Madame Tutli-Putli’s Journey to the Red Carpet: Lavis and Szczerbowski Bring Human Emotion and Expressiveness to Stop-Motion Puppets in Their 2008 Academy Award-Nominated Film by Mary Ann SkweresFilm

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, March 2008. Madame Tutli-Putli’s Journey to the Red Carpet: Lavis and Szczerbowski Bring Human Emotion and Expressiveness to Stop-Motion Puppets in Their 2008 Academy Award-Nominated Film by Mary Ann SkweresFilm. Pages 22 – 26.

Bringing human emotion and expressiveness to stop-motion puppets was the most important creative issue that directors Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski faced as they formulated ideas for what has become their 2008 Academy Award nominated film, Madame Tutli-Putli. Conceived by the filmmakers while on a train trip across Canada in 2002, the film is a stunning, stop-motion animation that takes the viewer on an exhilarating existential journey with the lone Tutli-Putli who, weighed down by the excess baggage of her life, confronts the haunting demons of her past on the night train that carries her to metaphysical worlds somewhere between reality and imagination.

In addition to their role as directors, Lavis and Szczerbowski served as screenplay writers, sculptors, animators and art directors. Meticulous craftsmanship informs every minute detail of the production – from the hand-built sets and costumes to the original oil paintings that formed the saturated skies outside the train to the unforgettable live-action eyes of the characters – combining to bring a fully imagined, tangible world to life.

“The first image of Tutli-Putli and the first test puppet was made ten years ago,” says Lavis. “From that test puppet, it was about interesting the film board in making a movie with us. It was years before we actually had the go ahead.”

The creation of the film, an extraordinarily painstaking process, took 4 years from that green light through completion. The National Film Board of Canada acted as the film’s production company, with Marcy Page and David Verrall producing. The filmmakers credit the NFB with the insight and artistic integrity that made creation of the film possible.

“They were an honest laboratory. They would sooner cut a production, not because it was taking longer or going over budget, but because it was boring or not experimental enough for their expectations,” says Szczerbowski. “The spirit of the producers was ridiculously adventurous at all times. Any accolades that they might amass comes from decades of dedication to that program. The films that they make must introduce something new…work within the definitions of an experiment.”

The production was experimental from the start. Because Madame Tutli-Putli needed to project a range of emotions including sorrow, fear and uncertainty with convincing reality, Lavis and Szczerbowski rejected traditional storyboards early on as too restrictive. “It was important for us to consider our love for film and to work within the vocabulary of cinema, which is a well-developed and eloquent language,” shares Szczerbowski. “Cartoons and animations don’t really address that language. They make pedantic compositions based on storyboards and the idea that the camera is very difficult to move. That’s not what excites us about cinema. The camera is a personality in itself. It was important that the film moves like a film.”

The filmmakers chose instead to tape live performances with actress Laurie Maher, on whom Tutli was modeled. “I worked to develop the personality of the character in a similar way to a live action character, so we had a real understanding of who she was, how she moved, how she drank a cup of coffee, how she walked. What was inside this character,” reveals Maher.

From these shoots the filmmakers created a “video animatic” that was used as a reference for the action and camera moves as well as for character development and emotion. To bring Madame Tutli-Putli to life, scenes were improvised numerous times with Maher to allow the filmmakers to work out the beats and gestures that translated into the movements of the stop-motion puppets. “We wanted as much as possible to recreate that original spontaneity,” comments Lavis.

To create this new benchmark in stop-motion animation – one of the oldest forms of animation – the filmmakers used hand-designed, molded puppets. Rejecting traditional armatures, they constructed the wire aluminum skeletons by hand. Created from molds made from a mixture of silicon, latex and plaster, developed over seven months, the one-of-a-kind puppet bodies used silicon to avoid the joint seams normally associated with the technique. “We did not want to have a line that reminds you that you are watching a puppet,” says Szczerbowski.

“Also with compositing the eyes into the puppet, we needed a surface on the puppet that would – not so much be realistic – we needed something that the eyes could blend into, that would absorb light like skin does. It also ended up being extraordinarily durable over the course of the two and a half years of animation.” Although Tutli’s face was touched tens of thousands of times, the original face was used from beginning to end even though it got a little worse for wear and the paint wore off. This worked for the story, which was mostly shot in sequence. Szczerbowski adds, “It actually ended up reflecting the character’s stage. It helped her journey.”

According to the old English proverb, “The eyes are the window of the soul.” If ever a puppet had a soul, it is Madame Tutli-Putli – born of an innovative integration of human and puppet performance. This striking technical advancement was achieved through the use of live-action eyes that were filmed for each puppet, bringing unprecedented human expressiveness and emotion to each of the characters. Visual effects artist and award-winning portrait painter, Jason Walker, developed the remarkable technique for the film after testing tracking and re-timing the live-action human eyes onto a stop-motion scene. “The only reason to do it would be if we could do it seamlessly,” admits Walker. “So it looks like it was there on the puppet all the time. I tried tracking, but it didn’t really work. You had to do it by hand.”

Different actors were cast for most of the characters. After analyzing the previously shot animation for each scene, human facial expressions were filmed to match the puppet’s motion. The “eye performances” required extensive rehearsal time and detailed choreography, to match each puppet move. Fifteen to twenty takes of each human actor’s corresponding performance were shot per sequence, with variations to allow for the greatest choice of emotions.

“They would direct me like it was live action,” says Maher. “Whatever they needed, whether it was fear or crying, I did it all.”

Care was taken to recreate the lighting and shadow passes of the live-action to the original stop-motion set-ups, as well as match the subtle movement of the puppets, the camera, and the train – all without interrupting the flow of the acting. Opting for a slightly stretched size to boost sympathy for the character, the eyes were then painstakingly selected from among the multiple takes, individually positioned, seamlessly composited frame by frame onto the puppets, painted and re-timed.

Maher, along with Lea Carlson, designed the costumes, which were crafted and died by hand. Scraps from furriers and flea markets were used to construct Tutli-Putli’s signature hat and coat. The thieves’ leather coats were even buried in the mud to create the distressed look for the shady characters. All the sets were handmade from salvaged materials. A defunct martini bar provided mini fluorescents for the scale lighting. The sparking and flaming elements coming from the friction of the metal train wheels across the rails were created on a lakeside beach. “We arrived with a car full of gasoline, matches, sparklers and fireworks,” shares Szczerbowski. “We spent the night on the beach digging these fifty foot long trenches, lining them with gasoline…”

“…And had a complete pyro weekend,” Lavis adds. “On the beach at night we had total blackness.” The fire effects were then composited into the picture by digital compositor, Peter George, who also added shadows, did wire removal, color correction and other effects.

David Bryant, the creative force behind Montreal musical collectives Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Set Fire to Flames, and Jean-Frédéric Messier, composer playwright and founder of Theatre Momentum, brought the same experimental and avant-garde spirit to the creation of the film’s haunting musical score. Bryant also created the subtle, minimal sound using unorthodox foley and sound effects, such as blowtorching the strings of an antique piano then dousing it with dry ice to create the creaks and moans of the sleeping train. “On every level of the project from beginning to end, everyone involved did something they had never done before,” reveals Lavis. “Every stage was experimental, we were inventing.”

The seventeen-minute film was shot digitally on a Canon EOS 30D. The digital stills were edited together on Final Cut Pro and output to a HDTV master format then filmed out to 35 mm.

“I’m proud of the fact that we made a film that evokes a real reaction. The connection with the puppet is not common to a puppet. It is much more common to a performer. We made a film with a performance. There is acting. There is film language. Although everything is miniature, it does not seem like a small version of things. I think we did it right,” says Szczerbowski.

Lavis concludes, “And no one’s role is obvious either…there’s no single personality that comes through.”

Madame Tutli-Putli premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, winning 2 awards – the Canal+ award for best short film and the Petit Rail d’ Or. It also garnered Best Animated Film at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto and the Grand Prize at the 2007 Cinanima. The film recently screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Photos courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada.
Mary Ann Skweres is an award-winning independent writer/director with over a dozen produced short films under her belt. A member of the Editor’s Guild, she has edited feature films, documentaries and shorts. She writes about the art and craft of filmmaking for magazines including Below the Line, Film and Video, VFX World and Animation World Network. She can be reached at

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