Battery Life: A Stop Motion Tale of Family, Strength, and Tragedy

Battery Life is a stop motion short film that tells a story of determination, self-sacrifice, and deceit. Set in a dystopian desert landscape, a robot family, through the test of tragedy, discovers a dark secret hidden behind the doctrine of a preacher.
-Batterylifefilm.com

For the past 4 years, four young Pittsburgh creatives have been spending countless hours of nearly every day planning, filming, editing and promoting a stop-motion animated short film that captivates the viewer into an electric world much like our own. An almost completely self-funded project, the film is nothing short of a stop-motion prize.

Battery Life is the creative child of Justin Nixon, with much help from talented filmmakers Jon and Paul Zito and Jordan Serra. With initial filming beginning in April of 2014, the team has worked tirelessly to bring together a piece of brilliant film worthy of Pittsburgh’s respect among so many others. A release screening was held on January 16th, with over 250 people attending. The online release of the film to the public was February 2nd, with over 80 shares on Facebook. I had the chance to sit down with Justin and Paul to discuss how the project came to be, what it was like to film a stop-motion film, and what life is like now that it is done after 4 years.

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Tell me about the project, how did it come to be?

J: Battery life was an idea that I came up with four years ago, and it was based on one shot that I had in my head of a robot fighting a robot dinosaur. That obviously never happened, but it triggered the idea to make a stop-motion movie. I kept talking to people about the process and the idea, and then one day on my bike, a full-blown story hit me. I ended up doing about forty big script changes, probably between 15 and 20 total re-writes, and then got together with a group of people. We all wanted to make stuff, but Battery Life was the closest to being able to be made because we had a nearly finished script, a budget, and a place to shoot.

Why stop-motion?

J: I love animation, and I couldn’t draw at the time that we started. There’s a really interesting physicality to stop-motion that I like a lot. Making inanimate objects come to life is really appealing. When I was a kid, I would set up action figures in scenarios and take pictures of them, and I guess that bled over. I did a small animation bit for a documentary that I worked on that was stop-motion – not with characters but with marbles – and it was really fun. I then helped a friend on a small stop-motion piece that he was working on. There was something therapeutic about animating it that I really enjoy. It’s really intimidating to start, but when you’re in a flow of things, time just melts away.

You went to Point Park for film, do you think that what you learned there helped you with this project?

J: Yeah, I was in narrative and visual story-telling classes, and that definitely played a role. I majored in cinematography and I have an eye for it, but I like collaborating with cinematographers rather than actually doing it. I like to figure out what I want, and then let them add their own touch.

Do you see yourself more as a director or screenwriter rather than a cinematographer?

J: I don’t see myself as a DP (Director of Photography) at all. I see myself as more of a director and animator. Jordan Serra was the cinematographer and Paul helped with the animation. I do animation for [freelance] work as well; I do a lot of 2D animation and graphics stuff for work.

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Paul, what all did you do?

P: When we first started talking about doing it, I was mostly just on the animation side. We hadn’t settled on me doing any of the audio until about the third attempt at making the movie. It definitely evolved into a much larger project than I think any of us had ever seen it as. I think we all felt that it was kind of taking on its own life form.  That sort of encourages us to all be more involved in it. It certainly encouraged me to want to be a part of the music and do the sound rather than just animate.

So Justin went to Point Park for film, but what kind of background did you have for this project?

P: I’ve been writing music since I was 15 or 16. I briefly went to school to try and hone that craft, and then realized I didn’t really like formal education. I left school and met up with a friend from high school after a while who was doing film, and he brought me on to write music for his work. One way or another I ended up with a camera in my hands and realized that it was actually pretty fun. That evolved into me wanting to do film, which led to me becoming more interested in animation and different mediums. It was actually Fantastic Mr. Fox that really piqued my interest. I got into doing stop-motion when I still lived in Michigan, doing music videos for people and just making very rudimentary videos. I met Justin when I came to Pittsburgh at Big Dog in South Side and we connected over stop-motion.

Do you think with your experience you helped him with the practice?

P: I think out of everybody I had the most experience with stop-motion as far as projects are concerned, but he had already pretty much made up his mind that he wanted to do that medium. I just kind of aligned with my already-desire to do it.

Have you ever done a sound design project before? Like every aspect of sound for film; pre-, production, and post-production?

P: Being involved in all of those aspects helped. I didn’t have to ask Justin what the style was that he was going for, because I already knew. We were pretty much all already on the same page. It was pretty nice switching between the three stages, because I think if I had to sit in one mode for the whole time, I would’ve lost my mind. Transitioning was rewarding for all of us though. Each time it was really daunting getting into it, but then as you get through it, you start to find your rhythm.

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Stop-motion is a complicated form of art that nobody really understands. What do you think you learned from achieving such a feat?

J: I definitely learned a lot, and it is misunderstood. I had a lot of people tell me I was crazy, but I definitely don’t feel crazy. People put detail into things in their life all the time, whether it’s their art, their house or their car. It’s about where you decide to put that detail, and we decided to put it into moving puppets.

P: I don’t think there’s only one or two things. It certainly honed my stop-motion animation… As far as craft is concerned, it was the first thing in pretty much all of my skillsets to make me see that big of a picture. Up until that point, it was only two or three-minute animations that didn’t really have scenes or arching narratives. It was all very short films or commercial ad work. Especially with the music and sound design, I had never tried to make multiple scenes try to work together. I remember sitting with the dialogue, the sound, and the score and not really knowing how to do it.
Watching everyone get better at what they do, it was a huge motivator for everyone to just put their best foot forward and make something that they’ll be proud of. I think that if you’re working in this kind of industry, most of the time you kind of gauge how everyone’s involvement is and how passionate everybody is and you base your efforts off that. It was a really healthy experience for me, and definitely my brother (Jon) as well for us to see what we can do and how far we can push ourselves.

Sets can be really stressful places, do you guys think you ultimately as a group stayed the same, got stronger, or became distant?

P: I think I can speak for Jordan, Justin and I that, being in the trenches and for so long, it bonded us a lot. I don’t know when, but it ceased to be a struggle to work together. It became a lifestyle at some point. We had been working on this project for so long, I forgot what it was like to not work on it. There would be days that I just didn’t want to do it anymore but for the most part, seeing everybody else put their energy into it, I naturally did the same thing. Our personalities are very understanding, and if we get upset, we don’t direct it at each other. I think the fact that we are all pretty easily to get along with and that we had been working on it for so long, it just was very fluid.

Would you say you hit a lot of road blocks?

J: Oh yeah, everyday. There were parts of it that we would go in and we would be shooting for eight hours, and we realized that it wasn’t going to work anymore and we would have to scrap eight hours. With the DIY rigs that we had, things would fall apart, or wouldn’t hold the way that they were supposed to. We had things weighted weird because we didn’t have proper sandbags. Once we got to the animation part, it was almost a relief because it was always so hard just to get a figure from point A to point B. You see about 144,000 frames in the final movie, and that’s only ten minutes and thirty seconds. That doesn’t include all of the stuff that failed or that we cut.

This was a very long project, so you had to have a lot of discipline with it. Did that all come from you or do you think you had a good support team?

J: It was both. Discipline is learned, I think. When people say they would never have the patience, it’s usually because they’ve never given themselves the patience. Stop-motion and animation in general is a very rewarding medium. It was all about where your focus was at the time, too. Every night, the focus was on one shot, and when I had to, I would focus on one frame at a time. The only time you thought big picture was when it was necessary, when you had to think of if the shot fit in the film.
I had a great support team definitely though. Every time I was feeling down, they would encourage me and vice versa.

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How do you feel now that it’s done?

J: I feel good now that it’s done, I think we did a really good job. There’s plenty that I would change about it, but that’s in every movie ever. I’m very proud of it, I think that the narrative was successful and that was the most important part to me. That’s what gives it the heart that it has. As a director, the biggest struggle that I had the whole time was keeping it cohesive and trying to understand how everything was going to fit together. There were a lot of times that we would get into the studio and realize that we couldn’t do anything we were planning on, so how were we going to be able to change it so that it will got the point across. Almost every shot in the movie that you see was actually meant to be something else.

P: I was doing final sound mixing the morning of the screening, so I really didn’t have any time to prepare for the emotional and cathartic release of being done with it. It’s weird because I’ve wanted to be able to be done with it and have the final product, but because it became a lifestyle, I’m not really sure what to do anymore. It’s like I haven’t been able to even internalize thoughts anymore, it’s just like, “Oh I’ll think about that after Battery Life.” I can’t really blanket that excuse anymore, and I think now it’s just time for me to re-evaluate what I’m doing with my life besides that project.

What advice do you have for regular filmmakers? What about for animators specifically?

J: Plan your shit out, and make sure your narrative is solid. I’ve seen too many movies that are made just because people want to make movies. That’s awesome and exciting, but your story is your most important aspect. If that is flawed, no matter how good your movie looks or sounds, it’s going to be a failure. It needs to be airtight because you don’t want somebody watching it and asking why it is happening. There were scenes that I loved and I cut because it didn’t make any sense to keep them in there. I was holding on to it because I loved the sequence I had put together for it. It hurts a little when you have to do that, but egos need to be left at the door.

Also, get objective opinions, because you’re too close to your project and you need other people who don’t give a shit about it to tell you what they think. The point of the movie is to be shown to people who don’t give a shit about you, and you want to bring them into this world that you’re creating. You need to make sure that what you’re working on is captivating and relevant.

As for animators, just practice, practice, practice. Practice new techniques, practice new movements, try new characters out. Do anything that you can do just get better at it. I’m not the best animator in the world, I started learning through this movie. And I see that when I watch it, but we used our strengths to cover our weaknesses. Where our animation wasn’t necessarily breathtaking, our set and our composition was. There are some shots where they don’t move at all, but it still feels in that world and like it belongs.

 

As a former sound student, I had some questions specifically for Paul on what he thought about being a sound designer on a film. It’s an appreciated job in the film industry because nobody typically wants to do it, and it’s very difficult. It’s also the part of films that go the most unnoticed at times. Sound is a part of film where it can sometimes be more technical than subjective and creative. I was curious to see how Paul handled the first major film project he had the chance to do audio for.

 

When scoring it, did you use how you felt for it, or did you get objective opinions?

P: I tried bouncing it off of them as much as possible whenever I felt like it was ready. I want people’s feedback, but I also know that when certain elements are missing, their feedback can also misguide you at times. So I would always make sure that it was at a listenable point to show them. We had preferences that we had picked out before, so I kind of knew what we were going for. There were moments where I was writing something, and I saw it play out with a motion in the movie that we hadn’t planned, and I would try to pull that out more.

Do you think that sound in film is very noticeable or do you think that it’s something that subconsciously affects people’s view on the film?

P: Probably more of the latter. It’s kind of like the unsung hero in that category. I think people who have any sort of familiarity with the process or with film in general is sort of able to point that out. When we screened it, we had a handful of people that had no appreciation for the music or sound at all that came up to me and said that they enjoyed it. But largely if you’ve never peeked behind the curtain, you don’t realize that your emotions are being swept with the audio half the time, and if you were to delete the music or the sound design, it would be a completely different film. That’s what was so rewarding about it. When we put the music in, it was like there was now a story and an arc to it. We knew what the story was and how it was supposed to feel, but until it had this musical undertone to the whole thing, it didn’t really feel complete.

Does it bother you that people really don’t notice it?

A little bit, I suppose. I mean I don’t want to be in a position where people come up to me and they only rave about the music. That’s not what’s important. It’s like this bittersweet thing where it needs to be unnoticed, but I need to know it’s working. I want people to be moved by the music, but I don’t want people to think the music is what makes the movie. Hopefully it’s the contributing factor that seals the deal.

 

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From left to right: Paul Zito, Justin Nixon, Jordan Serra

According to Justin, the next step for Battery Life is to get into festivals. At the time of the interview, they team had put in 10 festival submissions that were pending. As word gets back, they plan on doing all that they can to keep the project going, as well as work on some of their own independent projects.

As somebody who has followed their project for so long, it is very exciting to see the final product, and all fans anticipate the success of the project. To watch the film and learn more about it, go to www.batterylifefilm.com/

To like them on facebook, click here.

Jordan was unable to be interviewed, as he was at a film festival for his other project, Fursonas, a documentary about the life of Furries. To follow this film and its successes, click here.

Thank you very much to Justin and Paul for letting me interview them, and best of luck to them and the rest of the team on Battery Life’s future and their next endeavors!

 

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