Animation director Sophie Koko Gate tends to find the beginning phase of the film making process the best. That comforting feeling of having an idea not yet fully formed, so it sits like a perfectly rounded picture of your imagination. “When you get a golden nugget,” as she puts it, “and nothing can compete with staying in, thinking about your idea… alone, stoned, scheming and laughing at your own jokes. The rest of the process is pretty brutal,” she admits, “until you hit that render button!”
It was this feeling Sophie had a few years ago with the beginnings of Slug Life, a short, personal film she has been touring around film festivals to goose pimpling awkwardness and blissful confusion since 2018. In short, Slug Life’s synopsis is as follows: “We follow a day in the life of Tanya, a curious woman who has developed a taste for non-human lovers,” creating her own slug partner. In Sophie’s words, “I would describe it as circular and flat, maybe a little bumpy. Like a caterpillar. OMG – or a slug.” Today is its digital premiere.
Sophie – a London-based, Royal College of Art-trained animator, with a dream client list (Adult Swim, Rick & Morty ident, School of Life commission, work for Nike) – began thinking about Slug Life’s storyline in 2016. After the decision to “dramatically move to Berlin after Brexit happened (lol),” the base idea of the film began to develop while living with a German doctor “who took me under her wing and showed me her wild life and all the incredible characters in it”. Yet the central storyline, of a woman who makes a slug partner for her pleasure, links back to Sophie’s ongoing fascination with “inter-special relationships on screen,” she tells us. “I was spending a lot of time in my bedroom alone… I watched a lot of nature documentaries and slug sex just blew my mind – it’s so alien and perfect. It just made sense to me that if you were going to make a sexbot, it would be a slug.” Even just these two references demonstrate the several layers of the film, each always picked up from several different places, references and moments in the animator’s life.
The joy of Slug Life is in these layers, and the fact that it’s generally quite difficult to navigate as a plot. It loops through different emotions, dialogues and a rotating cast of characters yet somehow, as a viewer, you don’t mind. You’re too busy chuckling at Sophie’s dark humour, her developed airbrushed animation style, and the several winks and nods sewed throughout.
“To write a storyline as sloppy as Slug Life, you have to just do what you want, when you want to do it,” she tells us. Developing this narrative approach in an act against what was encouraged at the RCA, Sophie’s approach to filmmaking is more in praise of the elements “that I enjoy the most,” she says. “The awkward bits, the little looks, strange dialogue and reactions… an ABC plot would, for me, just be an afterthought.” Therefore following her own advice of starting with “a scene or character that you are obsessed with, and work your way around it – forwards and back,” she explains. “As you write, design and animate it, you’ll link things up that can be used to structure it a bit more, bookend and reference.”
It’s for this reason that fans of Sophie’s will notice the reoccurrence of characters she developed while at the RCA. “It seemed a shame not to use them again,” she says, “and anyway, they’re grown now, ageing well!” Unfussed with making new characters, as “these ones are changing all the time anyway,” each role Sophie develops is like a Frankenstein of people she’s met.
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Sophie Koko Gate: Caz and Jane Character Sheet
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Sophie Koko Gate: Caz and Jane Character Sheet
Tanya, the central character in Slug Life, represents “that magical bit of your late 20s, where you find yourself really content with who you are and what you want,” says Sophie. “Tanya is single me, on a good day.” Marcy, Tanya’s roommate, “is that needy jealous person we all pretend not to be. Marcy will defend your honour without even knowing your name. He’s a porn star, a stoner, alone.” The twins Caz and Jane, Tanya’s friends thick with German accents and often found dancing, “are a symbol of all the great female friendships I know around me, including my own.” If you’re wondering about the bird who claps away randomly, “there’s nothing much to him;” just another horny neighbour. “The sun,” with a giant smiling face, “is my dad.”
The eagle-eyed of you, however, will notice certain smaller characters referenced in the tiniest of ways, like Ben from PC World. Referenced quickly as it is his hair used to make Tanya’s slug partner, he’s yet another character picked up from Sophie’s life: “I had a month to go for the Slug Life deadline and my boyfriend had just split up with me,” explains the director. “I moved back to Bath and hid in my childhood bedroom and cried. I was having technical issues with my laptop and asked my dad to drive me to PC World. The boy who helped me, he was very kind,” she says, introducing Ben. “He jumped through hoops to get me the right adaptor, ended up just chatting about computers in general with him, and other devices. I don’t know what he looked like, but he must have been about 18. I wanted to stay with him forever because he just really knew his shit and was not patronising at all, explaining it to me. His name was Ben! It’s not made up!”
Each of these characters is brought to life by Sophie’s direction of voiceover work, a mix of friends pulled in and her own voice just recorded on her iPhone. Tanya is voiced by Jeanette Bonds, a filmmaker and a friend of the director’s who lives out in LA. “We recorded her in her husband’s wardrobe with a mic and a pair of tights,” says Sophie. “I always thought she had a really sexy voice and I’m in love with her, so asked her to be the lead. Another friend, the painter Tom Scotcher, plays Marcy with his “deep unusual voice,” she says. “I like working with friends because friends are funny, using non-actors gives the dialogue and awkward quality that I like.”
But when it actually came to making Slug Life, there is a whole cohort of animators and further friends who brought it to life. In 2018, Sophie was given £7000 from the BFI and BBC’s joint animation scheme, where they choose ten directors to fund. “So I was very lucky,” she explains, “but the money did come with a deadline” – and a tight one at that.
Given just four months to create the short, Sophie took her readymade character designs and sketchbooks, full from her time in Berlin, to the illustrator, Bridget Meyne. “I met her at a party and just thought she was a total boss, our work has similar themes and she’s fantastic at drawing beefy ladies.” With Bridget on the case with storyboarding, the actual animation was largely completed by Sophie and Anne-Lou Erambert, “my go-to animator,” says the director. On top of all this is the film’s soundtrack, made by Alphabets Heaven who previously scored Sophie’s RCA graduation film, Half Wet, alongside Skillbard, “who I was in a band with at the time called John Baker,” and made Marcy’s song, “my favourite bit in the film,” she adds.
The largest workforce, however, was the colouring team, using a specific airbrush style which “was going to be the most intense part” of Slug Life’s process. “I did a shout out on Instagram for anyone who wanted to learn Photoshop animation and be bought lunch and wine in exchange for manual labour,” says Sophie. She ended up with six colourists – Baris Cavusoglu, Gabriel Lim, Rozalina Burkova, Lucy Redman, Sacha Beeley, Jenny Wright, Rachel Sale and Rosie Gate (Sophie’s sister) – “who are now my dear friends and I am forever indebted to them.” This specific animation style is on now tied to the Koko Gate name, an experimental use of colouring which Sophie spent time developing in an attempt “to make it feel solid and 3D, without actually using 3D,” she explains. “I had done airbrush animation before, but wanted to calm it down, get rid of the wobble, and refine the colouring.” This approach, coupled with Sophie’s collaboration with Bridget – “her beef levels are through the roof” – creates a perfect balance of soft and harsh illustrative style, fitting for the storyline’s equally jarring plot.
After this cohort of Slug Life’s fans completed the film in 2018, it has since gone on a global journey at film festivals. A part of a release which Sophie describes as “the most rewarding part of the process,” the short has picked more friends and fans, “for life.”
Across these festivals Slug Life has garnered a range of responses, largely as “it’s not meant to be a funny film, just leave you with a funny feeling,” says Sophie. “So, laughter is encouraging but it’s okay if you don’t laugh… Jonathan Hodgson told someone he hated it but, unfortunately for him, he’s had to watch it multiple times on the festival circuit. Now I believe he think it’s OK.” Aside from individuals the director also explains how reactions are “different in every country,” she tells us. “Germany, for example, is a tough crowd, but Americans really like to laugh out loud in cinemas – god bless them.”
In general though Slug Life is a film to be watched multiple times “if you can bear it” says Sophie, even better news now that it’s finally online. Looking forward to being able to know what more people think about it, “and obsessively scroll through every comment I can find,” the director is understandably very nervous about how its release will play out too – “please be kind”.
“It’s a personal film so personal that it hurts that it hurts to watch it,” adds Sophie as our two year long chats about Slug Life now come to an end. “It started as a film about a woman who is very happy being alone and single, creating her own disposable pleasure… by the end of production I had become a creepy version of my own film.” But at the end of the day, “it’s just life innit, distorted and framed,” the director concludes. “The sun is there to comfort the audience, don’t over think it and try to relax.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.