How Netflix Built ‘The House’: Laying a Stop-Motion Foundation

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Within the halls of an entrancing property, three otherworldly fables unfold, across different time periods and encompassing multiple sets of characters — not all of them human. Beyond the shared setting, an unnerving tone serves as the common denominator. Welcome to “The House.”

Produced by Nexus Studios and currently vying to be the first animated film ever nominated for Outstanding Television Movie at the Primetime Emmy Awards, “The House” brings together some of the finest artists working in stop-motion today. The separately realized but spiritually related segments by Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels (“This Magnificent Cake”), Niki Lindroth von Bahr (“The Burden”), and Paloma Baeza (“Poles Apart”) amount to a grand work that’s as thematically intriguing as it is aesthetically imposing in its handcraft. In “And Heard Again Within a Lie is Spun,” De Swaef and Roels tell the tale of a family who move into a lavish mansion with seemingly ever-shifting interiors. Lindroth von Bahr’s “Then Lost is Truth That Can’t Be Won” finds a real-estate developing rat struggling with a vexing listing (and perplexing prospective buyers). Baeza concludes the anthology with “Listen Again and Seek the Sun,” in which more anthropomorphized animals — cats this time — try to save the house from encroaching flood waters.

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For this first installment of a two-part series (click here to read part two) on the making of “The House,” IndieWire spoke with the filmmakers, as well as producer Charlotte Bavasso, writer Enda Walsh, and Oscar-winning musician Gustavo Santaolalla. Come back tomorrow for an in-depth, behind the scenes breakdown of the film’s three segments.

An Organic Foundation

Nexus first gathered the directors of “The House” for a brainstorming session in London three years ago. From those conversations, the idea of a single house acting as the connective thread between three stories emerged.

“We wanted to see beyond the technique they share, but also see what sort of stories and underlying themes they might have in common ,” said Bavasso. “So we got them all together and we started discussing literary references, film references, and it was striking how they really shared quite a lot of those. They were all interested in looking into the meaning of life and spirituality and all these elements that are present in ‘The House’ as a result.”

Based on their collective interests and sense of humor, De Swaef, Roels, Lindroth von Bahr, and Baeza all agreed to tackle the same space during different eras, which would act as a silent witness to their respective inhabitants’ follies. “I don’t remember who exactly said it, but as soon as the word ‘house’ came up, we all clicked onto that,” said Roels.

From the genesis of the project, it was clear that the goal was not to homogenize the artist’s unique traits. They weren’t asked to make their styles look alike, but rather encouraged to embrace their individually. At the same time, it was crucial that once assembled, the pieces constituted a cohesive whole—at least from a psychological standpoint.

“It was really important that they had ownership of these stories, but at the same time, we had to make sure that it was an anthology,” said Bavasso. “Each of the stories were extremely strong independently, but we wanted to create an arc as you watch all three.”

After the ground rules were laid out, each of the participating storytellers went on their own to write outlines for their chapters, conscious that they were ultimately working as a unit. “We couldn’t just go off and do entirely our own thing because it is in the same trilogy,” noted Baeza. “So even though they’re very different, we all had an awareness of the others’ stories.”

Words as Building Blocks

As part of the effort to maintain this harmony, Nexus hired Enda Walsh (“Hunger”) to polish the directors’ rough outlines into a screenplay.

“It was the act of trying to put it into a script form that felt correct to their sensibilities and correct to my sensibilities,” said Walsh. “We wanted to have a collective tone to the whole thing knowing that the visual style was going to vary. They each were going to tonally shift a little bit, but it was all part of the same narrative palette.”

Walsh worked on each of the stories one by one, because the directors and production had to sign off on a variety of elements. Once the scripts were complete, he analyzed them as a single piece. Comparing what he had written to the original treatments he received, the writer recognized a myriad of references: a bit of the uncanniness of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick; the physicality of Buster Keaton; and notes of one of his favorite authors, Samuel Beckett.

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

courtesy of Netflix

“I’m interested in stories about characters that are much smaller than the narrative. Here the narrative has got control over them, so it was a very good fit,” said Walsh. “I like this Kafkaesque type of tale and the odd darkness of them, but primarily I enjoyed the notion of characters thrown into the middle of something, and us, the audience, having to learn the rules of it.”

To Walsh, his writing for “The House” relied on specific qualities distinct to each filmmaker. In Lindroth von Bahr’s talking animals he found the dry humor of Roy Andersson, while he believes Baeza’s strength is in having a great dramatic attunement to the small details that comprise her characters. As for De Swaef and Roels, he was enchanted with their beautifully Gothic realm.

“When I watched the film now, I’m not even sure what stuff was from our synopsis and what [Walsh] brought in,” said Roels. “It was a very organic collaboration essentially.”

Pillars of Aesthetic Continuity

During pre-production, each of the directors worked in their respective home countries, with the goal of bringing all three segments to fruition in the same space: Warehouses in Manchester provided by famed British production house Mackinnon & Saunders. Known for crafting the stop-motion puppets for titles such as Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” Mackinnon & Saunders also fabricated many of the characters in “The House.”

“We wanted them all to shoot in the same place and overlap as much as possible. Marc and Emma could pop into Niki’s units and Paloma into Niki’s and vice versa,” said Bavasso

Though complex, the production pipeline proved incredibly efficient with most members of the crew working across all three stories, including two directors of photography, animators, and the same first assistant director. Production designer Alexandra Walker was key for the aesthetic continuity. Early in the process, she spent time with each director discussing the attributes important to their universes. Although the dressing of the house differs from one era to the other, Walker made sure the proportions of the sets carried over from segment to segment.

“The idea was that the viewer would recognize the house every time, with the sensation that they’ve been there before, which was really important to us,” said Bavasso.

For all three versions of the house Walker designed, windows and columns appear in the same place; the same entryway and the staircase are present throughout. Walker understood the point of view of each of the artists and translated that into physical spaces that represented those visual idiosyncrasies.

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

courtesy of Netflix

“This house, even though it’s the same space, morphed and changed to fit the animation style and the puppet style of each of us,” said Roels. “Alex was essentially one of the mad architects, because she was adding, subtracting, and rescaling elements and sending them to the three of us saying, ‘What do you think of this?’ Because each of our films was technically so different from one another, especially the puppets.”

Due to their fur, Baeza’s cat puppets were the tallest, and thus her set had the largest stairs. “There were these subtle shifts between the stories,” she said. “We had to strike a balance so that it wouldn’t seem like a completely different space. We wanted the house to mold around the characters going through all the stories. Alex had quite a job achieving that balance, getting everything right.”

Gustavo Santaolalla’s Unifying Score

Eager to expand the outlets where he can showcase his creativity through music, Oscar-winning Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla has found a well of opportunity in animation: First the film and television work of Jorge Gutiérrez (“The Book of Life,” “Maya and the Three”), and now “The House.”

“Stop-motion animation is a form of visual expression that always interested me,” Santaolalla said. “It has a very special rhythm to it. Generally, the people who are involved in that type of animation have a unique narrative approach.

“The fact that [‘The House’] was a stop-motion project was attractive. But the quality of the work convinced me to be part of this project.”

Santaolalla’s twofold task resembled Walsh’s: He had to consider the individual stories, and still create music that would unify them. A viola and a violin — which approximated the classical tone of a string quartet — would achieve the latter goal. Santaolalla fleshed out the sonic vocabulary of “The House” with other string instruments and a handful of household objects.

“The sounds of the tin cans and the PVC tubes fit really well with the themes of construction and deconstruction that all the stories in ‘The House’ have,” Santaolalla said. “The music for each story has small touches that give it a unique characteristic, but they are mostly momentary, such as lounge music during the open house in the second story or the use of the sitar, for the last story, and the use of a soprano’s voice in the first story, which is the darkest.”

In the last story, there are even hints of tango: “In everything I do I always try to put something that shows who I am and where I’m from,” Santaolalla said.

Curiously, that final segment also allowed Santaolalla to deepen his involvement with “The House.” When he first read the script, he noticed there was a shaman-like character named Cosmos. Being a throat singer, he thought the technique could enhance the character.

“I’ve never really utilized my throat singing in any recording,” Santaolalla said. “But when I got the final script, two days before having a Zoom call with Paloma, the character was now a throat singer. I couldn’t believe it because they didn’t know that I can do that. When we talked on Zoom, I opened by doing the sound you hear in the film. Everyone laughed, and it was incorporated.”

Santaolalla found even more evidence of his synergy with “The House” in that, given his interest in energy and quartz, years ago a friend had nicknamed him “Señor Cosmos.”

After hearing the voice of Jarvis Cocker as the developer in the second story, Santaolalla was inspired to develop an end-credits song with the Pulp frontman. For the track titled “This House Is,” Cocker wrote the lyrics and Santaolalla then put music to his words. This was a foreign way of working for Cocker, Santaolalla said. “The song feels almost like poetry or spoken word at the beginning, and I think the music fits very well with his rendition.”

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