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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Animated Thoughts: Signe Baumanes Love Affair with Marriage

Signe Baumane - TAIS lecture, Toronto, 2012
If you've been following either of my Facebook pages, you know that after a successful theater run and world tour with 2014's Rocks in my Pockets, Signe Baumane is back in Brooklyn, New York and hard at work on another feature-length animated film!
Signe's first animated feature, Rocks in my Pockets, explored the history of depression and suicide in her family's history set against the backdrop of World War II and the Soviet invasion of Latvia. Well this time around, Signe has returned to the goldmine of her personal history and is using it to animate a story about love and marriage. In the appropriately titled My Love Affair With Marriage, Signe delves into her past relationships and asks herself why her two marriages failed.

But rather than explain it myself, here's Signe in her own words:

Exclusive Sample Footage for Kickstarter from Signe Baumane on Vimeo.

Currently halfway through her Kickstarter campaign, Signe has raised roughly one-third of the money needed for the pre-production work on her film. Once the necessary funds have been raised, she'll cast and record 26 voice actors, hire a composer to create twenty-two songs, and hire a musical director to cast the film's 'four singing Mythology Sirens.' If this sounds like a lot of music compared to Rocks in My Pockets, well that's because My Love Affair with Marriage will have several musical numbers.

On Signe's Vimeo page (at the following link: https://vimeo.com/202927349), you can see a some test footage of the bride with the sirens singing a classic tune.

Signe's "bride and the sirens".
Image copyright Signe Baumane
Something worth noting from the clip is how Signe is bringing back the technique of using three-dimensional paper-mâché backgrounds and digitally compositing her 2d animated characters over them like she used in 'Rocks'. For you animation history buffs out there, Signe is using a modern-day "Stereoptical Process" similar to that which was developed by fellow New Yorker Max Fleischer back in the 1930's and seen in Fleischer Studios films like 1936's Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor and the title sequence of 1941's Mr. Bug Goes to Town. As Max was stuck using the analog technology of his time, he used 3d cardboard and paper-mâché sets with the 2d animation cels suspended on a plane between the camera and the sets (see pp. 119-121 of 'The Art and Inventions of Max Fleischer' by Ray Pointer for more information). Well fortunately for Signe, we're now living in the digital world of DSLR cameras and computer compositing. But it's really heartwarming to see some of these old techniques revived and updated for modern filmmaking. Whether knowingly or not, Signe has taken a technique from the 1930's and made it her own.

Well, enough geek-speak. In my opinion, here are the top three reasons why you should support Signe's Kickstarter campaign and help bring My Love Affair with Marriage to life:

1. Signe is a known quantity. Having already produced a large body of work, which includes short animated films and a feature-length animated film, you're investing in someone who has a proven track record of delivering on her promises--both in terms of producing her films and her Kickstarter rewards.

The 'Water Spirit' cel from Rocks in my Pockets
2. According to Wikipedia, last year there were twenty-four animated features either produced or co-produced in the United States. Only three had women directors--and they were all co-directors with men at that (Kung Fu Panda 3 - Jennifer Yuh Nelson, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Legend of Everfree - Katrina Hadley, and Ratchet & Clank - Jericca Cleland).

Signe is the writer, animator, director, and co-producer of her film. Once completed, 'Marriage' would add to the number of animated features directed by women.

Out of those remaining twenty-one films, all the others were directed by men. Now I don't have a problem with men directing animated films (obviously). But the fact that we don't have more women at the helm of feature length animated films says something about our industry and that is: we're missing out on one-half of the human experience with all it's unique visions, nuances, and experiences. Which brings us to point number three.

3. One of the things I've noticed over the years about the established studio system is that they aren't very willing to tell stories from a woman's perspective. While I understand that when one is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to make an animated film, this would tend to make even the most jaded exec rather skittish. As a result, they want to film to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and this lends itself to repeating certain styles of storytelling over and over. However, the financial success of films like Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and Disney's Frozen have proven that there is a market for films that tell stories that are relevant to women and are told from a woman's perspective. Sadly, all too often, women have to leave the studio system in order to tell these stories--those that are deeply personal to them and that resonate with a female audience (and a portion of the male audience who values good storytelling that exists outside of our own experience). And we, the filmgoing public are the ones who suffer since these films usually don't get as wide a reception in theaters as they would if they had the backing of a major studio.

So if, like me, you're chafing under the restrictions that we see in the selection of animated films out there, now is your chance to help breathe life into a project created and directed by a woman who wants to tell a story from her unique perspective.

You can be a part of the Kickstarter campaign right now. Just click on the following link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1055277857/my-love-affair-with-marriage/, and make your pledge.

The world of animation will be better because of it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Women of Animated Film: The College Class!

Huntington University... 'Go Foresters!'
Well, after a several month break from blogging, I'm finally back behind the keyboard. In truth, I never left, but my late-Summer, Fall, and Winter seasons were taken up by copious amounts of research into and writing about women working in the field of animation.

Some background is necessary:

Two years ago, a friend and fellow ASIFA/Central member who teaches at Indiana's Huntington University asked me if I'd be interested in teaching a J-Term course about women animators. Well, we didn't get the paperwork submitted on time for me to teach during January 2016, but we were right on track for 2017. And it worked out for the best as that extra year of research and prep-time helped me create a better course than I had originally planned. I wrote the course as a three credit-hour class (though we billed it as a two-credit hour class to make it more affordable for the students) and taught it in three hour blocks for eight days (working out as eight, six hour days).

The class content was a mixture of historical information, films, film analysis, and discussion of current events. Though it's hard to pick a favorite aspect of the class, one near the top of the list was an afternoon workshop where I instructed the students in the basics of sand, paint-on-glass, and silhouette/cut-out animation--techniques used by Lotte Reiniger, Caroline Leaf, Martine Chartrand, and Lynn Smith.

This being the first class I've taught in a collegiate setting, it was mercifully free from problems. Other than a DVD that went bad during a screening and the ever present 'volume control' on the sound system, the class was free from technical glitches or other issues that would detract from the learning environment. And when the class was over after that second week, I found myself wishing for just one more day to share one more animator with the class--as my research would prove: there's no shortage of women out there who are creating wonderful animated films. It was extremely heartwarming to read the students' daily journals and have them come up to me after class and state how much they enjoyed learning about these women animators and how the class inspired them to seek out their films on their own time.

The best surprise was that at the end of the two weeks, several students chose to make films for their final projects. All were very good, but one sand animation was excellent. I've encouraged Jemimah to send it out to the festivals, so hopefully you'll all get to see it soon.

The folks at Huntington University were very friendly and went out of their way to ensure that my class was a success for me and their students. The other professors and staff were a real joy to work with.

All-in-all, while I've already pinpointed things that I'd do differently and modifications I'd like to make to the class, I would definitely run this class again!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Latest News: A temporary hiatus...

Things have been quiet lately and there's a really good reason for it.

I pitched a J-Term class to a University down in Indiana where a friend of mine teaches and it was accepted!

Next January, I'll be teaching a nine day, three-credit hour class on the History of Women Animators.

So, the reason why it's been quiet, and why it'll be quiet for a short while longer is that I'm writing the course material and tracking down films to show the class.

Thank you for your patience during this time. I'll be back in the Fall. :)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Women in Animation: Samantha Inoue-Harte, Part 2

Cat Shit One 1
CW: After a successful short film, 'Cat Shit One' didn't make it into full series production. How do you deal with the disappointment of putting that much energy into a project and not seeing it come to fruition?

SIH: I was brought in on 'Cat Shit One' after the first episode was finished.  I was given DVDs and action figures for the main characters.  Our studio then developed a presentation deck that could then be presented to American distribution companies to pitch as an animated series.  We partnered with a talented live-action actor for voice work and we spoke with several networks and outlets but unfortunately, though many 3D animated series at the time had budgets of over $1 million per episode with very geometric or Lego looking characters.  We were asked to keep our high quality/furry animation the same as the short but asked to meet budgets far lower than many less complicated 3D animated series on television. We were also asked to change the story from a serious action packed series to a comedy.  In the end, we could not make the numbers work enough to make American audiences interested in buying the show.

And when that happens, you just keep moving forward.  You NEVER put all of your eggs in a single basket.  Many of your projects fail, you just have to keep coming up with new projects until one sticks.

CW: When you produce animated films/series, do you focus on one or do you usually have a couple that you're working on at the same time?

SIH: I am always working on multiple projects at any given point in time.  If I kept all of my eggs in a single basket then I would not be as productive as I am.

Tailchaser's Song 2
CW: How did you get involved in producing Tailchaser's Song?

SIH: A sweet voice actress colleague of mine, Carrie Savage, introduced me to another voice actress/writer who had a project that was being developed into a feature.  I met with Bethany Rhoades for coffee as a favour to Carrie.  The meeting....was pretty painful.  Everything that you could do to mess up a pitch, she did.  But then, she pulled out some artwork that an artist had done for characters and settings of the project.  And I was sold.  I joked with her saying that she should have just started off the meeting by showing me the artwork.  It was like lightning struck.  I called my producing partner, Paul Alvarado-dykstra and convinced him to look at the artwork.  The artwork spoke to me.

CW: Tailchaser's Song was announced back in 2011, can you talk about how production is coming along?

SIH: Big things are happening. I would need to discuss with my team about what I can say at this point.  Things are happening. I'm really excited.  There's a name I want to drop. But I don't want to jinx things.  Can we come back and discuss things about Tailchaser at a later point?  :)

CW: In the context of your production work, how do you think that crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon, etc.) has changed the game of animation production (if at all)?

SIH: We have spoken at length about crowdfunding and have seen how popular it has been to help create some amazing work.  We have not moved towards doing any crowdfunding at this moment, but I do have to say that animation production, especially of shorts, have definitely benefited from the funding created by crowdfunding sites.

Fritti Tailchaser concept art by Matt Rhodes  2

CW: How have opportunities changed for women pursuing a career in animation today as opposed to when you started your career?

SIH: When I first began work as an animator, there were less than five women.  Now, there are a few women in every animation studio that I have walked into.  It's definitely become more accepting.  I'm glad I never have to be the lone female in an animation studio anymore.  Things are definitely a lot better for women now in America.  Japan, has always had more women in the animation studios than in America. 

CW: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to women who want to pursue a career in animation?

SIH: I do believe that one of the biggest obstacles that women have to face in the animation industry is fairness in pay.  Though things have definitely gotten better for women since I first began, you still run into the random moments when you find out that a woman is being paid less for doing the same, if not more, work than a male animator counterpart. 

Pouncequick & Rikchikchik concept art by Matt Rhodes  2

CW: If you had a daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?

SIH: I would make her take business classes.  Teach her how to read and negotiate contracts and teach her how to take care of her money.  Most problems I see in studios in the US is many animators/artists are not well versed in basic Business skills so I have seen many people run into problems with money and with taxes.  My daughter will definitely need to focus on Business classes before I EVER let her get into any animation work.

CW: What is the most important thing that authority figures (parents/teachers/professors) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

SIH: My parents desperately wanted me to work in Math or Science.  I was terrible at both subjects.  I was pressed to go into fields that I had little to no interest.  I was an artist from the get go and unfortunately, it wasn't until halfway through high school when my parents conceded that I would just never be good at science or math.  I had tutors, I had study guides, I took extra courses in science and math just so I could get better.  I just could not wrap my brain around any of it.  I was frustrated. My parents were frustrated.  It took YEARS for my parents to come to terms that I needed to study something else.  But before that ever happened, it was like my parents were in denial.  They pushed and pushed.  It wasn't for lack of me studying.  I had a periodic table poster plastered on my ceiling for years as well as math time tables on my bedroom door for years.  I have to say that to authority figures, encourage all kids to do what they enjoy.  Listen to your kids. And if they want to consider a career in animation, then get them into life drawing classes as early on as possible.  Sign your kids up for after school art classes. Buy some art programs for their computers and buy a Wacom tablet.  If they want to consider animation, then the earlier you can expose them to it, the better.  But keep them focused on perspective drawing and life drawing. 

It's been a real pleasure being able to spend time with you.  If you have any further questions in the future, please do not hesitate to ask.

CW: Thank you very much for the interview. :)

Sami and I at AlmaCon 2016  3

*  *  *

Samantha’s larger body of work is listed on her IMDB page, where you can find her animation and anime projects as well as her voice acting and live action work. And keep an eye out for the upcoming Tailchaser’s Song, currently in development. Press releases for Tailchaser’s Song can be found at Animetropolis’ website and an archive of info can be found on their Facebook page.

1. “Cat Shit One” available on Blu-Ray at Amazon.com at the following link. Image used with permission.
2. Image copyright Animetropolis and used with permission.
3. Image copyright Charles Wilson.

Copyright 2016 Smudge Animation LLC, all rights reserved

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Women in Animation: Samantha Inoue-Harte, Part 1

Samantha Inoue-Harte 1
There are a lot of smaller animation conventions and anime festivals around the country, one such being "Alma Con" up in Alma, Michigan. Smaller cons and fests can be places where you find those rare little gems that'll keep you coming back year after year. And every now and then, you'll hit the jackpot! In February 2015, the organizers of Alma Con released their finalized schedule shortly before the convention. When I saw a listing for a woman who would be running a couple panels on animation, my curiosity was piqued. Since Alma is less than an hour's drive from my home, I made the trek up North with a friend. That's where I had my first encounter with Samantha Inoue-Harte. Only once before in my travels have I encountered such an exciting bundle of positive energy in the animation community (that being Haitian-Canadian animator Martine Chartrand). In mere minutes, Sami had the entire crowd eating out of her hand as she told us stories of working on animation projects for Disney and several Japanese anime studios, acting in movies like Grindhouse and Idiocracy, and doing voice acting for anime shows like Trinity Blood, Dai-Guard, and Final Fantasy Unlimited (she's the "Chocobo"). After her hour presentation was over, the entire crowd followed her out into the hall where she continued to regale us with more stories of working on-site with Troublemaker Studios (Robert Rodriguez's studio) and trying to get networks like Adult Swim interested in the 3d animated adaptation of Motofumi Kobayashi's Cat Sh*t One. After the crowd thinned out somewhat, Sami readily agreed to being interviewed for my blog. Unfortunately life, as it often does, got in the way. But, we stayed in touch, talked back and forth a bit over the year, and met back up again at Alma Con 2016. This time, everything worked out and we were able to complete our interview just in time. Thank you again for the interview, Sami, it was well worth the wait.

* * *

SIH: Hello Charles! This is Samantha Inoue-harte but feel free to call me, Sami or Samu.  Most of my family is Japanese and due to the fact that the "th" sound really doesn't exist in Japanese I really don't get called "Samantha" a lot and will probably not respond to it...however, if you say, "Samansa" I will.  lol.

CW: What is your current job description?

SIH: My main job title is Animation producer and as for description....well, I develop animated content for transmedia platforms for Western and Eastern audiences.  By that, I mean that I come up with ideas for new anime or feature projects, pitch them, develop the ideas that interest my partners, navigate through multicultural business practices, create presentation decks, budgeting, story development, overviewing scripts, making sure script translations are done correctly, etc.....in other words, a lot.

Sami and grumpy cat 1
CW: You've worked in the animation industry for 19 years. What roles have you performed during your career in animation?

SIH: I was lucky enough to be the assistant to a fantastic animation director by the name of Sam Fleming when I was a freshman in college.  I was a receptionist, cleanup artist, colorist, inbetweener, animator, character designer, layout artist, background artist, scriptwriter, storyboard artist....and eventually I worked my way into various animation studios and by 2005 I started Saiko Studios where I finally became the animation director for Spike TV's Fresh Baked Videogames under Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty).  I rarely draw anything anymore, my role now is more of a story developer.

CW: What made you choose animation as a major course of study?

SIH: I graduated high school in Illinois and originally thought I would attend Northwestern or some other college in the Illinois area.  Had a full scholarship offer at the Rhode Island Institute of Art and looked at Sheridan.  But my mother had cancer so my family decided that the best thing for us was to move to Texas to be close to MD. Anderson in Houston so that she could get the best care possible.  I knew nothing about Texas and called A&M and the University of Texas at Austin to see if there was an animation program.  The advisor at UT@Austin informed me that their college had the state's leading Animation program and I immediately filled out an application.  Found out upon arrival to Texas that there was no animation program at the University of Texas and so I had to make changes to my plans.  I was LIVID.  I had already been accepted and my family had already spent a lot of money to move to the Austin area from Illinois.  I was stuck.  So I ended up choosing to pursue a double major for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio art and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History focusing on the Italian renaissance.  I became an avid art historian.  But the lack of animation programming at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997 was the reason why I began pursuing a position at an animation studio.  I worked throughout my college career at an animation studio while doing my double degree at the University.  I still get a little angry sometimes, but at the same time, if I had not been mislead by the advisor, I would not have pursued my animation career so early in my life.

Sami teaching 'grumpy animator' what a "Glomp" is. 2
CW: You have worked for American studios and with Japanese studios, what are some of the differences, difficulties and challenges to working in a Japanese Animation studio vs. an American studio (or vice versa)?

SIH: Wow....hmmmm.... good question.  As for the differences between American and Japanese animation studios....the first thing that comes to mind is the studio space size.  Every American animation studio I have ever been in is larger compared to Japanese studios.  Ceilings are higher, hallways are wider, offices are bigger, there is more cartoony decorations, brighter colors on the walls, there is always some sort of videogame console somewhere in an American studio.  Japanese studios....are compact by comparison.  The environment at a Japanese animation studio is also a little more serious.  You don't see a lot of cartoony looking characters decorating the walls and I have never witnessed any animator in a Japanese animation studio playing videogames from their desks, there are no action figurines decorating artist's workspaces like they do in America either.

Now, my main challenge and difficulty that I have faced in American studios and Japanese studios?  Well, let me make one thing clear, I do not work in a Japanese animation studio, I have never been an animator in a Japanese animation studio.  I work WITH Japanese anime studios and partner WITH them to develop new animated content.  So I can never really say that I work IN a Japanese animation studio. 

Dai-Guard 3
But back to the question....the one challenge and difficulty that I have faced in both American and Japanese studios is the fact that I'm a woman.  I have, unfortunately, been paid less as a female artist at American studios when doing the same jobs as men.  I have been treated with less respect for being a woman and have been laughed at when I have previously tried pitching ideas.  There have been times when, as a woman, I have been excluded from Animation studio functions like lunches or getting company items.  For example, there was one studio where all the employees were given matching company jackets.  All the female employees were excluded from this perk.  When asked if the female staff could get a jacket, we were told that we could if we really wanted them but that we would have to pay $150 for a jacket.  Needless to say, I don't believe any of the female employees received one. It's the opposite in Japan.  I may be a woman, and though that has posed some unique situations in Japan, I am a producer, therefore I am presented with more respect and am treated like a guest whenever I go to Japan.  It is awkward in business meetings because as a woman, I would traditionally be the person responsible for pouring tea to the rest of the people in a meeting. But as a producer, I do not have to do that, so the lowest man on the totem pole has to do this.  No one is rude enough to mention anything about it, but it does cause some awkward moments.  I am a woman, but am treated as a man.  And I am fine with that.  :)

CW: What do think is the most important skill set animators should work on to prepare themselves for the industry?

SIH: I cannot stress enough....animators need to work on life drawing.  I get a lot of new aspiring animators who come to me with sketchbooks full of "Anime" styled artwork, but unfortunately, many aspiring artists are not able to draw the human figure realistically.  In order to create a new style or your own personal style of artwork, you have to be able to draw a human figure realistically.  Bones lay a particular way, muscles sit on bone, skin covers the muscles....and if you don't know how each layer works with each other or how they lay on each other when a human is posed in a dramatic pose, then how can you be expected to understand how to animate a character? 

CW: Throughout your career, you have done live action acting and voice acting. How does your live-action work influence your animation work?

SIH: My live-action work has actually helped me with my composition and staging in my animation work.  Using myself as a character in a film, I am able to see where the director sits, how the camera is angled, and I am then able to see the set from the director's perspective.  I have recreated camera shots that I acted in and transposed those shots into my storyboards to create more of a live-action feel in some of my projects.  Voice acting....it has helped me with my mouthflap animations.

CW: Now that you've made the shift to producing films, do you prefer animating or producing?

SIH: I do miss animation and may do it from time to time on some personal stuff, but producing has become my passion.  It's amazing to see a story get developed from inside of my head and then be transformed into something that everyone can see.  You are working closely with talented animators and creating characters from your mind. You layout whole worlds and create maps, create costumes, layout a whole plot, etc.  I feel I am able to create more as a producer than I ever could as an animator where my supervisor would hand me a stack of papers or computer files where I have to animate characters that I had nothing to do with the creation of.

* * *

Be sure to come back next week for part two of Sami's Interview where we continue discussing her shift from animator to producer, talk about her work on the animated feature adaptation of "Tailchaser's Song", and hear her advice for young ladies who want to work in the field of animation.

1. Image copyright Samantha Inoue-Harte and used with permission.
2. Image copyright Charles Wilson.
3. Image copyright ADVFilms.

Copyright 2016 Smudge Animation LLC, all rights reserved.