Kiss Me First: Interview with Misha Manson-Smith, director
Describe your new series – what’s Kiss Me First about?
It’s about an isolated girl called Leila. She’s spent most of her teenage life caring for her terminally ill mother, disconnected from the outside world and addicted to a VR gaming world called Azana. She stumbles into a secret corner of this virtual universe called Red Pill and meets a group of equally troubled young people. She’s entranced - in particular by Tess. When the characters from Red Pill then start turning up in her real life, she begins to suspect she’s being manipulated. Why and what for remains a mystery, but it's hard to resist the allure of being in Tess’s orbit.
What attracted you to the series?
I’m a long-time fan of Bryan’s and thought he brilliantly captured the essence of Lottie’s novel - Leila’s friendship and infatuation with Tess. It’s a unique mashup of live action and animation and a brilliant collision of genres. It resonated with me on so many levels. It’s prescient and insightful about the way technology will soon be shaping our lives, but really it’s the emotional hook, the outsider story, this sort of extreme coming-of-age journey that’s by turns thrilling and hilarious, that made me want to direct it.
When I met with Bryan we shared an ethos for how the show should be made. I suppose you’d call it collaborative, uncompromising and unrealistically ambitious (in the best way!) We’d be going into uncharted territory and were both keen to dispense with convention, create something we’re passionate about and take a gamble that others would feel the same way. I suppose we shall see if it paid off!
The technical and creative ambition of the project was inspiring. The biggest challenge was to maintain the audience’s connection with the characters as the action plays out across the live action world and the animated VR world. It’s a very different tone to most other animation - it’s visually stylised, but the emotions are very real and raw. Bryan and I have worked a lot with new talent and were keen to cast as close to the characters' real ages as possible. So the challenge of assembling a young cast who were game for going on this journey was also a big draw for me.
Were you involved in the creation of the virtual world?
Yes, but I’m not an animator, that’s not my background, so all the credit for the brilliant technical execution of it must go to Axis and Kan Muftic. I directed the action and performance in the VR world, which is shot using motion capture - you’re shooting in a warehouse the size of a football pitch with 600 cameras that capture data markers on the actors' bodysuits. This information is what the animation is then built on. It can be tough for the cast to work like this, so I approached it like staging a play in the round. Once they got their heads around that, they found it liberating - there are no marks to hit or camera moves, you just focus on the chemistry of the scene and if it feels electric, it’s probably going to work when translated to animation.
I also worked closely with the animation team on the design of the avatars and the style of the animated cinematography. The thing is, actual VR is essentially one long point-of-view shot. There are no cuts. If you put on a VR headset, you wouldn’t see yourself. It’s immersive, but quite limiting dramatically - if we had been totally faithful to the visual experience of actual VR, you’d never see Leila’s avatar “Shadowfax" in the VR world, just what she sees. Equally, you could go the other way and create cinematic camerawork in the groove of other motion capture-based animations like Tintin, but as exciting as that may be, it’s not going to feel like VR. What the “camera language” should be was hotly debated and I think we came up with a successful hybrid that feels immersive, but still allowed us to create an atmospheric, cinematic experience.
How do you feel about the end product?
I think it’s really unusual and exciting. When we were planning and shooting it, we didn’t know for certain whether it was going to work, because there were so many unknown aspects and so few references - it’s not like you’re making another cop drama. One big concern was ending up with something that resembled two completely different projects cut together. The team at Balloon and Kindle, DOP Jamie Cairney, production designer Andrew Purcell, costume designer Charlotte Mitchell and I spent a lot of time debating how we wanted to feel about the live action vs the animation - they needed to be distinct, but also coherent and complimentary.
One risky decision Jamie and I made was to shoot the live action drama on vintage anamorphic lenses. We tracked down the lenses used on Apocalypse Now, of which there are only a handful left in the world. There’s only one set of them in Europe, so we had to get an extra set shipped in from LA in case we broke one. They are really fiddly and slow to work with and so are rarely used, but they have a totally unique, magical, dreamlike quality that we thought would sit well in contrast to the pin sharp animated sequences. We rationalised why this might work e.g. the VR world is vibrant and escapist, compared to a live action world you’d want to escape from (but that’s still beautifully rendered), but like lots of these decisions, it was really just a hunch.
I find the show compelling because we’re so invested in Leila’s story, from live action, to animation and back again. The cast deserves a lot of credit for this, for taking us with them so seamlessly, as does Bryan, for his singular vision. Opportunities to experiment like this don’t come around that often, so when they do, you really have to go for it.. I’m proud we managed to create something so personal and particular and I hope there’s an audience that responds to in the same way we did.