“Cry of the Fox” | Interview with Jason Ronzani, USC

| March 1, 2016

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A boy discovers a baby fox in the forest and must save it from two bullies who try to steal it away from its home. In this intricately designed stop-motion film, we watch a unique bond unfold between boy and fox. Director Jason Ronzani shares some of the challenges that he and his co-director, Ning Xu, faced while working on their yearlong thesis film at USC.

Cry of the Fox will screen as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices.

Cry of the Fox Still 2

The boy reaches out to the baby fox.

Jason, tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into film?

The California Raisins by Will Vinton Studios had the biggest influence on me as a child. I had Meet the Raisins! on VHS and I completely wore it out. I loved how detailed and life-like the world felt, yet it still had the buoyancy of a traditional cartoon. When I learned what the animation process was, my dad helped me rig up his camcorder to make my first cartoon. Then, the Game Boy Camera came out, which had stop-motion software built into it. I made dozens of LEGO animations with it and was absolutely hooked. I made films and animations for my school presentations whenever I could, and I made shorts for my high school’s morning announcements. I just loved making my peers laugh at first, but I started getting more serious about it in college, which is what eventually brought me to USC.

How did Cry of the Fox come to be?

Cry of the Fox started when my teammate, Ning Xu, and I decided to join forces when we were both in the early stages of our thesis films. Both films were about bullying and both took place in the woods. We exchanged childhood stories about our experiences with bullies and I told him about these kids who lived near me that made a hobby out of terrorizing animals they found in the wetlands. When we were deciding which animal to be the subject of our film, Ning explained to me how the fox has a lot of cultural significance in Chinese folklore, but it’s also sadly hunted and abused in the Chinese fur trade. I told him how the fox has a history of abuse in the West as well and we knew that this would be a subject anyone could relate to.

Cry of the Fox directors

The directors behind Cry of the Fox (Jason Ronzani, left, and Ning Xu)

This is one meticulously animated stop-motion film. Can you walk us through how long it took you to make it and the challenges?

We worked on the film for about a year. We had 4 months of pre-production and it took us about 6 months to fabricate everything for the film. That only left us about 3 months for animation and post. The biggest challenge was the sheer volume of fabrication work.  We had 5 puppets, indoor and outdoor sets, and almost 100 trees. It looks fairly simple in storyboard format, but turning those 2D images into reality is a huge task. It’s certainly not something we could have taken on individually.

What materials did you use to construct the characters and sets?

Foam. Lots of foam! Rigid foam for the sets and soft foam for the bodies of the characters. I made a rough 3D model of the set first to get an idea of the size and to see what camera angles we would need. Then I sculpted it out of foam and covered it with plaster, paint, and stiffened moss for foliage. The trees are made from twigs and Christmas wreath branches covered in baking soda for snow.

The bullies spot their prey

The bullies spot their prey.

Ning made the puppets and they have a wire armature and foam bodies covered in handstitched cloth. He used faux fur for the foxes. The hands were cast with silicone and the faces were sculpted with clay, then cast with plastic so my partner could make all the replacements for facial expressions.

Working collaboratively: how did you work with Ning and your crew?

Film is a collaborative medium and it’s all about finding the right people to do the right job. Ning and I split almost every part of production right down the middle and we specialized where our skills were the strongest. I had experience with outdoor nature sets, and Ning is a fantastic sculptor and great at working with fine details so he took on the puppets. Ning also directed the 2D segment while I collaborated with the composer, Eric Pratt, and our DP, Edward Kim. Our collaborative experiences went very smoothly. Ning and I had a very clear vision of the film before getting anyone on board which made it easy to communicate what we wanted to our crew.

The boy completes his drawing.

The boy completes his drawing.

You ever been bullied?

Yes, I have. Looking back now, most of the bullying I encountered as a kid came from some really mean adults. That can be scary because you feel powerless as a kid and you can’t tell where the line is between discipline and abuse. I think bullying is cyclical and your average school bully probably has an abusive or neglectful adult in their life. It’s important to not pass that aggression onto your peers.

I have a very specific question: animating blinking eyes. It’s the one thing that always stands out in stop-motion as being a real pain in the ass.  Am I correct?

Great question! I’ve actually been asked this quite a bit and people are surprised to hear the answer. All we do for blinks is pop the eyelids on for 4 frames then take them off. It can get a little more complicated than that, but blinking is actually one of the easiest things to animate. It’s one of those little essential things that can keep a character alive though. But it’s important not to abuse it. Like any animation acting choices, blinks should be motivated like when a character is thinking or shifting his focus.

The boy finds the captured fox.

The boy finds the captured fox.

Do you dabble in traditional 2D or in 3D animation as well?

Stop-motion is usually my go-to animation medium for my personal film work, but right now I’m working as a 3D animator at a previsualization studio called The Third Floor Inc.. Designing games is another passion of mine and I use both 2D and 3D for my game work. But I’ve recently been experimenting with stop-motion graphics in my games and it looks really beautiful.

Why stop-motion?

It’s so tactile and I love every step of the process. You create a little world and bring things to life in it with your hands. It’s almost like playing god.

The meets the baby fox.

The boy meets the baby fox.

Who do you cite as influences?

For stop-motion, I’m a huge fan of Henry Selick and Barry Purves, but I would say I would say the Czech animators are my favorite: Jiri Trnka (The Hand), Jan Svankmajer (Dimensions of Dialogue) and Jiri Barta (Krysar).

Tell us about your USC experience.

I loved the program at USC. You can be whatever kind of artist/animator you want to be. You can focus on commercial or experimental work, or anything in between. The professors come from all different backgrounds and they encourage the students to dabble with all the resources and tools they have there. The highlights for me were the stop-motion classes taught by Musa Brooker, and taking classes in the Games and Interactive Media Program. The cinematic arts program encompasses so much, from writing to film production to games, so you can broaden your horizons outside of your major.

Mama Fox snarls in the night.

Mama Fox snarls in the night.

Do you have any advice for student animators?

Keep it short and sweet! I think it’s easy for students to get overly ambitious with their films but you can say a lot in just a few minutes. Animation is a lot of work, so do yourself a favor and tell a great story in a short amount of time.

JasonRonzanibiophoto

Jason Ronzani is a freelance 3D animator at the Third Floor Inc. who graduated from the University of Southern California Masters Animation program in 2015. Jason is currently working on his first commercial video game using stop-motion graphics.

Learn more about Jason’s work on his website: www.jasonronzani.com

Like Cry of the Fox on Facebook: facebook.com/cryofthefoxfilm

Watch the trailer for the film here: vimeo.com/149409186

Follow Jason: @jasonronzani | #cryofthefox

Cry of the Fox screens as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices showcase on Friday, March 11 @ 9:30pm, and Saturday, March 12 @ 3:45pm.

All screenings are at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, CA.

Click to read more Cinequest interviews.

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Credits

Series Producer
Lisa Landi

Associate Producer
Julia Shackelford

Editor
Peter Borg

Design
Zaldy Serrano
Christina Zee White

Original Music
Written and Produced by
Trifonic

Audio
John Andrieni

Interactive
Kevin Cooke
Marie K Lee

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Aldo Mora-Blanco

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Sarah Hoffner

On Air Promotion
Bridget Louie

Legal
William Lowery
Abby Staeble

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Sandy Schonning

Executive Producer
Scott Dwyer