A Vision in Detail
Director Leon Lee talks about his animated masterpiece Ragdoll
Director Leon Lee’s award winning stop-motion animation short Ragdoll received critical and audience acclaim at several important film festivals last year and is continuing to touch people around the world with its moving story and visual beauty.
Ragdoll is the story of a Chinese girl who becomes orphaned when her mother is brutally persecuted by the Chinese communist regime for her faith in Falun Gong. The girl grows up in a labour camp making ragdolls while dreaming of being magically reunited with her lost family.
A Vancouver-based Chinese Canadian filmmaker, Lee was nominated for two Canadian Screen Awards and has won numerous awards for his documentaries and films that expose human rights issues. His debut film, Human Harvest received several international accolades, including the prestigious Peabody Award in 2015. The documentary, which disclosed China’s illicit organ trade, was broadcast in over 30 countries.
In this exclusive interview with Magnifissance, Lee shares the inspiration and process of bringing his film Ragdoll through life using stop-motion animation, one of the most challenging filmmaking techniques.
For Ragdoll, you chose to use stop-motion animation, meaning every frame of the film had to be individually handcrafted. Why did you choose this method?
I went into it knowing stop-motion would be very difficult. But looking back, I didn’t really know how difficult it would be. To give you an idea, I originally planned to finish the film in four months. I was so sure of the timeline that I hired the whole team and rented a studio. I finally got everyone on location and said, “Let’s work day and night. One hard push, and in four months, we’ll have our film.” Yet what did I know? In the end, it took four years to produce 18 minutes of animation.
But I knew early on that I wanted to animate Ragdoll. I chose stop-motion because I liked the connection between the stop-motion ragdoll and the live-action scenes where you see a real girl making the ragdoll. Another consideration for animation was that the torment of a child would be tough for audiences to watch in a live-action film.
How did you find the story for Ragdoll?
It was inspired by true events. I read about prisoners of conscience in China who were forced to make dolls in a Shanghai labour camp. Part of my core inspiration for the film was the story of a woman who escaped the camps and found the dolls she was forced to make on an Italian website. I also interviewed several orphans whose parents were persecuted in China. One of them had a similar tale about forced labour, so I combined her story with the Italian ragdoll one to create a single narrative.
Most of your films feature the plight of prisoners of conscience in China, especially Falun Gong practitioners. Why did you choose to focus on this topic?
I feel fortunate to work and create in Canada. I often talk to filmmakers from mainland China in private. They want to speak out but can’t. The consequences for telling stories like Ragdoll on a large platform in China are unthinkable and dangerous.
I’ve come to know many brave people who suffered there, but still hold on to their beliefs. When they share their stories with me, I feel an obligation to speak out. For me, it’s easy. I just sit there and listen. But for them, it’s hard because it’s their life. In addition to reliving the trauma, it’s a risk for them to even share the story with me. Their families in China could face terrible consequences if the regime finds out.
Over the years, more and more people have come to me with stories to share. Their courage, determination, and their ability to stay positive and hopeful in the darkest times, all really inspire me. They risk everything to fight for freedom and justice. It’s incredible and emotional. As a creator, it’s an endless source of inspiration.
Other than the time it takes to craft each frame, are there other difficulties to stop-motion animation?
I’ll give you an example. If you want a stop-motion newspaper to roll down the street, then you have to make sure the newspaper itself, starting with a prop, is capable of being manipulated hundreds or thousands of times and still remain intact. Plus, the object you folded, touched or squeezed has to hold that shape long enough to take a picture. Here’s another example, in order to have “snow” on the character’s birthday, we tried all kinds of possibilities until we finally found a very specific material that we had to source from Japan.
The challenge is not only the time and effort, it’s also the money. Ragdoll turned out to be a very expensive endeavour. Take the doll, for example. It needs all its joints to form natural movements. Props like this must be of good quality, so that you don’t end up losing an arm or finger halfway through the production. There are so many props like this in the story and they all cost money.
What is your secret to pushing through such a difficult project?
I started making films in 2006, and I’ve since learned a couple of valuable lessons. One is to focus on the task at hand. Stop-motion films are particularly challenging. But if you focus on the task at hand and take it one step at a time, any project can be completed. I have to always keep in mind that no matter how much work it is, it’s a finite amount.
Another lesson is that it can be easy to lose sight of how fortunate I am. I live in a free country doing the work I love. My passion is to tell heart-wrenching stories smuggled out of dismal places. When I get frustrated or discouraged, I remember the real people behind the stories. Compared to what they experienced, my problems are nothing.