Animator Anna Mantzaris on creating characters that feel human

Step into the warm and fuzzy world of Anna Mantzaris, where things are usually darker than they seem. CR talks to Mantzaris about the joys of stop motion and how she adapts her approach when working with clients

Swedish director and animator Anna Mantzaris’ work often centres around the stories and emotions of her delicately-composed characters. “I’m trying to make likeable and awkward characters that feel very human and tender,” she explains. “I’m interested in who we are as humans and how we cope with things, but capturing it from an outside perspective, with a lot of empathy.”

Represented by Passion Animation Studios, Mantzaris’s stop motion animations are sweetly constructed, yet she has a penchant for the tragicomic. Her short film Enough for instance taps into the impulses we all feel but never act upon, and showcases moments of anarchy and a lack of inhibition. Likewise, Good Intentions is a thriller that follows the strange and spooky things that happen to a woman after she flees a hit and run traffic accident. The darkness within Mantzaris’s work juxtaposes any cuteness seen in her fuzzy style, and it’s these incredibly well-observed details that has brands flocking to her. 

Already Mantzaris has an impressive portfolio of client work under her belt. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Animation, she’s worked with big companies including Greenpeace, Coca Cola and Vogue. She was also on the animation team for Wes Anderson’s 2018 feature film Isle of Dogs. “For client work, my style tends to be a bit less dark, but I still like to keep the element of characters having human flaws and being imperfect,” Mantzaris explains.

By collaborating with other people and teams, the director has learnt to adapt her style. “When working for a client often there’s an idea there already, so the process becomes more about how to make the story and idea work well. I always have the client’s idea in mind, but I’m still doing something that I like and think works as an artist and storyteller,” Mantzaris tell us. “Even though it can be more restrictive, it can also be fun because you’re challenged to try new things and be pushed to create something out of your normal style.”

Her latest project is a series of stop motion spots for Honest Tea, a natural ice tea brand based in the US. Mantzaris was reunited with fellow director Mark Waring who she worked with on Isle of Dogs. “We tried to create an original style that was based in reality, but a bit more abstract and stylised than I normally do,” she explains. “It was fun working with Mark again and we were both involved in the whole process but divided tasks so that I was doing the design, and Mark worked more with the animatic and animation.” 

Like much of Mantzaris’s work, the spots have a woolly and textured quality about them due to her use of felt, and there’s a simple reason this material appears across her work. “I think it brings a softness and tenderness to the characters. It disarms them a little bit,” she says. “And you can get away with quite a simple design, without making them feel too stiff or cold, it keeps some sort of warmth to them. I also really like how the material catches the light in the camera.”

Stop motion is one of the most painstaking animation methods, and the challenges are something Mantzaris has had to battle for years, but it’s the diversity of the work that keeps her interested. “I like working with my hands and creating real objects that then come to life, there’s something so magical about that to me,” she says. 

Of course in reality, this magic is actually a culmination of hundreds of hours of Mantzaris’s labour, a limited pot of money and a diligent team around her (if the budget allows). “I can’t just sit down with my laptop and create something from scratch into a final project,” she explains. “I need to create it all by hand and film it. So sometimes there is not enough budget or time for things I really would like to do.”

Despite these limitations, stop motion has opened Mantzaris up to a range of different narratives, which means as a viewer we’re treated to the director’s unique way of telling stories. The beauty in Mantzaris’s work is her ability to translate “humorous everyday moments” into meaningful observations of human behaviour, and the fact it all happens in a world full of fleecy characters makes it all the more enjoyable.