Mermaid Mayhem: Cissi Efraimsson Explains It All
Call her a mermaid lord, puppet wizard, or punk princess—Cissi Efraimsson is many magical beings in one. Oscillating between art, film and music, she’s the first animator to anthropomorphize salmon sushi. Drawn to sea dwellers, her new film imagines salty mermaids in captivity, each of them hand-crafted and scripted by the artist. Cissi is also a lead member of the loveable Swedish punk band, Vulkano, and her ceramic sculptures feel like film stills—the life she breathes into her work is fantastically relatable and truly supernatural.
Kristin Farr: Tell me about Sea Angels.
Cissi Efraimsson: It’s a short film in stop motion, a mockumentary following three mermaids from different generations. It takes place in the future, where mermaids suddenly start to appear along the coast, and the humans are, like, “Oh my god, they’re real!” The mermaids have been hiding all these years, but because of pollution, they can’t stay in the ocean anymore. They come up to the shore, and it’s total chaos. Some people love them, and some want to eat them; it becomes a thing with mermaid meat and mermaid eggs. And there are nature activists and protestors who want to save the mermaids! So they finally get shelter and food in a pool in LA where they live from then on.
My story takes place 20 years after that’s all happened. They’ve been there a long time, and there are younger mermaids who have never seen the ocean, and who are totally humanized. The pool has become like a Sea World where humans can pay to party with the mermaids or see them do tricks. Some of the older mermaids are, like, “Fuck you, man,” and a lot of them are alcoholics. It’s a whole world.
What’s a mermaid’s drink of choice?
One of the main mermaids only drinks beer. It’s just beer and cigarettes.
Do you write all your films’ scripts? And where do you find the voice actors?
I write everything. I’m from Sweden where there’s a very beautiful, old swim house with beautiful paintings on the wall, and I thought mermaids could live there. That’s how I started fantasizing about this world, and then I came to LA, wrote it all down, and started sculpting and creating.
Some actors are my friends and some I found online. It’s fun because they’re performing and singing, and I came up with a mermaid language. I wanted them to have another mother time reference, so they're performing traditional mermaid songs that I wrote.
Tell me about your band, Vulkano. How do you describe your music, and do you make all the videos and visuals?
We call it princess punk. Recorded, it has more of a poppy vibe, but if you see us play live, it’s more raw and punky, playful with an ’80s vibe. I make most of the videos, but for the album we released a few months ago, we wanted to make a video for every song. I have friends who are animators, so I asked six friends to make videos, and I made five, and we released them on VHS!
Everyone has to find a VCR.
I know. Including me! The more I make art and music, I become allergic to computers. I just take everything as analog as I can.
There is so much hand-sculpting in your films. Do you keep the puppets?
I will keep the latest ones because they’re made with a good material that won’t be disgusting. When I’ve worked in clay, the figures look so cute and I want to keep them, but they’re too gross. After animating, the puppets usually look sort of shitty. In Sea Angels, I used silicone, so they’ll be preserved a little better.
Tell me more about casting the mermaids with silicone.
Silicone just looks so good for the mermaids. It looks like skin. It’s so sweet to animate with because you can build a wire armature inside, and when you make the mold, you can’t even tell there’s something within. It also made sense because of how shimmery it is, if you want the fishy look. Different materials make sense for each project, depending on the character and idea.
What do you love about being a puppet wizard?
I actually made more live-action short films a couple of years ago, and it was always such a hassle. I always have a specific idea of how I want things to look, and if you don’t have a big budget, it’s hard to do that in live action because everything is larger! But with stop motion, you can do everything on your own, and it’s so much smaller, so it doesn’t cost as much. The only thing it costs is time. It’s fantastic to be able to create these worlds.
I see a lot of fountains and boats in your work.
I wasn’t aware of it at first, but I started to see a pattern and thought, wait a minute—everything I make is just water! I don’t have any water signs in my horoscope, but almost everyone around me is a water sign. And I always need to swim a lot. I go to the Korean spa alone because I am so earthy and fiery and airy, so I just need that element of water. I think it’s also soothing for me to work with water.
Sounds like you might actually be a mermaid. Can we talk about your film, Rawmance, with the sushi? Was that real salmon?
I love sushi, and I was thinking, what if the rice and the salmon were in a relationship? What would they talk about? What would that relationship look like? Is it really fair that the salmon is on the top all the time? One of my favorite things to do is to write dialogue, and it’s almost like I become an actor when I’m writing. I really go into the character and borrow conversations from my own relationships and life, but I’m twisting them. I’m never making realistic stories, it’s always supernatural in some way.
Yes, it was real salmon. I bought a package of sushi and thought, ok, I have to animate this fast! It was all done in one take, but I actually did change out the salmon once, in the middle of filming, when it was hiding behind the rice because it became really disgusting. If you touch a raw piece of fish for long enough, it will start dissolving and become scaly. So weird.
That’s dedication. I loved your Dinner Party sculpture in the recent group show where we met at Chandran Gallery. Was that from a film? One figure has an oyster face.
That was just a sculpture, but some of the characters come and go. I wanted to create this dinner scene I’d been drawing. It unfolded while I was making it, but I wanted this absurd, magical party. We have dinner every day usually, it’s something mundane, but I wanted to put these interesting characters together and think about their discussion and how they play together.
Do you have a dream project or has it already happened?
It would be really fun to make a sculpture garden.
What is a mermaid’s favorite candy?
It would be some seaweed-flavored, sweet hard candy.
Look for Sea Angels at international film festivals later this year. This interview was originally published in our Summer 2023 Quarterly.