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There Were Four of Us
by Karen Pecota

Filmmaker Cassie Shao creates an animated short film that revolves around death in an introspective way in There Were Four of Us. The tools used for animation allowed Shao to create an experience instead of telling a story that would have a means-to-an-end.

Inspired from a dream she had a few years ago of being trapped in a room with three other people who each share an experience about death. This idea was the basic structure Shao used for her film to express reality through dream imagery.

Shao wanted to take the viewer away from emotions that one typically feels when dealing with death and question if one is allowed to feel differently. Shao uses bright and colorful dreamscapes in combination with both digital and analogue mediums to present her case. She explains, "I mainly experimented with digital 2D characters with 3D graphic elements, pastel drawing on live-action print-outs, and methods like paint on glass, sand on glass and silkscreen printing."

I had the opportunity to interview Cassie Shao about her film, her vision for the animation she used and the reason she chooses this media form in filmmaking. Here below are her revelations using the tools of animation to discover

Karen Pecota (KP): Congratulations on your short film being selected to screen at Slamdance Film Festival 2020. I'd like you to share a bit of your journey with Animation thus far:

Cassie Shao (CS): I graduated with an MFA in animation from the University of Southern California (USC). I started studying animation in 2012 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I find the infinite possibility of animation the most enjoyable. Not only in terms of content like using dream imagery without boundaries or limitations; but, it has infinite possibilities as a medium itself. The way I create, think and dream is inspired by using mixed-media and experimental techniques. Animation is a medium that allows me to present 100% of my uniqueness and stylistic choices and often feel my work is a statement about myself. It's challenging because the process of discovering (artistically and personally) has been both painful and delightful.  

KP: Each character seems to have a story to tell. What were the steps you took to write the dialogue? Why? How did you choose the animation to fit the dialogue?

CS: I wrote a few drafts before I started animating and continued to refine the dialogue throughout the production. Some dialogues were rewritten even after most of the visuals were done during the stage of post-production. The reason for that is since animation takes such a long time (this film took about a year to make), I thought I would take advantage of the time so that the film would grow and evolve with me during the year.

I chose to present the realities through dream imagery in the film. The dialogues are "realities" while the visuals are "dreams". I cuff relates an interesting contrast and a deliberate distance between the visuals and the sounds that are both a distortion and chaotic. This drives the audience away from designated emotions.

KP: Does the number 4 have significance to the story?

CS: "Four" pronounces very similarly to "death" in Chinese. My favorite number has been four since I was young. In one of my dreams (which this film is based on), I was trapped in a room with three other people and that made the four of us. I thought the number 4 was very suitable for a film that essentially revolves around death and people's reaction towards death, as well as being a bit of "prophecy" to the story.

KP: What would you like your audience to take away from your work here?

CS: The goal of the film is to take the audience on a dream journey of displaced spaces, times and realities. I believe that my dreams are reflections of me. Through presenting this journey, I want to find connections back to me and to others. I want the audiences to be curious about how we might view death, being so close yet always a distance away from it. I made the film to question the questions I don't currently have answers to, I hope for the audience to take away these questions and perhaps find answers of their own.

I thanked Cassie for her time of sharing her insights to filmmaking with animation. She is a fascinating artist and one to be congratulated.