“Dani” is a short film featuring a real-life phone call between a mother (Violetta) and daughter (Danielle). Using stop motion animation, the short film shows Danielle delivering some less than great news about her breast cancer treatment. Danielle was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at the age of 30. The phonecall portrayed in the animation takes place after her first round of chemo, which didn’t attack cancer as well as she hoped it will. In an emotional phone call, Danielle shares the news with her mother who is also a breast cancer survivor. Winner of Jury Award Best Animated Short at Palm Springs ShortFest & Mammoth Lakes Film Festival we had a pleasure to have an interview with the director Elizabeth Hogenson.
How did you come up with the idea of combining animation and the topic of breast cancer?
The phone call in the short is a real phone call. The young woman, Dani, was my roommate when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the same time, I was taking some stop motion animation classes, as an elective during my graduate studies. When I heard the call, I was so moved and just really wanted to do something with it to give it new life and share it with people. Animation seemed like the perfect medium to bring to life this moment that had passed while preserving the integrity and rawness of the conversation. Being close to Dani, I wanted to do something to share her struggle. This was essentially my equivalent of running a 5k.
Why did you choose a phone conversation as the main catalyst for the story?
I decided to use the phone conversation, rather than, say, fictionalizing the situation or interviewing Dani about her diagnosis, as there’s just something so pure, touching about it that can’t be replicated. I find that a lot of people related to the format, even if they haven’t been through this particular scenario, as almost everyone has been in the position of having to share bad or life-changing news over the phone with a loved person. It really draws attention to those important conversations that we have, and that we’re just the connections and communication that we make.
What was the hardest part when it came to animating for such a serious topic?
There were a lot of technical and logistical difficulties in animating this project as I was doing it out of my bedroom closet, but I won’t bore you with those details. I had to animate the emotional climax of the short about 4 times before I finally got a take that I liked, both in terms of the technical aspects and the puppet’s performance. As the animator, you’re shaping the story through the puppet’s performance, but there’s also a part where it just sort of takes on a life of its own. It was very tiring to be steeped in this emotional subject for so long. It takes about eight hours to animate ten to fifteen seconds.
Was there a fear that portraying this kind of important topic with animation will lessen its importance? (Quite often people look at animation as it’s something for kids and not necessarily for adults)
I really felt the contrary, since I really believe in the integrity and importance of the call that it all hangs on. It’s such an important topic, and it’s so important to talk about. I think it helps us be more emotionally open and thus more able to support those in our lives in need of love, help or just someone to listen. I also think that the animation makes the topic more easy to digest. And I know that people generally associate animation with something fun or perhaps childish, and I purposely chose to work with more simplified forms, but I think that helps with the subject. I almost feel bad at screenings, since I’ll see people’s faces light up when they see that it’s an animation, prepared for something fun and delightful, and then slowly watch their faces drop as the seriousness of the subject hits them.
In the credits, it’s mentioned that you’ve used a scientific advisor. Why was it important for you to have somebody with knowledge in this field?
Dr. Stephanie Shishido was a wonderful resource to have! I was able to make the film through a generous grant from the University of Southern California’s Bridge Art and Science Alliance, an institution within USC which provides grants to art projects seeking to accurately represent science topics. I was assigned Dr. Shishido, ad post-doctoral fellow at USC, specializing in cancer research as an advisor. I was able to meet with her and ask questions about the medical and scientific processes discussed in the film (related to the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer). I have no scientific background, and it was great knowing that I was visualizing the medical aspects of the call in a way that might also be educational and informative.
The animation uses a lot of clay and woolly threads. This would instantly remind me of home and all the knitting my mom does. Was it chosen on purpose to create a rather friendly, welcoming and warm atmosphere?
I’ve always loved fiber arts, and there’s such an interesting history/relationship between those and woman, so it feels appropriate for a call focused around two women. I picked wool for the puppets since it gives them warmth and fuzziness which I think helps with the heaviness of the subject. They should feel like a familiar wool sweater.
Dani has had some great success on the festival circuit. What was the overall reaction of people that have seen the short?
The success has been really overwhelming. I’m so grateful for how warmly it’s being received. The first reactions are usually: is the call real, and, if so, how is Dani? After each screening, I always have people stopping me to tell me their own story, either with breast cancer or a similar call. It really strikes people on a personal level.
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