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Merve Caydere on the Artistry of Stop-Motion Animation

Merve Caydere: The artistry of stop-motion animation is mesmerizing. There’s a certain charm to seeing actual lights reflecting on actual miniature materials.

We spoke in person to Turkish set designer and stop-motion animation artist Merve Caydere about her journey from interior design to stop-motion animation.

Please tell us about your journey as a Turkish woman in the world of animation?

I started my journey as an interior architect back in Turkey. I graduated from Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey. I used to work at architectural model shops during summer breaks while I was in college. Then I moved to Long Beach, California, for grad school. I got my MFA in Theatre Set design at California State University Long Beach.

When I first moved to the US, my goal was to work in the field of stop motion animation, but I didn’t have a chance to do it for a while because I didn’t have any experience. I talked to some of the stop motion studios in Los Angeles, but they were either not hiring at the time or didn’t get back to me. Then I decided to make my own stop motion short film so that I could have something in my portfolio to show to these studios. It initially started as a project to demonstrate my skills, but I developed an emotional connection with the story. Once I had completed it, I sent it to some smaller festivals, and it found its way into some of the major ones as well. That not only gave me better chances of getting hired, but also fanned the flames of passion in me for stop motion.

One day I watched Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. At the end of the film, I looked at the

credits and saw a Turkish name. I searched for that person online and I found her email

address. I emailed her to ask for advice. She gave me a heads up for the del Toro project. I searched for information about the project, and I saw that it was picked up by Netflix. I applied through every channel I could think of; through Shadow Machine’s website, I asked my friends who work in animation if they knew anyone who works in the production whom I could directly reach out to, and found the email address of the production designer. Fortunately, this approach worked and I got hired for the project out of 25,000 applicants!

Why did you choose animation?

I have been a big fan of animation ever since I was a kid. I grew up watching cartoons like most people. It’s funny, though, whenever I find myself reminiscing about the shows from my childhood, the ones I remember distinctly are the stop motion ones. I was just talking to some friends the other day about Nickelodeon shows from the 90s and early 2000s, and the ones that came to my mind first were the short stop motion segments such as Inside-Out Boy and Prometheus and Bob. But still, whenever I thought of animation as a profession, I imagined the nature of it as computer generated or traditional animation. I’ve never thought I could be a part of those because I didn’t think I had the kind of drawing skills that are particularly necessary for traditional animation and I don’t enjoy 3D modeling. Then after I watched the stop motion feature ParaNorman and fell in love with it, I saw behind the scenes videos online. Stop motion is a type of animation in which each frame is photographed one by one. This type of animation uses physical sets and puppets. I realized my model-making skills could directly translate to this type of animation! That’s when I decided to choose the path of stop motion animation. I find stop motion very relatable and mesmerizing. I think there’s a certain charm to seeing actual lights reflecting on actual miniature materials. I’m also drawn to the artistry of it. Stop motion studios are equipped with so many talented visual artists who are patiently creating the tiny props and landscapes. So much thought goes into sets and puppets. I find that physical, tangible component very valuable.

How long does it take to create a set? Please tell us about the process.

It depends on the set: the size and details of it could determine the length of the process, although not necessarily. I think the most time-consuming set I worked on was surprisingly the one with the trucks! Because a vehicle has such a tight space and means close contact with puppets, a lot of consideration gets put into creating it. I started drafting trucks in my first week in the production, and I was still drafting trucks in my last weeks! The easiest set I worked on was the Minefield Beach, where the dramatic conclusion of the film takes place. I think it took me less than a week to set design and draft it.

It’s a team effort, and the process is technically almost as long as the film. The design work starts at the very beginning. The production designer, who is the head of the art department, talks with the director at the very beginning of the production to make decisions about the look of the film. Then the production designer works with the concept artist, who draws the initial illustrations that show how the sets will look. The storyboard team will then create the storyboards which are edited into a rudimentary version of the film called an “animatic.” Then the rest of the design team begin their work. The set designer looks at the animatic to see what the action and the frame look like. The concept art guides us for the look. The set designer’s job is very similar to an architect’s, we decide how the things will be built (with the guidance of the art director), and create a drafting package that we pass onto the shops. The carpenters at the shop will build sets, the model shop will build the props, the landscape department will create the tiny plants, the scenery department will paint the sets, the set dressers will put all the pieces together on the stage and make the set look “camera ready” for the shots. It is a long process, but also a very satisfying process.

You recently worked on Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Please tell us about working on such a big project.

It was a big project in terms of being the film of an Oscar-winning director but somehow the scale of it wasn’t as large as it could have been, compared to some other films. There were tight budget and space limitations on Pinocchio. We kept those restrictions in mind throughout the whole process. For example, the shots tended to be more close up rather than really wide shots, which kept the need for visual effects for backgrounds to the minimum. The sets were built in a physical studio space; therefore, the wider the shot got, the larger the actual shooting stage would need to be in order to accommodate the size of the set. This also in a way meant sticking to the true nature of stop motion. Minimizing the need for visual effects not only helps to keep the budget low, but also leads to keeping things handmade, which is the core idea of stop motion animation.

Despite the budgetary limitations, hundreds of incredibly talented artists worked on the film. It was inspiring to be a part of such a supportive and skillful crew. Towards the end of filming, there were more than 40 animators working to finishing filming all of the shots. We also went through a whole pandemic, wildfires and social unrest during the production! Surviving all that with a group of innovative artists, being a part of the crew who made this film gives me confidence that artists can survive through anything.


Any upcoming projects?

I’m currently working as a set designer at Laika studios on their upcoming stop motion feature Wildwood. It’s an adaptation of Colin Meloy’s book of the same name. The director is Travis Knight. I’m very excited about it, I think it’s going to be a good one!