Junko’s Shamisen: From Vision To Reality

April 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman


“I never thought I could be a filmmaker so I was trying to sneak through the backdoor when I started teaching myself animation.”

The short film Junko’s Shamisen is a pretty fantastic and visually impressive blend of live action and animated elements from director Sol Friedman.  (I envy everyone who can draw and animate by the way.)

I really can’t describe it better than the film’s website.

Blending the aesthetic traditions of Japanese Kabuki, contemporary Manga illustration and the use of cell, stop motion and computer animation; Writer, director and animator Sol Friedman brings you this stylized and haunting tale of vengeance.

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman

“The film has, to date, screened at over fifty international film festivals spanning a pretty huge range of genres from drama, to experimental, to horror and most recently to children’s programming. The film has picked up a few awards along the way, but most exciting of all has been the audience reception. Although the reception has overall been extremely positive, people don’t really know what to compare the film against, so it’s always kind of interesting to hear.”

The film itself is beautifully designed and looks fantastic.  Combining so many art styles is an extremely challenging task to take on and I was eager to learn what inspired Sol to create the film.

“After high school I studied Zen Shiatsu in Toronto and I’ve traveled to Japan several times, so I’ve been fascinated by Japanese art and culture for many years now. For a long time I had been hoping to find a project that I could use to really get into some of the more specific nuances of Japanese art. I was in Tokyo in 2008 showing work at Takashi Murakami’s Geisai Museum art exhibition, and on one of my days off I went to see a Kabuki performance. The pacing, costumes, set decoration, and everything else about the performance really blew me away, but the hook that sold me on Kabuki as the direction was the way that the stagehands would run through and modify the scenery. You could see them running, but in their dark clothing they would float by and fade into the background like ghosts. It was pretty exciting for me.”

Knowing the style you’re attempting to achieve is only half the battle if you aren’t willing to put in the work to create something new.  Sol spent nearly 8 months working tirelessly to visualize the film.  An accomplished artist, the director credits several different influences that contributed to his design process.

“I’m not particularly well-versed in Manga/anime culture but I did look to a bunch of famous books and films. Some obvious connections for me were Lone Wolf and Cub, Lady Snowblood, Zatoichi. But I’m also a huge fan of Michel Gondry so I thought about some of his more experimental work when developing the stage treatments. I wanted  to really push the blurred edge between the computer generated and the handcrafted elements. I referenced many comic books when I was putting together the style frames, but also looked a lot to Kabuki to fill in some of the blanks in terms of the tonal treatment. But with most of what I do, the process generally resolves itself by just getting into it, and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman

Getting an ambitious project like Junko’s Shamisen off the ground is extremely challenging but Sol’s dedication prevailed by truly being able to communicate what he wanted to achieve and what the film could be.

“In Canada we are very fortunate to have a supportive arts community. I was able to secure financing at a federal and provincial level as well as from a private broadcaster. Which is really amazing. This obviously meant a good deal of time spent on the administrative side, but it allowed me to hire a top-notch crew, and ultimately to develop some familiarity with the pitching process.”

So armed with his passion for Japanese culture and a keen interest in various filmmaking techniques, Sol set out to realize his vision of Junko’s Shamisen.  A vision he would have to execute while taking on the challenging roles of writer, director and animator.

“Each presented its own challenges. I am a self-taught animator, so working with actors is quite a bit different. I like to keep massaging elements until the final print, but on set you have a limited amount of time, and there’s a lot less wiggle room so being economical is hugely important . This was also my first time working with a proper producer and crew, so with regards to writing and directing, I had to step outside my shell to communicate to the team about what was in my head. Again, working on my own, in the dark, for weeks on end, those concerns aren’t as persistent. As far as animation went on this project, there were several styles mixed together so as you can imagine, there were various challenges along the way mainly in terms of keeping the aesthetic coherent but eclectic at the same time.”

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman

Once on set, the director relied heavily on his artistic background to communicate what he wanted to his crew.

“I definitely think being an artist was an asset. It certainly helped in communicating and executing my idea, but perhaps more importantly, it informed a flexibility in my approach. I am not terribly stubborn in the real world, and even less so in art. So I try to keep doors open wherever possible.  Ironically, I had the least on set experience out of anyone, including the eleven year old lead, but since it was an all greenscreen soundstage, and I knew what I needed in order to composite my shots, it felt like the field was somewhat leveled. All things considered it went very smoothly.”

Once the shooting was complete Sol had a whole new set of hurdles to clear in post production.  The daunting task of creating all the animated elements now presented him with challenges he was excited to take on and overcome.

“A typical day during the VFX on this project would have been about 18 hours of me sitting in front of the computer drinking coffee, clicking buttons, and mostly just waiting for things to render then tweak . We shot on Red and for the final composites, used 16-bit TIFF sequences so the files were really heavy-and by the end pretty belligerent.  The editing was done in Final Cut Pro and I worked completely in Adobe After Effects for all compositing, animation and hand drawn elements.  I pushed the software (After Effects) as far as I could with some shots composed of over 1200 layers. The Fox was animated by Pete Levin in LA (who just directed a foo fighter’s video). He sent me files that I played with using a mixture of AE and FCP as necessary.”

Next up for Junko’s Shamisen?

“The film has far exceeded my expectations. I thought we’d play it in a few local film festivals, but our premiere was at Slamdance in Park City (running parallel to Sundance), and from there it has gone on to screen at over fifty festivals worldwide. I recently released the film to the public online and am hoping to build some word of mouth and get the film into the hands of somebody who can help turn this into a killer feature version.”


As for Sol Friedman, the director has already begun work on his next project.

“I am in pre-production right now on a robot love story which I am pretty excited about. Hopefully in the fall we’ll have something to show.”

Special thanks to Sol Friedman for the interview.

If you would like to see you film featured on The Athletic Nerd, email me the details at jason@17west.ca.