Five years ago, Russian pianist and sound designer Daria Kashcheeva picked up and moved from Moscow to Prague. She enrolled at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) with dreams of becoming an animator. Today, she’s an Oscar nominee.
Daria’s short film Dcera (Daughter) received the Gold Medal for International Animation at the Student Academy Awards back in October, marking FAMU’s second-ever SAA win (the first was 30 years ago). In January, she took her film to Sundance, where it won the Short Film Jury Award for Animation. The same month, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film.
“I feel amazing,” she recently said. “A little bit-jet lagged, but amazing.”
While studying sound design in Moscow in her early 20s, Daria frequented a local art house cinema with friends, taking in the work of Lars von Trier and Jim Jarmusch, and watching everything from the French New Wave to the Czech New Wave. “It was all very inspiring for me,” she said.
After graduation, Daria began her career as a musician and sound designer for theater productions and films. Watching animators at work, she was amazed at the magic being made in the studio. “As a sound designer, I missed the act of creating.”
She and her husband (who edited Daughter) applied to FAMU, a decision in part inspired by the work of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. They taught themselves Czech to secure free tuition and moved shortly thereafter.
“I'm really happy that I decided to change something in my life because now I feel like I’m doing what I enjoy,” she said.
Daria, who had always had an interest in psychology and childhood, focused her film on the nuances of our relationships with our parents when we’re young.
“When I wrote this story, I started to think about my own childhood and I found some moments I’d been keeping in my subconscious,” Daria shared. “I thought that writing a script about my feelings could help me understand myself.”
She referenced moments when all she wanted was a hug from her parents. “When I felt that my parents didn’t pay enough attention to me, I would go to my room and think, ‘If I died, they would cry. They would feel sorry that they didn't pay enough attention to me.’”
She used the metaphor of a bird to depict this emotion on film, one that she thinks others might recognize, too.
“This is my personal story, but I also think a lot of people could associate their feelings with it.”
“This film is mostly about feelings, rather than moments, in my childhood.”
Daughter comes to life in the form of stop-motion animation, a natural fit for Daria. “I tried drawing, but I wasn’t very good and I didn’t enjoy it,” she said. “I really like to touch things and to get dirty.”
Her interest in cinematography also shines through. Daughter has a shaky, hand-held quality to it that Daria attributes to von Trier’s Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, which eschews special effects in favor of a more naturalistic style, and the work of the Dardenne brothers. She lent a similar documentary style to her piece.
“Even though this is puppet animation, I want viewers to feel like they are inside the story and close to characters.”
She shot a few scenes and made a teaser out of one of them. After pitching it at an animation festival in Prague and receiving positive feedback, she realized that this experimental style might actually work.
“When I decided to make my film hand-held and stop-motion, it sounded crazy. Some of my teachers told me it would be impossible. I learned that if you feel that your idea is inspiring, just do it. If you work hard and are brave enough, anything is possible.”
Daria ordered professionally made armatures (“they have to be really good for animation”), but constructed the puppets and sets herself, using wood and papier-mâché. Since Daughter would be her thesis film, the budget was tight and it became largely a one-woman task.
Studying rock, jazz and classical music early also helped. “Music and animation are both about timing,” said Daria, who produced the sound mix for the film herself. “It was easier for me to create the sound than to explain someone what I heard in my head. It felt like a connection with my education.”
Winning the Student Academy Award marked the start of Daria’s journey to Oscar Sunday—but it also gave her tools that she’ll keep returning to long after awards season ends. “I’m a very shy person and I think this award gave me confidence, in terms of daring to ask the big professionals for advice or to ask talented artists to collaborate with me,” she said.
As an Oscar nominee, Daria feels a bit more pressure, but also more freedom. “Maybe it could allow me to secure a bigger budget for my next film,” she said.
The best part, though, is that she’ll get to bring her crew along to the show. “I’m taking the members of my team to the ceremony,” she said. “We’re going to bring the dean from my school and the head of our department. It's kind of a thank-you from me to them.”