TIFF Encounters: Mark Samsonovich, animator for We the Animals

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From the 1st till the 11th of November, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) took place. Balkan Hotspot was there to talk to some of the movie makers. This first article is about our encounter with Mark Samsonovich, the animator for We the Animals (2018).

We the Animals follows Jonah and his two brothers as they are growing up in a dysfunctional household. Their parents are struggling to keep the family together. Over time, Jonah starts feeling disconnected from his brothers, and at times feels like an outsider. He finds some relief in his journal, where he writes and draws in secret.

We the Animals was made in the USA and directed by Jeremiah Zagar. It was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the NEXT Innovator Award. The movie is largely a live-action movie, but it includes some short animation sequences, in which Jonah’s drawings are brought to life. Responsible for these drawings and animations is Mark Samsonovich. We sat down with him and discussed his involvement in the movie.

Mark Samsonovich

How did you get involved in the making of this movie?
My cousin is a cinematographer and she is friends with Jeremiah (Zagar, the director). She saw that the producers of the film were looking for an animator, and then I met Jeremiah in a café and we went over things. It was the first time I’ve done animation or worked on a film, or collaborated with anyone. So it was the first time in many terms.

You mentioned during the Q&A session that it took quite some time to prepare the animation in the post-production of the movie. Can you tell us more about that?
Originally I got permission to design just the journal. Animation was not part of our agreement or our thoughts. Jeremiah decided to animate parts of the film after we had finished shooting the movie. He took a break after shooting, he was putting together a rough edit, and I was travelling a bit. When I came back, we did an animatic, which is like a mock-up of an animation, for one scene of the film. We used that to present it to producers, to see if we could get funding for it. And we got funding, and then we started our process of designing the animation in the beginning of May 2017. We finished shortly before the Sundance Festival.

Can you first tell us something about the journal? How many pages did you make for it?
So many. We knew that in the film there would be only a bunch of pages that would be on camera. But Jeremiah was really insistent on having me do the entire book, so I had an empty composition book and I had to fill the whole thing. That was really a great decision on his part, I think it added a lot of authenticity to the drawing. It also helped me to develop the language of Jonah’s mind and the style. And the text is actually taken directly from the book by Justin Torres, the book that the movie is based on. So anytime you see little scribbles of writing, it is literally just pages from his writing.

If you enjoyed the film you should definitely go read the book. It’s so beautifully poetic. Justin has this ability to capture a child’s voice and poetry, and create this perfect balance between maturity and childhood. It’s just stunning writing, it’s really remarkable.

Still from 'We the Animals'
Mark Samsonovich’s work in We the Animals (2018)

As for your animations, was there a clear idea of what they should look like, or did it develop in the process?
It definitely evolved over time. It was kind of like a hunt. We create something, we do some sketches, and we choose what we are interested in, flesh that out more, and then delete all of it, and redraw. Ultimately I designed around three times the amount of animation that went into the film. We had to cut out around 65% of the work that I had done.

Does it hurt?
It doesn’t. I think the best thing when you collaborate with someone is to be honest and quickly get rid of things that you don’t want. And you have to accept the fact that you’re part of an experimentation process. You’re just looking to pick the things that are going to be successful for telling the story. And that means having to cut out things that you worked really hard on, or spent a lot of time on.

As for the style that you chose, it looks like children’s drawings, and it was one of the ways of self-expression of the main character, Jonah. Did you discuss it with the boy, or did you try to watch him draw and adapt your style to his? Was this part of the process?
Not at all. He wasn’t really involved in the design process. I think that they maybe tried that at first, but they quickly realised that that wasn’t going to work. I remember when I first met with Jeremiah, he told me that they had run through a few illustrators, trying to find someone, and they couldn’t find anyone. The first night that I went back after meeting with him I did some sketches, and when I brought them back to him, he was like “this is it”, and the esthetic was quickly solidified. 

Mark Samsonovich

How did it feel to be directed in a movie that is partially animation, partially live action? Did you have a lot of freedom?
I think it was an evolution, and at some point, Jeremiah and I were very much on the same page. We understood each other, I understood his vision for the film, and there was a lot of trust involved. At a point, we understood the geography of Jonah’s mental landscape, and what scenes needed animation, or could potentially have it, and we tried out things together. I would propose ideas, and then he would say yes or no, or he would give me ideas, and I would flesh out the things that worked well visually as well as storytelling-wise. So it was really very much a collaboration.

For you as a visual artist and animator, how did this movie help you find the dimensions of you as an artist that you didn’t know before?
I think the most interesting thing I received from the creative process, personally, was working in the mind of a character, as opposed to from my own philosophy as an artist, and kind of being a creative actor in that way. I was finding ways to relate to Jonah’s emotions, and finding the things that are true to me, and that are also true to him. That was an interesting part of what I got out of working in that way.

Mark Samsonovich’s work in We the Animals (2018)

Do you know anything about the live-action part of the movie? For example, was it difficult to work with the child actors?
I cannot say if it was difficult or not, but seeing Jeremiah work with children was really incredible. There definitely were moments where he had a vision in his mind of how the performances should happen, and he would have to work with what the children would do naturally. And sometimes children do things that are surprisingly good, and sometimes things require more work. When you make a film, sometimes you get lucky and things are working in your favour, and sometimes you have to use your disadvantages and convert them into advantages.

The movie received an award at the Sundance festival. Did you expect it to be so successful and to have such a reaction from the audience?
I think everybody is just sweating because of nerves, nobody has any idea. When we screened the film for the first time in front of an audience, I sat there glued to my seat as I was just so nervous. I really didn’t expect that kind of positive reaction. But the woman sitting next to me literally cried during the film, so that was a good sign. I think it was all a really pleasant surprise, the success of the film.

Find more of Mark Samsonovich’s work on his website, and watch the trailer for We the Animals here!

The trailer of We the Animals (2018)

Interview and writing by Filip Grác and Sacha Bogaers

Post Author: Sacha Bogaers

I am 23 years old and moved from Sweden to Greece for ten months. My main interests are human rights, activism, and art. I also love writing about LGBTQ+-related topics and social justice.

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