Marc James Roels & Emma de Swaef - The Magic Power of Using Puppets The Belgian directors, who made a large number of successful and breathtaking animation shorts so far, are now involved in making feature films and a Netflix-prodction.
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Marc James Roels & Emma de Swaef - The Magic Power of Using Puppets

The Belgian directors, who made a large number of successful and breathtaking animation shorts so far, are now involved in making feature films and a Netflix-prodction.

Amidst all preparations and being busy, the filmmaking duo found time to give an interview for CineSud Magazine. Today, in this article they are telling us about their backgrounds, division of responsibilities during their work, the use of self-made puppets in their animation shorts, favorite festivals and Emma’s pregnancy.

"If a filmmaker just tries to tell the story, he wants to tell it in the best way he possibly can. That's usually when their particular style starts to emerge."

14 januari 2020

The story of their first meeting

Although Marc James Roels and Emma de Swaef have been living and working in Belgium for a long time already, Marc was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He moved to Belgium when he was a teenager, since his parents are half-Belgian. Marc says: “It was not a spontaneous decision to change the place of living. It had been planned for a while but it did take me some time to adjust to the new environment and people.” He thinks that such a turning point in his life had a considerable impact on his character and the way of his work, despite the fact that the director can’t say exactly how. Marc comments: “Yet I am unable to compare it (my life in Belgium) to my life in a parallel universe where I didn't emigrate. Maybe I missed some opportunities or vice versa gained them.”

Whatever the case may be, Marc James Roels entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent and successfully graduated. Studying there was quite eye-opening for the director as he used to be very naive about art and filmmaking. What is more, to his surprise, Marc discovered that most of the students in his class possessed far more insight and talent than he had anticipated. The director says: “I really had to pull up my socks and work hard to get ahead.” Also he fondly remembers working on a stop-motion film with two of his classmates on an old 16mm bolex camera and cutting it on a flatbed editor (a special machine used to edit film for a motion picture) produced by Steenbeck, a company specialized in its manufacturing. Marc learned a lot of things he really needed to know and gained new skills by just having done that one project. In the director’s point of view, the discipline and focus, necessary to make something from essentially nothing without really knowing exactly where you are going, has helped him more than he had expected. He just trusted his instincts and relied on his patience and perseverance.

Emma de Swaef, on the contrary, is a native Belgian. She studied live-action films and then branched out to documentary filmmaking. The two of them met just when Emma was beginning to study in this field while Marc had just graduated from the same academy. He comments: “I assisted Emma on a few of her projects, just doing camera etc. so we've been working together for a long time.” Emma always had an interest in making puppets and dolls. Therefore, when she decided to integrate them into one of the films she was making in the academy, Marc offered to help out. The knowledge he had gained while making his own first stop-motion film was not enough, so the first stop-motion movie produced by the filmmaking duo was rough and unprofessional. However, that was enough to spark Marc’s and Emma’s interest in a stop-motion animation.

Clarity in the coordination mechanism

The division of responsibilities during the process of work of this couple is quite clear. Emma makes all the puppets and determines the look of the props, costumes etc. She is very hands-on during the construction phase of their productions. Marc in turn mainly focuses on storyboarding and gathering together research materials in order to facilitate Emma’s working on the construction. During the shoot Emma is essentially the art-director taking care of the sets, props and puppets, while Marc is responsible for the cinematography. The couple says: “We both have equal rights in the directing aspect of production. At times we might have differing opinions on things, nonetheless, we usually resolve them quickly because at some point it's fairly obvious what the right solution to a particular problem is.” The filmmaking duo does not quarrel at all. However, on an exceptional basis, if they do, the reason of the conflict can often be traced back to some other issue that is stressing them out. For instance, when their budget is over or there are some scheduling problems. Then Marc and Emma can be very fragile and moody.

The directors consider the idea of having another profession, except for filmmaking, absolutely unthinkable. Marc believes: “I probably would have started writing weird children's stories while Emma might have started making dolls and puppets. But who knows!”

This Magnificent Cake!

With regard to Marc’s and Emma’s animation short This Magnificent Cake! there are 5 main characters in the film: a troubled king, a middle-aged Pygmy working in a luxury hotel, a failed businessman on an expedition, a lost porter and a young army deserter. In spite of being so different at first sight, all the characters have either a direct or indirect connection with one another. Marc and Emma do not want to spoil it for the audience. That is something they feel the watchers should enjoy discovering and unravelling while watching the film. Therefore, if you are interested in watching This Magnificent Cake!, there is a DVD coming out very soon. All the details are available here.

All the events shown in the film take place in 19th century Congo. This place was chosen because it seemed interesting to the directors. The couple did not intend to popularize problems of the African continent. Marc says: “I would argue that the film is not even about Africa and its problems. However, talking about them, to my mind, we can all potentially put an end to most problems of the Earth at once. Unfortunately that would mean giving up a lot of the comforts we've grown so accustomed to and is therefore highly unlikely to ever happen.”

The process of shooting This Magnificent Cake! was very difficult, as it is the directors’ least favourite part of the process. The duo comments: “All the wonderful possibilities that we imagined during the writing script started falling away as we finished each shot.” For the construction of the characters and sets the filmmakers have a small crew of about 7 people. Emma and Marc also took part in the construction, although Marc’s usual job mainly is collecting reference materials for everything that needs to be made.

Extraordinary style

Marc and Emma have a special style (use of puppets made of wool) which makes them stand out against other directors and among which they can easily be recognized. The directors did not really make a conscious decision about having this particular style. “It just evolved over time as we've made each film, starting with Emma's very first student films. I think every filmmaker has a personal style. With some it's more obvious than with others. I personally don't really put a lot of stock in a personal style. If a filmmaker just tries to tell the story, he wants to tell it in the best way he possibly can. That's usually when their particular style starts to emerge.”

Festival experience

This Magnificent Cake! has won a large number of awards all over the world, among which is the Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand Film Festival 2019 in France that is considered to be one of the most significant events devoted to short films. Emma says: “I had a wonderful time this year. I was pregnant and always hungry, so the organizers of the festival gave me a lot of food vouchers. And then we won the Grand Prix. I met some really nice directors. Claire Denis was there. Festivals don't get much better than that!”

The festivals Marc and Emma are fond of are usually the ones where they get to see and hang out with their old friends from around the world. Marc says: “This year I had a lot of fun and saw some really good films at GLAS Animation Festival in Berkeley, California, USA. It's a relatively new animation festival focusing on independent animated films which is a very unique thing in the US.”

Plans for the future

Now the filmmaking duo are thinking about a few new projects. A feature film or two. Marc and Emma are also involved in an amazing collaboration between several directors they are super excited about. They comment: “You never know with these things. Anything can happen and it's always a miracle when something gets made, so we try and keep things under wraps until it's pretty much done.” 

Editorial note: Some weeks after this interview took place Netflix announced to go into production with a team of animators for The House. 

To find out more information about Marc James Roels and Emma de Swaef click here.

(c) All visual material is used with the filmmakers' permission.

Over de auteur: Sofia Piven

Sofia Piven is currently studying Journalism and International Relations at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. She has always been interested in writing articles and after finishing school and entering the university she wrote for local newspapers and magazines. Since January 2018 she regularly writes articles for CineSud magazine.

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