ABOUT THE PLAGUE BEARERS
The year is 1655. The Black Plague has traveled to the village of Eyam, and the villagers have barricaded themselves in their homes. But the plague is spreading, and it is only a matter of time before it claims everyone. The only hope for these desperate people is the arrival of the Plague Doctor, but death is closer than they think...
This story is one of a family pushed to the edge of survival. Over the course of one evening, young Addison, his dying father William, and William's dutiful wife Mary must all face their darkest fear; none will go unchanged by the experience.
CalArts graduate Zoë Moss presents her chilling historical fantasy with a wordless blend of stop-motion and 2D animation techniques. Shot and animated over a year and-a-half, The Plague Bearers is a uniquely memorable experiment in horror.
The Plague Bearers was my graduate film and the culmination of all my years at CalArts. The thing I took away from being in the Experimental program was the total freedom to experiment, and this film was truly my chance to combine traditional animation and puppets into something new. It was also a learning experience in the sense that it was my first fully realized narrative work, and in the ways I combined animation techniques to achieve the final product. As far as the story and themes go, I've always been fascinated by monster movies, stop-motion, and where the two collide. I knew when I started, this would be about a plague – if only to fulfill my desire to experiment in horror – but when I started sketching the character of Addison I knew this was going to be special. It's really the human element (in addition to the inhuman one) that gives poignancy to the horror. But whether audiences are frightened, amused, or genuinely chilled by my film, I only hope that the reaction is going to be strong.
"About the Director"
Prior to graduating from the Program in Experimental Animation at California Institute of the Arts, Zoë Moss had gained a reputation as an animator as well as a traditional artist. While more widely known for her 2D Flash animation, within the CalArts program Zoë created a number of hand-made puppets for strange and humorous stop-motion shorts. For her graduation film, The Plague Bearers, Zoë sought to seamlessly combine these disciplines as the culmination of her schooling. Since completing her studies, Zoë has gone on to become an animator at Titmouse Inc. Her work on Superjail! and China, IL can be seen nightly on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block.
To see more of Zoë Moss's work, visit her website, Brainfarto.com
"A Time and Place"
The Plague Bearers was a project with a long gestation period. "It was in my third year [at CalArts] when I started thinking about it." The first incarnation of the film had a more "Sorcerer's Apprentice" vibe to it, and it wasn't until she designed a monster – a cyclopian skull with a rat's body – that Zoë was inspired to move the film away from her lighthearted student shorts to something more horrific.
The theme of the plague came from a visit to the Cryptozoology page on Wikipedia, where Zoë discovered the cryptid known as a "rat king," a "large pile of rats that have become intertwined at the tails, and in essence are one unified organism." Their role was as an omen of plague, and while all signs of rat kings would be dropped by the final shooting script, their impact on the film was enormous.
Zoë knew she wanted a movie about rats and the Black Plague, and what better place to set it in than England? "I thought that the whole townsfolk would be involved, that originally it would be a plague doctor and his apprentice who would visit all citizens of the town, and then the monster would take the place of the plague doctor by killing him."
This proved to be too ambitious for Zoë, whom after watching a mixed-media animated short realized that building an entire town and its inhabitants would be too costly and time-consuming. But this allowed Zoë to sharpen her gaze. In the preproduction phase, "there was always a son or a little boy involved," so the choice to narrow the focus down to a single family was made then.
The last piece of the pre-production puzzle came when Zoë's creative collaborator and boyfriend Jacob Strick came across an interesting historical event that he thought would serve her film well. "I had heard from Zoë that she had wanted to move away from London as a setting. The site of Eyam – the plague village – was perfect in terms of its historical value and isolated location."
Jacob would later go on to visit the village of Eyam, famous for its self-imposed quarantine during an outbreak of the Black Plague in the 17th century, for purposes of research. "I even staked out one of the original plague houses until its current owners came home and actually allowed me to look inside." This reference would later prove instrumental in establishing the look of the film.
"Surviving The Shoot"
As Zoë Moss entered her final summer break before Senior year she felt she had plenty of time to think about her Graduate film, but in retrospect she wishes she had moved more quickly on it. Production was slated to begin in the Winter of 2010, but as the shoot date rolled around Zoë found herself running behind. This was chiefly due to the fact that the puppets she was building were the most complex out of any she had made in the past, and thus were prone to "technical difficulties."
The stop-motion shoot took place in rooms R & J in CalArts' Butler Building, lasting from February to March. Having lost a week of reserved shooting time meant she had to double-down on her efforts, which required Zoë to enlist the talents of her friend Mick Ignis of ShadowMachine Films. Between them, and many sleepless nights, the principal photography was completed according to schedule.
There were some interesting difficulties to the shoot, some which wouldn't become apparent until the post-production period. For instance, the decision to shoot the puppets entirely on blue-screen meant that roughly seventy-five individual backgrounds would have to be drawn. Not only was it difficult to choreograph the actions of the puppets, but the blue sheen from the material would occasionally bleed onto them, making composition a difficult chore.
To any observers of the shoot, the blank expressions of the puppets had proven difficult to parse, "because outside of Zoë Moss' head (and her meticulously planned storyboards) it was impossible to tell who was emoting what. It was like this for months afterwards until all the faces were added," explains Jacob.
Those storyboards dictated the entire look of the film, which when compared to the final product is rather closely mimicked in its pacing and layout, not to mention the shallow depth of its composition. But the notion – perhaps the folly – of animating three-dimensional puppets over two-dimensional background with Flash animation overlays for expressions would cause Zoë to occasionally fret that she should have "just animated the whole thing traditionally."
But as the film progressed, and the elements began to resemble something more like a film, Zoë knew that she was fulfilling her own desire to create something original and experimental all along.
PRESS + AWARDS
Featured on independent filmmaking blog, Directors Notes.
Featured on MTV's Liquid Television blog.
Featured on animation blog, Lineboil.
Zoë Moss & Jacob Strick
Addison, Father, Mother
Plague Doctor, Rattison
Aron J. Shay
Gina N. Turcois Aka Rabbit
Editing & Compositing
Music And Sound Design
Mom And Dad, The Strick Family, Mac, Kersey, Brad, Lizzy, Stephen Chiodo, Stephen Silver, Titmouse Inc., Calarts Film Department, Butler Building, Village Of Eyam, UK