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Biggest Challenge, Best Lesson: I Believe in Unicorns Director Leah Meyerhoff

I Believe in Unicorns

Filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff is perhaps as well known for her film collective, Film Fatales, as for her first feature film, I Believe in Unicorns, which premiered at Sundance in 2014. Filmmaker did an extensive profile of the Film Fatales last year, and as gender parity in the film industry moves to the forefront of industry news, the Fatales has seen a dramatic increase in its members and activities that has kept Meyerhoff busy. Meanwhile, she prepares for the debut of Unicorns at the IFC Center on May 29th. The film will screen theatrically in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco before moving to iTunes, Vimeo and other VOD platforms.

Unicorns is a coming-of-age film centered around an awkward, artistic teenage girl photographer who escapes to a fantasy world and explores her first sexual relationship with a rebellious skateboarder. In discussing Unicorns, it quickly becomes clear that the greatest challenge Meyerhoff faced on the project was her choice to animate portions of the film. The stop-motion animation was all done live, on film, rather than digitally in post-production.

In terms of lessons Meyerhoff can share about the project, perhaps the most useful is how to develop a strong social media community. Many people are torn as to the usefulness of the film festival circuit, but Meyerhoff leveraged her trips into building an audience in the places she visited and then grew from that base into a significant, engaged audience on social media.

Biggest Challenge: Stop-Motion Animation

Filmmaker: You mentioned earlier when we spoke that there were some things you did in this film that you could only do because it was your first film. What were some of those elements you wouldn’t do again?

Meyerhoff: My biggest one was the decision to shoot on film. We shot on a combination of Super 8 and Super 16mm film. From the beginning I always knew I wanted to do that. I am a photographer myself, so this is a language I’m familiar with. I specifically wanted 16mm for this project because the main character is an artist and a photographer too. She’s dreamy, and I wanted the film to have a handcrafted, gritty feel. But, the naive mistakes I made were in the animated components of the film. I am not an animator and had very little experience with animating prior to this film. I was lucky enough to work with animators who had more experience than I did, but I naively insisted that we do the animation on 16mm because I was so stuck on this idea that the fantastical sequences in the film had to feel like they came from this girl’s imagination. I wanted them to feel like a world that she could have created and crafted with her own hands. So, the experience of creating the animation was an extremely laborious process that in retrospect would have been a lot easier to have just shot digitally and figured out in post. But I was so hellbent on creating this look and experience that felt organic and filmic — the magic that happens with light going through celluloid and that handcrafted look of stop-motion animation — that I insisted upon animating on film.

Filmmaker: How long did that take?

Meyerhoff: It would take one hour for every one second of screen time. We built this miniature set in my living room with miniature trees and dirt. We made these puppets and set up our camera and lights, and we would shoot one frame of film, and then we’d move all the puppets. Hours would go by, and we’d move the puppets, and then we’d get one more frame of film. It took weeks and weeks.

Filmmaker: Did that affect your overall plans for the film?

Meyerhoff: Initially I had thought there’d be a larger animated component in the film. but as soon as I realized just how hard and slow it was, the animated component became less than I’d originally imagined. I love those moments, and I love the way they looked, but I would never do that again. Now I understand why most filmmakers don’t try to mix live action and animation unless they are Michel Gondry or [Wes Anderson with] Fantastic Mr Fox, something with a huge budget. I now realize what a naive endeavor I set out upon, but it makes the film so unique and so true to this character’s imagination that I’m glad it turned out this way. But it was a huge learning curve for me.

Filmmaker: How long did you think it would take and how long did it actually take?

Meyerhoff: I naively thought we were going to do this shoot in a month, including all these fantastical sequences and shooting it on film, and it was just going to be like this regular film shoot. Because of the animated components, we split up the production into three portions. We did all the live-action stuff in three weeks in the San Francisco Bay area, and then we came back to NY and, using a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute, we did another week upstate for just the more fantastical experimental visual elements in the film — the stuff with animated vines growing out of her mouth while she’s buried underground and a lot of the surreal sequences. We shot those separately to give ourselves time to explore visually. Then there was a third component, which was the pure stop-motion animation, and that was shot over the course of several weeks, a single frame at a time, in a very painstaking way. All in all, it stretched over the course of a year. The entire production was much more laborious because of the animation and the decision to shoot on 16mm.

Filmmaker: How did you work that out financially?

Meyerhoff: Luckily, because we had shot the live-action portion, once we wrapped principal photography, I went through a program at The Edit Center. You give them your raw footage, and they have students log it and use it for their class projects as a learning tool. I went through that program while I was figuring out how I was going to do the more fantastical portions of the script. I was lucky to get several grants which allowed me to finance these additional two shoots, which I hadn’t anticipated needing to do separately. Of course, this was all done as low-budget as possible. We borrowed our 16mm camera from a friend who teaches at NYU, and our film stock was donated by Fuji because they were going out of business. So, there were a lot of fortuitous things that happened that allowed us to accommodate a longer production schedule. But again, if I was going to do it again, I would probably do it differently – particularly from a producer’s point of view. As a director, it was great to explore all these visual ideas!

Filmmaker: How much were you considering its financial or commercial viability while you were in the process of making the film?

Meyerhoff: Before we started shooting, we kept that in mind in that we knew we were targeting a population of young women who are difficult to reach. So we knew we wanted to keep the budget as low as possible, but during the actual production I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was in total director mode, trying to get the most out of what we had and, in many cases, working with such limited resources led to a lot of creative breakthroughs.

We did the animation studio in my living room. We blacked out the windows, and I had my friends from film school and my film collective come over on a rotating basis. I had a rotating crew of staffers, animators and volunteers who helped us. Our entire animation budget was under $5,000 because my director brain knew I needed all these fantastical elements to make it work and yet we’d already extended our production budget. And so, we just figured out a way to do it. Again, it would have been smarter to do it digitally, but at the time it was: I have a free camera, I have a free roll of film, I have amazing artistic friends who can build a set, and I have time. It was that triangle of money, quality and time. So it was worth it.

Filmmaker: How much was the lead animator lobbying to do this digitally?

Meyerhoff: Our lead animator, Josh Mahan, said very early on, “You should shoot this on a 5D. It’s going to be easier.” But, I was like, “We’re doing this on 16mm. I’ve got this.” Who knows, honestly? We did some tests on a 5D, and the look of it was really starkly different. So from a creative perspective, it would have taken a lot more budget and time in post for us to approximate the distressed look of 16mm that we were going for. We figured out a way to do it on 16mm very cheaply. Possibly we could have done it the same way digitally, but I think it would have been much more expensive, and at the time, we didn’t have the option to go to an expensive post house.

Filmmaker: How did you shoot it, exactly?

Meyerhoff: We ended up compromising. We shot with two cameras. We had our Super 16 camera, and then mounted right next to it was a 5D. I would operate the Super 16, and Josh would operate the 5D. And I would be shooting the actual animation that ended up in the final film, and then he would be shooting on the 5D digital frames that he could then bring into his digital program called Dragon. He would bring it into the animation program to use it as a reference so that we could actually see what we were doing. The reason why animating on 16mm is so crazy and difficult is that you’re essentially animating blind. You have to go in a linear fashion, and if you mess something up, you have to start all over again. On our very first attempts, we didn’t know if it worked out until we got the film back from the lab. Luckily, it did work out, but we realized that it really was a crazy way to work. So, we started incorporating a digital reference so that we could just get a sense of how it was going to look and have a backup. But in the end, I chose to use the 16mm footage – aesthetically, it just looks so much better. It has this visceral feel.

Biggest Lesson: Audience Engagement

Filmmaker: So, let me ask you about distribution and engagement. You’re doing a traditional theatrical release, but you’re also employing other strategies to get the film seen. You’ve done the festival circuit, for example.

Meyerhoff: Gravitas Ventures is distributing the film. We sold to them after our premiere at SXSW. I did travel the festivals, kind of against their advice. That wasn’t their main focus, but I really wanted to go to as many festivals as possible with this film. I learned so much more about my audience as well as had an incredible experience of traveling the world.

Filmmaker: Tell me more about the festival circuit experience. How did you use it to build such a a large community of people engaged with this film?

Meyerhoff: Traveling to festivals has been fascinating because a lot of teenage and college-aged girls don’t go to movie theaters and don’t go to film festivals. They watch everything online, often for free. So, they’re this target audience that’s difficult to reach. So, although we’re doing the traditional theatrical distribution on one hand, simultaneously, I’m doing this more alternative distribution path that’s really based in social media and word of mouth.

I used the festival circuit as a backbone for that. Every time I went to a film festival, I also reached out to the local high schools and colleges and got them to spread the word amongst their students. I would get a street team together to put up flyers around campus and advertise in a very punk rock/DIY way. We have these unicorn stickers that we put on everything, we have stencils, and all kinds of fun stuff to bring people into the theater. In Denver, we did four sold-out screenings, all with girls and boys 16 to 18 years old. I Believe in Unicorns was playing next to Guardians of the Galaxy. But here were all these kids there essentially to see an art film, and they loved it. It reaffirmed my believe that if this film reaches those young people, it can have a profound effect on them.

So, I’ve built up this massive database of all these kids I’ve been meeting as I’ve been traveling around, and I’m funneling it all through Facebook. We have over 100,000 fans on our Facebook page for the film, so that after it’s in theaters, when it’s available on iTunes and online, I’ll have a place to go to tell all these people who want to see it how they can see it. We’ll never have a massive marketing budget. We have a demographic similar to The Hunger Games, but it’s the alternative demographic — those girls who don’t see themselves in Twilight or Hunger Games are the ones who really appreciate this movie, and to reach them has been [through a] real DIY, grassroots, social media campaign.

Filmmaker: When you say you called local high schools and colleges, who did you call? What did you say?

Meyerhoff: For colleges, you can actually get a booker and book yourself on an educational tour — especially if you’re a documentary filmmaker. I didn’t go that far, I just did it as a one-off. As an example, in Sydney, Australia, I asked the festival to put me in touch with local film schools. They did, and I said, “Hi, I’m coming to Sydney. I’m showing my film at the festival, it speaks strongly to young people, and I’d love to come in to one of your classes and talk to your students. Can you put me in touch with whomever teaches the film class?” And from there, they’d put me in touch with the students, and oftentimes the students themselves would organize and spread the word in their community. So, I’d come into a university to talk to the students, and there’d be all kinds of other people there who didn’t even go to that school.

Filmmaker: How do you keep people engaged in social media? How do you keep those 100,000 fans interested?

Meyerhoff: The unicorns thing is great. People love unicorns, so they post things about unicorns that we then re-post, and it becomes this feedback loop. We have this “unicorns sighting” campaign that we do. Every 100 posts or so, we’ll send out a little prize of these handmade unicorn horns that my friend made. Girls wear them, take pictures of themselves, and then post them back on social media. So we’ve really used social media to reach an audience who otherwise might not get to see the film.

Filmmaker: People often give advice like, “Use social media to build your audience,” but how do you actually do that?

Meyerhoff: I’ve been building this audience for the past three years. I started the social media accounts for the film while I was still writing the script, and I used the connections to the people that I would meet. There are a lot of teenage bloggers; teens are constantly putting their work online — especially the creative ones. In reaching out to various young people in various communities, I also kind of crowdsourced ideas for the film. Even the idea of unicorns did not come from me. I was not one of those girls who loved unicorns, that was something I got from a teenage girl I was corresponding with. I realized it was a great metaphor, so I think tapping into your audience early, even if it’s small, and figuring out who you’re making the film for, and then connecting to those people, is so beneficial not just in terms of a business sense, but on the creative level. It creates a real dialogue between artist and audience.

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