Suraya Raja is an a director, animator and writer. Her latest film, ‘Don’t Think Of A Pink Elephant’ enters the world of a teenage girl, Layla, who fights daily against compulsive thoughts and urges. We sat down with Suraya to find out why puppet stop-motion appeals and what it can lend to this kind of filmmaking.
What is your background? How did you come to be involved in stop-motion animation? What is the appeal for you?
When I was a kid I used to write a lot. My Mum was a librarian and I really wanted to be an author. At the same time I was really influenced by my Gran. She was awarded a scholarship to go to art school, but she had to leave because of the war, and a lot of my family had been stonemasons, carpenters, and various types of crafts people. She had a lot of their old tools, and whenever I saw her we used to spend all our time making things.
Later on I took a degree course in Visual Communications at Leeds College of Art & Design, where I started to make documentaries, in which I used puppetry and object manipulation to tell stories. After this I went on to work as an artist on residencies and commissions, including a residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in the USA, where I met a lot of filmmakers and puppeteers.
It was whilst I was working with the Art House and English Nature that I discovered Czech and Eastern European puppet animation, which really inspired me. I realised that puppet animation is something that incorporates all of the things I love – story telling, film, characters and making things. I started to teach myself puppet making and took the 3 month animation course at UWE in Bristol. Living in Bristol, I was in a really interesting place in terms of exposure to puppetry and animation, and I supported Puppet Place during one of the festivals as a press writer. It was great and meant I got to see several shows. I also started to work in the animation industry, primarily in puppet making and model making for TV, commercials and film.
During my degree course and alongside my freelance work I had worked in homelessness, psychology, offending and substance use. I am really interested in how we think and behave. I have an interest in stories, which inhabit the internal, of mental health, perception and the comedy of human behaviour and interaction. Often my ideas come from social interactions in the mundanity of every-day life, and sometimes from my background in this type of work.
It was my desire to tell stories that led me to going back into education and take the
Directing Animation course at the National Film & Television School.
You recently directed the animated short film “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant“, which is currently on the international film festival circuit. What is the film about? Why did you choose puppet stop-motion to tell the story?
‘Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant’ is about a teenage girl learning to cope with intrusive thoughts; the kind of thoughts we all experience, like the thought of stabbing someone with a fork, or the urge to jump from a high place. The main character, Layla, fights daily against these thoughts, terrified by her potential to do harm.
The film is actually about her experience of puro OCD, a form of OCD that is less known about, whilst not being explicit that this is a film about a mental health issue. Generally unspoken of, intrusive thoughts like these are something we all experience. My intention was to present these thoughts, often bizarre, taboo and funny, in a way that we can relate to, and to then reveal the more serious and distressing nature of the problem for Layla. I also wanted to really get across the internal thoughts as they might be experienced, through the use of mixing animation with live action, and through the use of physical textures and sound.
I chose puppet stop-motion, partly because this is the technique I really enjoy working in, but also because it seemed a really good way to make an environment of multiple textures. The puppets are made to have a ‘skin-look’, whilst everything about the puppets and in the set is very textured. Apart from the sharp metal objects, everything else is soft, the idea being that this contrast will make the sharp objects more noticeably sharp. Hopefully the textures make the audience sense the feel, or the tactility of everything, so that the live action parts have a greater impact.
I chose to use live action as the language for the internal thoughts. I wanted to give screen time to the internal thoughts without leaving the audience confused or tricked. It was also a sharp contrast to the puppet world and felt unpleasantly explicit.
Was it important to you that the central character, Layla, was female? Do you think that women have different stories to tell through stop motion?
I have a tendency to write more of my stories with a female as the main character and perhaps that’s because I’m female. I do think it’s important that we see more women on the screen, and as lead characters, as currently this ratio in film does not reflect society – by far. I really do think that what we see on screen has a strong influence on our perceptions of people and what they can be, whether it’s gender or race, etc. I think women may have different stories to tell, or that more stories could be told from a female perspective, and I’m always really interested in watching films that appear to be doing that.
What’s next in the pipeline?
I am really interested in working in story development and in animating. However, at the same time I intend to continue working on my own ideas. I am currently developing a new project, which is a stop-motion adult series and am also pitching some ideas for children.