Three recent design school graduates are sitting in a room somewhere in the Netherlands, listening to an album. The record skips. They think: Did the record just skip? Or did we travel through time a little bit? It’s the kind of bizarro question that will become common for these three. Jump-cut 10 years into the future, and this seed of an idea has become the Oscar-nominated animated short film A Single Life, created by the now-renowned animation studio Job, Joris & Marieke.
The film is a deceptively simple, darkly comedic story about a woman who discovers she can travel through time via a record player. “We started thinking: What all can we do with a record player time machine?” Job Roggeveen told us. “And what happens when you get to the end?” It’s an inherently catchy idea. But then, so are all of their films. For example, a film about people without mouths, a film about kids switching heads, a film about an imaginary friend who gets kidnapped. “Our style is to combine something that’s very everyday with something that’s really strange,” Job told us. “We like putting someone in a room, giving them a magical object, and seeing what they do.”
We recently talked with Job about how their team comes up with such great ideas, and what it takes to turn them into stories.
How does your team come up with such great ideas? And what does it take to turn them into stories?
We are always gathering ideas for films. Most of them start by just thinking of funny situations that are also maybe a little bit sad. We like it when two emotions are fighting with each other. Most of our ideas also end up being a bit surreal, although they’re always set in the real world. They’re not fantasies. With A Single Life, we got really attached to the idea of this woman’s life being connected to this record. We knew we wanted to show key moments of her life so we’d feel connected to her: being pregnant, being elderly, being a small child. After you’ve seen all those phases, you really get the feeling that 90 years have passed in three minutes.
How do you turn the seed of an idea into a story?
The trick is the idea needs to work on multiple levels. It needs to touch your heart but also make you curious. We’ve come up with a lot of ideas that sound good but don’t have enough depth to put even a few scenes together. For example, our latest film. We wanted to make it about a character without a head. We thought: What would it be like if a new kid walked into class and he didn’t have a head? How would the other kids respond? It was a funny idea, but it wasn’t a story. So it slowly evolved into something with a lot more depth. The kid loses his head because he puts it into a washing machine, and eventually three kids have to exchange heads and go home pretending to be each other. We added an extra layer on top of the simple idea of losing your head. It became: What would it be like to lose your head and have to pretend to be someone else? Now it was a story.
What makes something a good idea?
You need to tackle problems in your stories that people can relate to. Coming home and having to pretend to be someone else because you now have their head is actually quite relatable. It’s a problem you can imagine: trying to imitate someone else. No matter how “out there” the idea is, it should still be about life. Another important part of making an idea “good” is making it clear what the situation is and what the rules of the story are going to be. Once you have those things in place, you can start playing around with it for the audience.
What were some of those rules for A Single Life?
One of the rules was the location. There’s a wall behind the couch in the first scene that stays the same. That wall is always there, which is one of the reasons the film works. There has to be something the same if everything else is changing. It makes the whole concept much more understandable for the audience. Another rule is that her childhood is the start of the record, and her death is the end. But this created kind of a problem too, because why would she start the record in the middle? People probably don’t even notice, but she does start it in the middle so we wouldn’t break the rule.
Why does it feel like we know this character even though we spend only three minutes with her?
One very powerful element that people don’t often think about is the background. A Single Life has no dialogue, so her character needed to come across in some other way. You can use the background to say a lot about the character’s life and personality. You can get a real sense of who this woman is. In one scene, you see walking sticks and a backpack, so you get the idea that she likes to hike. But her leg is broken, so you think, Maybe she broke her leg hiking. The background tells a whole deeper level of the story. It makes the character someone you can love.
When you look close, there are tons of little jokes and hints in the backgrounds of these shots.
We do stuff like that all the time. Tons of inside jokes. Sometimes we hang portraits of the three of us in the background of our films. In the wheelchair scene, there’s an Easter Island statue on the mantle. My great-great-great-great grandfather discovered Easter Island. We do a lot of things like that. Even if the audience doesn’t notice, all of those details give the film a real character of its own.