Freaks of Nurture

by Wendy Helfenbaum

December 7, 2017


Love, chaos and the power of family: Behind the scenes of Alexandra Lemay’s new stop-motion film


Montreal-based filmmaker Alexandra Lemay had a pretty unorthodox childhood. Her mother Manon fostered Lemay’s artistic instincts by allowing her to build her own toys and paint on walls, while she raised five biological children, several poodles and a pet skunk. She also fostered as many as five kids at once.


Growing up in this hectic but happy home, Lemay developed her skills as an artist, writer and animator. While obtaining her BFA at Concordia University, she became passionate about stop-motion animation, and later expanded upon her “maker” talents in Sheridan College’s Advanced Special Effects Props and Prosthetics program. She then did stints at special effects studios and costume shops, and in commercial animation.


“I like working with my hands, and figured I'd get better as a fabricator and then apply that to my films eventually,” she explains. “What's funny [is] I went into fabrication wanting to do miniatures and I graduated designing museum exhibits with life-size dinosaurs.”


In 2014, Lemay snagged a spot in the National Film Board’s prestigious Hothouse apprenticeship program. Her subsequent short film, All the Rage, screened at numerous festivals, and was nominated for best animated short by Le Gala Québec Cinéma.


“Doing Hothouse reminded me why I’d fallen in love with animation,” she recalls. “I’d been focusing so much on fabrication, but what I love about animation is the storytelling aspect of it. I was so motivated that I began working on the proposal for my next film while All the Rage was in post-production.”


Lemay’s new stop-motion short film, Freaks of Nurture—produced by the NFB’s Maral Mohammadian—will soon join the festival circuit. Describing the film as “a love letter to my mom,” Lemay says she felt compelled to tell this story about acceptance, and learning how to love each other’s flaws.


“While I was doing Hothouse, I was living with my mom and it was complete pandemonium at her house, because she had five toddlers at the time,” recalls Lemay. “I started out with the idea that a visitor comes over for supper, but then Maral said, ‘This is not a visitor; this is you. This is your experience.’ She pushed me to put more of myself in it. This whole filmmaking process has been tricky to navigate, because even though I'm criticizing my mother, I admire what she does. So the film is a lighthearted slice of life.”



Production began in July 2016, with Lemay designing sets and props based on her mother’s eclectic house. Using the home’s actual blueprints, Lemay duplicated nearly every detail in miniature and added whimsical extras like a pink fridge. Jako Lanterne’s Laurent Canniccioni and Émily Belanger built the sets and props. Because she loves dinosaurs, Lemay portrayed the daughter character as an animator working on a dinosaur film.



Alexandra Lemay on set 



Lemay sketched out the characters and costumes and built 17 puppets, including seven animals she crafted using needle felting.


“I wanted them to have a more cartoony look,” explains Lemay, who then worked with a team of stop-mo A-listers, including Érik Goulet, who built the puppet armatures and rigs.


“Érik was my teacher at Concordia; I call him my stop-motion dealer, because he got me hooked on this medium,” says Lemay.


Armature by Érik Goulet; hands by Dominique Côté


Lemay sculpted one toddler, cast it in different colours, and then personalized it with wigs and custom outfits.One challenge she faced stemmed from the mom character always carrying a baby or a dog, so Lemay made five heads for her and a special rod attachment in her armature design.



“The daughter had four heads, plus various mouths, eyes and eyebrows that I added separately for each shot,” says Lemay. “I used Vaseline to hold the eyebrows on.”


Cameras rolled in the NFB studios from January to May 2017, with cinematographer Luka Sanader at the helm. He shot the “film within a film” dinosaur sequences on 35mm film, which added great texture but also more time to an already busy shooting schedule.



Cinematographer Luka Sanader


“Luka and I worked very closely, because there was a really fast turnaround and we wanted the production to have a raw, unpolished feel,” says Lemay. “I improvised all my animation as opposed to planning it out too meticulously. “He was always by my side doing very quick light and camera changes, and I would dress the set and characters. The pacing of this shoot was like that of a live-action film, because I would animate and edit the shot into the edit at the end of the day. Luka and his wife had two toddlers at the time, so he kept saying that he re-enacted the movie at home!”


Fittingly, Lemay voices the daughter in both the French and English versions of the film. Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction, The Fisher King) plays her English mother, and Anne Dorval voices the French mom.


For the quirky soundtrack, Lemay worked with composer Judith Gruber-Stitzer and sound designer Luigi Allemano.


“I knew from the beginning that sound would be as important as the animation, because I'm basically choreographing chaos,” says Lemay. “The music and sound effects guide the audience. The dinosaur film sequences needed dramatic, 1950's B-movie music, and Judith did a great job with that.”


Sound recording


“Working with the NFB has been amazing, and I feel really lucky to have been able to do such a personal project with this great team around me,” says Lemay. “It's more than the NFB machine; it's the people that work there who are really inspiring. I think that's the difference in independent filmmaking. At the Film Board, it's really the artist's intent that matters. They challenge you constantly, because collectively, we all have the same goal.”


Speaking to a packed auditorium—including her mother—at the Montreal Stop-Motion Festival in September, Lemay encouraged student animators to aim high and push their boundaries.


“It was great to take part in a festival that gives a chance for stop-mo animators to shine and show their work,” she says.


Filmmaker Alexandra Lemay, right, and her mother at the Montreal Stop-Motion Festival


Wendy Helfenbaum is a Montreal-based freelance writer and TV producer.


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