How Netflix Built ‘The House’: Inside the Film’s Haunting Stop-Motion Fables

·11 min read

Yesterday, IndieWire took a peek at the blueprints of “The House,” the animated Netflix film from directors Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, and Paloma Baeza. Today, in the conclusion of a two-part series, the filmmakers and writer Enda Walsh talk about the shared setting of their stop-motion fables, and break down the three segments that make up “The House.”

On the Meaning of the Structure Itself

There’s a synergy between theme and location across “The House.” “The house places characters in a space where they feel completely lost, vulnerable, clueless, and frightened,” Walsh said. “Being in it keeps them in that anxious state. It’s a story that feeds on all the feelings of loss and ineptitude we all have at times.”

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Roels and De Swaef agree. Their spooky period piece, about a family who sells their humble abode to a mysterious architect in exchange for a lavish residence, chronicles how the surreal place transforms the behavior of their felt protagonists.

“It’s about how this relationship between the characters and the house changes and how it changes them. It was always about what happens to them when they’re in the space,” Roels said. “That’s something I think was key in the other two stories as well.”

Similarly, for Lindroth von Bahr, departing from the location as thematic basis for the piece felt natural since she usually starts her short film ideas thinking about where they’ll unfold.

“On my end, I’ve always been very oriented towards the surroundings and the environments in my films,” Lindroth von Bahr said. “I was very interested in this idea of using the late capitalist real estate market as a backdrop for this story and doing something where the house is being renovated in the most ridiculous, soulless way.”

“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix
“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix

courtesy of Netflix

The house itself is almost as important to her as the main character, a real estate developer who happens to be a mouse. “The influence that the house has on the character is a huge part of the actual action in the storyline.”

Baeza, on the other hand, recalls that after the first draft of the script came through, she realized that the house didn’t appear relevant enough in her story. “We needed to make the house much more of a character. Story three, mine, needed to inhabit more of the house because in the very early draft it wasn’t present enough.”

For Baeza, the house becomes a symbol of the past, of what Rose, the feline protagonist, is unable to let go. The bricks and mortar of the place reflect that sentiment.

“If I think of the central theme in the third film, it’s something to do with the difficulty of change,” she said. “You can apply that to many different human scenarios. She’s living in the middle of a flood. Everyone’s gone and the house is not going to ever be restored in the way that she wants it to be restored. It’s an obsessive dream of something that she can’t ever achieve.”

Segment I: “And Heard Within a Lie Is Spun”

As outsiders in the world of stop-motion animation, Marc James Roels and Emma De Swaef developed their aesthetic — using felt, and fabrics in general — about a decade ago, first in De Swaef’s solo short “Zachte Planten” and later together in their debut joint project, “Oh Willy…”

“We started making films back when Emma was still a film student and we were using these materials and we kept refining our technique, because we like the way it looked,” said Roels. “We tried different materials, plasticine and latex, but nothing really made sense to us.”

While they admit that there are severely limiting aspects to working with fabric, the duo has chosen to embrace those constraints and incorporate them into their approach to every aspect of storytelling and their animation style: the figures move in a particular manner and the environments have an added texture to them.

Behind the scenes of “The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix
Behind the scenes of “The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix

courtesy of Netflix

“We’re so used to this fabric, and we know it so well, that it just made sense for us to keep going with it for ‘The House,’” Roels said. “Our crew initially had to also go through all the same learning of how difficult it is to work with this material. My background is in cinematography, so the material really lends itself well to that visually.”

While Baeza’s episode aimed for a hyper-realistic world, Roels and De Swaef, went in a different direction since they seek for the spaces to appear in harmony with the characters. “If the characters are made of textiles, we want everything else to also have some element about it that matches that that and absorbs the light in the same way,” Roels said. “Our stuff always looks pretty barebones and kind of weird when you see it in real life,” he noted.

For the filmmaking couple’s chapter of “The House,” one where the setting is perpetually under construction and often shrouded in darkness, they were keen on approximating the moody look of Gothic films that use their settings to achieve an uncanny atmosphere.

“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix
“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix

courtesy of Netflix

For the production design, the approach was modular: they built multiple walls and objects and used the camera to create the impression of the existence of each room — particularly in the second half of “And Heard Within a Lie Is Spun,” where two young girls get lost in the bowels of the house. “We created these rooms just with whatever we had,” Roels said.

De Swaef, who was mentored by Oscar-winner Suzie Templeton (“Peter and the Wolf”), has always been responsible for how the puppets look. She designs faces so that even a small adjustment dramatically changes the meaning of the shot.

“We always had that in the back of our minds when we were designing puppets and designing facial expressions,” Roels said. “They only ever have one expression on their face, but if we just do a tiny little tweak, then suddenly it changes. Since we work with human characters and human facial expressions, we can spot them straight away. So just the smallest things are enough to completely change the expression.”

Segment II: “Then Lost Is Truth That Can’t Be Won”

While Lindroth von Bahr collaborated with production designer Alexandra Walker to create the foundation of her version of the house, her team also included Nicklas Nilsson, a set designer on Roy Andersson’s “About Endlessness” and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” who served as art director and created the interior sets.

“We had like a fun time googling Kylie Jenner’s mansions and ‘MTV Cribs’-type shows to find a balance between someone trying to renovate a house with that inspiration, but still just doing it on the cheap, like it’s not working properly. It looks a bit plastic,” Lindroth von Bahr said. “That was a quite interesting challenge, both in the design and later on the manufacturing.”

Lindroth von Bahr has frequently used anthropomorphic animals as the main characters in her work. Her short film “The Burden,” a festival darling released in 2017, is a musical starring a variety of mice, monkeys, and fish venting about their existential woes.

“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix
“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix

courtesy of Netflix

“Sometimes I just use animals as in a modern fable style because it helps create a lack of identification,” she said. “It means that this could be anyone being put in a very strange situation, but I also like using this tiny bit of silliness in the dark framing. Sometimes it’s like a slug taking his blood pressures at the doctor’s—that’s one of my films.” In “The House,” a rat working in real estate deals with two unnerving clients and their feral behavior; as the story progresses, the lead character regresses into a similar state.

“We are animal ourselves — animals just wearing ridiculous outfits and squeezing ourselves into this stupid workwear or whatever we do,” Lindroth von Bahr said. “Using animals had a special meaning to me for this film.”

One aspect of “The Burden” that made its way into “The House” is the filmmaker’s love for Busby Berkeley-style musicals and the onscreen performances of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Their cheerfulness combines with existential anxiety in Lindroth von Bahr’s hands. To create that contrast between the graceful and the disgusting, the director included a musical number starring hundreds of beetles that she said makes you “want to itch yourself on your entire body.”

“I ended up doing that choreography myself, which was super embarrassing. I had planned to use a real choreographer, but that just didn’t work out,” she recalled. “There are disturbing clips of me trying to dance as a sexy beetle. Sending those clips back and forth to the storyboards as inspirational material for the animators was an interesting part of the project.”

Segment III: “Listen Again and Seek the Sun”

To Baeza, cats are poised creatures, making them the ideal subjects for her segment. “I was very keen to do cat’s eyes,” she said. Her heroine, Rosa (Susan Wokoma), owns the house and runs it as an apartment building in a reality where sea levels have risen due to climate change. Still, she hopes to restore it to its former glory.

“The place that can never be what she wishes it could be,” said Baeza. “It’s literally falling apart around her, but she can’t see that. She needs to have a catalyst to be able to see it.”

A model-making company, Clockwork Frog Films, created the run-down look of this version of the house. One focus was the layers of paint, texture, and gloss that not only reaffirm the age of the house in “Listen Again and Seek the Sun,” but also catch the light in a pleasing manner.

“The peeling wallpaper scene required quite a lot of thought about which pieces were coming down where, which were fixed, and about how to control all that paper so that you can make it move frame by frame,” Baeza said. “If we didn’t have a human hand behind it, it’d just look like a picture from a magazine of an old house.”

“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix
“The House” - Credit: courtesy of Netflix

courtesy of Netflix

Realism was a top aesthetic priority for Baeza, even in her “completely fantastical world with cats walking around,” and the look of water proved one of the most challenging components. She had accepted that VFX would have to come into play to put the liquid on screen and put her trust in her post-production team. But they also explored tangible avenues to construct a hybrid look.

“We always knew it was going be quite heavily produced digitally — a combination of real water scaled down and some in-camera elements that we made from hair gel that then we wrapped around objects so that we could scale them down,” Baeza said. “It was a mix of real elements, a bit of CG and in-camera stuff, which was composited. It really was a process that we had to find in order to get the balance right. It was a bit of a leap of faith, but worth it in the end.”

Baeza, who comes from a performance background, pushed the limits of stop motion in terms of the expressiveness of her figures. For “The House” she wanted to utilize a mechanical puppet that served as an upgrade to the more basic bears in her breakthrough short “Poles Apart.”

“I wanted the capability to be able to do stuff with the eyes, blinks, and eyebrows. I really enjoy the internal paddles, which we could play with,” she added. “I learned quite a lot about achieving that balance of how expressive you can make them, how much emotion you can get out of a furry cat while keeping it practical and realistic.”

One Cohesive Vision

After having worked separately on their own vision, watching their individual pieces come together as a powerful storytelling unit resulted in great emotional satisfaction for the directors.

Lindroth von Bahr remembers crying profusely the first time she watched the finished effort. “I was completely blown away by the extra layer that you get from seeing them all together,” she said. “They become something new when intertwined.”

“Emma and I had the usual kind of complicated feelings that directors have towards their own films,” Roels said. “But we were so relieved when we saw all the films together. We thought it works so well as a singular piece. It’s not something we discussed in detail between all of us, but it all fell into place.”

Roels believes that “The House” features a strong three act structure: His and De Swaef’s tale ends on harrowing note, then Lindroth von Bahr’s brings in comedic elements, and Bazea’s conclusion inserts hope into the mix. “We were just hugely relieved when we saw it. It’s not like these anthology films where it all seems a bit muddled and a bit jumbled. There was something about the tone that really was just singing,” he said.

“That was a process we discovered as we went along,” said Baeza. “It’s very unusual to work alongside other filmmakers in this way. It was fantastic.”

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