Aspen Shortsfest: A stop-motion ‘Bartleby’ for the 21st century |

Aspen Shortsfest: A stop-motion ‘Bartleby’ for the 21st century

"Bartleby," a stop-motion animated adaptation of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," will have its world premeire screening during the 5:30 p.m. program at Aspen Shortsfest on Thursday.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Bartleby’ at Aspen Shortsfest, Program Four

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, April 6, 5:30 p.m.

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

More info: The program will include seven short films. It will be followed by a filmmaker Q & A.

Just about everybody reads Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” in high school. And just about everybody who goes on to work in an office is haunted by it later. Laura Naylor and Kristen Kee, both artists who found themselves trapped in mind-numbing office jobs in the financial sector, banded together to co-direct the new stop-motion adaptation “Bartleby,” reimagining the classic for the 21st century.

In this creepy and captivating new film, which has its world premiere at Aspen Shortsfest today, Bartleby, the office drone who “prefers not to,” stages his passive resistance against a backdrop of Occupy protests, co-workers chatting on Slack and email, getting distracted by dating apps, with a “Hang in There” cat poster on the wall.

Painstakingly composed in the traditional stop-motion style, for which they adjusted puppets and sets and props by hand, the 11-minute film took Naylor and Kee two years to make — a period when, appropriately enough, they ditched their office gigs to make art. A productive day of work on “Bartleby” might yield the filmmakers 8 or 10 seconds of animation, Naylor said via email.

“The film is made up of nearly 20,000 photographs strung together like a flip book, which is the nutty beauty of stop-motion,” Kee added.

The challenge of working in traditional stop-motion — both of them doing it for the first time — was actually what attracted this creative pair to the project.

“Because of the time-intensive nature of the medium, there is no room, or time, to shoot first and decide later,” said Naylor. “As a director, you need to make all of your decisions before you shoot. That was an incredibly rich challenge, and the opposite of a typical documentary or studio art practice, where you’re constantly gathering as much as you can, experimenting, and sorting through it later. We both really relished, and were motivated by, the challenge to rigorously think through every detail before diving into production.”

The tedium of working long hours with the film’s creative team in a basement studio for two years on the project also matched the quiet desperation of “Bartleby,” the filmmakers noted, and drew them closer to their pasty hero.

One of the many inspired creative choices that Naylor and Kee made for the film is to not use spoken words. When characters speak in “Bartleby,” written text springs from their mouths while the sounds of office machinery — printers and shredders and scanners and fax machines — clatter. The odd rhythms of an office full of people typing simultaneously on computer keyboards also complements the score.

Early on, the filmmakers tested out an actor reading the dialogue aloud for a voiceover. They immediately knew they had to go in a less traditional direction, both to mirror the silent communication of contemporary office culture and to honor the literary experience of “Bartleby the Scrivener” since it was first published more than a century and a half ago.

“We were like, ‘Oh, no. That’s not it,’” Naylor recalled. “That was a real turning point. We realized that with spoken dialogue, we were almost caricaturing Melville’s creatures instead of animating and extending them.”

They stuck with Melville’s text for inspiration and didn’t look at other adaptations (even the bonkers 2002 feature film adaptation with Crispin Glover).

“We were after something subtle, ambiguous, a film that extends and amplifies Melville’s enigmatic story,” Kee said. “We figured that Melville gave us more than enough to work with, to react to.”

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