The stars align in Mattias Mälk’s Northern Starfish. Or do they? In simple terms, this visually distinct Estonian animation concerns a big-booted, cigarette-smoking diver who, while mending an underwater generator, nudges a starfish from its resting place on the seabed — an innocent deed with cosmic significance, for the formations of the ocean’s echinoderms directly correlate to the stars in the night sky. Conducting further research, the diver finds himself under the watchful eye of a beautiful woman — a gangster’s moll who is of course in on the intergalactic conspiracy. As the two fall for one another, however, priorities shift and privacies perish. Individual freedoms meet the horrors of a prying state.
It’s an exceptionally compact film, unfolding through muted gestures and succinct action. Mälk’s shadowy, hand-drawn universe constellates several genre motifs into a vivid, cohesive whole. Its narrative’s a romance, its images are noir, its tone is science fiction, and it’s fantasy by design. “Northern Starfish started out as a fantastical crime story in script form but I chose to pursue the film noir direction when drawing storyboards and designing characters,” says Mälk. “It draws upon B movies and monster movies.”
Mälk graduated in animation from the Estonian Academy of Arts. Following Saturday Matinée in 2008, he directed his second work, Tutu Funnytooth, to complete his master’s degree in 2012. Northern Starfish is the first film the 28-year-old has directed with Eesti Joonisfilm, Tallinn’s reputable animation studio — which, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, functioned under the auspices of the Tallinnfilm Studio, an organisation state-financed by Moscow. Today, Eesti Joonisfilm is something of a specialist when it comes to high-quality ‘cel’ animation (‘cel’ as in its imagery is hand-drawn onto transparent sheets of celluloid). Mälk is currently working as the 3D modeler of the short vampire film, Fatcula, whose director Martinus Daane Klemet — also on the animation studio’s roster — worked as the art director and 3D animator on Northern Starfish.
In its texture, Northern Starfish evokes associations to old media, lending the work a nostalgic edge. “As the purely black and white visuals began to take shape,” says Mälk, “Martinus and I felt that the retro-looking world of the film would fit together with old comic book aesthetics. So I went to the attic, dug out some 1930s newspapers and scanned in all the halftone dot patterns I could find. Some of those rough analogue textures ended up filling the black spaces in the visuals but for light areas we had to choose digital halftone dots because those areas are more prominent and we required slightly more control over the dots.”
Text: Michael Pattison