Maciek Szczerbowski is a director, illustrator, and animator. He was nominated for an Oscar for Madame Tutli-Putli.
Although he has been working in Canada since the beginning of his career, co-creating the artistic duo Clyde Henry Productions together with Chris Lavis, he defines himself as a Polish artist. He left his home country at the age of 10 and came to Canada thanks to – as he says himself – the ‘law of universal chaos’.
Emigrant by chance
In 1981, a few months before martial law was established in Poland under the communist regime, his parents decided to leave the country. They managed to get a holiday visa for Greece but they did not reach Athens. They asked for political asylum in Austria and after a year left for Canada, which, at that time, needed people and was willing to accept immigrants.
He got interested in animation by accident. In an interview with Culture.pl he says:
In my youth, my imagination was driven not by Švankmajer or Borowczyk, but by 'Star Wars: Part V – The Empire Strikes Back'. This was the film that blew my mind and the time for watching the masters of animation came much later.
At university, Szczerbowski studied theatre – he was interested in stage design and costumes. He had a desire to continue the family tradition. In Poznań, he grew up in a very creative atmosphere. His uncle was a stage designer and his aunt created costumes and posters. Their house always had brushes, paints and theatre was the topic of endless conversations.
Captivated by dolls
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At the university, in comparative religions classes, he met Chris Lavis with whom he founded an artistic group called Clyde Henry Productions in 1997. Together, they make films, commercials, illustrations and music videos under this banner to this day.
After graduation, they rented a studio where they made illustrations for magazines and cafes. When one of them got a job, they executed it together. With time, classical drawing gave way to other types of art, including photographic and puppet works.
For their subsequent projects, Szczerbowski and Lavis created models of rooms and dolls, which they then photographed. Each was more advanced than the previous ones. ‘At one moment, we made twenty dolls and several models for one job’. Still, when they took the photos, the models had to be dismantled and the dolls had to be thrown away.
In an interview with Culture.pl, Szczerbowski recalls:
That’s how we came up with the idea to animate. We thought it might be worth taking an extra 10,000 photos and making a film out of it. I think it was the dolls that made us do animation.
Road to the Oscar
They spent four and a half years on making their first professional film, Madame Tutli-Putli, produced by the Canadian National Film Committee. This 17-minute animation tells the story of a lonely woman on a long journey, carrying a baggage of objects and experiences accumulated throughout her life. This puppet animation impressed not only with the quality of its execution but also with the precision with which Szczerbowski and Lavis used the grammar of film.
Madame Tutli-Putli won the Canal+ Grand Prize for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007 and the Best Short Animation Award at the Toronto Short Film Festival in June. Thanks to this, Szczerbowski and Lavis’s film was nominated for an Oscar – which it won a few months later.
To be like Maurice Sendak
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The Oscar-winning nomination made Szczerbowski’s career speed up. Shortly afterwards, Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), one of the most outstanding creators of contemporary independent cinema, contacted the Polish artist. At the time, he was working on Where the Wild Things Are – a full-length adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s famous book. He wanted Szczerbowski and Lavis to make a short film that would be an appendix to his picture.
This is how Higglety Pigglety Pop! was created – an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s short story about a dog that goes into the world to gain the experience necessary to become an actor. Szczerbowski and Lavis wrote the script together with Maurice Sendak. Their Higglety Pigglety Pop! was a puppet story which featured Hollywood stars such as Meryl Streep, Forest Whitaker, and Spike Jonze as the voices of the characters.
In symbiosis with music
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Clyde Henry Productions
Madame Tutli Putli
At the same time, the artists also worked on smaller projects. In 2010, their seven-minute animation titled L’anneé De L’os premiered, with music by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
It was not the only ‘musical’ film in the created by Clyde Henry Production. Szczerbowski and Lavis also created Love Songs For Robots with music by Patrick Watson, a music video for The Neighbourhoods Rise by Esmerine and Good Morning Mr. Wolf, a subversive live-action version of the story of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.
Speaking of his most important inspirations – Szczerbowski, in one breath, names Starevich, Švankmajer, Borowczyk and Lenica, the Quay brothers, and the unsurpassed master Stanley Kubrick. He admits, however, that his sources of inspiration have changed over time:
Since we started creating animations ourselves, music fed us more than films. Today, music is the inspiration and the main starting point for our stories.
In 2014, in cooperation with their musician friend Patrick Watson, Szczerbowski and Lavis created their first VR work. Their Strangers with Patrick Watson was the first Canadian production to use augmented reality technology. The live music was recorded by specially prepared cameras and the viewer had a sense of participation in the process of creation.
A few years later, Szczerbowski recalls:
It was at that time we have realised that the VR medium offers extraordinary strength and a chance to look for new ways of more intimate contact with the world. It’s a kind of sensual experience that classic cinema and animation don’t give.
Five years later, they released another VR production which made use of the augmented reality technology – Gymnasia, a short horror film with aesthetics resembling those of a nightmare. In September 2019, Szczerbowski and Lavis’s film was presented at the 44th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia.
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