an appreciation of Zero and stop-motion animation

By Xiaosheng Li

Zero is the most beautiful number

In 2010, Zero, a stop-motion Animation screened in over 50 national festivals winning 15 awards, including ‘Best Animation’ from LA Shorts Fest and the Rhode Island International Film Festival. This 12-minute short is a combination of 15kgs of silicon, 2km of wool, 46 highly enthusiastic filmmakers and two years of hard work, and at least in terms of animated movies, a kind of aesthetic miracle. You might ask, where’s the miracle in all that: despite the technical difficulties of stop motion, the short running time and the minuscule budget, Zero manages to tell, and this might seem old fashioned and kind of ridiculous to say, a meaningful story about faith, hope and love.

Stop motion animation is not an easy form. Just imagine every time you smile, every time the arch of your lips change, every time you blink, you need to stop and take a picture of that slight variation; that is how animators create the illusion of movement in stop-motion. Each second contains 24 frames. People can only capture half that, so normally animators make 12 frames per second. Okay, so let’s do some math: 12 frames in every second, 12 minutes of film, and that is 12 x 60 x 12, which equals, oh, just 8,640 frames. It is a process that makes sand shifting in the Sahara seem exciting. Furthermore, the team behind Zero made it even more difficult by having all of its characters made out of yarn. Not only that, but some of the characters’ yarn heads are multi-colored, which is a wonderful detail but cumbersome to control. Finally, the design calls for the yarn to have a solidity that yarn doesn’t naturally possess. The result of the production is amazingly beautiful, but the actual execution of it must have been terrifying.

That's a lot of yarn
People know that short animations rarely have thoughtful stories. Most of them are made just for laughs. However, Zero is not one of them. It imagines a world where people’s capabilities and destinies are decided when they are born, and predicated by a number stitched onto their chest. Nine is the highest and zero is the lowest. The zeroes have no opportunities and it is forbidden for them to have children or, better put, multiply. It’s easy for us to apply the story of Zero to other situations, where people fight against discrimination or oppression because of who they are. Zero is really a film about respecting both the individual and their ability to advance and live outside of preconceived orders. It could be an oppressive government or racism or just about being born poor. Our main character is a Zero and always oppressed by the higher numbers. Even “one” can discriminate against “zero” and a big part of the story is how Zero fights against the pessimism of his situation.

One strikingly effective scene is when Zero is kicked out of a shop. The Narrator comments, “Zero never allowed bad situations to get him down. He didn’t want to be a negative number” (Zero, 3:50). Zero is as close to a negative number as you can get without being one, which is of course a clever joke. What’s crucial in this scene is how Zero reacts to people’s bad behavior. Even after the shopkeeper kicks him out and he again doesn’t find work, the doors symbolically and literally shutting on him, he stays positive (that’s a pun). Splayed out on the ground, he looks up, sees a penny and another person worse off than himself (a zero with a broken leg). Instead of keeping the penny, he gives it to the fallen zero. What’s inspiring is how Zero never seems trapped or controlled by his circumstances. He only does what seems right to him and is always concerned with the well being of others. This is a rousing philosophical refutation of pessimism and a celebration of helping others, despite how powerless one is.

Higher number fellers
Zero is also a love story. Half way through the movie, Zero falls in love with a female Zero. “In the company of his new friend, he felt as important as a three… or even a four” (Zero, 6:32). We see Zero trying to find food in a garbage can with his girl friend; they go to park together, and Zero picks up a wild flower for her; even though the geese in the park ignore Zero’s food, his girl friend takes it and eats it. Zero is so happy he feels like a three or a four. Here the filmmakers take the idea of a numbering system of happiness and gives a visual representation of its power and the cruelty behind it. Viewers want to smile because Zero is happy, but at the same time, he’s still stuck “feeling” a very low number.

We rarely think of the circumstances of love among people who have so little and this is what makes the end of the film so powerful. After they are separated, female Zero comes to see Zero in jail. She is pregnant and has to give birth in public.“The newborn bore the mark of infinity, the largest and most respected number the people had ever seen” (Zero, 10:28). Thanks to a kindly 4, a nurse, the baby comes into the world safely, and all the people surrounding them bow to show their respect. When the crowd leaves, his wife and child disappear. It’s a scary moment and seems the most horrible realization of his low number status.

Two Zeros make a?
Zero thinks they are dead and he bursts into tears. But then, the door of the jail cell opens and he sees his wife and child. It is then that we realize that two zeros together makes infinity: nothing become everything, forever. It is a deft and emotional joke on the part of the filmmakers.

Zero makes you think about inequalities. Are some people zeros because they are born that way or because that is how the world has classified them. To me, the filmmakers show us how limited our thinking is about other people. We discriminate all the time: by nationality, race, skin color, physical appearance and so on. What makes Zero so effective is how easy it is to apply to many different situations. It’s not just a story, but a philosophical refutation of how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves.


©Xiaosheng Li and the CCA Arts Review

No comments:

Post a Comment