All in a Day’s Work: Siqi Song explores the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship in her trademark fluffy style
We take an in-depth look at the process behind the latest series on Mailchimp Presents, created by It’s Nice That and the LA-based stop-motion director.
From tiny baguettes with delectably shiny crusts to a puddle of wool made to look like a water spillage, it’s the smallest details that really make Siqi Song’s six episodes of All in a Day’s Work so delightful to watch.
The series, created and devised by the team at It’s Nice That for Mailchimp and its platform Mailchimp Presents, consists of 12 short animated episodes – six of which were created by Siqi, whose student animation Sister was nominated for an Oscar in 2020, and the LA-based production house Majority Films; the other six were created by the talented team at Buck, a multidisciplinary creative studio in New York. Despite the two teams’ differing styles and approaches, the 12 shorts are united by their overarching mission of presenting the ups, downs and sometimes-painful truths of entrepreneurial life, warts and all.
In Siqi’s episodes, for instance, we meet a host of small-business owners, all of whom are going through an emotional rollercoaster. There’s an anxious florist who is struggling with her new employee’s hayfever (in ‘First Hire’); a founder whose carefully crafted Zoom set-up comes crashing down around him on an important video call (in ‘Silicon Valley Legends’); and even a product designer who tries to charm his way through an investor meeting, despite some less-than-impressive profit figures (in ‘Financial Woes’).
“The camera can capture really small textures that the human eye can’t see”Siqi Song
These characters and their environments are all lovingly created by Siqi and her team of animators, and brought to life through the painstaking process of stop-motion animation. By amplifying textures, stop-frame animation is perfect for stories like these, making the everyday become more vivid. “The camera can capture really small textures that the human eye can’t see,” Siqi explains. “It becomes a whole different world that we’ve never seen before. I think that’s what makes it more special.” Or in other words, it makes stories feel more “alive”, says Majority Films executive producer and founding partner Senain Kheshgi, who has also directed documentary films Project Kashmir and The Diplomat.
But stop motion, of course, comes with huge practical limitations. It took Siqi and her team between eight and 10 days to shoot each two and a half-minute episode, with each episode containing more than 2,000 separate photos. For this type of film, what’s even possible has to be a consideration from the outset. “It’s Nice That originally gave me 10 scripts to choose from and I picked the films that I thought would be most achievable with the time we have,” says Siqi. “I thought about how many rooms and environments we’d need to build and how many characters we’d need to fabricate.”
For All in a Day’s Work, the time-consuming nature of the medium was compounded by Siqi’s meticulous approach to her craft. With a background in fine art, she works with fabricators to make every character and prop by hand. “Every texture in the world comes with its own personality which is hard to generate with a computer,” she says.
“Every texture in the world comes with its own personality which is hard to generate from a computer”Siqi Song
"But we had to change the sounds several times because they were too recognisably English"Siqi Song
She helped save time during the fabrication phase by casting the protagonists from certain episodes as extras in others. “I imagined they were all in the same town,” she says. “If you opened up a flower shop, your neighbour at the bakery could easily become your customer.” With small tweaks – a costume change here, removing a pair of glasses there – the puppets were transformed into supporting roles elsewhere. (See if you can spot them as you watch.)
Siqi’s handmade technique was far from the only challenge. Mailchimp and It’s Nice That were keen for the films to be as internationally relatable as possible and so wanted them to avoid dialogue entirely. For highly action-driven scripts, this might not have been such a hurdle. But the emotional journeys of the characters are central to these stories. The scripts included various subtle and nuanced emotional experiences, such as in ‘Unstoppable Rise’ when a baker is anxious about a chef’s feedback but also excited to impress him. Or, in ‘Switching Off’ where we find an overworked fashion designer who is torn between her client’s demands and her daughter’s natural pleas for attention.
Mumbling in a culturally agnostic way is also much harder than it sounds. “I thought it would be easier, like creating mobile phone tones,” says Siqi. “But we had to change the sounds several times because they were too recognisably English.” (Try mumbling a greeting in a way that doesn’t sound like ’Hello’, and you’ll see what she means.)
"Filmmakers who are able to pivot quickly will be more successful because we stay in the moment and aren't thrown off by challenges that arise.”Siqi Song
Without language, Siqi and her team had to express the emotion of the stories through the performances of the puppets. This is where the animators’ skills became essential. Siqi repeatedly describes them as “actors”, not always intentionally. This is because just like actors in live action, animators need to embody the characters. “Actors sometimes come with better ideas than the director in terms of the performance of the story, because they bring their own emotions,” says Siqi. “Sometimes the animators brought ideas in the performance that made the films more than I expected.”
The fact that the stories are so relatable also helped the team express the emotional subtleties in the scripts. “Filmmakers are entrepreneurs,” says Majority’s Senain. “We run our own creative businesses with every film we make. Each episode hits a different part of a journey that I’ve been on as we’ve started this company.” Ironically, Siqi even shot several scenes for ‘Switching Off’ (which lays bare the challenge of leaving your work behind on the weekend as a business owner) on a Sunday – a form of method acting, perhaps?
Siqi had also developed a technique on previous films that helps communicate emotion through the puppets’ eyes and mouth. Facial expressions are notoriously difficult to capture in stop-motion animation. “For me, it takes too much time and energy,” says Siqi (fiddling around with tiny puppet eyes does sound maddening). “And I think that even in the best examples, the performance is still not as good as if you create the expressions on a computer.”
"I think sometimes barriers help you to invent techniques that you would not normally think of”Siqi Song
So, Siqi’s technique is a hybrid of stop-frame animation and CGI. Her character’s eyes and mouth are blocked out during the shoot with bits of tape. Animators then add their features digitally, but in a hand-drawn style that fits with her organic, crafted aesthetic. “When we’re shooting the film the puppets look like zombies with no pupils,” she says. “Because I believe the eyes and mouth are really important for the character’s performance, so creating those in post production gives me more freedom in creating the emotions of the character.”
If it wasn’t for the practical limitations of stop-motion animation Siqi might not have developed this technique, which has become part of what makes her style so distinct. “I think sometimes barriers help you to invent techniques that you would not normally think of,” she says.
“Barriers always help with the creative process,” agrees Senain. She always creates three budgets, she explains – a “perfect world”, “most likely” and “bare bones” budget – and creates different treatments according to each. “I ask myself, how do I adjust the film’s story based on that specific budget? What can I do to make the story interesting and robust while still remaining cinematic and lyrical in my approach? Writing three treatments in this way is an exercise that helps me pare down the essence of the film and sometimes find creative options that I would not have imagined without the parameters.”
“It's important to keep your own voice, as then you become the only person who can do the things you do. People will hire you for something that other people can’t replace.”Senain Kheshgi, Executive producer and founding partner of Majority Films
By pushing you to think more creatively, barriers can actually help artists develop their own unique voice. And for Siqi, this is particularly essential for creatives starting out. “I think a lot of young filmmakers are not confident with their vision and try to create something that they think people would love to see,” she says. “But it’s more important to keep your own voice, as then you become the only person who can do the things you do. People will hire you for something that other people can’t replace.”
So, don’t be afraid to embrace challenges and accept creative stumbling blocks. As Siqi and her team can attest – along with many of the protagonists across All in a Day’s Work, too – often the most difficult problems lead to unlikely and extraordinary solutions.