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Toronto International Film Festival 2021
Short Cuts Programme 02

Zach Dorn

A pop song transforms the lives of an enigmatic folk singer and her family.

Hi Zach thanks for talking to The New Current, I would normally ask if you've used this time to be inspired but you spent 8 months during lockdown making Charlotte, did you ever imagine with all that was going on that you could use this time so creatively?

Luckily, before the lockdown, I was already thinking a lot about Charlotte. During those eight months, it was easy to give my life over to the film instead of the gravity of the pandemic. As the world was out of control, I was reigning over these characters, their telephone conversations, furniture, costumes, wallpaper. I have a lot of gratitude the film was around to keep me company.

After I finished Charlotte in June, post-vaccine, post-those-eight-months, I had to reckon with the state of the world without puppets and tiny dioramas. For me, this has been the most difficult part.

Looking back do you have any regrets turning your bedroom over for your studio?

I didn’t have an alternative. There was nowhere else to go. My biggest regret is not building a stop-motion table where I could animate while standing. All I had were a couple of old saw horses and plywood, so I spent the entire production on my knees. The film had me right where it wanted me.

What does it mean for you have your debut stop-motion animation Charlotte having its World Premiere in the Short Cuts Section at TIFF?

For TIFF to premiere this shoe-string animated film alongside so many incredible live action shorts is mind boggling. I mean, I was making this movie entirely alone in my bedroom. It’s bizarre and a rather brave and gutsy move on TIFF’s part. But it also affirms the power of storytelling, the splendour of stop motion, and gives a life force to my characters. It feels like TIFF helped me host a successful seance.

Charlotte features O-Lan Jones and it is also the debut of Devin Schlatter, who is really incredible, did you have any apprehensions about working on a short animation with a first-time actor?

Another actor in the film, Phoebe Jane Hart, and I called Devin together on speakerphone. After our conversation, Phoebe’s roommate ran downstairs and said, “Oh my God! Who was that weird kid with the raspy voice?!” Just recognising Devin’s incredibly unique vocal texture alongside his totally wonderful goofball personality was all it took.

Can you tell me a little bit about how Charlotte came about, have you always had an affinity to folk music?

The idea for the film came about when I was shopping for art supplies at a big box art store in a suburb of Los Angeles. Carly Rae Jepsen’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was piped through the store’s loudspeaker. The bubbly (and wonderful) cover of such a deeply sad and nostalgic song followed me down the aisles of fake foliage, bass wood bird houses, and decorative sea moss. It offered a strange feeling I couldn’t articulate, but I knew I wanted to capture this feeling in a story.

When working on an animation like Charlotte how flexible do you allow yourself as a writer/ director, do you like to stick to what you've planed or are you willing to go in unplanned directions?

It was a little of both. I spent about one year writing and editing the script. I followed a very tight timeline for fabrication. An animatic guided the production process. However, once I had confidence, I broke away and gave myself permission to follow impulses. Stop motion is a form that requires a lot of labor, so it’s not easy to make small changes or shoot additional takes. After animating for twelve hours, following impulses feels counter-productive.

But I fought against that resistance, sometimes spending an extra three to five days for a 10 second test shot. It was a lot of extra work, but worth it.

Oliver Levine & Lily Windsor designed your designed and fabricated your puppets, how important is this collaborative nature between a director and their wider creative team?

Lily, Oliver, and I have very different visual styles, but we are all very dedicated and easy to work with. I wish I could tell you we spent hours reviewing mood boards and meeting together over Zoom each week, but we didn’t. I was lucky. I found the right collaborators and it made my the process faster, less stressful, and provided space for me to focus on the writing, editing, and miniature sets. Finding the right people, whether it was Oliver and Lily, Devin and O-Lan Jones, or the musicians Jenna Caravello and Zhenya Golikova - was seventy percent of the work.

What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing Charlotte to the screen?

Money. This film was self-financed with student loans, credit cards, and a small grant from Calarts. At this time, I am also developing another stop motion film, and, again, funding remains the biggest challenge.

Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?

As a I kid I played obsessively with dolls. My mom was supportive of this hobby and encouraged me to collect dollhouses. In these tiny spaces, I spent countless weekends and holidays creating miniature melodramas and episodic thrillers.


"I love that I can reach more people than I did as a touring performing artist."

Has your style and the approach to your projects changed much since your debut film?

I spent my 20s as a performing artist and puppeteer. After making a film in my early 30s, I am eager to make more. I have more confidence in my style and narrative approach. I love that I can reach more people than I did as a touring performing artist.

Do you think filmmakers should continue to push the boundaries of the films/stories they want to tell?

Wouldn’t it be funny if I said “no” to this question? Like, “absolutely not!” I want to meet that filmmaker!

To answer your question, push boundaries, of course, but in my case, I am obsessively considerate of the audience’s experience at the same time I am pushing. This isn’t something I’m proud of. I am probably too polite.

Finally, is there any advice you would offer someone about making their first film?

If it’s a stop-motion film, make sure you construct a platform tall enough where you can animate while standing up. Also, try to film it in a different space than where you sleep.

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