The fresh princess

Creating the eight-inch girl who’s nobody and everybody

18 Sep 2019 | 02:03

In the spare room of his house in Warwick, Martin Dominguez Ball switches on a miniature desk lamp. His hands dwarf the doll-sized bedroom of his heroin, Princess Lionheart, and the toy furniture that fills the stop motion animation set that is her home.

Dominguez Ball, who is over six feet tall, could easily crush the diminutive furniture, but those same hands meticulously crafted each piece.

Princess Lionheart is eight-and-a-half inches tall and feisty. Under her pink polka-dot dress, pigtails and hiking boots, her frame is a metal armature with moveable joints. To bring Lionheart to life in the movie Martin is working on, he will painstakingly manipulate her body in tiny increments, while shooting each movement individually – at 24 frames per second.

Dominguez Ball teaches design thinking – or human-centered problem solving – at Fordham University. Creativity has driven Dominguez Ball since his grandmother took him into his grandfather’s shed in Montevideo, Uruguay to make a fishing tackle box. When he was five, an artist came to his classroom and showed him how to draw the Pink Panther, sparking his love for drawing. “One tiny thing has such a ripple effect,” he marvels.

He started experimenting with stop motion animation on his way to an MFA in interdisciplinary arts, and knew then that making a film using the technique would be on his bucket list.

Princess Lionheart, the catalyst for this current film project, began life as a stick figure. “I’ve had the desire to create this character for years,” he said. “The more I drew her, the more I fell in love with her. What I love about her is that she looks like she could be weak; she’s lanky, she wears a dress. But she’s super badass.” Two exhibitions of drawings of Princess Lionheart later, she has her own Instagram account. Whether she’s bull riding or being shot out of a cannon, Lionheart does it with gusto.

“She’s a rebel. She can do anything,” he says, a proud father. The audience fell in love with her too. Dominguez Ball has a theory that because she’s a stick figure with a yellow and blue face, she’s nobody, and everybody.

Princess Lionheart does not represent Martin’s alter-ego – that spot was already taken by Hamilton, a six-foot rabbit who was the subject of his first stop motion project. Dominguez Ball was researching identity issues related to immigration while getting his masters and this large friendly rabbit seemed a non-threatening way to convey those ideas.

Shortly after his family’s arrival in Middletown, NY as immigrants from Uruguay, his parents ran into problems with their work papers. “They really valued education, so the point was to come here, go to school, finish college, get a career,” he said. Instead, he was forced to quit school at 15 and go to work installing hardwood floors with his dad to support the family. He earned his GED on the fly, and by age 25, Dominguez Ball owned a successful business installing and designing hardwood floors in multimillion dollar homes. Those skills come in handy building his miniature film sets.

In a picture that hangs above Princess Lionheart’s bed is a photo of Lionheart next to a real little girl with pigtails. That little girl is Joan Ball, who would grow up to become Martin’s best friend, partner, and eventually, wife and chief collaborator.

“Joan could have been the original Princess Lionheart,” he said. Joan, who teaches marketing at St. John’s University, encouraged Dominguez Ball to quit his successful business and go back to school in his 30s. Together, they are co-writing the movie’s storyline. It’s no coincidence that Lionheart – named by Joan – could kick traditional gender roles in the teeth with her tough-girl boots.

In stark contrast to Princess Lionheart’s sunny, normal world, Dominguez Ball has built a second bedroom set that is dark and foreboding. Lionheart finds a book of adventures that opens a portal into this creepy parallel universe. When she gets sucked into this world, she has to battle with its evil monsters.

For now, Dominguez Ball is perfecting the armature of his puppets so that they can withstand the constant manipulations as he shoots each movement. He is working on his technical rigging too, taking standard film equipment and adjusting it for his purposes, and experimenting with a combination of photography and video. His plan is to create a short trailer to raise funds to complete the film.

Dominguez Ball is co-founder of the Hudson Valley Film Festival, held at the Warwick Drive-In. He aims to have his first Princess Lionheart film ready to screen at the 2020 festival