Future of Storytelling | What We Learn from Retelling Our Favorite Stories
“For an old man to be able to look about him on the farm or business he has built up by the toil of his life, is a profound satisfaction, an antidote to the sense of declining strength and gradual failure. For an old man after a lifetime of honest work to have nothing, to amount to nothing, to be turned off as useless, and to eat the bread of dependence, is a pitiable humiliation."
Walter Rauschenbusch, The Social Gospel (1908)
In the classic Herman Melville short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, Bartleby is a persistent, if not passive, dissident. We can read him as a casualty of nascent capitalism. His slow death is brought about by the famous phrase “I would prefer not to." With each utterance, both the narrator and the reader are left to watch Bartleby’s decline in helpless frustration.
Bartleby is a vexing embodiment of work and of ourselves. He is an extreme take on the acute reluctance we feel most strongly when the alarm rings each morning. His story is all-too alluring and relatable. What if, one day, we just said “no"?
This question is at the heart of what compels artists Laura Naylor and Kristen Kee of By the By Productions to adapt Melville’s story into a stop-motion animation. Set in 2011 during the height of Great Ape-Snake War, little has changed in the plot of their adapted Bartleby, a powerful endorsement of the narrative’s timelessness.
What sticks out in this adaptation, however, is the beautiful puppetry, set design, and composition. Bartleby, lanky and forlorn with sunken eyes, blinks blankly against a gray backdrop. Dark walls, dirty knick-knacks, and drab furniture sit heavily in space as the ball and chains that tie us to routine.
The Trailer shows a gray and lonely world. The characters’ neuroses
cling to the walls like condensed anxious sweat in Naylor and Kee’s
The film is silent. Naylor and Kee instead chose to render the neuroses of each character in swirling letters and animated paper hallucinations. That the world around them still makes noise—a door creaks, a moth thumps inside a drawer—adds to the pervasive loneliness of the animated world.
Now fully funded on Kickstarter, and hoping to hit its stretch goals, Bartleby’s adaptation is an exciting prospect. Inviting the audience in to see a world rendered in miniature clay and fabric, artists Naylor and Kee have the opportunity to elicit a deep empathy for and new insight into the plight of Bartleby.
When we talk about storytelling, we forget the importance of retelling. And this is the significance of works like Bartleby. There is so much to be found in the narrative rubrics of the writers and artists of the past. Their work serves as valuable metrics against which we can measure today’s social, cultural, and political climates. When we remold these models, we find what still sticks, and what has fallen away to antiquity. And in that project, we discover who we are—or who we have always been—despite the relentless forward motion of modernization.
With Bartleby, contemporary viewers might find an unlikely ally. And while we all don’t have the reason or opportunity to refuse to file our TPS reports or transcribe court documents, we can still find connections to the lives of others in this modern retelling—such are the powers of fiction and animation.
This interview has been edited.
Karl Daum: Start by telling me a little about the film: in short, what are you trying to make?
Laura Naylor (Writer, Director, Producer) and Kristen Kee (Writer, Director, Puppetmaker): Bartleby is a classic tale of how to waste one’s life in a modern office. And of how to stop doing that. Sort of. Our story begins as a handful of motley attorneys putter away in their open office cubes, led by a limp, uninspiring boss—until Bartleby arrives(!). And with him the notion of opting out. Of saying, “Nope, no, I don’t think so. Actually, I would prefer not to. I would very much prefer not to." What is a boss to do…? Let’s not spoil the ending.
We can’t make this stuff up. No, we actually did not make it up at all. Bartleby the short film is an adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella of the same name. But instead of the Wall Street of 1853, it’s set in the Wall Street of 2011, amidst the tumult of protest.
KD: Some of our favorite stories are reinterpretations of classic narratives because the themes, tensions, and characters in these tales provide a great, solid framework to adapt to our contemporary conditions. You could say they provide a literary metric to measure what it means to be human in this moment. What are you measuring with Bartleby, The Scrivener? Why set this Bartleby on Wall Street in 2011, and what are you trying to learn about our humanity today through the lens of Bartleby?
LN & KK: Some of our favorite stories are redos or collaged iterations of other things. What are we measuring? That’s interesting. And a very now sort of question—everyone is obsessed with what people have come to care about in office life, right? So, we’re measuring everything. And applying metrics to messy human stuff is great. Futile and great. I’d say we’re jumping into an ongoing measuring act—around these very tough to measure things like agency, passivity, and the health of apes in cubes. And Wall Street is always interesting. Bartleby is always interesting. He’s an enigma, after all. But the overlay of Melville’s nascent Wall Street and the Wall Street of Great Ape-Snake War is just extra interesting.
KD: And what role does stop-motion—an animation style with a long history in film—play in this adaptation?
LN & KK: We were drawn to the control, and the level of creativity, stop-motion offers. You basically make all choices—none are predetermined. It’s a great thought problem, and probably appealed to our inner art student. And, given the amount of visual license we wanted to take with the story, it made a lot of sense to exercise that amount of control. Like, how do you engage viewers in a largely diaristic narrative in which nothing happens? There are a lot of ways you could tackle that one, but we decided to create a world unto itself, a world with its own rules and creatures. And every film does that, to some extent, but for us stop-motion offered the types of tools it made the most sense for our story to traffic in. Plus, the slow tedium of stop-motion really matched up well, conceptually, with the wet gray drag of Bartleby’s pasty office life.
KD: Many consider Bartleby, The Scrivener to be one of the greatest short stories of all time, so you’ve certainly given yourselves a tall order. What drew you specifically to Bartleby? What makes a good story in your eyes, and why not tell your own?
LN & KK: What drew us to it is that it’s unresolved. It’s open. No one agrees about it, and it’s this kind of perfect thing we can speculate about. And, because it’s such a well-strung classic story, it holds up well to the scrutiny, the repeated dunking. It’s like a glazing process. We also loved it so much we somehow weren’t intimidated, if that makes sense… and having met as artists with drab day gigs, the tedium and the preferring not to really hit home. Going back to the stop-motion question, the story also dictated the medium to a certain extent. In Melville’s story, character development isn’t the main event. By not adding real humans to the mix, we hoped to stretch, but not break, Melville’s spell.
KD: Who are the contemporary business owners (the narrator), Nippers, Turkeys, and Ginger Nuts of this adapted story? Have they changed at all? Are there new characters?
LN & KK: The clerks and lawyers? In our version Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut (Sticky Bun in our telling) are versions of disaffected office workers. Their MOs, names, and genders have changed, in some cases, but that’s about it—there aren’t any meaningful new characters.
Sticky Bun, Turkey, and Nippers.
KD: What does a typical day of shooting look like?
LN & KK: We start every morning with a new shot, one that will often take the entire day. First up, we (re)configure the sets (taking out walls and moving things around for every single shot), prep all the puppets and props, and then lock them in place. Next, we find the frame by moving the camera around the set until we’ve either lined up with what we’ve storyboarded or found something new that works even better. Once the frame is set, Zach (our cinematographer) will start setting up and tweaking the lighting, which really elevates the sets into cinematic magic. With everything in place and signed off on, we discuss the puppets’ performance with Josh (our lead animator). And after all this, we’re finally ready to shoot. Josh then spends the next many hours moving things millimeter by millimeter and taking still photographs. Each second of animation is actually a string of twenty-four photographs.
Zach Poots (Director of Photography): Also, we listen to a lot of Star Trek podcasts.
KD: Is stop-motion a particularly painful/slow process?
Josh Mahan (Lead Animator, Set Art Director): No, everyone should get into it. It’s glorious.
LN & KK: Most people would say yes.
JM: Is it slow? Yes. Painful? I don’t think so, but then again I might be crazy. Once you are in the groove of it, time sort of slows down. When you’re working on something that’s really engrossing, you lose track of time. Which is definitely a plus given the amount of time it takes. It’s definitely an acquired taste, like black licorice, or nattō—probably more like nattō."
Check out this time lapse of the stop-motion process. Each eight-second shot takes approximately a day to shoot.
KD: Beyond making incremental changes to each sculpture, how do you shoot each shot? Do you find that set design influences the cinematography when using sculpture?
ZP: Yes, absolutely, and vice versa. We can manipulate the sets to create a look we’re trying to achieve for a specific shot.
LN & KK: Exactly. So it’s usually a back and forth between the two.
KD: And as a follow up, where do you put the camera, what shots do you aim to get, and how do you make the space feel real?
LN & KK: We created our sets in such a way that we can put the camera almost anywhere, allowing us the freedom to creatively frame each shot and cut between multiple angles—this helps to achieve a more cinematic feel. We also use motorized motion-control gear, which allows for really smooth camera motion (something difficult to achieve in a lot of stop-motion).
ZP: It’s also important to embrace happy accidents with lighting. It can make the space feel naturalistic when there are little edges of light, things you couldn’t tweak or control in real life. Often you have to cheat the frame in order to get the shot you like and still not break the illusion. It’s also important to approach lighting like normal live action (just with smaller lights and flags), or you risk making the world feel too staged. One of my main goals was to shape the walls with light and shadow to add texture, since we’re stuck in a cramped office against flat walls for much of the film.
KD: The clay has this really cool dirty/dingy effect, and the color palette is particularly gloomy. What was the inspiration behind the sculpture style and set design—how did you develop this aesthetic?
LN & KK: We wanted our dingy muted world to reflect the monotony of plugging away in a typical office—but in a way that you can digest immediately. And while our lighting is naturalistic, the goal was not to replicate reality with the style of our sets and puppets. We embrace the fact that we’re using handmade objects and even highlight it sometimes (with seams, textures, painterly bits, etc.).
KD: You say on your Kickstarter page that this is going to be a silent film. Why go silent? Will there be sound effects? If so, how do you choose what to give sound and what not to—how might limiting sound enhance the storytelling aspect of this adaptation?
LN & KK: This story has been digested for a long time as a text (150 years+). We didn’t want to lose the internal thread there. And we wanted to keep Bartleby’s famous refrain, “I would prefer not to," as text—partially to pay visual homage to its literary origins. Plus, in a world without audible speech (dialogue is conveyed through text that flies, hovers, and leaps around the set), every sound will have heightened meaning—the squeal of an opening door, the thrump of a trapped moth, footsteps—and music will play a key role.
KD: There’s a sort of mixed media aspect that creeps in not only with the sculpture, but also with the decision to portray each character’s anxieties with paper. What does paper and the art style that accompanies the medium add to the story? Why did you decide to include this aspect?
LN & KK: It was important to separate our two worlds (reality vs. fantasy) visually. Plus, we wanted to layer in repeated references to paper, to the physical world of text, Bartleby, and Melville. We were equally taken with the rich history of paper animation and were excited the medium fit so well into our vision. And using paper to create the fantasy world highlights the raw, sketchlike quality of all fantasies.
KD: Many artists today turn to Kickstarter to crowdsource patrons and seek funding for their projects. Why did you choose to go with Kickstarter? Do you feel that platforms like Kickstarter are essential to the future of art and storytelling?
LN & KK: It’s pretty unfortunate that there isn’t more public funding for the arts, especially in the US, but thankfully Kickstarter exists. They’ve created a useful forum for artists, storytellers, and entrepreneurs to demo their wares and generate social and financial backing. It’s also a great way to gauge interest in a project/idea. We’ve been really grateful for and pleased with the feedback we’ve gotten so far.
KD: What themes might a modern adaptation of Bartleby introduce?
LN & KK: We grazed this a bit earlier, but we’d say the themes are around passive vs. active resistance, the power of self-deception, what’s up with high finance, and the pluses and minuses of cubing apes.
KD: Without giving too much of the plot away, you hint that your Bartleby’s indifference might actually be a source of inspiration for his coworkers. Would you call this short film political in that regard?
LN & KK: There are certainly political undertones to our retelling of Bartleby (Great Ape-Snake War serves as a backdrop to the story), but the main event is Bartleby’s passive, quite personal refusal. It’s definitely there, but it’s safe to say that Turkey, Nippers, and Sticky Bun do not exit the story inspired—at least not as far as we know.
Melville’s Narrator and Bartleby.
KD: In the original Bartleby, The Scrivener, readers speculate that Bartleby suffers from severe depression or other psychological disorders, that he is a manifestation of the narrator’s conscience, or that he is dulled to the point of indifference by the mundaneness of work in a post–Industrial Revolution, capitalistic society. How do you interpret Bartleby’s behavior? Is this the Bartleby you seek to portray in your adaptation?
LN & KK: Bartleby embodies all of these possibilities. He is (quite literally at moments in the film) a screen that reflects back the internal dialogue of the others. Including, we hope, the viewers.
KD: What do you see in Bartleby’s refusal? What kind of refusal does your Bartleby make? What did/do you refuse?
LN & KK: We all see our own refusals, and hypothetical refusals we wish we’d acted on, in Bartleby’s. It’s what makes him so useful and so infuriating.
KD: When should we, every day, say we prefer not to? To what and to whom?
LN & KK: That’s not for us to say, at least not for everybody. But it’s one of the questions we’re asking. Can we say “I prefer not to" every day and still get by? Unclear, maybe. But saying “Nope, I don’t think so" regularly and in reasonable doses, can be liberating—potentially transformative.
KD: What do you hope the reception of this short film will be?
LN & KK: We hope our film will resonate with a broad, diverse audience. We’d love it if it expanded out from the conventional indie film community and reached hardcore animation/stop-motion lovers, literary folks who appreciate a classic story in any form, and artists of all stripes with affection for the handmade and the unlikely.
KD: When do you plan to release the short?
LN & KK: We’re hoping to have a strong festival run (first submission will be Sundance this fall). After we’ve shared it at festivals around the world, we’ll release it online. And, for a mere $25, our Kickstarter backers will receive a digital download of the film.
Members of the Bartleby team. From left to right: Laura Naylor, Josh Mahan, Kristen Kee and Zach Poots.
KD: What has been the greatest challenge, so far, working on this project?
LN & KK: Stop-motion is two things (among other things): risky and challenging. Every approximately eight-second shot (that takes a day to shoot) is rife with risks—that we will bump the table and have to start the shot all over, for example—and the challenge of laboring day after day in a windowless room on the generally time-intensive, noncommercial labor of affection that is stop-motion filmmaking. When everything about a medium screams “you should prefer not to," therein lies a delicious risk. And a hard-to-pass-up challenge. God bless stop-motion.
KD: Why do art?
LN & KK: To not get bored or be boring. Also, it’s a delight and what else would we be doing?