“Stop motion is a very visceral medium, so I always enjoy using it for stories that explore physical intimacy and our relationship to our bodies,” says animator Emily Ann Hoffman when we catch up about her new film Blackheads. Set largely in the apartment of newly single Sofia, the film depicts the fallout of a breakup through intense feelings of loss, vulnerability and self-destructive cycles of grief. “I’m always interested in the connection between mental and physical state, so this character’s relationship to her blackheads became the key to her journey towards self-care,” Emily tells It’s Nice That.
Inspired by personal experiences of processing a break-up and trying to figure out how to reconnect with herself, the film features waxy stop-frame puppets (with drawn facial features layered on top) in a set made from tactile miniature versions of bedding, furniture, even plants. Emily also used stop-motion to depict a pretty graphic instance of Sofia squeezing a spot, which is pretty damn satisfying if you like that kind of thing. “I think you can get away with showing more intimate or gross things like pimples in stop-motion because it’s a fabricated layer removed from reality, but it still packs the punch of a real thing existing in 3D space,” she says.
While Emily chose stop-motion for the points of reality, moments of fantasy, memory or imagination are depicted in a sketchy 2D animation style. Here we see Sofia’s therapist racing drag cars while giving her frankly terrible advice, or Sofia feel the ghost of her former partner move around the apartment. “Those moments are less concrete as they’re scenes pulled from Sofia’s mind,” says Emily. “I wanted that loose, jittery, feel of hand-drawn animation because these scenes themselves are loose.”
Making the film a reality was a group effort, with Emily enlisting fabricators Megan Barbour, Leo Swartz, Brittany Bartley, Jaqueline Arkush and Russell Peborde to make all the tiny props, and Abigail Austin and Marisa Gershenhorn to animate the 2D sections. There’s a level of detail, from functional tissue boxes to ‘Easter eggs’ of the team’s favourite books and films hidden in the background that anchor the emotional storyline in real life. Blackheads is also the first time Emily has used 2D animation in her work, so the project demanded that she switch up her directing process. “My 2D animators were really talented and helped me make my vision a reality, while teaching me new techniques in Photoshop and After Effects,” she explains.
Blackheads is a touching and weirdly comic take on reclaiming your own body after a relationship – even if that means turning your face into a pizza – as well as a feat of model-making skill. It is part of a larger episodic anthology of short films called The Eyeslicer, which has invited more than 70 filmmakers to make short films based on the “dark heart of the contemporary American hellscape”. It will premier at The Eyeslicer’s mini film festival in Brooklyn on 16 September, before making its was around the festival circuit.