Short film Squirrel Island was one of our 10 Picks from the Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2017 because of its challenging themes and action-espionage set-up to what was a sweetly animated film, but the story of how it came to be is just as interesting. We sat down with screenwriter, director, sculptur, animator and artist Astrid Goldsmith to talk about the incredible journey to Squirrel Island’s release, the motivations behind it, and where it all could lead.
“End to end – beginning to finish – it took around 8 years.”
Squirrel Island was a film forged in its creator’s garage-turned-studio, with each frame, character and set being born from the mind of Astrid Goldsmith, an MA in Animation from Norwich University of Arts and the founder of Mock Duck Studios, Folkestone, Kent. The filmmaker, whose professional experience had previously come as a model maker for big brands such as Duracell, spent nearly a decade perfecting her vision, eventually releasing the finished production in 2016. After exchanging some pleasantries with the particularly warm and polite artist, we naturally asked her how it’s been to see her film shared on the festival circuit…
How many festivals has Squirrel Island been presented at?
“Around 30. It’s been at some amazing international film festivals like Clermont-Ferrand, Warsaw, and at Brest European Short Film Festival, so it’s doing really, really well.
As I made it almost completely on my own, it was very hard to know how it would be received. Also, because it’s dialogue and written-language free, and because it’s narrative heavy – there’s a lot of plot in there – it was tricky to know whether it would translate. It’s that thing with all filmmaking too, where you’re asking someone: this is in my brain, can it go into your brain too? So this has been massive validation; I have achieved the golden prize of affirmation that all creative people seek.”
We noticed a real attention to detail. Was the film a true labour of love?
“Yeah, so, end-to-end – beginning to finish – it took around 8 years. There were a lot of gaps; at various points I had to stop to earn the money. I work as a commercial model maker, so I had to take a few months out at a time to make money and fund the production, but because I’m so used to working to tight deadlines where you never get the time to do things to the level that you’d want to, I just didn’t want to put those restrictions on myself with this film.”
Was it hard to motivate yourself for 8 years? Was there ever a point where you thought you’d had enough?
“No, and I think it’s because I believe that finishing is the key to success. That is what all writers tell you. And also because you’ve put so much work in, you kind of owe it to yourself to carry on and finish. So I think I was dogged and single-minded in the pursuit of that goal, but also because I had worked for so many other people over so many years, I really wanted to do this thing completely for myself – not have any outside influences telling me what to do. That was really important for me to do that. I did want to completely self-fund it, but because I felt like I owed it to my former self, I did a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund the post production, so I did that right at the end of production (around a month before I edited) and that was to fund the editing and sound, because at that point I felt like I’d spent so long making it that I need to push on a little further and make it a palatable product for film festivals and other people, because I love how ungraded 16mm film looks, but I feel like other people have different standards. That was actually quite a big thing for me, because that was the first time that I’d shown anyone the film, so it was gratifying to hear them like it.”
It must be so satisfying then, to come to an event like this and see so many people taking it in. I can’t even imagine how much it must mean to you after all that time and all of that passion.
“It has been a lot of fun. Obviously, Aesthetica has a big, international reputation, so it’s been amazing to be a part of their programme, and I do like hanging around the lobby or in the toilets at the end, creeping around and hearing what people truthfully think.”
When you know how much time, effort and money has gone into a film, it’s tough to dislike any film at a festival as you know how much it means to a person. Obviously with yourself, so much of the film was a direct result of those things…
“Yeah, but with that comes a lot of freedom. You don’t have any money so you can’t blow big amounts on special effects, so everything is made out recycled stuff.”
So you could promote the film as being in support of the environment?
“No, no. Definitely not. Though I am changing my process. There are some things in Squirrel Island where, if I was to do it again, I would try and make it even more environmentally friendly. All of the sets are made from recycled wood – bits of kitchen cabinet, etc. – but I would change how I did it. I think that, as filmmakers, we all have responsibilities to use recycled materials.”
The story of the film was about a Grey Squirrel turning up on an island of red squirrels, the island being the base for red squirrels after being forced from the shores of the UK by the greys. Are squirrels animals you’re particularly interested in or is there something else at play?
“I wouldn’t say that I was a conservation hero or activist but, like anything, when you’re writing or making something, you become interested in it, and become more and more invested in that. It certainly influenced the writing and direction of Squirrel Island, because a lot of the plot is taken from life. Right at the beginning of my process, I watched this documentary on the BBC, which I think was called ‘Red vs Grey’, and they told the story of how the Earle of Northumberland hired a guy to kill grey squirrels on his estate. The show interviewed this guy and he had personally shot 22,000 grey squirrels and he was really gung-ho about it – it was obviously his personal battle against this invasive species – but when you get to that level of killing, there is something really dark about it. These grey squirrels are completely innocent creatures, it’s not their fault they’re here, we brought them over. The dilemma about protecting our native species is a thorny subject, but when you look at it from the other side, it becomes clear that it’s actually massively unfair, though I think that’s why I got a bit of flack for presenting the main character of my film as a grey squirrel. I think there are people who see grey squirrels as a sort of enemy that brings disease over and threatens their native species, but I stand by it because it’s a valid story that needs to be told.”
When you explain it to them, I assume they see it from your point of view?
“Well what I normally say is: what do you suggest? Do you suggest that we send them back to their own country?”
So there’s a purposeful political commentary as regards that?
“Yeah, definitely. These things are really linked. I initially meant for the immigration allegory to be much more hidden than it is but the film came out in 2016, at the peak of our recognition of the migrant crisis with all of the dreadful things happening and suddenly the film was being programmed in immigration themed programmes at film festivals, so it really pulled those themes out of there, which is good – intended – but I didn’t really expect to be talking about immigration like I have, because I certainly don’t see myself as an expert by any means.”
So you set out to make a film with those themes rather than a movie about the crisis itself?
“Yes, so this has been unexpected and welcome because when you spend so long on the process of making animation, you do want it to be about something important, and do hope that the themes will be long-lasting.”
We noticed there were particularly meta aspects of the film, such as when the grey squirrel knitted himself a red squirrel outfit…
“There’s probably quite a lot of that in stop motion. There’s a lot of overlap, especially in independent animation, of animators and model makers, so I see a lot of stop-motion where there are a lot of process-based in-jokes. I didn’t want to do it too much but it’s impossible because you’re working with materials, so with the knitting sequence I wanted something that offered a base where everyone knew what the material looked like. What’s more is that it’s a ridiculous thing, it’s not a proper disguise.”
We felt it fed into the light-hearted action-espionage presentation of the film. Which films would you consider to be your influences?
“The floral head scarf was my nod to Rambo. There are a few nods to big action films. For example, Sylvester Stallone knits in Demolition Man. I watched a lot of Cold War conspiracy films with beige analogue bunkers too. It was kinda that, but squirrels.”
Did you grow a real attachment to the characters given how long you spent with them?
“Yes, they all have names. They do because it helped me with my shoot log. I actually went to see a Ray Harryhausen talk about a year before he died, and the person who was interviewing him referred to some of his creatures as monsters, and he got really cross. I remember him saying “they’re misunderstood creatures, they’re not monsters”, so that’s always stuck with me. To animate and create a character that other people are going to identify and empathise with, you need to imbue your characters with that level of empathy and understanding.”
In the process of making the film, was it a case of putting the characters and sets into boxes and then taking them out again?
“No, they were all just lying around my studio in my garage underneath my house. It was a world of mess. If they hadn’t been animated for a few months, I would have to clean the dust off them before putting them on set, but I actually made around 40 sets and 40 puppets, as a lot of them actually got destroyed.”
Was it hard to pull them apart for the film?
“I wouldn’t say so no. It was actually kind of fun. It is for the process; they’re not toys or whatever, so their moment is on the screen where they’re immortalised forever.”
The story of Astrid Goldsmith and her studio Mock Duck Studios has been one of Do It Yourself, though the results are far from what you’d expect from a term usually reserved for low cost, low quality filmmaking. Instead, the quality of Squirrel Island in all aspects is outstanding, with its attention to detail and strong allegories working to offer a picture with a sense of maturity and class that is not often seen in first-time filmmakers. We, of course, were excited to see what the future had to hold for the all-round artist, so we asked what was next…
Do you have any plans after this? Any plans regarding animation?
“I made another short film – Polymer – shortly after Squirrel Island also on 16mm, which was a 2 and a half minute monster movie about sea pollution, and since then I’ve been writing a stop-motion feature film. I’m writing it, developing it; I’ve done a bit of storyboarding and concept art. It’s in the works, but I’m finding it quite hard to jump straight in as I know it’s going to be a very long process. I’m intending to investigate funding avenues for this one just to see what can come of it, but if it doesn’t happen I’ll definitely plan hiding in my garage to ensure I make it alone.
For the past year I’ve been drawing a graphic novel, so I need to finish that first! It’s actually a collaboration with my Dad who’s a poet. It’s an alternative theory of the universe and that’s all I can give away at this point. It’s called “The Age of Remnants”.”
Though there is yet to be a release date set for “The Age of Remnants”, the reason for the Squirrel Island director’s foray into graphic novel illustration was an admirable one and was evidence of the confidence the humble filmmaker had in her own abilities to create audience ready content. This, coupled with the advancements regarding a feature-length film and the release of her follow up short film, as well as the overall quality of Squirrel Island, seemed to indicate that Astrid Goldsmith may be on the brink of a noteworthy and influential creative career; one that Squirrel Island will be noted as being the catalyst to regarding work on the silver screen.
You can support Astrid, Squirrel Island and Mock Duck Studios at the following links: