10 Questions for Michaela Olsen, Writer/Director of ‘Under Covers’

Brooklyn-based animator Michaela Olson’s stunning stop-motion animated short Under Covers was one of the biggest discoveries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We caught up with the innovative animator to find out more about her creative process.

Animag: Can you tell us a little bit about Under Covers, its inspiration, and when you started working on it?

Michaela Olsen: Under Covers is a stop-motion short about secrets, self-expression, love and murder. It takes place under an eclipsing moon that peeks into homes as characters, tucked into their beds, reveal their true selves.

Growing up, I would create my own worlds (usually with Barbies whose heads I’d shave) and develop dramedies in miniature form. I was a weird, introverted, super shy kid in my own time, but I tried tirelessly to blend in. Eventually, I started to notice that everyone had their own Barbie-esque dramedies happening at home. And that brought me comfort — that we all have things about ourselves that we hide from the world and that’s cool, man.

How long did it take to finish?

I started storyboarding Under Covers about six years ago.It was based on a little book that I made about four years before that. So, it’s been about a decade of working on this short in various capacities, but I chipped away at it sporadically.

What kind of material did you use to produce the animation?

I used everything! Lots of clay, wood, fabric, roving wool, found objects, the occasional 3D-printed telephone, and lots of hot glue. One time, my hot glue gun caught on fire. Buyers beware! I shot the film on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III using Dragonframe and did post in various Adobe Creative Cloud apps.

How did you get into stop-motion animation?

I studied animation at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I got into stop-motion animation because it was a combination of all the mediums I couldn’t choose between: sculpture, painting, video and photography. I had amazing teachers and peers there.

Right after graduating, I moved to Brooklyn and started doing fabrication for commercial stop-motion gigs. My first dip into directing was, like many other animators, through Vine. I was commissioned to create lots of these (now archaic) six-second videos for Samsung which were fun spurts of creativity. Then in 2016, I became a partner and Creative Director at Mighty Oak, a creative studio specializing in handmade animation. I’ve had the opportunity to direct projects for clients like Netflix, HBO, Nick Jr., NBC and The New York Times.

What do you love about the medium?

I love how much personality and uniqueness shines through a world made by hand. I also fall for the inherently dark quality that stop-motion offers. Stop-mo animators are usually odd ducks — we’re morbid souls who love tiny things.

What was the toughest part of the job?

It was tough getting back into it after taking time away from working on the film. Balancing work and a big personal project isn’t easy. It wasn’t until I made it a priority to finish it and treated it like a client project that I was able to bring it to the finish line.

Now that the short is out for the world, what are you proudest of?

I’m not going to spoil anything, but I find the ending very sweet and satisfying. I didn’t have much of a plan for the ending until I was about three-fourths of the way through production! When I’m making a piece of art (rather than say, a commercial production) I like to plan everything out but still leave some loose ends. The planning keeps me sane, and the loose ends keep me actively creative.

Who are your animation idols?

I’ve always loved Eastern European and Russian animators like Yuri Norstein, Michaela Pavlátová, Signe Baumane and Švankmajer, of course! Suzanne Pitt is amazing. I’m also a huge live-action fan and have recently been blown away by the powerful and surreal stylings of Boots Riley and Terence Nance, and as always, Miranda July. We also have a ton of super talented animators working with us every day, so I’m constantly surrounded by people who inspire me. The talent out there is absolutely insane.

What was the movie/TV show that changed your life? Why?

I nearly died the first time I saw Carnival of Animals by Michaela Pavlátová when I was in school. She brings such a hilarious and unique approach to female sexuality and embraces awkward moments. I love her, and it has nothing to do with our names being the same!

What kind of advice do you give people who want to get into animation?

  • Create a network. This could be people you’ve studied with or even people you’ve found on social media. Networking doesn’t always have to mean face-to-face time. I have connected and collaborated with lots of artists through Instagram.
  • If you’re freelancing, don’t get discouraged by rejections. The more you put yourself out there, the more likely you’ll find work.
  • Reach out to a potential studio or collaborator more than once. Sometimes the timing isn’t right, but it could be later!
  • Curate your portfolio. Keep it simple and pick your best work. Have a trusted peer give a second opinion.
  • Show a breadth of work so that studios will know you are versatile. Create some projects in a style that is unique to you. This will help you develop your brand if you’re hoping to get into directing.

For more info, visit www.michaelaolsen.com.

Michaela Olson

Michaela Olson