June 7, 2023
A Stop-Motion Tour of Memory in “Souvenir”

A Stop-Motion Tour of Memory in “Souvenir”

To make “Souvenir,” a short film about the vast expanse of memory, the directors Paloma Canonica and Cristina Vilches spent two years working in a notably confined space. In a semi-abandoned marketplace in Zaragoza, Spain, the pair built sets and shot scenes that take viewers to the bottom of the sea and the surface of the moon. The film, as its name suggests, contemplates the passage of time, and the physical artifacts that preserve it. “It was an inspiring place for us,” Canonica told me recently via Zoom, referring to the largely empty marketplace. “We found letters; we found old boxes. It was full of the objects that people left.”

In the film, a young girl and her father embark on a series of adventures, some likely taking place only in their imaginations. Whether the pair are floating in a hot-air balloon or sailing across a gently rippling sea, the scenes are linked by two quotidian constants: the girl’s blue-rimmed glasses and her father’s wood pipe. At just under fourteen minutes, “Souvenir” contains no dialogue, but it expresses volumes, conveying the depth of the relationship and the lasting power of shared memories. The glasses and pipe return for the coda, in which the daughter has become a grown woman and the father an old man.

Canonica, thirty-two, and Vilches, thirty, met in graduate school, where each received a master’s degree in illustrated-book and audiovisual animation. “Souvenir,” made with stop-motion animation, evokes the look and feel of a children’s book—the type that resonates just as strongly with the adults doing the reading. The ocean’s rolling waves and the flame powering the hot-air balloon capture complex motion and emotion. With each new adventure, the characters’ sense of wonder and connection passes to the viewer.

Like their bespectacled protagonist, Canonica and Vilches owe their journey in part to a parent. Vilches’s father used to sell chickens at the marketplace where they made the film—and which, by the time of filming, was home to just one shop, a butcher. After arranging to rent the hallways, the pair and their collaborator Alicia Bayona built their own temporary studio. Using a remarkable array of techniques, they crafted nearly every visual aspect of the film, from the characters’ hand-sewn outfits to luminescent deep-sea fish, and devised some of the special sound effects as well. (A making-of video offers a testament to their craftsmanship and creative ingenuity.) Their hustle extended beyond the shoot, which wrapped shortly before the start of the pandemic: when they weren’t filming, Vilches worked at a day-care center, and Canonica earned income from illustration. Crowdfunding, along with an eventual financial prize for young creators, allowed them to complete the project.

At the end of the film, what remains are the now familiar objects, poignantly arranged in a spare wooden box. We don’t see the people they belonged to, but they, and the film itself, will stick in viewers’ memories.

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