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April 15
2024

ISSUE

Spring 2024

SEARIT HULUF BRINGS TOGETHER LIVE-ACTION AND ANIMATION

By Trevor Hogg

Images courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios.

Searit Huluf, Writer and Director of “Self.”

Searit Huluf, Writer and Director of “Self.”

With the release of “Self,” a cautionary tale about the desire to please and be accepted by others, Searit Huluf got an opportunity to showcase her filmmaking talents as part of the Pixar SparkShort program. The project was partly inspired by her parents trying to adjust to life in America after immigrating from Ethiopia, which, at the time, was ravaged by civil war.

“My mom and dad separated, so it was just my mom looking after me. I had a lot more independence because she was working a lot. I mainly stayed in the east side of Los Angeles, which became my playground. It wasn’t until I got to UCLA that I started to explore more of Los Angeles, in particular the west side, which felt like being in a different country because everything is so clean, and there were a lot more shops.”

An opportunity presented itself to visit Ethiopia right before the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed international travel. “It was our first mother/daughter trip, and I had forgotten what it was like to be under my mom again,” Huluf recalls. “While in Ethiopia, my mother was cautious because the capital of Addis Ababa is not where my people are from, which is the Tigray region. It wasn’t until we got to Mekelew where my mom’s side of the family lives that we got to relax and meet people.” Huluf watched her aunts make coffee called ‘buna’ from scratch. “After roasting the coffee, they take it to everyone to smell to say thanks before grinding. Then you have to hand-grind the roasted coffee with a mortar and pestle. My friends and I made it every day. It was so much fun.”

Participating in sports was not an affordable option growing up, so Huluf consumed a heavy dose of anime consisting of Sailor Moon, Naruto, One Piece and Bleach. What was made available to her in high school was the ability to take community college classes on computer coding and engineering through STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics] programming. “I did a website competition inside of which there was a film competition, so I did a live-action short with all of the seniors in my group, and afterward I was like, ‘I want to go to art school.’” The art school in question was the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where she studied screenwriting and stop-motion animation. “I was trying to figure out what is the closest I could get to animation but not have to draw, and it was stop-motion; that was the happy medium because I do love live-action and animation. My schooling was live-action, but a lot of my internships were animation; that’s how I divided it up.”

Internships included Cartoon Network and DreamWorks Animation, then Pixar came to UCLA. “I kept in contact with the recruiter and started at Pixar as an intern in production management while making films on the side,” Huluf remarks. “I am also big in the employee resource groups within Pixar. I spearheaded the first celebration of Black History Month at Pixar and decided to make a documentary where Black Pixar employees talk about what it is like to be Black in America. The 19th Amendment documentary came about because I cared about people voting for the 2020 elections. It was a way to promote Pixar fans to go out and vote by having Pixar women talk about why they should do it and the complicated history of the 19th Amendment. Documentaries are scary because you go in with what’s there and make the story in the editing room. That was a lot of fun, and I gained more confidence to be a filmmaker, and I switched back to making narrative films.”

Soul was the first high-profile project at Pixar for Searit Huluf.

Soul was the first high-profile project at Pixar for Searit Huluf.

“I got to work with Tippett Studio, which I love! … There’s that Pixar comfort where everybody knows each other or someone adjacent. But these were complete strangers, and there was a big age gap between us. A little bit of me was going, ‘Are they not going to respect me?’ And it was the exact opposite. They were so loving and caring.”

—Searit Huluf, Writer and Director of “Self”

Critiquing, not writing, is where Huluf excels. “I went to a talk where a writer said that you have to wear different hats when you’re writing. When you’re wearing the writing hat, you’re writing all of your thoughts and ideas. Once you’re done writing, you put on the critique hat, and that’s where you start editing what you wrote. Is this actually good? Is it going to help your story? Is your structure right? You can’t wear both hats at the same time. I think a lot about that when I write. What is also great is that I went to UCLA and did screenwriting. I’m still in touch with all my screenwriting friends, and everyone is still writing. It’s nice to write something and the next week we do a writing session together and talk about the things that we’re writing.” Two individuals standout for their guidance, she says. “I still keep in touch with my UCLA professor, Kris Young, and am part of the Women in Animation mentorship program; [director] Mark Osborne is my mentor. It’s nice talking with him. He did Kung Fu Panda and The Little Prince. Mark is doing everything I want to do with my life! He’s doing live-action and animation. In this mentorship program, other women are working on their own projects. One Saturday we have it with him and the other Saturday is just us. That has been great.”

“Self” was inspired by Searit Huluf desiring to gain social acceptance as well as by the struggles her parents faced immigrating to America from Ethiopia.

“Self” was inspired by Searit Huluf desiring to gain social acceptance as well as by the struggles her parents faced immigrating to America from Ethiopia.

“Self” marks the first time since WALL-E that live-action elements have been integrated with computer animation by Pixar.

“Self” marks the first time since WALL-E that live-action elements have been integrated with computer animation by Pixar.

Soul afforded Huluf the opportunity to work with one of her role models, writer/director Kemp Powers, who co-directed Soul.

Soul afforded Huluf the opportunity to work with one of her role models, writer/director Kemp Powers, who co-directed Soul.

Spearheading the first celebration of Black History Month at Pixar, Huluf went on to serve as a cultural consultant on Soul.

Spearheading the first celebration of Black History Month at Pixar, Huluf went on to serve as a cultural consultant on Soul.

: Searit Huluf helped to facilitate brainstorming sessions to make sure that there was cultural authenticity to the story, character designs and animation for Soul.

Searit Huluf helped to facilitate brainstorming sessions to make sure that there was cultural authenticity to the story, character designs and animation for Soul.

“[Director] Mark [Osbourne] is doing everything I want to do with my life! He’s doing live-action and animation. In this mentorship program, other women are working on their own projects. One Saturday we have it with him and the other Saturday is just us. That has been great.”

—Searit Huluf, Writer and Director of “Self”

Huluf has a support network at Pixar. “Luckily for me, I’m not the first Black shorts director at Pixar. Aphton Corbin made “Twenty Something,” so it‘s nice to be able to talk to her about it. Michael Yates did the Win or Lose streaming [series for Disney+], and I keep regular contact with Kemp Powers. It’s nice to talk to people who are in your arena. Personally, too, that’s why I do both live-action and animation, because there’s something about both mediums that gives me motivation and hope.”

Like Mark Osborne with The Little Prince, Huluf was able to combine computer animation and stop-motion to make “Self,” where the protagonist is a wooden puppet surrounded by environments and metallic characters created digitally. “I got to work with Tippett Studio, which I love! I studied stop-motion at UCLA, so I know what the process looks like, but I have never done it in a professional setting, and I’m not the animator; other people are doing this who have worked on James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas. There’s that Pixar comfort where everybody knows each other or someone adjacent. But these were complete strangers, and there was a big age gap between us. A little bit of me was going, ‘Are they not going to respect me?’ And it was the exact opposite. They were so loving and caring. I still text with them.”

“I spearheaded the first celebration of Black History Month at Pixar and decided to make a documentary where Black Pixar employees talk about what it is like to be Black in America. The 19th Amendment documentary came about because I cared about people voting for the 2020 elections. It was a way to promote Pixar fans to go out and vote by having Pixar women talk about why they should do it and the complicated history of the 19th Amendment.”

—Searit Huluf, Writer and Director of “Self”

Going through various characters designs for the character of Self.

Going through various characters designs for the character of Self.

A significant lesson was learned when making “Self.” “I did a lot of my independent films by myself, and this time I had people who are paid and wanted to be involved,” Huluf notes. “Working with the animators was one of the most insightful moments for me. I would film myself and say, ‘How about we do this?’ They would be like, ‘We could do that, but how about this?’ And it was so much better. In the beginning, I was very precious about it and slowly realized, ‘They know what this film is and what needs to be told, too.’ It was a learning curve for me.” The transition to feature directing is more likely to first occur in live-action rather than animation. “That’s primarily because the stakes are higher in animation than a live-action film. This is purely based on budgets.”

A comparison of Self with one of the female Goldies.

A comparison of Self with one of the female Goldies.

A personal joy for Huluf was being able to design the costume for Self.

A personal joy for Huluf was being able to design the costume for Self.

“When I think about filmmakers I look up to, I see that they start with smaller indie features. Barry Jenkins is a perfect example. Moonlight was only a couple of million dollars, and then he made a higher-ground film If Beale Street Could Talk. I want to start small and slowly build myself up. The big jump for me now is to do a feature. Luckily for me, I’m not too intimidated to do it. It’s more about when someone will give me the chance. I do believe in my ideas and storytelling capabilities. Right now, I’m writing and seeing how things go. I look forward to people watching ‘Self’ and being able to talk to them about it because that’s something new for me.”

Tippett Studio Senior Art Director and Lead Puppeteer Mark Dubeau explains the puppet design to Searit Huluf.

Tippett Studio Senior Art Director and Lead Puppeteer Mark Dubeau explains the puppet design to Searit Huluf.

The hair of Self was the hardest aspect to get right. It was inspired by the hairstyle of Searit Huluf.

The hair of Self was the hardest aspect to get right. It was inspired by the hairstyle of Searit Huluf.

A dream come true for Huluf was being able to collaborate with Tippett Studio on “Self.”The hair of Self was the hardest aspect to get right.

A dream come true for Huluf was being able to collaborate with Tippett Studio on “Self.”

Showcasing the detailed eyeballs for the stop-motion puppet crafted by Tippett Studio.

Showcasing the detailed eyeballs for the stop-motion puppet crafted by Tippett Studio.

Pixar SparkShorts Build “Self” Esteem for Emerging Filmmakers

Treading a path blazed by WALL-E where live-action footage was incorporated into the storytelling, the Pixar SparkShort “Self,” conceived by Searit Huluf, revolves around a wooden stop-motion puppet desperate to be accepted into a society of metallic beings.

“For me, it was, ‘I really want to do stop-motion. I want to visually see something alive onscreen that you can see the handprint of a human touching it,” Huluf states. “I wanted the story to be the reason it had to be stop-motion.”

A central theme is the personal cost of gaining social acceptance. “I will play this game in my head of hiding parts of myself so I can conform and be part of the group,” Huluf explains. “That’s how I visualized Self as she literally rips herself apart to be like everyone else. The other aspect is my mom immigrated to America from Ethiopia, and I wanted to talk about how immigrants are usually not seen or heard. I wanted Self to feel like she is Ethiopian, so she has natural wood that has been carved by a masterful craftsman. There is something nice about her being so natural herself but wanting to be something so shiny, plastic and fake. There is something visually beautiful about that. Another layer on top is that she is even animated differently. Self is stop-motion, so she’s animated on 2s and 3s versus the CG Goldies, which are on 1s and are so slick when they move. Self is poppy and jumpy at points when she tries to talk and interact with them.”

Excitement and fear were felt when working out the logistics for the project. “I was excited about doing something so different and unique, but at the same time I had no idea of how you properly schedule out and manage a stop-motion film,” remarks Eric Rosales, Producer of “Self.” “I was like, ‘Alright, let’s learn this on the fly.’ You’re taking this whole new element and trying to fit pieces into our puzzle and take their puzzle pieces and put them all together.” The other puzzle pieces belonged to Tippett Studio which constructed, animated and shot the stop-motion puppet. Rosales says, “It was a breath of fresh air in the sense that you get to see how other studios approach their scheduling, decision-making and problem-solving. It was exciting for us to learn from them as much as they were learning from us, and learn how to take the different aspects of the stop-motion process and incorporate it into our pipeline. And vice versa, how we would handle something and transfer that information back over to Tippett. We did a lot of back and forth with them and shared a lot of thoughts.”

Complimenting and informing the design of the physical puppet was the digital version. “We had a digital puppet that Pixar was able to move around in the computer and act out what they wanted the puppet to do. That informed us in terms of how we needed to build the puppet to be able to effectively move in those ways,” states Mark Dubeau, Senior Art Director and Lead Puppeteer at Tippett Studio. “There is a lot you can do digitally that you can’t do with a puppet, and so we knew probably that we would have to build about three or four puppets to be able to do that number of shots.” Nine different faces were constructed to express panic, sadness, happiness and anger.

For a long time, the digital double of Self was a placeholder for 19 shots that utilized stop-motion animation. “But as things progressed, we turned off our character as she is now being added in the comp,” states Nathan Fariss, Visual Effects Supervisor of “Self.” “The amount of color tweaking and general polish that was happening in comp, and even the color grading steps in post, were much more than any of our other projects because we needed to match a photographic element to our CG world and vice versa.”

“Self” Producer Eric Rosales and Huluf examine the various pieces that go into making a stop-motion puppet.

“Self” Producer Eric Rosales and Huluf examine the various pieces that go into making a stop-motion puppet.

Various body parts and variations had to be created by Tippett Studio to give the stop-motion puppet the correct range of physicality and emotion.

Various body parts and variations had to be created by Tippett Studio to give the stop-motion puppet the correct range of physicality and emotion.

Previs and layout dictated the shot design for the stop-motion scenes. “We had a first lighting pass that was already done and even before Tippett started lighting everything up,” Rosales remarks. “We sent members of our lighting team over there to do the last bits of tweaking. Searit acted out every single shot that Tippett was going to do. She did it in her living room by herself. To sell the foot contact, Tippett ended up building a concrete slab out of Styrofoam so we were able to see Self physically walking on top of something.”

Self makes a wish upon a falling star that enables her to exchange wooden body parts with metallic ones. “I usually talk about what the character is feeling at the moment,” Huluf states. “The way we talked about that scene of her jumping off of the roof, I wanted to show how she goes from, ‘Oh, cool these body pieces are falling from the sky,’ to slowly becoming more obsessive in finding them. That face is the last piece for her. ‘I’m going to finally belong.’ A lot of people do a lot of crazy things to belong. In Self’s case she’ll rip herself apart to be like everyone. Self-jumping off of the roof is the climax of the film because it’s her craziness and obsessiveness all wrapped into one as she falls into darkness. We had a lot of conversations about how she snaps out of it, and for me, your face is who you are. As she steps on her own face, it snaps her back into reality and makes her realize and go, ‘Oh, my God! Why did I do this?’”

The cityscape did not have to be heavily detailed. “We ended up settling up a look that was a flat color or a gradient so it felt like there was a little bit of life in the city and things were lit up,” Fariss reveals. “There were other people present in the buildings, but it didn’t necessarily draw the audience into the lives that are going on in the buildings around there. The cities were mostly hand-built. There wasn’t enough scope to warrant going a procedural route to put the cities together, so they were hand-dressed, and there was a lot of shot-by-shot scooting some buildings around to get a more pleasing composition.”

More problematic was getting the hair right for the puppet. States Dubeau, “Once we figured out what urethane to use then we did all of the hair. However, we found out it was too heavy for the head. We had to go back and make two pieces of hair that go down and frame either side of her face. Those were made out of that material and painted. We hollow-cast the ones on the back, which had a wire that went into the head, and then you could move those pieces around, but you couldn’t bend them. The ones in front could swing and twist. It totally worked. Now you got the sense of this light, fluffy hair that was bouncing around on her head.”

“Self” was an educational experience. “One of the things that we learned from Lisa Cooke [Stop-Motion Producer] at Tippett is you end up saving your time in your shot production,” Rosales notes. “It’s all of the pre-production and building where you’re going to spend the bulk of your money. There was a lesson in patience for us because with CG we can take everything up to the last minute and say, ‘I want to make this or that change.’ But here we needed to zero in and know what we’ve got going on. Once the animators get their hands on the puppet and start doing the shots, the first couple of shots take a little bit of time. After that handful of shots, they get a feel for the character, movement and puppet, and it starts moving quickly. Then we were able to get our team on, and they were able to start learning their cadence as well. It started becoming a nice little machine that we were putting together.”

Searit appreciated the collaborative spirit that made the stop-motion short possible. “I’m approving things at Tippett and going back to Pixar to approve all of the CG shots multiple times a week. We had a lot of people who were big fans of ‘Self’ and helped us while they were on other shows or even on vacation or working on the weekend because they were so passionate. I’m grateful that Jim Morris [President of Pixar] let me have this opportunity to make a stop-motion film, which has never been done before at Pixar.”

Trevor Hogg



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