It is an understatement to say dealing with death is a difficult thing. The 2017 short film Negative Space by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata is reminiscent of the mental headspace where one may try to recall the rose-tinted memories of the deceased but reality is often more cold and depressing. This short film, based on the 2014 namesake poem by Ron Koertge, comments on how it is usually not until we are mourning someone that we realize the complexity and biases in which we perceived the deceased while they were alive. In this post, I will investigate how the elements of scale, framing, and color conveyed the difference between memory and present reality.
This stop motion short film tells of a son reminiscing about his father, who the audience will later learn is now deceased. The entirety of this animated short revolves around packing a suitcase. We follow the son from early childhood flashbacks to the present day. It starts with the son packing his own suitcase on the way to an undisclosed location, which the audience will later learn is the funeral home after the death of his father. Most of the screen time, however, is narrated in flashbacks. The audience is shown fantastical memories of the son learning how to pack a suitcase with his father as a means of bonding. Negative Space ends with the son looking into his father’s coffin and saying, slightly disgustedly, that there is a lot of “wasted space”, implying another meaning other than the amount of room his father’s body takes up in the coffin. It is the realization and acceptance of how little his father was actually present in his life.
The medium of stop motion animation allows for more creativity when it comes to scale, which the directors took full advantage of. The younger the son was, the more exaggeratedly small he was in comparison to his father and the contents of a suitcase (Wolfe, 2017a). In comparison with the first shot of the main character as a full-grown adult, in the first flashback, the protagonist is smaller than a sock (“Negative Space” 01:51 – 02:04). This is also the first time the audience catches a glimpse of the father. The father’s hand is the only thing we see, the size of our protagonist’s whole body. Max Porter, co-director of the film, commented “the character’s relationship with his father, he feels very small. The father is taking up a lot of space in his life, and then later in the film, the father is small, the father is not taking up a lot of space in his life,” confirming that the intention of having the scale difference being so large is to mimic how much the main character looks up to his father; disproportionately so the younger he was (Gold Derby). The protagonist is swallowed up by the suitcase’s contents in an ocean. The cutback shows realistic proportions with the son looking confused and sad when his father picks up his suitcase and leaves (“Negative Space” 02:40 – 02:56). The contrast of scale between these two scenes shows the narrator (the son in present-day) has two conflicting ideas about his relationship with his father. The emotional aspect is one of fondness, but reality perhaps shows the sadder version, one that comes face to face with the fact though his father bonded by teaching him how to pack a suitcase, those memories always end with a sudden leaving.
The compositional framing of the short is representational of how the son chose to frame his relationship with his dad. The first time the audience sees the father in full frame is when he is leaving. His introduction showing just his hand proves that though his son may be remembering the packing in a positive light, the full picture of the dad is the one of him leaving. Ru Kuwahata, co-director of Negative Space, recalls she had a similar relationship with her father in terms of strong memories of him packing a particular way only for nowadays to occasionally have nightmares about packing (MAKING OF, Gold Derby). Though the son recalls his pre-teen years in realistic proportion, his care and loyalty to his dad are still clear. Instead of continuing to stare out a window watching the taxi drive further away, he chooses to imagine a more lighthearted scene. The taxi is framed center stage as it drives past other father-son pairs playfully with a toy taxi. The farthest away the camera shows the son is at the funeral as he is walking towards his dad’s casket. The bird’s eye view shows that the son is starting to see his father objectively, with the off-kilter creating a tone of unfamiliarity in the situation; the first time he is looking unbiasedly at the situation. The last shot in the short film shows the audience the inside of the casket with bilateral symmetry, and nothing in the frame but his father’s body in the casket. The forced emphasis represents how the son can no longer hide from what kind of father he had. The negative space that consumes the casket, in comparison to a full-to-the-brim suitcase, shows the difference in the reality of a mostly absent father as opposed to the memories of a full relationship the son had imagined.
Lighting in this film was a challenge to capture at times for the animation team but was vital for the contrast between the narrator’s optimistic memories and the heaviness he felt when his father was gone (Gold Derby, Wolfe 2018b). All of the present-day shots of the son’s journey to and at his father’s funeral are cool-toned. In contrast, all of the memories are warm-toned. The only time memory has a strong blue present is when the father is not around. For example, the first memory of his father leaving, and later when his father is away at a hotel. This intentional lighting is a direct representation of rose-tinted memories. Although there are sad, blue tones present occasionally, the memories overall are positive. The later memory of the dad being away only hints at a strong sadness for a few seconds (with the strong, saturated blue lamp light) before the son receives a short text from his dad, where in turn the light quickly brightens to a soft warm color. Even in the first flashback, the blue that surrounded the young son was spun in a way that was stranger and more fantastical than scary and depressing, as it was most likely a representation of his first memory of his father leaving. The blue sadness is too overwhelming and new to be shut off quickly, so instead, he chooses to imagine his ocean of loneliness as something unfamiliar to be explored. As a stop motion, the textures convey how the character externalizes his emotions. For example, in this ocean world, he was unprepared for the cold, vast ocean wearing a short sleeve shirt and shorts. However, as time goes on, there are more layers to what the main character wears, as a defense against the cold void his father leaves behind. Negative Space was carefully planned out, with every detail lending itself to the message of the film: memories may be distorted to make light of cold truth. In this case, the son avoided (consciously or not) recognizing that his strongest memories of his warm, larger-than-life dad packing suitcases all lead to his leaving and absence in the frame. It is the inverse of these ideas, warm vs. cool, large vs. small, absent/partially out of frame vs. directly visible, that allows our protagonist to trade a partially fantastical mental image of his father for a more factual, albeit depressing, one.
Negative Space. Directed by Max Porter & Ru Kuwahata, Films, Ikki. “‘Negative Space’ de Ru Kuwahata et Max Porter / MAKING OF.” Vimeo, 20 Mar. 2022, www.vimeo.com/238590794?embedded=true&source=video_title&owner=72791802.
Kuwahata, Ru, and Max Porter. “Negative Space | Oscar Nominated Stop-Motion Animation | Short of the Week.” YouTube, uploaded by Short of the Week, 16 July 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI2lsdXJQ40.
“‘Negative Space’ Directors Ru Kuwahata, Max Porter Chat Oscar-Contending Animated Short.” YouTube, uploaded by GoldDerby / Gold Derby, 21 Dec. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkqCENZcfGI.
Wolfe, Jennifer. “‘Negative Space’ Explores the Lasting Bond Between a Father and Son.” Animation World Network, ANIMATIONWorld, 25 Oct. 2017, www.awn.com/animationworld/negative-space-explores-lasting-bond-between-father-and-son. Wolfe, Jennifer. “Unpacking ‘Negative Space’ with Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata.” Animation World Network, ANIMATIONWorld, 16 Feb. 2018, www.awn.com/gallery/unpacking-negative-space-max-porter-and-ru-kuwahata
Jackie Garza is an animation student in the school of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is specializing in creating 3D environments for both games and animated shorts.