A National Film Board of Canada production
An eight-legged force of fate comes to bear in Alicia Eisen and Sophie Jarvis’s new stop-motion film, Zeb’s Spider.
Inside the safe space of their basement apartment, Zeb fends off the bad luck of the outside world with an assortment of ritualized behaviours. But even in the most insular existence, destiny can unexpectedly drop in. What begins as a way of coping with an uninvited arachnid soon takes on a monstrous life of its own.
Spinning darkness and humour into a complex emotional web, Zeb’s Spider offers up a crucial lesson: face your fears or they just might eat you alive.
An eight-legged force of fate spins a complex web of darkness and humour in Alicia Eisen and Sophie Jarvis’s animated short.
An eight-legged force of fate spins a complex web in Alicia Eisen and Sophie Jarvis’s new stop-motion film, Zeb’s Spider. What begins as a way of coping with an uninvited arachnid soon takes on a monstrous life of its own.
There is an extraordinary amount of detail packed into Zeb’s apartment. What was the process of world-building like for the film?
We approached the world-building holistically. As the writers, directors, production designers and artistic directors of the film, we were in a unique position to make every choice with the intimate understanding of where each creative decision was coming from.
Zeb’s character was our guiding force. She is a scavenger, but also a resourceful and creative person who sees the value in other people’s trash. We applied her worldview to our approach to the film at every level. For the production design, we decided that everything should look like it was made from items you might find in your desk’s junk drawer. This tactile, handmade quality felt Zeb-approved.
Zeb mostly uses items she can source from outside of her window, so we also browsed Craigslist’s free section for inspiration. And because Zeb makes new things out of old things, we spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas based on the set of materials she might have access to. Would Zeb have a side table? Or would Zeb take a busted old computer tower from the side of the road, dust it off and use that instead? It was really fun to think like Zeb and find new textures and personality in items that nobody else wanted.
How critical is this level of detail in providing audiences with a sense of Zeb’s inner emotional world?
We wanted to celebrate Zeb’s curiosity and creativity, and to allow the audience to also take pleasure in her genius. We took care to show Zeb’s discerning nature and how elevated her organizational method is within her home. Everything has a place, even if it doesn’t make sense to an outside eye.
These distinctions show that Zeb is happy and satisfied with her life and home. When the spider arrives, her superstitious worldview is called into question, and we see things begin to unravel. The production design mirrors Zeb’s emotional arc in this very intentional way.
Traditional fairy tales were often cautionary in nature. Did older methods of storytelling (i.e., fables, myths) influence how you chose to tell Zeb’s story?
I think so! Zeb’s motivations are rooted in her belief in superstition, which is as ancient as stories in this world. We loved the metaphors and omens present in traditional tales, and definitely looked to old rhymes and sayings to learn more about the roots of her worldview.
I think what cautionary fables do is tell you “do this, or a bad thing will happen,” and we did not want to fall into that realm. We used devices from these methods of storytelling to create a film that is open to interpretation and can encourage conversations about fate and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Animation lends itself to telling stories that couldn’t be created in quite any other fashion. Do you think the medium of stop-motion animation was the ideal way to tell Zeb’s story?
It was for us! Zeb’s scavenging nature was our guiding force, and we applied it to the filmmaking medium as well. Stop-motion is hands-on, it’s tactile, it’s mechanical and it requires a lot of DIY problem-solving.
We even made the choice to give the animated movement an intentional weight, so that audiences can see the hand of the filmmaker at work. For us, this decision felt like an elevation of the film’s aesthetic.
What are some of the animation and cinematic influences that helped shape the tone and atmosphere of the film?
Stems by Ainslie Henderson was a huge inspiration for us. His puppets are assembled from found objects—a wingnut for a nose, bottle caps for eyes. There is something that feels so innovative in celebrating the seams of fabrication instead of trying to hide them. There is extra magic in stop-motion when the audience can recognize and relate to the materials that they are seeing come alive on screen.
Oh Willy… by Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels captured our attention with its lush aesthetic and fantastical storytelling. The absence of dialogue in this film allowed the audience to be completely attuned to the story as it unfolded through cinematics. This led to a much more intuitive experience that we referenced when writing Zeb’s Spider.
Written and Directed by
Alicia Eisen & Sophie Jarvis
Directors of Photography
Original Music and Sound Design
Ball and Socket Armatures
On Set Art Fabrication
Sr. Production Coordinator
Vida Spark Productions Inc.
Output Media Ltd.
Tug Phipps, William F. White Intl. Inc.
©2022 National Film Board of Canada