Butterflies: a short, stop-motion classic

Director Isabel Peppard stands out from the crowd. She has even garnered the attention of director Tim Burton. He spotted her in costume at the opening of his recent exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Peppard was there with Adam Elliot who she worked with on Mary and Max.

“I scammed my way in – that’s another story – but I made this crazy headdress out of bones, with big ribcages on the sides, specially for that exhibition. I thought at the opening there would be a lot of people dressed up but because it was exclusive there were a lot of mayors and CEOs.”

During the short time Burton was in Melbourne, they were able to catch up for drinks three times. “He was really nice, really down to earth,” Peppard says of the filmmaker, whose latest stop-motion feature Frankenweenie was just released.

Peppard owes her gothic style to being a self-confessed horror freak. What she finds enjoyable is "watching something like Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead where somebody’s getting cut up and limbs are flying".

She doesn’t find "outrageous gore and special effects" to be harrowing. On the contrary, “that’s how I got into making films. I was a special effects artist.”

Her film Butterflies is a short, stop-motion animation that stands out for its ornate visual qualities. Having recently screened at the 2012 Sitges Fantastic Film Festival it was hailed as "A short destined to be an instant stop-motion classic". The film (which had its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival) tells the tale of a young artist (Claire, voiced by Rachel Griffiths) who struggles to make a living by selling drawings. A businessman (Dalton Hearst, voiced by Nicholas Hope) recognises her talents and offers her a paying job but, while the prospect seems inviting, the reality threatens to kill her imagination.

While Peppard admits to only being drawn aesthetically to horror-related material, she explains that the horror she likes best is metaphorical. “My film’s not a horror, it is a gothic fairy tale. There are horrific elements.”

The horrific elements Peppard refers to are the ideas of losing one’s soul and creativity during adulthood. “It’s represented in a physical way by these 'eaten away' people. The butterflies are an extension of her [Claire’s] mind.”

The story first developed from mental images of butterflies appearing both dead and alive, which Peppard believed represented dreams and creativity. “Rather than starting with a thesis and building imagery around it, I often start with the imagery and then have to go back into myself and question where they came from.”

Ironically, the inspiration for the film came from a stagnant period in her own creative life. Over a period of three years, she was working full time as a technician and had no time or energy to pursue her own work. "I felt like I was losing a part of myself and I didn’t really understand what was happening for a while…Through making the film I got to get out of that rut."

Butterflies has a unique, tactile visual style. Highly sculptural sets were created using many different materials including wood, latex, fiberglass, resin and plaster. The puppets in Butterflies were made from hyper-realistic silicone with fleshy airbrushed skin tones, realistic eyeballs and implanted hair. Stylistically, Butterflies is influenced by visceral horror, Victorian industrial architecture and oriental art and design.

Peppard had multiple roles in the production of the film. As well as directing and camera work she was in charge of set building, puppet construction and animation.

“It was an extremely painstaking process to build the whole universe. It was a one-year pre-production and a one-year shoot. Each of the puppets took a month to make.” She often worked alone for very long hours, constantly developing the script, even up to a half-hour before filming. She attributes this in part to the resulting characters of the puppets.

“Working with puppets, there is this strange voodoo where they develop a personality. It’s sounds crazy but sometimes they do what they want to do.”

As for the future, Peppard would also like to push into live-action features. “I’ve got a feminine-body horror, creature-feature story I’m looking at developing.”

Butterflies will be shown at the Melbourne’s new Horror festival, Monsterfest, on November 9. For more information about the film visit