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Making weird go viral with Hi Stranger creator Kirsten Lepore

‘Hi stranger. It’s been a while’

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Kirsten Lepore “Natural History Museum”

About three years ago, a naked, hairless humanoid told us that it was okay to look at its butt. The internet obliged. The mesmerizing short animation Hi Stranger quickly amassed millions of views and was even featured on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The film’s soothing message that “everything was going to be okay” was a perfect antidote to the stress many were feeling in early 2017.

The film came from the mind of artist Kirsten Lepore, a stop-motion animator who has a knack for tapping into the psyche of the moment. Her animations are tender, captivating, and reassuring and seem to appear when things are looking particularly bleak. Her latest short film Natural History Museum presents a hopeful look into the distant future, a future in which we evolve beyond our narrow viewpoints and biological limitations.

I spoke with Kirsten about her inspirations, character designs, and how things have changed for her since Hi Stranger.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to start by talking about your film Natural History Museum. Can you share how this project came to be?

Natural History Museum was a short commissioned by Belvedere Vodka and Janelle Monáe. Three other filmmakers and myself were invited to create a film based on the theme of “A Beautiful Future.” I really wanted to get weird with it, so I did.

Other than perhaps a love of buffalo wings, what inspired the story?

I thought it would be fun to look into a “beautiful” future, but like way, way into the future — further than any of us could comprehend. I wanted to use those future scenarios as a way to reframe our present moment and get some perspective on our current shortcomings and how I hope we might evolve as time goes on.

The future that you present in the film feels hopeful. Would you say you are a hopeful person?

Definitely. I’ve always been an optimist. Although I do have to admit that it’s getting harder and harder to be one. I just try to do my best to inspire others to do the same, and I just hope that all of our children are more enlightened than our generation and invent some way to pull the carbon out of the air and the trash out of the ocean. Sorry — bummer!

When clients come to you, is there a specific animation you’ve made that they cite? Do clients ever push for you to remake the same thing? How do you push against that?

It used to be Bottle, but now I think it’s Hi Stranger. I’ve had a few clients and studios want me to do a Hi Stranger remake or spinoff, but that just never sat well with me, so I just didn’t work with those people. Luckily, I don’t think anyone has asked to directly remake something. I’ve generally been lucky to have clients (or, I guess, accept clients) that are excited about me creating something new for them.

How do you select client projects to work on?

With the exception of a few projects I did when I was strapped for cash, I feel lucky that I’ve been able to afford to say no to things that don’t feel like they advance my career in a productive direction. It obviously wasn’t always like that, as I accepted almost everything when I was just getting started unless it was advertising soda or sports (just not my thing for separate reasons).

How have things changed for you since Hi Stranger went viral?

Oh man, Hi Stranger was such an unexpected boon. I really never could have predicted it would have been so popular. It certainly got me tons of meetings at lots of different places. Sometimes I worry that I squandered that time immediately following the release since most of those meetings were like, “Okay, so where’s the show you want to pitch?” and I just didn’t have one, nor the desire to do a whole show, honestly. The best thing that came from it, though, was getting representation at the production company Prettybird. They’ve opened so many doors for me and are just amazing people. I’ve already gotten to do so many fun projects with them that otherwise would have never made their way to me.

I remember seeing Hi Stranger everywhere: out-of-context GIFs, memes, even on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I think most people who watched the full film found it comforting (myself included), but some folks found it creepy. I’m curious: when you’re making a film, do you worry about how it will be received or interpreted or even appropriated? Is there pressure for you to make your films “go viral”?

Anyone who sets out to make a viral video will almost never succeed, as the mysterious nature of “virality” (just made it a word) isn’t really tangible or predictable — and that’s the fun of it. So no, I never set out or put pressure on myself to make something viral. That being said, I do think it’s really important to have one’s work stand out in the endless ocean of the internet, so I think it’s important to constantly be experimenting and trying out weird ideas if that’s something that excites you. For me, that’s most of why I make work. I want to discover new things and pioneer new ground.

Your character designs often play with a sort of creepy aesthetic, but ultimately, your storytelling is very heartwarming. It’s as if the story subverts the initial reaction from the audience. For example, the father in Story from North America is quite off-putting but ultimately very wise and loving. I’m curious how you approach character design. When in the process do you begin to think about the look of your characters?

All credit for the dad’s designs go to the genius mind of Garrett M Davis, who co-directed that short! He’s amazing! But for characters that I’ve solely designed, sometimes I start with the character, and sometimes they come last, and I just whip something up that is, to me, the most basic utilitarian form. Generally, I find most animated characters to be grotesquely over-designed. I like minimalism and subtlety, and I think that a viewer can pick up more on those subtleties and connect more with a story when the character with which they are (hopefully) identifying is not so overly specific that it isn’t universally relatable. I think this is why I try to move away from characters with a definable gender or race. It’s not only more relatable, but also because it doesn’t make much sense to stick to the binaries of the real world when animation can literally be anything.

The internet can be an overwhelming and intimidating place. I think the reason your work speaks to me is that I feel like there is an underlying tenderness in your animations. So they feel really comforting when they pop up while I’m browsing a fairly grim internet landscape. They almost feel therapeutic. I’m curious if you actively think about that when you make your work.

Thanks so much for that! I feel like you just gave me a hug. I’m so happy that comes through because pretty much all of my personal work is just “me” — as in, I don’t really ever design personalities for my characters because they’re all just me. They all just feel like facets of my own personality. I think I’m a pretty tender person? I love to be affectionate and to show my friends and family (and audience) that they’re loved. I feel like it’s the best thing you can try to spread as a human!

What’s a project, subject, or style that you haven’t tried yet that you wish you had an opportunity to explore?

Live-action and live-action puppets! It’s hard to break into live-action once you’re known for animation. I’m just going to have to weasel my way in with some hybrid stuff...

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your work over the years?

It’s gotten better, hah! I learn so much with every project. I think the biggest thing is that I’ve gotten to collaborate with more people recently since I’ve had more budgets that would allow for that. I think the projects almost always turn out better when I have the luxury of working with the pros.

Stop-motion is a very painstaking and laborious process. What are some tricks you have to keep you motivated to keep working on a single project that can be so time-consuming?

Dancing, listening to podcasts, and, when I’m working alone, jumping around and doing a few different jobs at once. Like sometimes when I’m stuck in the animation phase, it can get really physically and mentally draining. So maybe I’ll take a break from animating for a day to work on VFX / post for a day. Sitting at a computer working in After Effects feels like a relaxing vacation when I’ve been stuck animating for days.

Is there a piece of artwork (film, photo, animation, illustration, design) you’ve seen recently that you’ve fallen in love with?

I haven’t gotten out that much lately since I had a baby several months ago, but I just finished watching Fleabag, and man, was it incredible.

Can you talk about what project you are working on next?

I don’t think it’s been announced yet, but I’m currently animation directing an indie feature that I think people are going to love! I’m excited for it to be out in the world in maybe a year.