Freaks of Nurture: Alexandra Lemay in the Dollhouse

FilmsProduction

Alexandra Lemay has a full line of creative hats in her artistic wardrobe — but ‘art director’ is one she wears with particular style and confidence.

Currently at work on Freaks of Nurture, a new stop-motion animation inspired by her own unorthodox upbringing, she’s designed an extraordinary miniature set — a scaled down version of her mother’s home that reads like an off-kilter dollhouse.

Everything telegraphs a sense of barely contained bedlam. A defeated-looking vacuum cleaner sprawls across the living room, ingredients for spaghetti dinner spill out onto the kitchen floor, and a multitude of tiny boots and mismatched highchairs suggest a household with many little feet, many little mouths. It all sets the stage for Lemay’s tart comedy of manners, a mother-daughter story that injects a tonic dose of punk attitude into classic sitcom conventions.

Over the decades Lemay’s single mother has provided a safe but chaotic haven to as many as ten children, foster kids as well as her own brood, along with a dozen or so animals. Her daughter Alexandra is still making sense of the experience.

“I’ve always known my mother was different,” says Lemay. “She brings new meaning to the words ‘multi-task’ and ‘eccentric,’ and as a child I used to admire her. But then later, as a young adult, I went through a period when I questioned her behaviour. All those dogs and babies — it seemed somehow irresponsible. But I’ve been coming to terms with all that. This is a story about acceptance — about how we can laugh at it all, and even learn to love each other’s flaws.”

Lemay graduated from Concordia University in 2008 with a BFA in Animation, going on to complete a graduate program in advanced special effects, props and prosthetics at Sheridan College. Since then she’s been honing a range of skills, working jobs in commercial animation, special effects and museum exhibit design.

“Some animators prefer to specialize,” says Lemay. “They want to be sculptors, set designers, whatever it might be — but I love being a jack of all trades. I thrive on variety. I’m lucky to be working here at the NFB, where producers will support a project like this. There are not many places where you have this much freedom.”

Back in 2014, having worked as an assistant on numerous projects, Lemay was keen to start telling her own stories and applied for Hothouse, the NFB apprenticeship program for auteur animators. The resulting film was a surprise hit — this mordantly comic vignette, All the Rage, which has been described as “Fantastic Mr. Fox meets The Shining.”

All the Rage, Alexandra Lemay, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

NFB animation producer Maral Mohammadian remembers Lemay’s Hothouse pitch. “The premise was simple — “a mink walks into a fur store” — and we all chuckled. But it was her demo that really bowled us over. It was just a short test but it showed remarkable range. It was clear that she was a strong designer and fabricator as well as a great animator. She knew how to tell a story and bring characters to life in an multi-dimensional way.”

“Hothouse is great in that respect,” says Mohammadian. “It allows us to prototype talented young artists, and then get behind them when they come back with a longer, more ambitious project like this one. Freaks of Nurture has 17 characters — including a skunk, four dogs and a couple of dinosaurs. That’s an unusually big cast for an artist-driven stop motion short.”

Lemay benefits from top-notch assistance from a seasoned team of artisans and technicians. Eric Goulet, who instructed Lemay in stop motion techniques at Concordia, is creating the armatures for her puppets, and Jako Lanterne, the Montreal team who recently worked with Cordell Barker on If I Was God, created the sets and props.

“It’s a pretty accurate reproduction of my mom’s house,” says Lemay. “I literally had the blueprints, and I’ve only modified them a bit. Some of the props are wish items — like the pink fridge, I’ve always wanted one of those — but the rest are copies of real objects, right down to the kids’ drawings, which are miniatures of drawings I once did. The team at Jako Lanterne are great collaborators, super attentive to details — whether it’s a particular type of high chair or a very specific vintage toy.”

In seeking the right comic tone for the piece, Mohammadian invited comedy writer Julie Matlin to work with Alexandra on the script. “In many ways this is a simple comedy,” she says, “but it relies on a carefully orchestrated series of actions and interplays between the two main characters. And that’s where Julie was really helpful. What’s the primary action? Where are the real jokes? She helped us to figure all that out. But Alex’s mother tongue is design and movement, and in the end lots of dialogue got replaced by small but expressive body movements and gestures — an eye roll, the toss of a head. It’s exciting when that happens in animation. It’s so raw and alive.”

A self-professed dinosaur geek, Lemay has inserted a playful meta-reference into her narrative, writing the daughter character as an amateur animator working on a film about dinosaurs. “I used to make dinosaur figures so it was a way to insert myself into the film but still have fun with it. It’s also an homage to the great Ray Harryhausen, who did such groundbreaking work in special effects and stop motion. I love his movies, particularly the ones with dinosaurs. I guess I have to admit it — there’s definitely a nerdy aspect to this project. And it’s ironic, isn’t it…here I am, criticizing my mother for being a control freak, surrounding herself with all these kids and animals that depend on her, while I make a living out of directing puppets.”

Lemay herself is voicing the daughter. The mother is voiced by Amanda Plummer, known for roles in films such as Pulp Fiction and The Fisher King. Judith Gruber-Stitzer is composing original music and Luigi Allemano is creating the sound design. Although they’ve scored over 100 films between them, including numerous NFB titles, this is the first time they are working together on a soundtrack. Luka Sanader is the cinematographer, working closely with Alexandra in designing each shot. Laurent Canniccioni and Émily Belanger, the team behind Jako Lanterne, are creating props, together with Emma Owen, Dominique Côté and Danny Boivin.

Freaks of Nurture is directed by Alexandra Lemay, produced by Maral Mohammadian for the NFB Animation Studio, and is due to launch in festivals in the fall of 2017.