Two Sisters: The Long Evolution of a Short Film

more HFA collections 2013-11-21

This is a guest post from our fall intern, Tricia Patterson!

The past few weeks, I have been processing The Caroline Leaf Collection. Leaf is an award-winning Canadian animator who also spent some time teaching animation at Harvard University between 1996 and 1998. She is most known for innovative animation techniques, such as using sand to illustrate characters and movement or scratching images directly onto film.

In 1991, she produced her short film Two Sisters (or Entre Deux Soeurs), for which she won 12 awards, including First Prize in the 5-15 minute category at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Festival. As I started sorting through the collection, I found it actually contains many of her original development materials for Two Sisters (as well as other works), including storyboards, test film strips, and other stuff. But I came across one illustration and what looked like an accompanying short story along with a note that I found quite confusing.


Specifically, the line “adapted from The Master and Margarita” was baffling because it just so happened to be one of my favorite novels. But I had watched Two Sisters, and frankly had detected zero similarities between her short, the book, the illustration, and the short story. Further, none of the other pre-production materials suggested a connection either. EXCEPT: nestled in the box there also happened to be a copy of the book itself. Yet, I felt it had to be some sort of mistake – some accidental tenuous connection made during the inventory. I set it aside, determined to investigate at a later point.

And then I found it: while going through her collection of VHS tapes, I found a talk she gave about her work for ASIFA, including an in-depth narrative of how Two Sisters developed!

It turns out, Caroline Leaf also fell in love with the book, particularly the idea of a devil character that enters a story and changes all of the characters’ lives in some way. In 1979, she attempted to write a radio play version of it, but she ran into the problem of wanting to keep every detail in the story and not really having enough room. So she took a different approach and wrote a one-page story about a family going for a drive and stopping to pick up a stranger that ends up staying with the family for six months and altering each of their lives in a different way. Enter: the illustration and short story I found.


Years later, she returned to the story and spent two years working on a script that she called Margarita, which was to be a one-hour drama about a housewife and mother whose perception of love is shaped by the idea that she is needed, similarly to the character of Margarita from the book. But Leaf quickly realized she was not interested in making a film that long. It had been 10 years since she had made an animated short, but she felt that it might be the best platform for the story she wanted to tell.

Since first conceiving the idea, she had also accrued some other themes (aside from a stranger as an agent of change) she wanted to explore, such as the nature of dependent relationships and how both parties benefit from them and how outside perceptions affect the way people see one another. She decided to make the story about two interdependent sisters and the abrupt change caused by the intrusion of a stranger into their existence.