Filmmaker, costume designer, and artist Niki Lindroth von Bahr discusses the making of her short film The Burden, a stop-motion musical with animal puppets who sing about existential despair.
“I wanted to ask the question: if you were, for example, night cleaning a hamburger restaurant, and suddenly found yourself in a musical, what would you sing about?” And so Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s hilarious and moving short film The Burden was born. Made over two and a half years, this highly original stop motion animation film is screening in the TIFF Short Cuts section, and it’s one of the best things you’ll see at the festival. Inspired by Old Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and Anchors Aweigh, The Burden features tap dancing mice cleaning in a hamburger restaurant, lonely fish at a long stay hotel, and monkeys in a call centre who find themselves in a Busby Berkeley number — all singing about existential despair, anxiety, and loneliness.
Despite its modern, suburban setting, The Burden really does feel like a Golden Age musical — and that’s intentional. “I thought about the new musicals that you see now. I saw La La Land just a few weeks ago for the first time, and I really hated it. I was really offended by [it], I felt like, ‘Wow, you really can’t do this now’. That kind of naïve way of telling a story feels so wrong now. You can really enjoy it from the old days but now it doesn’t really work for me.” The Burden’s bleak themes, sung by anthropomorphic animal puppets dancing in classic choreography, make this very much a product of the 21st century, even as it cleverly calls back to days of yore.'That naïve way of telling a story feels so wrong now, but you can enjoy it from the old days.'Click To Tweet
“I’ve made three films with animal characters,” explained von Bahr. “I like to see my films as some kind of modern fables. That’s why I use animals.” When choosing the specific animals for her films, she likes to have a theme that unites them. For The Burden, she picked animals that were all very common in medical experiments. The film never explicitly explains what “the burden” is that the characters keep singing about. Perhaps it’s depression, or a more run-of-the-mill existential despair at the banality of modern life. The animal characters make sense of this abstract concept, allowing us to project our own ideas of what “the burden” could be.
In the first episode, a group of fish at a long-term hotel are looking to change their lives once “the burden” is lifted. A fish in a bathrobe emerges from her room, hoping for better skin. Her neighbour across the hall, a fish in a sweatsuit, has just left a bad relationship and further despairs at not getting the room she wanted. The fish puppets each have an eye at the centre of the head that stares right at you. “I looked at a lot of aquarium YouTube films. I realized that fish don’t blink. They just move their eyes in a really weird way. It suits that first episode: it’s very emotional and the fish, with its big eyes, can look quite emotional.”
Crafting this musical was challenging because the lyrics were written in isolation from the music. “I wanted the music to guide the way for my editing,” von Bahr explained. So she went over the story and her intention for each scene with composer Hans Appelqvist, asking him to begin writing music based on this outline. Next, she met with lyricist and comedian Martin Luuk. She laid out “what the atmosphere would be like, what the themes of the songs would be. They’re tired of their jobs, or they’re lonely. He just made up the lyrics not hearing the music at all because the music was [not] done yet.” Finally, von Bahr gave the lyrics to Appelqvist and asked him to make it work. “I’m so amazed by these two people just being so genius and making this happen,” said von Bahr.
The Burden owes its lush sound to von Bahr’s decision to record the music live with a 15-person orchestra. “We killed the budget from day one by deciding to record the music live, but it was also so fantastic. It has such a huge effect on the music itself. It just feels so much more like these Old Hollywood musicals.”
The all-male Swedish comedy troupe Klungan provided the voices. But von Bahr didn’t want all of her characters to be male. “We worked a lot with autotune and stuff for the voices so there’s just more, like, a weird voice. The characters don’t have a gender, basically. I wanted to create a situation where you, as an audience, don’t care [about gender], or you don’t hear it.”'We worked a lot with autotune so there’s a weird voice. The characters don’t have a gender.'Click To Tweet
The Burden’s choreography lives up to the standard set by its music. When a pair of mice start tap dancing on the tables of the hamburger restaurant they’re cleaning, it’s a moment of pure joy. It’s hard to believe these are actually puppets who are stop motion animated.
“When the music was done, I contacted a few choreographers. I just took a chance and asked them if they wanted to make up some tiny choreographies for me, for free, because I had such a shitty budget with the film. But they were really nice to me and helped me out. I recorded these dancers doing the dances, and then we worked with that footage, frame by frame. The actual tap dance I think it’s like a minute or something but that took my two animators eight weeks to animate.”'I recorded these dancers doing the dances, and then we worked with that footage, frame by frame.'Click To Tweet
The film’s pièce de résistance comes when monkeys staffing a call centre find themselves in a vast 1930s-style musical dance number. The refrain is “I don’t demand much, my life is drifting away.” The number begins with a closeup on pair of monkeys at their desks, whose tails suddenly start moving in time. The lyrics may be bleak, but von Bahr finds great visual wit in how characters enter and exit the frame, popping in and out at opportune moments. In a cheeky callback to her inspirations, von Bahr translates that classic over-the-head shot of faces being revealed from behind a feathered fan to a monkey revealing his face from behind a fan of sticky notes. “I was very inspired by the choreographer Busby Berkeley, like ‘The Lady in the Tutti Fruitti Hat’ and these really huge dance scenes. I looked at a lot of old clips, especially from him, and just had fun with it.”
It’s easy to willingly suspend your disbelief when watching The Burden because these singing and dancing animals exist in a familiar world, which is realised with great detail. This starts with von Bahr’s costumes: “When I chose the wrong kind of fabric, it really looked like a puppet’s clothing. I really needed to work to find the right kind of fabric that looked natural — not making it too much of a caricature. I had to throw away a lot of the clothes that I made as well because it just didn’t look real in the camera.”
Perhaps even more impressive is the film’s set design, which really places you in familiar suburban, strip mall shops or an office of depressing cubicles. You forget that you’re looking at a model that’s only a couple of metres long and wide. The detailed sets are a product of extensive research which von Bahr conducted over the course of a year. “I actually went by car to a lot of these areas, in real life, and took a lot of pictures. That cheap long term hotel in the first episode really exists. It looks exactly like that! They’re supposed to look expensive, but the quality of everything is just crap. I wanted to capture the exact atmosphere of all of these places.”
The Burden screens in Short Cuts Programme 6 at the Toronto International Film Festival.