We had the pleasure to interview French artist, animator and director Charlotte Arene on the making of her wonderfully creative film The Sea Is Too Much To Drink (La mer à boire), which she produced in two weeks for a call for films issued by French collective Le Transmutateur.
How did you come up with the idea for the short and why did you choose to focus it on sleeping and the sea?
For a long time, I’d had this idea to animate my apartment, and myself within my apartment. I wasn’t sure how to go about it, the only very strong image that I had in my head was that of myself, sliding back and forth across the room and repeatedly banging my head on the door like a battering ram (!) Like I was trying to get out in a very stupid way.
I liked the idea but it wasn’t an easy one to animate – it would have meant animating myself, my clothes, my hair, and several items in my apartment simultaneously; I couldn’t do it on my own – and I wanted to do it on my own. Then I got prompted by my friends from the collective Le Transmutateur to direct a small film in 45 days or less, and I figured I had to find a way to adapt the idea and get the damn film done. The principle that stuck was one of back and forth motion, which gradually evolved in my head into a sea surf motion. At the start I wanted to animate myself in more than one setting; in my bed, in my office chair, at my kitchen counter… always sliding to and fro, following an imaginary tide. But time was running out, by the time I was ready to shoot I only had 2 weeks left and I had to focus my efforts, so I chose the bed! And the film grew from there.
At that point I don’t think I was trying to express anything specifically, I just followed the idea, which I thought had potential but I couldn’t articulate why exactly (which in general is a good sign).
Why did you choose the title “La mer à boire”?
I first need to explain that « la mer à boire » is a french idiom that translates word for word as « to drink the sea ». It means « an impossible task », or « to be asked too much ».
I honest to god don’t remember how or why I chose it, I think it popped into my head, quite early in the production process, and the more I thought about it, the more it stuck.
I think it encapsulates the anguish and playfulness that are both present in the film; on one hand there’s this light and funny aspect of turning household elements into a kind of seaside scenery and playing with that metaphor, but on the other hand there’s the storm and the heavy sleeping… which all tug at a darkest side of the imagination.
Staging feels particularly playful. Please tell us a bit what the production process was like and how you came up with the idea to use objects in such creative ways.
The production process was a bit… anarchic? The sound came first, this idea of a constant sea-surf sound; and I knew I wanted to animate myself – and other objects in my flat – as if they were following this tide.
So, no plan, no storyboard, I just went for it! The first two shots I made were one of me in the bed, then the slippers. That gave me a brief overview of the technical challenges I would face – namely, because I had no light kit I had to animate with natural light, which meant I only had a narrow window to shoot each day.
So I kept trying something new each day, and seeing where that would lead me – the window, the glasses and cups on the kitchen table… Then maybe on the fourth or fifth day I made another shot in the bed, but I’d started animating too late in the day and the light went down drastically during the shot; I tried to animate quicker to compensate but only ended up with a rougher result, like the bed was in a tempest. That gave me the idea of a simple progression (going from day to night then back to day / from a calm sea to a storm then back to a quiet ending) After that, all of the ideas came quite naturally, every shot being dictated by the natural evolution of the storm – it wasn’t just about sea surf anymore, but also wind, lightning, etc… It opened up new possibilities. My whole apartment became a playing ground! (I made quite a mess of it during the production process, actually.)
I kept editing the film as I was shooting, which also helped figure out what was missing as I went. Lots of cues came from the sound design; for example, I hadn’t thought about shooting an « underwater » sequence until I started editing the sound effects and thinking that it would fit well into the general soundscape.
What autobiographical elements do you find in the short?
This film was made in a hurry, as a challenge, and if I’m honest I didn’t give much thought about that while I was making it. But looking back on it, in a way, I believe it’s a rather accurate (if abstract) self-portrait; I think it captured something of my state of mind at that point in time. I shall see what I think of it in ten years!
Also, I hadn’t thought about this AT ALL while I was making the film, but I realized afterwards that it kind of illustrates a thing that my mom tells me she does to fall asleep, which is imagining herself, safe aboard a ship, on an angry sea (!) I sometimes do that as well.
Any interesting or funny anecdotes from the production that you’d like to share?
You can see in the film that my head is always turned to one side; that’s because I had to watch my laptop’s screen (hidden out of shot) to follow my animation on Dragon Frame as I took the pictures with a bluetooth controller.
Most of the time I only got mild neck pain out of it, but on the very last shot (the « underwater » shot), fifteen or twenty frames into it I realized I’d miscalculated my position relative to my laptop, so as the shooting progressed I got stuck in a more and more unnatural and VERY uncomfortable position to both have my eyes on the screen and keep my head very still from frame to frame… It was a nightmare, and I had a sore back for a week after it! But it’s also the shot I’m most proud of.
Anything you’d like to add that we didn’t ask?
Out of all the books you can see in my library during the storm sequence, I confess that I haven’t read Moby Dick – well, I never finished it. I put that book in the film partly as a reminder to get back to it someday!