Erika Totoro photo

Erika Totoro and the character she made for “Farm to Trash.”

Childhood Play-Doh experiments helped Dobbs Ferry High School senior Erika Totoro, 18, win first place last month in the first 2020 Reel Girls Film Festival animation category. Her 2.5-minute claymation short, “Farm to Trash,” starring an apple and a farmer, was up against eight other official entries by 15-to-19-year-olds.

The Reel Girls Film Festival, held online this May, is the first all-girls international student film festival, launched by Sophie Zawadzki, a 10th-grader at Branksome Hall, a private school in Toronto.

As a 10th-grader, Totoro earned the Most Creative Film award in the 29th annual Future Filmmakers Film Festival, held in April 2018 at The Picture House in Pelham. “Lonely,” a 3-minute claymation, featured a frosted donut; a cupcake and two chocolate chip cookies co-starred.

What’s outstanding about Totoro’s work is her painstaking method, called stop action. She sculpts characters, scenery, and props by setting up armatures of wire and aluminum foil, then covering them with polymer clay to form figures and objects — humans and a tree, for example.

She then animates them by moving each piece a fraction of an inch at a time, using a Nikon camera hooked up to her computer to photograph each position, repeating the process until the storyline is complete. Finally, she uses iStopMotion software to combine the photos into a video that she edits, adding sound — in the case of “Farm to Trash,” her own piano-playing.

“I spent a year in pre-production, making props and people,” Totoro told the Enterprise. “Filming took months.” She estimated that she took 3,100 photos to create the film, working on it during lunch hour at school, and sometimes after school in the art room until 7 p.m. 

To change the expression on the farmer’s face, for example, she shot 17 frames per second. Making him blink required five photos each time she exchanged his eyeballs — pairs that were open, closed, or halfway open. “The shots of the faces definitely took the longest,” Totoro said.

Though stop-action filmmaking is tedious, “I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my art,” Totoro said, adding, “In real life I don’t have that much patience.”

The story of “Farm to Trash” might be considered a “reduce, re-use, recycle” tale. A sprout pops up from waving grass and grows into an apple tree. One apple falls, which a farmer picks up. Totoro used invisible tape to create the illusion of the apple falling through the air.

Despite its brown spot, the apple ends up in a supermarket, but a customer reacts with an “Eww.” After several people reject the apple, one tosses it to the ground, where it rolls toward a bin full of other produce. The farmer finds the apple, brings it back to the orchard, cuts it open to display the seeds, and plants them.

“I wanted to show how much food we waste, the life cycle of the apple that’s a little bit bruised,” Totoro explained. “It’s a metaphor of going through life being a little bit different.”

If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, Totoro’s claymation sets would have represented Dobbs Ferry in an art show sponsored by the nonprofit RiverArts organization in March. That exhibition, which was postponed, was scheduled to feature a student from each of the Rivertowns at the Hastings Village Hall Gallery.

“Farm to Trash” is part of the portfolio of artwork — including drawing, painting, and digital art — that earned Totoro a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia, where she’ll matriculate this fall. Last summer, she took a SCAD pre-college course in digital art, Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and drawing. Totoro estimates she must have drawn 100 still lifes. She loved it so much that she’s excited to take another art-related SCAD course (online): scriptwriting. Sculpture, though, is still her favorite medium.

Of her Reel Girls award, Totoro said, “I entered [the competition] not really having any expectations. I actually didn’t tell my parents until I found out I was nominated for best animation, because I didn’t think I was even going to be nominated, so it was very shocking when I found out I won.”

Both of Totoro’s films are on YouTube and on her website, erikatotoro.com.

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