By Greta Chiocchetti
Last year, Academy of Art University students in the School of Animation & Visual Effects (ANM) and Studio X program helped breathe life into Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s “Strawberry Mansion.” The brightly-saturated, otherworldly film is set in a dystopian capitalist future where dreams are opportunities for product placement—and are taxed accordingly.
In order for the filmmakers to submit “Strawberry Mansion” to the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Studio X students were faced with a challenging deadline. They delivered expectation-exceeding, industry-standard work that helped the film land a spot at the world-renowned festival. During a panel with the filmmakers and ANM faculty, and students on February 25, the crew discussed the production of “Strawberry Mansion” and what might be on the horizon for a future partnership with Studio X.
“[Studio X is] a fully-functioning visual effects studio, so that’s how we were [treating it] moving forward,” said Emma Hannaway, a producer on the project. “It was a very normal, professional, and productive way for us to get our movie done—it added so much to our final product. [They] just really brought it to a level that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
Co-writers/directors Audley and Birney crafted a world within “Strawberry Mansion” where anything is possible. Studio X created extensive visual effects for the film, such as adding a computer-generated head to a papier-mache buffalo, compositing the actual ‘Strawberry Mansion,’ cleaning up practical sets, and adding elements that interrupt the idyllic dreamscape to plug products.
The story follows a dream auditor (played by Audley), who takes his work seriously but finds a change in perspective when he’s assigned to audit the dreams of an eccentric older woman named Bella (Penny Fuller), who lives in the bespoke mansion.
Birney and Audley discussed the process of nailing down the sci-fi fantasy’s dream elements without losing sight of the story, which they admitted was a careful balancing act.
“We really loved this non sequitur feeling of being in a dream and feeling lost, and anything can happen, can shift on a dime, and it’s very cinematic to get lost in those worlds,” said Audley. “But a little goes a long way in the dream-logic realm. We wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel like it was just floating endlessly; there was a reason that we were pulling these strings.”
As an independent film with a limited budget, “Strawberry Mansion” required some resourcefulness to see it through to its goal; along with filming in digital and transferring to 16mm in post-production, the filmmakers opted for practical (non-computer generated) effects where they could. Many practical effects were later integrated with CGI, thanks to Studio X bringing the production to a new level.
“We hadn’t done a lot of post special effects stuff in the past, so we were kind of green with the whole process,” said Audley. “It was really helpful to go through it with [Studio X]—we learned so much, and our expectations were far exceeded. I keep thinking about the buffalo shot; in the script and in the film, it’s not a huge part of the story, but once we realized that we could make this thing look so amazing [with VFX], it adds so much to the story and becomes a very crucial part of the movie and establishes the movie. Every piece of professional and artistic VFX that we got from [Studio X] just added that level of professionalism and gave it a boost.”
Staying in constant communication with the filmmakers was essential to getting it done, the Studio X team said.
“Throughout the whole process, I felt that we needed to maintain a strong sense of communication between the artists as well as our clients,” said Lead Producer Melissa Spearman. “In this case, I felt like we had the great fortune of being given a rough cut of the film early on so that we could do a better job of matching our CG effects with the incredible practical effects that they had already created. It can be a juggling act to bring all of these various elements together. We were racing against the clock a good deal of the time, making sure that not only everything was brought together and that none of the pieces were missing but also making sure that everything looked good and cohesive.”
While they were lauded for their professionalism, Studio X artists are Academy students—which meant that they had to learn skills throughout the process to deliver the best possible product.
“It was challenging because I was doing things that I hadn’t done before. I had never done anything realistic for an animal,” said Maria Cifuentes, a CG artist on the Studio X team who was responsible for texturing and rendering the papier-mache buffalo head. “I was applying what I was learning in other classes in the project while also receiving feedback. It was definitely a lot of back and forth.”
Though some of the students may have been new to a production studio setting, the faculty of Studio X have been moving the program forward for over 12 years—creating a pipeline that is as seamless as possible.
“We’ve basically grown as any small company grows. We start small and have to adapt for a larger group and larger projects, and more projects,” said 3-D Animation & Visual Effects Director Catherine Tate, who was the VFX supervisor on the project. “A lot of it is about time and experience, and learning how to deal with our very unique pipeline, which is unlike any other, professional or in any other school—we have different parameters to work with.”
For students working against the clock to make the dream of “Strawberry Mansion” a reality, the experience was a teachable moment.
“We always will work to the last minute, looking for extra minutes. As much extra time as we possibly can. We were definitely down to the wire,” said Studio X Head of Production Sasha Korellis. “But [the deadline being moved up] was actually a really good learning moment for the student artists on how to deal with that in a way that we didn’t lose our minds. We still had a lot of fun getting it done and making the deadline.”
“Well, we planned that all along, so you’re welcome,” joked Audley. “Now that we’ve had this experience, we’re dreaming bigger. We know what’s possible now. It felt like it was way too ambitious—people thought we needed $20 million to make this after reading the script. We would definitely work with Studio X again; it was a great experience.”
Watch the School of Animation & Visual Effects’ panel with Studio X and the filmmakers behind “Strawberry Mansion” below.