Centred around a self-proclaimed “outdoorsman”, Dan Hope’s NFTS short The Clearing is a film about infidelity and the egos of those involved. Brought to the screen through detailed stop-motion and a talented voice cast (fronted by Julian Barratt and Julia Davis), Hope presents a surreal but relatable tale brimming with humour.
Aiming to create a protagonist who he describes, in an interview with John Higgins, as an “anti-hero”, Hope’s 13-minute film follows Bill (Barratt) on a fateful camping trip (or “holiday of a lifetime” as Bill describes it) with wife Deb (Davis) and his son George (Louis Vacula-Ashton) as he tries to stop his family from crumbling apart. Bill’s voiceover may suggest he has good intentions, as he claims he’s looking for “a break from the distractions of the real world”, but his wandering mind indicates otherwise.
Hope admits (again in that interview with Higgins) that his central character is a “twisted and despicable individual”, but he somehow manages to retain a level of likability in him, mainly through the character design. “His silly design helps to take the edge off the awful things that come out of his mouth”, the filmmaker admits and he’s not wrong. If this was a live-action piece, it’s hard to imagine the characters having the strange appeal that they do in The Clearing, but there’s something quite welcoming and soft about the film’s wooly world…even if it does contain freaky fish/human hybrids and a horny bear!
In general, it’s hard not to be impressed with the aesthetic of The Clearing, the character design has a lot to do with it, but really it’s the attention to detail and the meticulously realised world that brings it all together. We’ve become somewhat bored with shorts opening with aerial shots, but when Hope does it with a scaled-down version of the family car it’s utterly charming and it’s a weird thing to ask…but would those leggy fish creatures be as creepy without the addition of pubic hair? The Clearing is a film where every detail feels considered and although Hope may not be aiming for realism here, you really do buy into the world and its characters.
Created at the NFTS in the UK, The Clearing joins an impressive number of stop-motion shorts to come from the esteemed school, including a number of BAFTA-winners. Hope’s film was my favourite from the 2021 grad films and it will be interesting to see if such an impressive display of craft and storytelling will set him up for an exciting career in animation.