With their awards-contending animated short The Opposites Game, filmmakers Lisa LaBracio and Anna Samo faced the challenge of bringing a compelling visual representation to a brief yet powerful poem by Brendan Constantine—a poem they considered perfect.
Packing an array of sumptuous and imaginative stop-motion imagery into a little less than 5 minutes, the piece watches as a war of words erupts in a classroom, when a teacher invites his students to answer a deceptively simple prompt: “What is the opposite of a gun?”
The Opposites Game is the first short in a series called “There’s a Poem for That” from TED-Ed, TED’s youth and education initiative. Comprising a global network of over 250,000 teachers, TED-Ed’s aim is to “spark and celebrate the ideas of teachers and students around the world,” currently publishing around 150 pieces of animation a year with this mission in mind.
“There’s a Poem for That” also marks TED-Ed’s first foray into the realm of poetry, and for LaBracio, an educator and animation director who has been with the platform since its 2012 launch, this series is perhaps “the most exciting we’ve done to date,” she says—an opportunity for animators “to take a step back from traditional, explainer-type videos, and give the audience a different way to be exposed to poetry, and talk about concepts that are harder to talk about in a traditional educational format.”
Teaching in New York for over a decade, LaBracio had two reactions when she first read Constantine’s poem. “One, in which I’m laughing, because I recognize these kinds of scenarios in a classroom, this idea of starting a lesson and not having any idea where it will go, and in the end, the students teaching you something,” she explains. “But also, [I was] obviously struck by it in a tougher way, because I work in a lot of communities in the city that deal with gun violence in their lives.”
“What I really admire about this poem is that it has a conversation, and doesn’t necessarily tell you how you are supposed to feel, or what the answer is supposed to be for you. I think that’s refreshing, in the current day,” the director adds. “And this was something that we also had a tough time with, but wanted to keep at the core of the animation, which was how to be playful, but also honor the heavy conversation that we are having.”
An independent animator who hails from Russia and now lives in the States, Samo was brought onto The Opposites Game to help LaBracio interpret the material, in such a way that the final film would stand up to the poem that gives it its name. Agreeing that they wanted to craft a stop-motion piece by hand, that embraced abstraction while honoring the poem’s narrative, the pair then deliberated over what an appropriate canvas for their story might be.
Inspired by a line from Emily Dickinson referenced in Constantine’s poem—“My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun”—Samo walked into a bookstore and left with “this really thick compilation of her poetry,” she says, pursuing the impulse to “do some sketches inside of the book.”
This book of poetry then became the canvas upon which LaBracio and Samo’s images would dance. But before beginning their illustrations, the pair came up with the idea to white out all the poems on each page, to provide a kind of visually compelling blank slate. “I grew up in Russia, and grew up with this agenda—like, the book is something sacred. It doesn’t matter what is in the book; you have to be very respectful to the object itself,” Samo recalls. “So, for me to take a brush and white out the poems was very, very strange.”
Ultimately, the pair ended up reading all of Dickenson’s poems as they went through the process of whiting the pages out. “I’ve actually been an Emily Dickinson fan since I was very young, but I’ve never read all of her poetry en masse. You know, you don’t do that. You read a poem at a time. So, then sitting there with 770 pages of Emily Dickinson, you’re alternating between life, flowers, life, life, death, death, death, death, bees, death,” LaBracio jokes. “It’s like the themes become very concentrated, right in front of you.” With the pages whited out, the directors engaged in a process of sculpting from this book of poems a new work of art.
Over the course of The Opposites Games, students come up with many answers as to what the opposite of a gun might be, engaging in a conversation that’s also a kind of game. “The opposite of a gun is a flower,” one says, “or maybe a hug.” “It’s a song, a prayer. I mean, a promise, like a wedding ring,” says another. Striving to craft a piece that felt tactile and organic, LaBracio and Samo engaged in their own conversational game to bring each of these ideas to life on screen. To the filmmakers—who worked from different locations, and therefore often communicated through email or text—this process mirrored the dialogue being depicted, with a teacher and his students both literally and figuratively on opposite pages. “It was a constant back and forth between doing something very intuitively, doing some animation without planning it, and then structuring it, building it into the animatics, filling the gaps,” Samo says. “So, it evolved very organically for us, which we both enjoyed a lot.”
In the filmmaking process, LaBracio and Samo used acrylic paint to white out the text, charcoal pencils for line work, and pastels to add a base of color. An organic creation being the goal, the filmmakers made sure that all of the materials that appeared on screen came from the book of poetry, or from the process of creating the film itself. In this sense, crumpled-up pieces of paper, charcoal pencil shavings, graphite remnants and even elements of sound taken from the studio were all game, as one abstract layer was added, and then another.
LaBracio is pleased that after working on The Opposites Game for five or six months, the film has traveled far and wide, resonating powerfully at film festivals, as well as in classrooms themselves. There is great meaning, she says, in providing tools for “tough conversations” that unfortunately must happen between parents, educators and students, in the world today.
“I know for sure that teachers are using it in their classrooms to start conversation with their students around gun violence, but also just to practice dialectics,” LaBracio notes. “So, that’s actually really meaningful to me, that we could make something that’s not a traditionally educational video and still have it be such a great tool for people.”
Looking to put together a second season of “There’s a Poem for That,” LaBracio also hopes to further explore unconventional means of educating young minds. “I think that’s one of the main things that TED-Ed is excited about. Obviously, TED-Ed’s constantly producing new content,” she reflects. “But we’re hoping to use this opportunity that we are having at this moment—the fact that our poetry series is reaching so far and wide, outside of our normal audience—to pitch a few other non-traditionally educational series, as well.”
For a look at LaBracio and Samo’s stop-motion short, click on the video below.