Black Swan meets Sesame Street

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, from Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling (with the London-based This Is It Collective) was a Quickie that caught my attention recently. To explain why, I’m going to just talk about what you’re thinking as you watch.

So the video begins, and you’re wondering what’s going on. You’re panning over a few scenes in a kitchen, except the kitchen is made of felt. And then, suddenly, a notepad is singing and you’re in a children’s video.

Something’s bothering you, though. This is kind of lame for a children’s video. It’s telling kids how to do what they do really naturally anyway, use their imaginations. (Typical pedagogic reasoning: Tell people to do slightly more of what they’re already doing, thus making the instructor seem useful.) Its examples of “creativity” are barely above the threshold of wonder — looking at a cloud, the puppet children see a ladder leaning on a log. Isn’t that … fun?

Now you’re beginning to wonder, because the video has been playing it straight as a kids’ video for so long that you think it might be one. But, no, now the notepad is singling out one puppet boy for being incorrectly creative, and you know something is afoot. The video isn’t quite a spoof, so you figure maybe it’s a high-minded critique of the institutionalization of “creativity,” calling out kid vids for their nefarious notes of social control.

And that would be fine, except Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared doesn’t make such an obvious point. Instead, in its final moments, it moves into a very disturbing free-association sequence, suddenly hinting at bleak psychological states, more Black Swan than Sesame Street.

Finally, you don’t know what to make of it. So maybe it’s art.

Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling answered some of my burning questions.

Do you want to fill us in a little on how you came up with the ideas for Don’t Hug Me and how that evolved?

Joe: We had talked for a while about doing something using basic craft artwork, like googly eyes and glitter and making silly portraits out of tissue paper, which we both find very funny. After several meetings at an unknown coffee shop we finally got funding from HSBC bank to give us the green light, in the end the cash fell through because of some issues with the staff dog.

Becky: I used to work at kids’ camp and developed an obsession for different types of fun craft. As a child, I used all types of craft to express my emotions and inner feelings .The puppets were a good way to combine all the craft stuff into a story and that’s when we wrote the silly song. Also I have the voice of a small child so we saved money on the lead vocals.

Were there any particular videos or inspirations of any sort that informed the look or the ideas behind Don’t Hug Me? I’m wondering in particular if there were any specific children’s shows you were trying to evoke.

Becky: We did look at a whole range of educational kids shows that involve craft making or puppets such as Fingerbobs and Hartbeat, which are both amazing.

Joe: It’s hard to make a film with Muppet-style puppets without referencing kids’ shows, but we knew that we weren’t trying to make a deliberate spoof, and that’s why we had to make it very weird.

From a technical point of view, what was the hardest shot or sequence?

Joe: the whole thing was pretty tiring, as we only gave ourselves a weekend to shoot it all, plus the fire alarm went off at three in the morning and the room stank of rotten meat.

Becky: The meat cake was difficult because it was dripping all over the felt. All the shots with dripping paint or meat were stressful, as we knew we only had one chance to get it right.

The point that really turns the video on its head for anybody not really paying attention is where we suddenly see 3D graphics of the figures instead of puppets, which begins what I think of as the “freaked-out adults” sequence. What were you thinking there?

Becky: The “CRAZY!” sequence was deliberately left unplanned right up until the day we shot it, so most of the ideas came from lots of little meat/craft experiments. CGI, meat and felt are the perfect team for a weird moment. They don’t go together at all and we liked the idea of making it uncomfortable for the viewer.

Joe: Genius and role model Dan Britt made the amazing CGI sequence. HSBC Bank originally wanted the whole film to be made using the new 3D technology — once they pulled out we had make the rest with the stupid felt stuff.

I’ve been internally debating whether the video is subversive or just merely disturbing. Do you have any opinions on that?

Becky: Creativity is almost always associated with progress and healthy positive expression but in actual fact you can get creative with a hammer and a cowpat.

Joe: I don’t think we aimed to make a “comment” on creativity, but we wanted to make light of how creativity and self-expression is basically something very difficult to teach.

I was particularly curious about the silent panning shots at the very the beginning. Was there any particular goal with those silent images?

Becky: The initial shots help to set the scene, but also they help to create the feeling of nothing.

Joe: Before the sketchbook talks the puppets have no “creativity,” so they have to be bored and silent. That’s how creativity works.