Directors Marc James Roels & Emma de Swaef On 'The House,' Bringing Stop Motion To Netflix, And Their Newborn's Acting Debut

Amplifying four major voices in independent stop motion animation, Netflix's The House brings Marc James Roels, Emma de Swaef, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, and Paloma Baeza's artistic visions to life. This anthology consists of three back-to-back short stories that all take place inside of a house. The stories bring forth a variety of social commentary and breathtaking imagery as viewers allow themselves to get lost in the fictional worlds being created and the surreal, and oftentimes horrific, narratives being told.

Directors Marc James Roels and Emma de Swaef collaborated on the making of the first story in the anthology, one that focuses on a lower-class family and their quest to regain higher status. It is set in the 1800s and introduces the tired-but-capable parents Penelope and Raymond, their daughter Mabel, and their newborn baby Isobel. In our conversation with the Belgium-based duo, we discussed their inspiration for their dark tale and their experience working with Netflix. They also shared with us the exciting behind-the-scenes details of working with their newborn to capture the on-screen voice of Isobel.

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Game Rant: Getting started, what are you most looking forward to fans seeing play out in your story?

Emma de Swaef: The animation. We are really excited and proud of the fire effects, so I'm quite excited for people to discover that. And I like all of the characters, I hope they can relate to the characters that we've created,

Game Rant: That's awesome. Mabel completely won my heart. I would die for her. She is my queen. You definitely got it right-off-the bat with the lovable characters.

Swaef: I was also really happy with how Isobel turned out and her energy throughout the film. She's based on our newborn daughter, so we're happy for people to discover her. She's voicing the character also, so we're very proud of her being in the film.

Marc James Roels: When we wrote the characters, we put a bit of ourselves in each of these characters. I mean, even in the character of Isobel, the baby, just to understand the decisions that she makes. She turned out to be one of our favorite characters because we could just do crazy things with her and she always got a laugh from people— that's always nice. And it's nice to see people's reactions to things, subtle little things, that we put in there that we thought 'I don't know, maybe people will get this or not' and they totally do.

They take it and they make it their own, and those are always the best moments for us. That's always what we're looking for when we show our films to people. They go on the ride and we watch it with them. And then see how they take it.

Game Rant: I noticed that out of the three stories being told — I know you guys have a pretty signature aesthetic in your stop motion— but yours was the only story that involves human subjects. Was that an intentional choice or did it come naturally?

Swaef: We mostly work with humans. It's the thing that we've been doing— humans and yetis, I guess which are also humanoids. Humans are tough to pull up in stop motion, so it's always a bit of a difficult one. There's the danger of Uncanny Valley and becoming materialistic. The facial expressions in humans are so detailed it's quite difficult to copy it to a puppet. With our puppets, we go a little bit wonky but stylized. They're sort of simple.

Roels: We don't want things to be too polished. It's important that people can sense that these puppets were made by someone, and that love and passion was put in there. And you can see it on the screen. There's no manipulation or anything, it's is what it is. When Emma makes puppets, we don't have this set plan. It's not done in a 3D program and then printed out. There's no conveyor belt pumping out these puppet heads. Every little thing is sculpted, and if it looks too good, that's the one that we check out and we get it to look more unique. There needs to be something authentic and unique about it.

Game Rant: So, you just mentioned that, when it comes to building these puppets, there's no exact formula that you guys follow. What about when it comes to the story? I was very shocked by the ending. Was that your plan from the beginning? Or is that just the conclusion you naturally reached while writing?

Swaef: It was from the beginning. What was a bit of a search was how exactly it would be visualized. It was really working together with Alexandra Walker, who is the production designer on the project, because it was very important to know what the stylistic elements of the film and the house would be, and then to decide the designs of the parents' transformation. But the concept was set from the beginning. It is quite a shocking end to the film.

We actually feel very happy that the film is part of this trip — with the three chapters— because we feel that the two other films give you closure. If you just watch two chapters by themselves, they're less strong than if you watch all three together. You get to go on a different kind of emotional journey, to get some closure at the end... especially when you get to Paloma's film, which is so gentle and hopeful, towards the end of it.

Game Rant: All of these stories play with different perspectives that we have when it comes to homes. There's a lot of commentary on material items and our relationship with material items versus human connections. What does "the house" mean to you?

Swaef: When we came up with this story, the thing that inspired us was that we see a lot of people, friends of ours and us ourselves, thinking a lot about real estate and how houses are becoming very expensive. Some people manage to buy houses and become very connected to their sense of identity because it becomes part of their status. Sometimes we feel like it's so tied up with identity and it becomes so important for people that they lose themselves in it.

We've seen couples break up because they were getting so obsessed over renovating their house and taking on too much, or it is too much of a financial burden. When we wrote the story, for us, the house is a signifier — for the characters anyway — it's a signifier of status, something they want to connect to themselves to get respect from the outside world, and to get happiness in that way, but, of course, it doesn't come, That's not the way to achieve it.

Roels: We start the film off with them being in this little cottage and Mabel, the eldest daughter, loves it. She's perfectly happy. She can't understand why they [the parents] would want to go and move into this huge monstrosity of a house. It baffles her. She takes the audience in there with this suspicious sort of attitude towards this house. Slowly, she also gets lost in it. Our animation director, Tobias, said, — and we didn't come up with this or anything — but he said, 'it seems like this house grants everyone what they most desire, for better or worse.'

And that's what it does. Because all of the characters deeply want something. And Mabel and Isobel get it in the form of their cottage being this weird thing that they end up discovering inside the house. And everyone gets what they want, but it's maybe wasn't quite what they needed. That wasn't something that we came up with or anything, it evolved out of writing these characters and it's nice when a thing that we're working on manages surprises like that.

Game Rant: This is not your guys' first rodeo with stop motion, but what was it like collaborating with Netflix on the project?

Roels: It was great. You always hear these stories of people making films with bigger studios and notes coming down and, sort of craziness and drama and everything. But it was actually the opposite. They were super supportive and they just said, 'do what you guys do. That's what we want.' They were just really supportive.

Swaef: And there was feedback, of course, at every stage, but it was feedback that we were looking forward to because there were good insights. They were really helpful for us in our process. And, of course, the speed of it. We're so used to working in the European co-production context, which is great, it's nice that those funds exist, but it takes years to develop anything. It was so surprising to have an idea and a few months later to be able to start on it. We've actually never made a project this quickly, in the span of two years from the first idea to the film being completely finished, we've never had that before.

Game Rant: I really hope this opens up a new door to investing in stop motion and different forms of adult animation. I really think The House is going to do a lot for the future of animation, especially on streaming platforms.

Swaef: Yeah, such a great opportunity for us. We still can't believe that it happened.

The House premieres globally January 14, 2022 on Netflix.

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