Today’s Staff Pick Premiere — “Under Covers” from animator Michaela Olsen — will delight the child in you while enthralling the devilishly dark adult as well. 

The film, which originally debuted as part of Sundance Film Festival’s 2018 Midnight Shorts Program, provides a God’s-eye-view into the bedrooms of seemingly sweet characters hiding a secret or two under their blankets. What may seem innocuous is not always as innocent as it appears, and Olsen shows us that through a powerful combination of stop-motion animation, detailed character design, and a sick sense of humor. 

To celebrate the online premiere of “Under Covers,” we had a chat with writer and director Michaela Olsen to learn how she breathed life into this magical world. Read on for the deets. 

On the inspiration for the film: 

“My inspiration for ‘Under Covers’ is the unseen; the lives people lead behind closed doors. By peeking inside, we see that secrets are universal, whether they’re sexy, sweet, harmless, or straight-up murderous. The idea first came to life as a small pop-up book called ‘Sleepcrets,’ which I made when I was a student. I like taking mediums that are thought of as being for children — like pop-up books and animation — and making them for adults. There are endless possibilities in these illustrative forms of storytelling, and the fact that they are pigeonholed as ‘for kids only’ makes no sense. Adults should be able to experience play and exploration too.”

On the animation process: 

“Production took about 6 years. During that time, we used every material in the world: clay, wood, alpaca wool, pieces of an old boot, caps from my mom’s fancy face cream. On the couple’s dresser in the second vignette, there’s even a tiny box I found in my sister’s closet that (still) has her first baby tooth in it.”

On the film’s set and character design: 

“I built the main five sets in forced perspective, meaning that the angled walls open outwards towards the camera. I wanted to play on the idea of seeing every detail of the characters’ worlds and secrets. They’re opening up their world to you as a viewer and showing you their true selves.

Honestly, I didn’t think too much about the character designs. They came about in the natural way I draw and sculpt characters. I know it’s pretty common for animators to make their characters look kind of like themselves, and some of mine definitely do. I think the moon kind of looks like me.”

On the challenges she faced during production: 

“In the beginning, I was tackling this as a completely solo project. I had a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn and it was always either a million degrees or freezing cold. My hot glue gun caught on fire. I dropped a cement block on my toe. There were many nights where I felt a little deranged, building a bunch of naked puppets in order to bring them to life through animation. But overall, it was a special time and very exciting to be working on something of my own. I spent two or three years in that studio fabricating the sets and puppets in between freelance gigs. Then I got evicted because they wanted to turn the building into fancy condos or something.”

On advice for aspiring filmmakers: 

“Collaboration is the best way to push your ideas into more dynamic places. Get help from other people. The work will improve drastically and you’ll finish sooner. But also know that in terms of making your own film, you are crazy and nobody is going to care about this thing as much as you do. In order to make something good, you have to be your own cheerleader.”

On what’s next: 

“We always have lots of projects going at the studio. My bread and butter is creative direction — making animated media and ads for clients. But because we work in such a variety of handmade mediums and our clients come to us with really creative ideas, things are never boring. For instance, we just wrapped some ID’s for Adult Swim, one of which involved a very sexy fruit orgy.”

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