Not long out of Kingston’s Illustration and Animation course, Tom Fisher and Catherine Prowse have directed a charming and impressively detailed short film for The School of Life, made entirely from hand-stitched felt. Featuring a cast of rod puppets shot in a live action format, The Need to Be Alone stars a red-spectacled, introverted protagonist called Alan – a tribute to its writer and narrator Alain de Botton. Throughout the film, Alan navigates a series of potentially awkward social scenarios as Alain professes the importance of having time alone to process these interactions.
Tom and Catherine had worked with Alain before as students, and were approached again to develop the visuals for this latest think-piece. These are usually animated, but the duo favoured a tactile, hand-made feel yet lacked the equipment to make a stop motion film to the standard they wanted, so opted for live action puppetry. This, however, wasn’t exactly easy. It required a month and a team of friends and current Kingston students to fabricate 14 sets, and they are incredibly detailed. For example, in a four-second-long supermarket scene, every single item on the shelves, in the baskets and trolleys was hand-stitched.
Catherine describes how they had to be savvy with re-using some backgrounds: “Walls got turned upside down or flipped over to become new rooms, the supermarket floor became the tiled bathroom wall,” she tells It’s Nice That. “We were really committed to achieving a level of detail that made our character’s world seem vivid and tangible.” Others are simpler; for example the nightclub has low lighting and no real set but for a dark background, with atmosphere created by three phone torches shining on a disco ball. The whole film was shot in Catherine’s bedroom.
Using puppets added its own aesthetic to the film, which Catherine says was an unexpected advantage. “We liked the weird, slow, clunky way that rod puppets move, and felt it added a kind of vulnerability to the characters that heightened the emotions in the film,” she explains. “Little movement is actually needed to create a sense of life. Some of our favourite scenes are the ones showing interactions between the people, like at the party. Quite subtle movements – their stance, the way they gesticulate as if talking, their signature dance move – can give the puppets personality. In camera, the puppets would sometimes move in funny, unpredictable ways, and this in itself would suggest character, like the ‘John Travolta’ puppet dancing at the beginning.”
The duo also used the material choice as a way to convey character. They wanted Alan to come across as cuddly and likeable, and create a way for him to be the focal point throughout. Hence the whole set is monochrome but for Alan’s red glasses. “A cast of eyeless grey-toned puppets could have had a sinister feel,” Catherine says, “but the material softens them a bit.” It also alludes to the message. “The film essentially comes to the conclusion that if we don’t have alone time, everyone ends up the same as each other, which is why we chose a monotone colour scheme,” she continues. “Only Alan has red glasses on because it is his unique vision, his way of processing the world when he’s alone, that makes him an individual. Our favourite scene in the film is the one towards the end where he takes those glasses off and there’s this moment where we’re staring at him staring at us.”