Riho Unt Talks The MasterAuthor: Jeannette Bonds | Date: 12/2/16, 10:58 AM
Jeannette Bonds: The Master is based on Popi and Huhuu by Friedebert Tuglas. What drew you to this story and what does it mean to you personally?
Riho Unt: I first read the short story Popi and Huhuu in high school. I had to read it as it is a literary classic and furthermore, compulsory reading. I hated the story from the bottom of my heart. It exuded such depressiveness, fear, hopelessness, disaster – it was too much for a young person. And now, 45 years later, my view of it has changed to the opposite. I have grown to like this story “thanks” to the erratic world we now live in, full of conflicts and oppositions. The animated film The Master is a reflection of what we see and feel around us and to which we have no straightforward solution. F. Tuglas wrote Popi and Huhuu exactly 100 years ago when Europe and the entire world were facing the horrors of the war.
JB: The characters’ facial expressions are distinct and subtle. The ape's face carries with it a subtle but inherent cruelty while the dog displays just the right amount of positivity and curiosity. What was the process like in creating these characters? Was it difficult to find the balance and not take their natural expressions too far?
RU: Creating an animation character is one of the most complicated and exciting processes. The characters are like tools that help to tell the story and thus the tools must always be of great quality. All the prep work, filming a real dachshund in order to capture his nature and manners or watching monkeys at the zoo was indeed necessary, but the right choices are still made by your own imagination, experience and fantasy. In the end it is the story that dictates everything. For example, I experimented with a dog puppet that had a lot of moving details in his face, but it did not agree with the whole, it was too “animation-like.” So I decided to keep the droopy ears and large expressive eyes. As for the chimpanzee, I also preferred more body language and action in this man-made environment to the 3D-style grimaces. I considered minimalism and precision of movement more important regarding the feeling of this story. I remember when I was setting up the last scene, the dachshund lying on his side dead on the ground in the puddle of blood, my hands actually refused to do it. This little fellow made of wire and fabric had really gotten under my skin.
JB: Additionally, when you are dealing with animating animals that are telling a distinct story, particularly a character as realistic looking as a chimpanzee how do you find the balance between animating them realistically and finding the stylization required for animation?
RU: This was one of the main questions before we started to shoot the film, whether to add human-like nuances to the animals in order to be able to tell the story more accurately or leave the animals as they are. There is always a threat of over-doing; the story should have credibility to express the drama in its full swing. It was easier with the chimpanzee, because his movements, reactions and nature are more similar to the human being, at least from the outside. Even the drunken hung-over monkey is holding his head with two hands just like a human. We had to be more lenient with the dachshund. For example, Popi is looking at the family photos that had been scattered around by the monkey and his tail begins to wag of the joy of recognition. But all in all, the keyword was still realism.
JB: Are there any differences between the original story and the film?
RU: The storyline is the same, but the details differ. In the initial script as well as Tuglas’s story the Master was actually at first exposed – an old hunched grey-haired man, who leaves from home and never returns. When I had shot the first three minutes, it became clear to me that the story would run better without the human being, it enables the audience to decide what or who the master was or why was he not coming back. The character that I added to the story is the small butterfly in the jar that helped me to express the dog’s feelings more precisely – longing and hope. And the end of the film is different: in Tuglas’s version the agony of these two animals was ended by a bomb that the chimpanzee had discovered by accident. I decided to torture the audience longer with a revolver.
JB: So much of the story is told with the production design. The space itself carries its own narrative for the audience to extract meaning from. As the film progresses the viewer's associations with the objects in the space transform. Could you tell us about some of the background elements you felt were important to enhancing the spatial narrative embedded within the film?
RU: I have actually graduated as an interior decorator and designing and furnishing a room created no specific problems for me. As I voluntarily gave up on using a human character I had to compensate it with space that would speak about the Master. The furniture, paintings on the walls, butterfly frames etc. – all of it reflects the nature of the person, his habits and beliefs. I also wished to irritate the audience and create opposing ideas of the Master. Take the bedroom, for example: a religious stained glass window on one of the walls and François Boucher's nude painting on the other. Which of them suits the two masters, the stained glass for the human being and the erotic painting to the chimpanzee or the other way round? This problem I leave to the audience to decide.
JB: The film does an excellent job of hierarchically carrying multiple perspectives, that of the dog, the ape, and the audience. Was this balance difficult to maintain?
RU: No, I would not say that. These characters began to determine their own frame size and angle in the course of shooting. One is big, aggressive and strong; the other is small, frail and vulnerable. However, I would put the audience in the dog’s “paws” in order to look for the truth and the right master to serve. Would you prefer to stand by the door and wait for the good and old one that you have mere memories of or succumb to the new one?
JB: What does the relationship between humans and apes mean to you personally?
RU: Actually, I have never given much thought to that problem, although I was born in the Monkey year. I do not even know, what this sign system is supposed to mean, we all evolved from apes!? Or did people who are born in the Horse year evolve from horses? I’d rather be a dachshund: stubborn, opinionated and quick to taking offence, just as I am.
JB: Class and war seem to be important aspects of the film, however you address both of these indirectly. Could you talk about the relationship between class and war on the film?
RU: I am trying to determine the meaning of war in this film. I would name it war with oneself. War within us. What kind of masters are we? For small children the masters are their parents, teachers for students, rulers for countries and nations and if their nature and behavior are similar to Huhuu’s, then it can actually result in the worst – the war.
JB: Could you tell us about the production process behind the film? (How much time it took you to complete, the size of your team, what challenges you faced during the making of this film).
RU: The Master has been one of the easiest and problem-free films that I have made! All the elements necessary for the smooth production of the film – good script, professional creative team, positive atmosphere and thorough research – it all worked perfectly. The puppets and decorations were ready in four months. Their scale in relation to the real world was 1:4. This large size was determined by the dog’s feet that had to be tall enough to be able to be animated normally. It took 4,5 months to shoot and the team consisted of 25 persons. I am especially happy and pleased about the music. The world famous composer Arvo Pärt gave me the permission to use his music in my film.
JB: The first and last shot of the film focus on the couch. However the audience has a very different association between our associations with the couch in the beginning versus the end. Was it always your intent to have the first and last shot be the same?
RU: This neoclassicist striped couch that looks like a tiger is the most important piece of furniture or even the third character. The couch is the dachshund’s ally, who offered him shelter and protected him from the chimpanzee. The fireplace in the opposite, warm and calming, the large window above the couch reflecting a hopeful blue light. The couch has definitely deserved the honour of being the main character in the first and the last frame!
Jeannette Bonds is Co-Founder and Director of GLAS Animation.