Winnie Cheung’s animated short, Albatross Soup, is a fascinating combination of animation and documentary. A group of 50 people were tasked to answer a riddle, which is asked by a god-like narrator: “A man gets off a boat. He walks into a restaurant and orders albatross soup. He takes one sip… pulls out a gun, and shoots himself to death. So…why did he kill himself?” As the subjects work their way through the riddle, trippy illustrations animate each question and attempt to construct the narrative. In just a few minutes, we are taken on a psychedelic ride about a man, a bowl of albatross soup, and an island.
Albatross Soup pulls you in and has you playing along with the brain teaser, which feels more like a choose-your-own-adventure story with a complex narrative arc. Fiona Smyth’s illustrations and Masayoshi Nakamura’s animations flow seamlessly together, creating a fluid experience that replicates a stream-of-consciousness logic that matches the attempt to solve a riddle.
Cheung, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, talked with me over the phone about creating such a unique hybrid documentary, why she chose this riddle, and what it takes to work with animators.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
MAAC: Why this brain teaser?
WC: I think I am really into puzzles and games and have been been playing a lot of them, whether be it board games or riddles, for a very long time. I think this one is actually really special in that it really is unlike any other riddles I’ve played before because it has a story arc. At the very end you feel so bad for the man! I really like that moment at the very where everyone is laughing because they solved it.
MAAC: Yeah! It’s such a weird moment at the end for me, because it was both really funny and really sad.
WC: The reason it’s such a weird moment is because you’ve gone through this story with this man so many different times and there really isn’t any other riddle that is set up that way with this narrative arc. I thought that would be perfect for a story.
MAAC: What did you learn about the way people think/construct narrative?
WC: I think there are two things that I learned. One is that people project how they’re feeling on this riddle. It’s like horoscopes or tarot cards where you pull the same reading for everyone, but they’ll absorb it based on where they are at that moment in life. So like there’s one section where [the riddle] talks about his wife and, of course I go through that with a lot of different people, but you can tell when things are not going well with boyfriends or girlfriends because they’re focused on that. It’s just really fun the ways that you can feel people’s personalities even though the portion of the riddle was the same. The second thing I learned is that even though you play this with so many different people, they ask the same questions. It’s surprising how similar the riddle plays out. These are narratives that we’re subconsciously playing through all the time.
MAAC: Did you ever get tired of going through the riddle so many times?
WC: I did! [laughs] I think the one really fun thing is that if you play with your friends and funny people, the jokes are always fresh. But yeah at a certain point it’s like “ughhhh.”
MAAC: It is wild how people got that whole story from just asking yes or no question. While the short is only about 5 minutes, how long did it typically take people to get to the solution?
WC: That’s a good question. You really want to play with more than one person. At the beginning of the film, it says we interviewed 50 people, but we actually played in groups of five at a time, so people could make more logical leaps. It usually takes 45 minutes to an hour.
MAAC: That’s a lot of audio to sift through and pick out the best bits to animate. What was it like taking your idea and having it drawn then having it animated?
WC: I want to give all that credit to Fiona the illustrator and Masa the animator because this is actually my first animated film. I’ve only worked in live action before. I’ve always been fascinated in animation and I’ve had my hands in some projects, but this is the first one I’ve directed. I think that working with animators and illustrators is very similar to working with actors or other collaborators; you chose them because you really like what they already bring to the table and then you just give them enough parameters for them to explode in that world. I already loved Masa’s dreamy, warpy style and I loved Fiona’s magical take on her characters. I felt like I didn’t have to do too much. The communication was there and I didn’t have to do too much work.
MAAC: So you let Fiona and Masa go wild?
WC: Yes, definitely. I felt very lucky. It’s just so hard to find the right team and this was definitely the right team.
MAAC: What was your goal in making this amazing short?
WC: My goal was to…I’m not sure! I like being curious and to learn. I think the riddle itself is just so fun so it kept the momentum going for all of us. We really didn’t know where it was going to end up, how long it was going to be, how we were going to get there. The entire time was touch and go and we just wanted to see how far we could take it. I think everyone really loved the idea and that’s why we were able to stick with it. It took around three years to finish. The goal was really just to have fun, it was a lot of work but we all really had a lot of fun.
Albatross Soup was just added to Vimeo’s Staff Picks. Watch it below: