Barb Hoffman just wanted to draw on clouds. Now, her film, What We See in the Clouds, is up for a jury nomination at NFFTY, the largest youth film festival in the world. This week, I had the privilege to speak with her (virtually) as well as the young artistes behind God is a Lobster, another film debuting at the festival, to discuss their experience making films safely in the age of COVID-19. Let’s see what they’ve been up to:
In Hoffman’s What We See in the Clouds, she has her friends describe what they see in various pictures of—you guessed it—clouds. Then, Hoffman expresses the descriptions visually by drawing on top of the images, blurring the line between reality and imagination. Essentially, she crafted a cloud-centric Rorschach Test and conveyed her results through mixed-media animation. She chose this technique because “telling stories with actual imagery that we’re used to, plus images on top of it gives [the film] a sense of magical realism that I’m very intrigued in seeing.”
In God is a Lobster, four co-directors, Brian Niles, Chelsea Eisen, Grace Gallagher, and Joji Baratelli, present a series of short films that share no connection other than their manic absurdity and involvement of lobsters. Why lobsters? I asked Baratelli, who replied, “My friends were at a seafood market, and just on a whim one day they decided to get lobsters, and I was like, ‘It’s a great idea to make a movie about this.’” Inspiration hits at the most truly peculiar of times…
Both Hoffman and the God is a Lobster squad created their films based on intuition rather than focusing on a specific meaning. According to Eisen, they just wanted to make something ridiculous and not even think about it, but “little meaningful parts seep through even when we’re doing something quickly and just for pure fun.” Likewise, Hoffman remarked, “I feel like every film, if you really get into it, is saying something, even if it stems from just being entertaining.”
This made me wonder how the creation of a piece of artwork begins if the artists have no intended meaning in mind. For the God is a Lobster team, it came out of feeling stuck—both creatively and physically. Then, the idea arose for them to create an anthology, thus allowing them to work together and have a shared goal while still pursuing individual endeavors.
While Niles and Baratelli were quick to find their premises, Eisen and Gallagher struggled to make their narratives as funny and gory as possible. “Then we went camping,” said Gallagher, “just bouncing ideas off of each other, and after 10 minutes of conversation, we sort of got the story down.” She later added, “I think we just needed a change of scenery,” a statement that many of us can relate to during this pandemic.
However, stale scenery was not the only barrier that the pandemic created for the creators of God Is A Lobster. The day before shooting, Eisen’s actors tested positive for COVID, which required her to create a new story, find new actors that can be together safely, and make a plethora of other adjustments—oy! However, some COVID-related issues were blessings in disguise, such as when Gallagher had to reschedule her shoot and subsequently thought of a storyline that she preferred.
These issues would have never occurred if they were, say, writing a book; however, that spontaneity and necessary collaboration is what makes the theatrical and film mediums so unique. As Hoffman explained, “Film… is not a book. It’s a very visceral language—it evokes feeling in others.” Since cinema requires human connection in its process, it conveys it in its product. Therefore, engaging with a film is an act of emotion-driven communication, something that has been lacking for many of us during the pandemic. “You know you like that film, but you can’t quite pinpoint why,” Hoffman stated. “That’s the beauty of film.”
The God is a Lobster gang has been making films together for years, but Eisen said that “as we’ve gotten older, there’s been much more pressure to make really good movies,” which made the process overwhelming and therefore discouraging. However, since the NFFTY deadline was coming up so soon, the artists didn’t have the time to overthink their project, unlocking a whole other creative energy. Due to this different approach, their friend group’s energy and enthusiasm were captured on-screen, resulting in better, more authentic work.
This has motivated the God is a Lobster filmmakers to “just make things and not feel like they have to be the best that we’ve ever made. Life’s too short to not be creating, and this was a great project to start that process.” Hoffman shared this mindset, emphasizing that “even the smallest projects are going to teach you so much.”
If you’re young and need inspiration, Hoffman says to go watch NFFTY; “It has blown me away year after year how high quality of content a lot of these filmmakers can pull off at the ages of [under] 25.” Similarly, the God is a Lobster-ers articulated how NFFTY has allowed them to meet new people who are as deeply passionate about film as they are, with Baratelli artfully declaring, “These are the roots of what will spring up out of the ground and into the open.”
However, roots aren’t easy to cultivate; it takes confidence, passion, and grit to maintain a positive mindset before any goods are delivered. Hoffman advised, “Don’t listen to all the cynics in the film industry; there’s so much negative energy.” She then told me the key question she asks herself when feeling the doubt and worry that comes during the creative process: “Is this a helpful thought right now?” She continued, “You just have to look at that negativity and say, ‘I see you, but I’m gonna keep trying.’”
You can stream the works of these talented young filmmakers online from October 23 to November 1 at https://www.nffty.org.