Exploring the Lasting Impact of a Student Animated Short Film

Exploring the Lasting Impact of a Student Animated Short Film

Their short film served as a catalyst for their budding careers, leading Maya and Emma to explore their roles in its creation and reflect on its influence on their artistic growth.

“I devoured my husband last night, as one does” - the opening line that started it all. The first impression of a short film, the hook that draws in a viewer, is vital. However, what is truly potent is the lasting impression a film leaves on its audience. The final taste in one's mouth, the lingering feeling of something that has touched you in some way, a way that you will remember. The Animation School graduate, Maya Kahanovitz, would like to think that her student group project “Mr & Mrs Mantis”, moved an audience member or two, but is certain that it has left its mark on its creators. Two years on, we would like to contemplate the nature of this enduring impact.

Since its release, “Mr & Mrs Mantis” has won multiple awards, including Gold at the New York Film & TV Awards. The narrative centers on a praying mantis, who has recently devoured her husband. She considers herself a strong and independent woman, yet is somehow struggling to come to terms with this perfectly normal occurrence.

The audience is given an intimate insight into her thoughts by means of interwoven visuals and narration. The film explores problematic gender roles through the lens of the animal kingdom and touches on themes of gender based violence.

The creators, a South Africa based team of students, have since parted ways and entered the animation industry in various capacities. In many ways making this short film sparked our burgeoning careers. In the following article, two members of the team will delve deeper into their respective parts of the creation process, while considering how “Mr & Mrs Mantis” shaped their development as artists. Navigating the in’s and out’s of the industry as a young professional can be daunting. Maya and Emma hope to share some personal insight into the South African animation industry and their part in it.

The Story

Maya Kahanovitz: South Africa has notoriously high levels of violence against women. Femicide is five times higher than the global average. After a string of particularly brutal attacks in 2019, thousands of women took to the streets in outrage. These protests formed the backdrop of writing the screenplay for “Mr & Mrs Mantis”. In its own particular way, it is our form of protest. It is perhaps not overtly a comment on femicide, but rather a subtle and thoughtful approach to the broader issues surrounding gender roles. The animal kingdom has gifted us with a beautiful tool for exploring this concept, namely the praying mantis. In particular, the unique phenomenon in which the formidable female mantis can be known to dine upon her mate after copulation.

It was a great joy to be able to contribute, in my small way, to a vastly underrepresented niche of storytelling. Namely stories from the African continent, with a unique South African viewpoint.

I feel very strongly that the media world has yet to tap the best of African storytelling and give voice to a perspective that is not often heard overseas. I hope to see many more stories from my home represented in mainstream media, not just in student films.

This film will always be dear to me, in large part because its themes are very close to my heart. The sense of ownership and passion that comes along with a project that is truly yours, in which you have a considerable amount of creative control, is not something to take for granted.

Since graduating from The Animation School, I have been fortunate enough to work on my fair share of exciting projects, but as is to be expected, none of them were truly my own. Fortunately, there is almost always something to love in a production, even if one is only a part of something greater. There are always new challenges to be faced, that encourage us to learn and grow. Perhaps in time, with more experience, I will be lucky enough to have greater creative ownership over a project once again.

Character design by Sarah Swanepoel

The Look and Feel

Emma Somers: In our film we used colour to create a major distinction between Mrs Mantis’ memory and the bar. The rich oranges of the bar establish a hot and heavy atmosphere. Using hanging overhead lights creates a more oppressive interrogation room feeling. While in the memory setting we chose pinks and purples to evoke passion and femininity, which gradually turned dark red towards the horror of the climax of the film. The lighting for the memory was more abstract and colourful to aid in the surreal atmosphere.

The colour schemes for the characters were taken from their environment’s colour pallets. The bar couples adhered to the orange tones, Mr Mantis with the purples and Mrs Mantis reflected the colour scheme of both the environments. By the end of the project we got feedback that the colours for the bar couples were possibly too close, this confused some viewers on the visual distinction between them. This was an important lesson for us, as it showed that even if a character's shape language is vastly different from another, the colours need to be equally distinctive.

For the textures we choose a painterly effect mixed with the more traditional CG shading techniques, rather than using a toon shader. We enjoyed the blend of trying to incorporate the strengths of both 2D and 3D styles to compliment one another. Creating a painterly style to the textures was an impactful decision for us going forward, as the industry is hungry for skills in styles in this range.

Going into the industry I have been able to call back on lessons I learned while working on Mr & Mrs Mantis. I have learned the power of taking a simplified approach to creating.

It's not always the biggest sets and most flashy action scenes that capture people's attention.  The simple but crafted execution of the unique visual style we managed to work together to create, is something that stood out to the industry. Which in turn helped us to be able to create reels that locked us job opportunities.

Even now, after having been in the industry for almost 3 years, I  still rely on work from this film for the bulk of my reel, since it can take a long time for your industry work to be free to use in one’s reel. The risks we took to make the film truly our own and have fun with it paid off tenfold.

Colour Script by Emma Somers

The Animation

Maya Kahanovitz: We put a fair amount of consideration into the degree of anthropomorphism we wanted to utilise in our animation style. On the one hand, the praying mantises needed to stay true to their animalistic nature, so as to emphasise the violent courtship and justify their traditions. On the other hand, the audience needed to be able to connect with the characters and recognise the parallels to our society. Usually, the natural response when observing an insect tends to be at least a degree of discomfort. The way they move is so far removed from what we usually consider appealing. So we decided to keep a stylised version of their bug-like skittering with multiple limbs (Despite, unsurprisingly, six legs being rather challenging to animate), and inject humanity into their eyes and hands. This also allowed us to clearly differentiate between the cerebral Mrs Mantis in the bar and the purely animalistic mating ritual.

Mrs Mantis Expression Sheet by Sarah Swanepoel

Jumping onto animating such an unusual creature prepared me for the unpredictable nature of animation. Every movie, advert or TV show is vastly different. And even every shot within a production can come with its unique challenges. As an animator, we always need to be learning and adapting. Be it carefully analysing how a condor lands or how a snake flicks its tongue, or how a sheep wags its tail. Or be it juggling styles, one day animating a cartoony cat and the next a photoreal polar bear. There is always something you feel completely and utterly unprepared to tackle that will come your way. And that can be daunting, sure, but all the more exciting for it.

“Mr & Mrs Mantis” forced us to overcome many technical challenges and grow as artists. Naturally, and perhaps more importantly, it also taught us the value of working well in a team.

We learned to recognise that the scale of what is possible is simply so much grander when one is part of a  supportive environment. The diverse input results in a far more complex and beautiful product. A product that, despite flaws, we are still able to look back on with pride, two years on.

Watch the short film here!

You can reach out to Maya here, and check out her student work via her Rookies Portfolio here. Reach out to Emma via Instagram and her Rookies Portfolio.