Staff Pick Premiere: when animals stop being polite, and start getting real

Ironically, there is a lot to be said about comedies with very little dialogue that make you laugh out loud, especially if you’re giggling at figures that were painstakingly handmade by the film’s creator. With all that talking, you’ve got to get every other aspect of the piece exceedingly right in order to keep your audience captivated. That’s exactly what our Staff Pick Premiere this week, “Bath House,” does in delightful detail.

Director and animator Niki Lindroth von Bahr has created a spectacle in this miniature stop-motion world. Here, extended bouts of silence speak much louder than words as an unfortunate series of events unravels for an irritable, but well-meaning horse — who happens to take her job as a public pool manager very seriously. In many ways “Bath House” is a film of juxtapositions; what looks cute and harmless is actually vindictive and selfish, and a public pool — one of the most relaxing and sterile places in any town — is actually a recipe for catastrophe. It’s about the darkly humorous chaos that can happen in an environment where every person (cute furry animal or otherwise) is out to serve themselves first and foremost.

“Bath House” was shown at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 2014 and Sundance Film Festival in 2015, and is making its online debut today on Vimeo. We hope you love it as much as we do. Read on for our Q&A with Niki Lindoth von Bahr about how she created this black comedy.

Vimeo: Where did this funny story about rude little animals come about?

Niki: Mostly, I wanted to make a film with a vaguely unpleasant atmosphere in familiar everyday surroundings. What if I placed weird-looking, extinct animal species in this well-known bathhouse setting? That was my first idea about the film.

I read that Hemsebadet, a public swimming pool in Sweden, inspired this short. Can you talk a bit about how the environment of a public swimming pool in Scandinavia may differ from an American one? What makes Hemsebadet unique and/or worthy of a story?

One thing that can be interesting to know about Swedish public bathhouses is that most of them were built during the ’50s and ’60s, when our welfare system was blooming. Nowadays, a lot of these bathhouses have not been properly taken care of in a long time and are in really bad shape, even dangerous. Jerker Virdborg, who wrote the script, and I found bathhouses as an interesting illustration of the last decade’s heavy downscaling of Sweden’s welfare system.

The world you’ve created for “Bath House” is very highly detailed. Can you talk about how you made it, how big it actually was, and how long it took to make?

The settings took a long time to make — over a year. Usually I take a lot of photos from real places that I will build in miniature and then scale everything down in exact measures. In “Bath House” I did all models in scale 1:7.5 (Barbie size-ish). I’ve learned that if you want something to be realistic, it’s super important to keep the right size of every tiny detail.

Why was it important for you to so perfectly capture every detail — from the boxes of raisins on the receptionist’s desk to the not-quite-neatly folded piles of clothes in the bathing suit store? What were the most difficult props for you to replicate?

The only way to make these model surroundings look absolutely real is not to miss out on any details, even strange ones. I also don’t want the audience to think of my films as cute. I aim for a feeling of total realism, with something that feels a bit off in a subtle way. Making these details is also the part of the job that I (obviously) enjoy the most.

The hardest things to replicate are definitely organic material — nature, trees, and such. Stuff that was originally made by people is much easier to figure out.

When did you start working with this kind of animation? Who were your influences, art/animation-wise while putting this film together?

I started out with making my first animated film “Tord and Tord” in 2010. I had studied prop making and set design, and wanted to use my interest in building stuff while making my own work.

I can’t say that I’ve been that into animation from the beginning; it kind of grew on me over time when travelling to animation festivals with my own films.

My inspiration for “Bath House” is … hard to say! I watched a lot of Michael Haneke films and listened to Philip Glass at the time. I also re-discovered Jan Svankmajer’s early live action film “The Garden” and was really inspired by the strange atmosphere.

How long did this film take to create and how large was your team?

It took a little over two years to finish. My team was very small when thinking of it: me, my producer, a second animator, a CGI animator for the water, and a set design assistant that worked with me from time to time. Most days it was only me.

“Bath House” is a very quiet movie. Did you intentionally leave a lot of space between the character dialogue in this film? What were you hoping to portray through all of the silence?

I decided at an early stage to not have any music at all in the film, in order to avoid any emotional guidance. The silence and lack of music makes the story quite unpredictable, I think.

I was also trying to bring tension and unpleasant atmosphere in the communication between the characters by silence, but I found it really hard to animate those long pauses. When you are animating two characters looking at each other for an entire day, you feel like you’re losing your mind!

The main characters in this film are a dawn horse, rabbits, and bears. Some minor characters are a walrus, dove and an antelope. What thought went into which animals you would use for this piece and what their roles would be?

All of the characters are actually inspired by extinct animal species that I picked out from sad, dusty stuffed creatures at natural history museums. The zebra is a dawn horse — it’s a very tiny horse that has paws instead of hooves.

The dawn horse isn’t the most lovable of personalities. Should we have sympathy for this character? Do you view any of the characters as sympathetic or redeemable?

I think that all of the characters put their own interests first, whether it’s robbing a safety locker or keeping the venue clean. I also find it a bit symbolic that all of the drama happens because of this behaviour — n a public bathhouse that once was the symbol of our welfare system. To me, that’s the most important theme of the film.

What are you working on next?

I just finished my new animated film “The Burden.” It’s an apocalyptic musical that focuses on boring, low-paid jobs and existential anxiety, featuring singing fishes and cheerful tap dancing! Now I will try to have a few months of not doing anything; I’m really exhausted.

Thank you for your time, Niki!

If you’d like to see more films our curation team was totally stoked on, check out our past Staff Pick Premieres over on this page.

Interested in premiering your short film as a Staff Pick Premiere? Please email premieres@vimeo.com for more information.

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