An Oscar-nominated stop-motion short made within the CalArts Experimental Animation Program, Siqi Song’s Sister is a somber meditation on the lives affected by China’s one-child policy, informed by the director’s unique coming-of-age experience.
The rare second child, living in a country that banned them—between 1979 and 2015—Song was keenly aware from a young age that per the laws of her country, she shouldn’t exist at all. The only one of her friends to grow up with a brother, the director recognized what a gift this was for her, and also how tragic it was that so many other Chinese children would never get to experience the sibling bond.
Interestingly, while Song placed herself within Sister, she didn’t make herself the film’s central character. Setting it in China in the 1990s, the director anchored it instead in the memories of a man, as he reflects back on growing up with an annoying little sister. Dedicated to Song’s generation in China, and “the siblings we never had,” Sister hits on a major twist midway through, revealing that the sister seen on screen is one that never existed. What we’re watching is, in fact, an elegiac tribute to a life and a relationship that should have been, but was never allowed to form.
For Song, this dimension to the story came into play following conversations with Bingyang Liu, another Chinese student at CalArts who lent his voice to the film. “When I was talking about this film idea, he told me when he was four years old, he was supposed to have a little sister, but she was never born because of the one-child policy. Then sometimes, he would imagine what life would be like if his sister was born. This story reminded me of many of my friends that had an unborn sister or brother, [and] I kind of combined all of those stories together to create this film,” the director explains. “Like, for me, how does it feel to grow up as an unexpected child? And what is life like for the children who were never able to grow up with a sibling?”
Experimenting a great deal with her short’s visuals early on, Song based its black-and-white color palette on the Chinese ink paintings she’d studied as a child. “I put that in this film as part of the story. The boy was drawing ink paintings when he was imagining life with his little sister,” the director says. “The aesthetic of the imagery reminded me of my childhood, memory, and the family that I experienced.”
Exploring materials she could make her puppets out of, Song ultimately landed on foam-covered armatures, making the character’s skin and costumes out of felt. While wool is a flexible material that lent itself to the creation of 3D puppets, the material was difficult to work with, in the sense that its texture was quite hard to control. “One of the challenges I was facing is, for stop-motion, it’s really important that you keep everything still. For every frame, you have to keep a consistency for the movement,” the director notes. “But [with] felt, it’s impossible to keep everything still, because the wool would just move in the air, or if I touched anything.”
The only one of her classmates to use wool in the creation of her characters, Song would have to develop her own technique to make the material work for her. “My technique would just be, I tried to touch everything, in every frame. That’s why when you’re watching the film, you feel like this wool texture is moving. That was kind of an accident, [but] it gave the puppets a more alive look,” she says. “It does add a lot of extra work, but it also created a really different look than any other material, and that’s part of the joy of making a stop-motion film, is to discover new techniques.”
Starting to think about the film in 2015, when China transitioned to a two-child policy, Song spent about three years crafting Sister. Playing a range of roles on the student film, as its writer, producer, cinematographer, editor and art director, she ultimately found the process to be an invaluable learning experience. Subsequently, Song would go on to experiment with wool once more, in her 2019 short The Coin, which she was able to make with the help of a larger team. “I’m glad I had the chance to make the film Sister myself,” Song says, “so I know which parts I can ask for help [with], and what kind of direction I need to give to each person in the crew.”
With Sister, Song hopes viewers take away a deeper appreciation of the sibling bond. “For me, growing up with a sibling was kind of a privilege, compared to many of the children in China. When I came to America, I met many friends and classmates who come from all over the world, and most of them have more than one sibling,” she reflects. “So, I think it’s a really interesting comparison, and I do want to let people know that a sibling is not something that we can take for granted.”
Looking ahead now, Song plans to adapt a graphic novel into another short film. Additionally, the director plans to make a feature about the experience of Chinese immigrants in America in the 1880s. “I don’t have the whole treatment yet, but I think my experience of coming from China and having the chance to live in America for several years made me think about immigrant stories, people who traveled abroad to try to make another life in another country,” she says. “I’m really interested in those stories, and there’s lots of stories that haven’t been told in the form of film, not to mention in the form of animation. So, I would love to make more films about that.”
For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Sister, click on the video above.