experimented with stop motion in my younger years, on a very amateur level. The idea for the film originated in a commercial I stumbled upon, in which they animated with Barbie dolls (not in stop motion though, but with a green screen technique). It made me think: I’ve never seen Barbie coming to live before! I mean the actual toy, not the computer animation they do with Barbie in their films.
There’s a whole genre for Lego animation – brick movies – but stop motion with Barbie dolls is nearly non-existent (which is, of course, because Barbie is much harder to animate and bring to life than Lego). That’s how I came up with the concept of the film. It was clear from the beginning that I wanted to bring the doll to life, the toy everyone had in their hands at least once, so stop motion was a keystone for the film right from the start.
I had never done animation before, so I sought out people to collaborate with: puppeteers, animators, stop motion experts. It was all very difficult in the beginning. Nearly all of them were sceptical and thought that you couldn’t animate with Barbie the way I envisioned it. So it took a long time and a lot of experimenting until we found a way to make it happen.
Q: What are the main differences in directing animation vs live-action?
A: They are just very different techniques of filmmaking. Animation simply takes a lot more time, so the process is very slow. On a live action set you’ve got a big crew around you, and everything needs to be on the spot and has to happen right there. It can mean a lot of pressure. Animation takes a lot more preparation and is developed more slowly than live action. The team is usually smaller as well, and it’s a bit cosier. But since it takes so much time and the progress is so slow, it can drag and be exhausting as well. However, in the end, both techniques lead to the film you have in your head, so they have things in common as well. For example, working with actors and animators is quite similar.
Q: Tell us a bit about the choices you made when developing the look and the style of the film.
A: We wanted to use the original Barbie dolls for the animation, but we did some tests and found out that Barbie’s head is too small to animate. The eyes and mouth are so tiny that it’s simply not possible to animate them in a satisfying way, which was a big setback at the time. So we had to figure out a way to still have the Barbie look, but with a face that we could animate and express proper emotions with. That’s how we came up with the slightly bigger heads, so we could better animate the eyes and mouth. The basis for the heads were Bratz dolls, Barbie-like dolls with a bigger head yet a smaller body, but our puppeteers completely made them over, giving them a more Barbie-like nose and animatable eyes and mouths. The female bodies in the film are still original Barbie doll bodies. The male bodies are action figures since Ken doesn’t come with the joints we needed for realistic animation.
The overall look of the film has a very realistic approach, not the pink and plastic Barbie world you would imagine. That’s because (watch out, spoiler ahead!) in the end it’s a dream rooted in the very real life of our protagonist. So the real world and the Barbie world come together and that mix is what we see in the film.
Q: How long/complicated was the production process, developing all the puppets, sets, costumes, etc? What were the biggest obstacles/difficulties?
A: The production process was very complicated and took a very long time. All in all, we worked on the film for 2.5 years. We were on a very tight budget, so it was not easy to find the right approach. After finding a way to deal with the heads and emotions, the animation process was still very complicated for the animators. They were dealing with toys and not with animation puppets after all. They had to find a way to get human movements out of these children’s toys, which involved a lot of improvising.
But before we could even start with the animation we had a very long and complicated pre-production. It was the sheer scale of the project that made it difficult. My costume designer made all the costumes herself by hand (with the help of a very small team), which included 2 versions of the wedding dress and all the extras in every scene (the wedding scene alone has around 50 extras). My art director designed and built all the sets herself as well, making sure they are usable by the animators. For the props, she combined reworked Barbie accessories and items she had made herself, which included cutlery for every table in the restaurant and tiny meals like salad and steak and potatoes.
There were so many obstacles, I can’t even recount them all! There was even a time, while shooting, when the hair of the dolls became a huge problem. They were glued to wire gauze and we used hairspray to fix them on it. But after all the hairspray they looked terrible and they still would go wild while shooting, jumping around from one frame to the next. So we had to wash every doll’s hair at one point and start all over again.
And then came post-production, which was a bit of a nightmare. Since Barbie can’t stand on her own, we had to use rigs connected to the back of the dolls to make them stand and move. In some shots we could hide them, but in most we couldn’t. So the rigs had to be removed in post-production, which took a lot of time and a lot of people to work on the footage.
Q: Barbie is often criticised as a symbol of oppressive beauty standards or shallow consumerism. What is the significance of her presence in a story of queer romance and breaking conventions?
A: That’s exactly the area of tension I was interested in: to find something human between the poles of superficial stereotype and hetero-normative society. I wanted to look behind the perfect mask and discover something unknown, something we might not expect. For me, the significance lies in the role of society within the film. Society is the oppressive force that forces Barbie and Ken into their roles of perfect stereotypes, although they’re actually longing for something else. The film is Barbie’s journey and struggle to break free from this oppression.
Q: What does Barbie mean to you, how do you relate to her importance as a cultural icon?
A: I have an ambiguous relationship with Barbie. On the one hand, I see why a lot of people are repulsed by her and what she represents. I can see how in a society that strives for unreachable perfection everywhere, Barbie can pave an unhealthy way for young girls. On the other hand, like the film, I think the environment in which kids experience Barbie is much more significant. If kids grow up in a healthy, loving and supportive environment, I think the influence of a doll won’t be damaging. Still, inclusion and celebration of differences and variety is something our society lacks in many aspects and we should push harder for change. Even Mattel got the call and now tries to offer a more diverse set of dolls with different body types, which can be seen as a first step.
Q: What is your next project?
A: Right now I’m working on a new animation short called PACE, a story about our modern relationship with time. This time it’s not a stop motion but a 2D computer animation, which means working with a whole new filmmaking technique yet again!