Have you ever wondered how a black hole is born? This week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “O Black Hole!” by Renee Zhan, is an epically huge and core-belief shifting musical that personifies one of the most mysterious entities in our universe with clay, color, and song. The question of the origin of a black hole — as well as its demise — is imagined by Zhan in a world of astounding imagination and originality. 

In an effort to preserve and keep the beauty surrounding her forever, a young Eve-like character makes the brash decision to consume every single thing she loves. Gobbling quickly and chaotically, the speed and chaos with which she does this creates a swirling black hole from which nothing can escape. She eats seasons, planets, humans, and even the moon, in an attempt to give them infinite life. Upon waking in the belly of the black hole, a protagonist called the “Singularity” is confronted by beings who need her help. They implore her to climb to the top of the hole and convince its creator to let its prisoners live out their transient lives as they were meant to, or the entire world as they know it will cease to exist. 

“O Black Hole!” is a fable about holding onto what you love too tightly. Its vivid claymation and paintings add up to several metaphors about appreciating the ephemeral and accepting the inevitability of death. 

There is so much to this film craft and story-wise; and we were fortunate enough to speak to its director and animator, Renee Zhan, to break down all of the questions we had about it. Read on for her answers: 

On inspiration: 

“A lot of my films start with 1 or 2 strong persistent images in my head. A few years ago I was drawing this woman with a dark charcoal smear where her face should be. I spent a long time interrogating this image and trying to figure out who she was. Eventually, it seemed clear that her head was a black hole. 

So the film became about a woman who is so worried about time passing that she sucks everything and everyone she loves inside herself to keep them safe forever.

She sucks in the entire universe until eventually, she’s just dancing in circles alone. 

The black hole dances in counterclockwise circles because she’s Against Time 😉 And then when Singularity saves the various inhabitants of the black hole, they begin to dance clockwise again as the natural cycles of the universe. They restart.”

On using 2D and 3D techniques:

“I’ve always been a fan of mixed-media films and I really like using visceral textures and traditional mediums. I thought that the story of the black hole really suited these contrasting mediums of 2D and 3D.

The outside of the black hole, where time passes normally, is rendered in 2D; in pencil, charcoal, watercolors, and oil paint, because it’s ephemeral and fleeting. And the inside of the black hole, everything that the black hole has sucked inside herself and made everlasting, is 3D and solid. 

As Singularity travels from the bottom of the black hole up to the top, the walls of the black hole start gradually turning more liquid, as if the black hole’s grasp is looser there. I really wanted all the mediums to flow into each other, transitioning smoothly from 2D to 3D and back again. 

It’s really important to me to leave room to explore and play when making a film, to figure things out as we go along. Creating the inside of a black hole was very appealing because no one knows what that looks like. Production designer Richard Henley and I had the freedom to be wildly inventive. It was an opportunity to create a visually unique and interesting world. We decided it would be a series of dark twisted caves, like liquid that had solidified when time was frozen.”

On her original vision vs. final cut: 

“When we started the film, I had no idea how it would turn out. I’d never done any stop motion or made anything of this scale.

In some ways, I was disappointed to not have it look quite how I imagined. I thought my animation wasn’t good enough and that it was too rough and dirty. It’s strange because I love to see that kind of roughness and imperfection in stop-motion films, but in my own, I was so upset about it.

In other ways, I was thrilled by what we created. The music by Harry Brokensha and epic sound design from Ed Rousseau were beyond what I could have ever imagined.

Lore Lixenberg’s powerful voice as the Black Hole and Emmy the Great’s pure tones as Singularity brought so much to the piece.

Mostly I’m very, very proud of what we all made together.”

On mythological and human themes in her work: 

“I’m really interested in the creation myths of the world. They take existential human questions and try to answer them with big and exciting tales of diving birds or eggs or nature spirits. Mythology often includes big epic tales of heroism and adventure and quests. I think it’s all just part of this human need to make sense of the world around us. 

I guess on a much smaller level that’s what I try to do through my films. In my work, I’m often exploring my own insecurities, obsessions, fears. With ‘O Black Hole!,’ I thought of it as a modern-day creation myth. I really wanted to make a film with some personal philosophical questioning combined with the fun narrative of a quest movie and a crazy operatic score.”

On challenges faced during the films creation:

“This was by far the most challenging film I’ve ever made. Making a 2D/stop-motion 16 minute musical with a main character with stupid long wavy hair (that kept melting midway through!) shot on a tight deadline resulted in some pretty dark months. I could go on and on about the challenges. We crammed a lot into a short film. Really, I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to make a film like this and to work with such a wonderful team. I just hope that I will have more opportunities like this in the future and to keep making films with my friends!”

On the lesson of ‘O Black Hole!’:

“The closing lines of the film are ‘O black hole, please don’t lament, we’re just dreams that the universe dreamt…’ The thesis of the film is about the beauty of transience. The black hole woman sucks in the entire universe inside her because she’s afraid of change. Singularity teaches her that change is what brings new life and meaning to our time here.

I guess the film is trying to say that all things change and die and new things come and grow and that’s beautiful and okay. So I do hope that that’s the message the audience takes away. But to be honest I’m still trying to convince myself!”

Her advice (or lack thereof) to aspiring filmmakers: 

“Maybe listen to your parents and become an engineer instead.  No, I’m kidding! Just kidding! I’m not sure, I feel like I’m still an aspiring filmmaker myself. So I could actually really use some advice as well.”

On what’s next: 

“I’m working on a live-action/animation hybrid horror-comedy short film with BBC Films. It’s about a British-Chinese violinist named Fei whose world turns upside down at the arrival of another talented violinist named Mei.

And I’m also developing an animated feature film idea about a cult that worships birds!”

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