The look is so seamless it almost fails to register, how the fashionable, steeped-in-sadness title character of Madame Tutli-Putli gets such a haunting, life-like look.
Could it be? The lively eyes in this award-winning stop-motion animation short, which screens at the Ottawa International Animation Festival this week, are real?
It's the first time such a painstaking feat has been pulled off, giving Tutli-Putli's metaphysical adventure extraordinary impact.
It all began as Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, the Montreal-based team behind the National Film Board-produced project, had beers with their old friend Jason Walker.
The pair had already experimented with using a human mouth on a puppet, and wondered about real eyeballs. Walker made it happen, albeit in a painstaking process Lavis called pure "blood, sweat and tears."
"It really is just hard work. You need an actor who's willing to put in lots and lots of hours," he said. "It's a little room and a mousepad and lots of drinks."
Walker, he explained, "sat in front of a computer for years," crafting the film's special effects.
JUST THE RIGHT FEEL
To get just the right feel for Tutli-Putli's train setting, Lavis and Szczerbowski even took a long train trip, via Canada's northern trail, back in 2002.
The pair met 15 years ago at McGill University, where they were both enrolled in Religions of the Ancient Near East. They later paired up to share a studio, doing illustration gigs, sculpture and whatever work they could pull in to pay the rent. In 1997 the pair, who also produce The Untold Tales of Yuri Gagarin, a serial comic strip published in Vice magazine, founded Clyde Henry Productions. Along the way they began photographing their sculptures, then building mini-sets for a single photograph, projects which flowed naturally into a series of shots.
And that's how Tutli-Putli was constructed, in an archaic fashion, one frame at a time, says Szczerbowski.
"It's hard to appreciate actually how crazy that is, how halfway through watching a finger move onscreen you may have had a weekend and then resumed from frame 280, and resumed the finger movement," he said. "None of that stuff you're watching in that movie actually happened."
And as they took no shortcuts on the nuts and bolts of constructing Tutli-Putli, the story it tells is equally complex.
"It's all over the place," says Szczerbowski. "There are layers of meaning in it, in terms of semiotics and allegory and metaphor. Everything is a kind of a cypher and code for something."
The pair are currently enjoying their time taking the project on the festival circuit, including stops at Cannes and earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
They are also trying to channel their manic energy into a new project.
INNOVATIVE ART FORM
Chances are it will be as original as Tutli-Putli, because, as Lavis explains, they have no interest in the traditional animation industry.
"For us, animation, one of the reasons we got involved with the NFB is, animation as an innovative art form done by a limited number of people," he said.
Madame Tutli-Putli screens as part of the OIAF's fifth shorts competition -- for mature audiences -- at 1 p.m Thursday at the Bytowne Theatre and 9 p.m. Saturday at NAC's Southam Hall.