In our interview with filmmaker Wilma Smith, we explore the inspiration and creative vision behind her poignant Sharp Shorts funded film, The Jubilee. This visually stunning short, combining stop-motion animation and live-action, explores the impact of dementia on an elderly couple’s lives.

When did your interest in filmmaking start and what were you doing before you became a filmmaker?

My interest started as a 13-year-old away back in 1990! I owe this largely to my irresponsible Dad who used to let me stay up late at night watching all the cool, cult and classic films on BBC 2 and Channel 4 while my Mum worked constant nightshift. My first films were stop motion animations. I was also a bit of a shy teenager who found it difficult to express what I wanted to say into words and so to tell stories and to tell them in pictures was just something that I have also loved. Filmmaking has always been quite a spiritual part of my life, I guess.

I’ve led a bit of a reincarnation film journey in that in the mid to late 1990s through the Glasgow Film and Video Workshop movement, I got a loan, and with other filmmaker friends we made zero budget feature films which did quite well around the film festival circuits. This was practically unheard of. I would actually go as far to say that half the industry championed this, and half were appalled by it. Around 2009, I went solo and to be honest found it very difficult trying to make a mark as a commissioned female writer/director. I stuck at it and got my first documentary commission in 2016. This is my first film commission through Sharp Shorts. I’m a working/creative Mum of two, and my career spans from being a care assistant nursing the elderly to teaching and community arts projects.

What made you want to apply for Sharp Shorts?

If you’re not in it, you can’t win it. I think it’s important to apply for every opportunity. I had applied for years to similar schemes as Sharp Shorts and had been rejected, reached the long list but not the short list, and even the first time I submitted to Sharp Shorts, I received a rejection. I guess my passion to keep telling stories made me want to apply.

Tell us a bit about your Sharp Shorts-supported film.

The Jubilee is a stop motion animation and live action short film about Mimi – an old lady who remembers fragments of her life through a cloud of dementia, through the help of Elder her husband, against a confusing backdrop of their 60th Wedding Anniversary party. I wrote, directed, and animated it and it has been produced by Carol Brown. The live action part was shot last summer, and I loved every minute of it. We had a wonderful cast and crew, we finished to schedule, and we have had wonderful support from Ken Anderson at Wild Child and the Team at Aardman in Bristol. The animation is made from paper napkins and the model came from original drawings that my own Mum with dementia drew (she wasn’t known to be artistic) on paper napkins of herself and my elderly Dad. So, in many ways this film is a homage to my parents.

What did you learn through taking part in Sharp Shorts? How was your experience working with the Short Circuit team?

I loved all the workshops which because we were still very much in the pandemic of Covid-19, were done online. I think I attended everyone. I learned so much, even when I thought I already knew it all. I really enjoyed the script development part of it and the peer feedback sessions. I got a lot of support and encouragement from the Short Circuit Team. They helped give me a lot of confidence. I hit a bit of a personal issue with me being delayed due to caring after my elderly parents and then the bereavement as both parents passed away only 30 days apart. The team were first class in giving me the access time that was required and reassured me of additional support like childcare of my two young children to allow me to finish the project.

My story is about the elderly and dementia and these lost voices, especially written during the pandemic when the elderly did seem so forgotten about are important. It’s a very different take on what it’s like to have dementia and what it is like to be a loved ones also living with it through the person suffering from it. It’s about the power of memories and helping someone feel like themselves again through these memories”.

What was your creative process? How did you get ready to make your film?

Lots of prep, storyboarding, planning out my shots which means when it comes to working with cast and crew, you are prepared for focussing on getting the right performances and shots, and it also means that if you do encounter issues on the day, you can make the right decisions because you have prepared for what you need. I also like to spend a bit of time before hand with cast and crew before any shoot. My creative process also involves listening to music especially when I’m animating and bringing the characters to life. For The Jubilee, I listened a lot to Percy Faith and his Orchestra to get that 1950s/60s mood.

Why do you feel stories like this are important?

My story is about the elderly and dementia and these lost voices, especially written during the pandemic when the elderly did seem so forgotten about are important. It’s a very different take on what it’s like to have dementia and what it is like to be a loved ones also living with it through the person suffering from it. It’s about the power of memories and helping someone feel like themselves again through these memories. It was important to me that telling this story, that the elderly wasn’t seen as dull and dressed in grey cardigans. When I first left school, I worked as a care assistant, caring for people with dementia. The people I worked with had personalities and strong characters even though diminished by this awful illness. When I first met Tina Gray who plays ‘Mimi’ I told her this and I asked her how she would feel dying her hair pink for the part. She totally got where I was coming from and jumped at this. I think she’s several times gone pink since the film.

What are you hoping for audiences to get out of your film?

I’m hoping that the audience will be immersed by the playfulness and watch the film just as the same way Mimi is experiencing the moment. I hope that they will be moved by the story.

What was the greatest hurdle you encountered whilst shooting, can you tell us how you overcame that?

The first hurdle was just 5 days before the live action shoot of the film. Andrew the DoP tested positive for Covid and it became apparent that he couldn’t do the shoot. The cast were already in place and only had a certain timeframe of days available but because I had spent quite a bit of time with Andrew, months prior to the shoot, he was able to get a DoP on board who he felt could achieve what I was looking for in a quick turnaround. So, the shoot was postponed just by a few days and Leon was amazing. Luckily because I was also shooting the animation, Andrew was able to come back on board again.

Andrew set everything up for the animation, and the puppets where all done and in place and just days later my elderly Mum and Dad needed a lot of care. My Dad became ill and died, and then my Mum died 30 days later. It was quite a blow. The shed where I was animating had its doors shut over for over 3 months and when I went back to it (in the winter) I walked into a big ball of mildew. The puppets had to go in the bin, and everything cleaned down. It was like starting from scratch. However, I decided to start again, and this time I started off with a simpler idea for the puppet and it actually worked out so much better. The process had more creative freedom. At least I think it did.

Animating in the shed during the winter was tough but I wrapped up warm and the lights warmed the place up quite a bit. Animating also takes a lot of patience but even more physical resilience with the repetitive moves that times you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus. A good pair of trainers and stretching exercises afterwards and listening to music to unwind after a day’s animating helps.

What piece of advice would you give to someone looking to apply for Sharp Shorts?

Absolutely go for it. Go for every opportunity that you can. For years, I was rejected on similar funded schemes and even the first time that I applied to Sharp Shorts, I wasn’t successful. But it’s the classic saying, you have to be in it to win it. My key advice would be to really enjoy and embrace the development side of you and your project, that’s where all the fun is. And I’ll say it again, go for it!

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