Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Women in Animation: Signe Baumane

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my Smudge Animation site on March 26th, 2013.

PLEASE NOTE: Some of the content contained in the following interview is directed at a more mature audience. Please use discretion when allowing younger readers to read this interview and visit the associated hyperlinked pages.

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I almost didn't meet Signe Baumane last year.

I've known about Signe's work for years, ever since I saw several of her short films as part of the two "Avoid Eye Contact" DVDs which showcased short films from independent animators in the New York City animation community.

My first experience was watching her cringe-worthy film "The Dentist"--an animation that left me squirming in my chair as I dealt with flashbacks borne of a lifetime love affair with sugar in all it's tooth decaying forms. After watching the second DVD, I was left rather confused by the raw sexuality presented in her short series "Five F**king Fables". 'How could a woman make films like this,' I wondered. Thinking that there had to be a dimension to her films that I just wasn't picking up on when watching those two DVDs, I purchased her "Ten Animated Films" DVD and was treated to a roller-coaster ride of surreal imagery and adult situations. Afterwards, I placed the DVD on the shelf along with the rest of my collection, secure in the knowledge that I clearly 'didn't get it.' 1

While I did not write Signe off, I found her work a little too challenging, so I did not seek out her films and only saw a couple of her "Teat Beat of Sex" films over the following years. And while I didn't have any greater success understanding those vignettes any more than her earlier work, it was clear that she was maturing as both an animator and as a storyteller. So when I learned that Patrick Jenkins had invited her to showcase her work at the Toronto Animated Image Society, I filed it at the back of my mind for future reference.

It wasn't until I was at a restaurant in Ottawa that year, sitting across from Madi Piller and Martine Chartrand while Craig Marshall scribbled furiously in his sketchbook next to me, that I made the decision to attend Signe's presentation. Madi convinced me that a trip to Toronto was a wise investment of my time, and given that she has never steered me wrong in the past, I was willing to trust her judgement. If nothing else, I figured I could ask Signe if she would be willing to let me interview her for my annual Women in Animation blog posts.

That night in Toronto, after light discussion over dinner with the TAIS members, we all retired to the Cinecycle where Signe began her presentation. Almost immediately, the confusion that I had experienced before returned with a vengeance. However this time, I was treated to the illumination that had eluded me previously as Signe detailed out why she created certain films as well as the events in her life which influenced her work. As it turns out, "The Dentist" was born out of her experience of needing a root canal in addition to dealing with the past trauma of dental work performed under the former Soviet medical system: read that 'without painkillers of any kind'. "Birth" was her story about dealing with the fears of being pregnant with her first child. And the "Teat Beat of Sex" vignettes were honest stories about sex and sexuality from a woman's perspective. Slowly, I started to 'get it'.

But the best surprise was at the end of her presentation when Signe showed the crowd seven minutes from her upcoming feature length animated film: "Rocks in My Pockets"--what she described as 'a funny film about depression'. Having suffered through a hard fought war against chronic depression myself and having a portion of my extended family tortured and killed during the Bolshevik Revolution, her film about the history of mental illness and suicide in her family set against the backdrop of World War II and the Soviet invasion of Lativa spoke to me. As she announced her Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary to complete "Rocks in My Pockets", it became a personal mission of mine to help spread the word about her film and hopefully encourage people to donate a buck or two in order to help a fellow filmmaker bring a personal vision to the screen.

There has been an honesty and vibrancy in the discussions that Signe and I have had via e-mail over the past few months since we met in Toronto. The topics have ranged from 'do we need film festivals that only showcase films created by women' to 'the merits of crowdfunding films'. Given the depth of our conversations, I'm glad I had the chance to meet her face-to-face and learn about all the thought that goes into her films. Listening to Signe's perspectives on filmmaking has been time well spent.

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Signe Baumane
Q: What is your current job description?

A:
I am an independent animator - director

Q: How long have you worked in the animation industry?

A:
Since 1989

Q: What roles have you performed during your career in animation?

A:
I started in Latvia's Animation Studio by coloring cells for other people's projects, then went to writing and directing my first 3 films (1989 - 1995), came to NY, worked for Bill Plympton coloring cells for his many shorts and features, was a production manager for his projects (1996-2004) then went on to animating, directing, writing, producing my own next many shorts till one day in 2010 I started my first animated feature film "Rocks In My Pockets", which is near completion, we hope to release it in summer 2013.

Click here to see a clip from "Rocks in my Pockets"
"Rocks In My Pockets" is an independent production which means, I am the producer but am also the director, writer, animator (which is very helpful to me as a producer - to have all those jobs in one person reduces the amount of salaries I have to pay :))

Q: Is there a book or film that you worked on that you are particularly proud of?

A:
I always like my current film. It would be silly of me to think that my best work is in the past. :)

Q: Given that you have successfully financed your films via patrons, grants, indiegogo, and kickstarter, what are your thoughts on using crowdsourcing to finance your films versus more traditional methods?

A:
WHAT is "traditional methods" for an indie film? Grants? Private funding? Your own money? convincing a major studio/distributor to invest in your film? Hmm...

"Rocks In My Pockets" was funded by a combination of resources:
  • 2 grants (from NYSCA and Jerome Foundation)
  • many tax deductible donations (via non profit organization Women Make Movies)
  • IndieGoGo campaign
  • Kickstarter campaign
  • my personal income
Since the project had a non profit status I was not trying to get investors, and to be realistic - who would want to invest into a funny film about depression anyway? How much money would an investor hope to get back from a low budget indie animated feature?

As to crowdfunding - it was NOT easy for me, and am not sure if I'd be enticed to do it soon again.

First, crowdfunding is what the name says: it is a crowd giving your project funds, in other words: you need a lot of people strongly supporting you and your project. So, you need to actively engage with at least 1200 - 3000 people to get to 800 backers to reach your modest goal of $42,800 (one cannot make an animated feature film for $42,800, it is only 1/4 of our budget, but we felt we couldn't raise more than that).

The way I see it there are four levels of projects on Kickstarter:
  1. low goals from $2,000 - $12,000
  2. medium - $20,000 - $60,000
  3. high - around $100,000
  4. super goals of million $$
My project was on medium scale with it's $42,800 goal. Low - medium projects have a different patterns of engagement with their supporters than high - super goal projects.

We, the small scale people, need to be nice to our supporters, and in general, we have to be nice people with interesting projects, we also need to do a lot of work - do social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) and we have to make phones calls begging for money/support. On this low-medium level, projects that get crowdfunded are mainly niche topic oriented, and their team has an extensive net[work] of personal connections (you'll be surprised, but the few articles we had on "Rocks" didnt translate into pledges, it was personal calls and emails that did the trick).

Then there is the other level, projects with big names attached - names that can do anything they want and bring a lot of money from a lot of people that are not personal connections. Star power.

Packaging DVDs after a successful Kickstarter Campaign.

Q: As you have worked for studios and as an independent, which do you prefer and why?

A:
I have not worked for studios (Bill Plympton's was an independent studio, too, so that doesnt count). I can only imagine what it would be like working for a studio: bigger paycheck? more creative constraints? But should not talk until I have a real experience of that. :)

Q: As many independent animators give up a certain measure of financial security in order to tell stories which more so-called “mainstream” studios might not want to cover, given your experiences, do you feel that this is a fair trade-off (money/security versus creative freedom)?

A:
I don't know.

Some people are lucky to have the desire to tell stories that are mainstream-friendly. I am not that person. I am also invested in the idea of being an auteur - where under my name there is a story, film, blog, Facebook page that has a strong presence of my DNA. Like a dog, to mark his territory he pees on corners, the piss containing his DNA is his name and if he has enough of it to cover all corners of the town, he is a very successful dog.

As to money vs creative freedom....

Big studios, big publishers, Broadway theaters are reluctant to take big risks with unusual stories, and they are right - they exist to make money, they don't exist to make art. On the other hand, I exist to express my Eternal Soul and I am willing to starve in order to be able to do that. If I gave up the work I do in exchange for total financial security in a few years I would probably kill myself. I guess I need the excitement of instability, of trying new things out, being on the edge. To be able to live the way I live - in a constant financial turmoil but having my name under my work - I have to have a sense of purpose, an answer to the question: why you are doing this? My Joan of Arc syndrome answers that question. :)

Please, note that the industry oriented towards pleasing "mainstream" would not exist without independent artists willing to try out new things, failing or succeeding, pushing the boundaries, exploring what will be accepted by mainstream audiences today or tomorrow. Mainstream studios look closely at those independent experimentations and pick the ones they think will succeed, leaving the supposed failures in this indie ocean of attempts. We all need each other, we are all one - indies need mainstream studios to validate their experiments, studios need indies to generate new ideas.

In short, my answer to your question is: no, I don't feel there is a trade off - I chose to be independent because I can't be otherwise. sorry for the long rant. :)


"Teat Beat of Sex"
Episode 2: Juice
Q: Your short film series "Teat Beat of Sex" deals with stories of sexuality from a woman's perspective. Setting aside financial returns, in your discussion with audiences, do you find that the acceptance level of your films are similar to the acceptance of films with stories of sexuality that are produced by men?

A:
I do not know how to separate where my work is rejected as a work done by a woman, from a WOMAN'S POINT OF VIEW or it is a work that just doesn't have that mass appeal because it just doesn't.

There was a famous short film website that once rejected "Teat Beat of Sex" "Juice" episode, they said that according to their guidelines it is acceptable to show male genitals but not acceptable to show female genitals, however stylized.

PES very cleverly escaped the problem by making "Roof Sex" with chairs. Bill Plympton cleverly escaped the problem in one of his "Sex and Violence" episodes shoving a dick into a woman's mouth, shown from the mouth's perspective. I, on the other hand, in my uneducated naïveté, show everything as it is. Not a good idea.

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

A:
I don't know. When you look carefully - there are many women-producers in the industry right now, an amazing amount. There are many women-students in animation schools and classes. There are many young women making a lot of short films. BUT there are not so many women-directors, after making shorts for a few years, women move to producing, or teaching, or animating for a studio, or something entirely else. So, YES, there are many more women in U.S. animation industry now than there were 20 years ago (I am from Latvia, we almost always had many more women in animation than men), but they seem to be more in the supportive roles.

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

A:
I feel there never were visible, clearly outlined obstacles in the way of a woman who wants to become an animation director.

One obstacle is her own mind which comes from the way she was brought up - we are trained to be team players, to be supportive and nurturing of others. We are trained to deny the validity of our own will and desires for the good of others - in short - we are trained to be mothers and wives. At least it was in my case. As a producer you get to be a team player, nurture a director's vision. One woman producer recently told me: - I never feel my idea is good enough to be a director. When I asked if she thought her male director's idea was better than her own, she said: - well, at least he feels passionately about it. Hmmm.

The other invisible obstacle is who big studios and networks want to please. I am coming up against that constantly. It is assumed that only 18 - 21 year old males want to see T.V. shows and animated films. That girls just passively tag along. As a woman I don't make that kind of content oriented towards young male tastes. So I don't get big jobs. Once I don't get big money jobs, I don't have them on my résumé and my opportunity to get better directing jobs dwindles.

I am stuck on shorts and other small budget projects. Lately I started to think that the studios might be right - it does seem that it is mostly young men who are interested in animation news, comics, graphic novels. Why aren't more women obsessing over Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Fritz the Cat? Oh wait. Those are male characters with their male superpowers, male motivations and needs, created by male artists.


Click here to see a clip from "Rocks in my Pockets"

Q: If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?

A:
I tried but I have a hard time to imagine having a daughter. Even more - a daughter who would want to go into animation. Any reasonable person who would have grown up with me as their mother would want to do anything else but animation and arts. My son when he was 6 said he would never become an artist because artists don't have money.

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

A:
If I were to give an advise (and not from an authority position - I don't have one, I just have my own experiences) I would give it to girls and boys alike:
  • Please make an informed decision if you would want to be an independent animator or work for a studio, those are two very different things although sometimes but rarely they can collide
If you decide to be an independent animator:
  • Learn to be very careful with the money, know how to save it when you have it and learn to live on nothing when you don't have it. The money you save has to go into your next film.
  • Don't buy a house, do not have children - at least not at the beginning of your career, they'll make you less flexible in many regards.
  • Make your own films as often as you can!!!! At least one film a year - mark your territory!
  • Do not be perfectionist - make a film the best you can at the moment and move on to the next film, trying to make one film perfect on a small budget is not going to make it perfect but it is going to hinder your development. My next film is always better than the previous one.
  • Explore new subjects, new techniques with each film.
  • Repetition is boredom. Once you master one thing, move to the subject or technique you don't know anything about.
  • Grow!
  • Keep watching films any time you can - shorts, feature, live action - any film at any opportunity, expand your visual language.
  • Educate yourself what other people are doing, lack of updated knowledge is death to your growth.
  • When you embark on a new project, look at it as an adventure.

"Ten Animated Films"
DVD available for sale on Signe's website.

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All photos and videos used in this interview are copyright Signe Baumane and used with her permission.

1. Just to clarify a thought as I'm not sure I've stated it as well as I could have: at the time I was introduced to Signe's work, I was unintentionally viewing it on a very superficial level. At that time, I simply didn’t know how to observe films with a critical eye nor do I feel that I had the intellectual and emotional maturity to understand the thought processes that went into the films she was making. As such, I was very glad that I had the opportunity to meet her in Toronto and learn about where her films came from on a primal emotional/intellectual level. Doing so allowed me the chance to truly appreciate her films—a chance that I wouldn’t have had otherwise had I not gone to Toronto that weekend. On that note, for those who are interested in learning more about how to critique films, I recommend this series of articles by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman found on Animation World Network--particularly his (currently) nine part series entitled "The Animation Critic's Art".

Women in Animation: Anne Beal

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my Smudge Animation site on March 19th, 2013.

Anne Beal is an interesing case study.

Given that animation is primarily a visual medium, many of us enter into animation from the simliar background of the visual arts: drawing, painting, sculpting, or cinematography.* Anne followed a different path: music. As I'm sure all of you who have struggled to find the right musical score for your films can attest, this additional skillset provides her the ability to avoid a lot of the pitfalls the rest of us encounter as we try to explain our personal vision to musicians/composers and are forced to trust in their ability to interpret our personal vision. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her thesis film which I had the pleasure of watching at the 2012 Ottawa International Animation Festival. Having met online months earlier through ASIFA/Central, I sat at the table behind Anne and her friends from RISD during the Salon des Refusés program as "Balance and Swing" danced across the screen, seamlessly integrating a rich musicial score with lush visuals created using a mixture of ink, goauche, and watercolor.

I encourage everyone not only to view the films presented here and on her portfolio, but also to listen to the samples of her original compositions on her soundcloud account--notably "PINK_DPsound_dec15" or the longer "descending (architectural sound exploration using violin)"--and witness her interest in experimentation which extends past visual media into sound.

* * *

Anne Beal
Q. What is your current job description?

A: Freelance animator, aspiring teacher, fiddle player

Q. How long have you worked in the animation industry?

A: I graduated last spring, so almost a year. I started animating at RISD – I had never made a film before. While I was in school I worked on various productions, live action and as an animation intern. Now I do freelance projects in Chicago including animation, painting, and playing the fiddle.

Q. What roles have you performed during your career in animation?

A: Sound designer. I love sound and I worked on some of my friends' films at RISD, helping with music and using my violin when needed, and making weird soundscapes for my classmates' films. In summer 2011 I had the privilege of being an animation intern for Dan Sousa, interning on his amazing film, "Feral."

Animation workstation at RISD
While at RISD, I worked as a Studio Teacher's Assistant in two classes, "Introductory Film" and "Sound Design for the Screen." In summer 2010, I worked on a live-action feature film as part of Kazoo Films. Our film was called "If I Had Wings to Fly," and we filmed it all across Western North Carolina, where half of us grew up. We spent a beautiful eight weeks shooting this loose narrative about a traveling banjo player in turn-of-the-century Appalachia. I was credited as "Production Supervisor," although I played many roles, including driver, cook, human relations manager, set dresser, props supervisor, square dancer, and fiddle player. The best thing about having a career in animation is that you get involved with projects that take you places you wouldn't expect. You get to work with lots of interesting people, and whatever role you perform on one project just adds to the skill set you bring to the next.

Q. Is there a book or film that you worked on that you are particularly proud of?

A: My degree project, "Balance and Swing." I had a whole year to make the film – that's a special thing about the animation department at RISD – and it felt amazing to make an entire animated film by myself. I hand-painted each frame in watercolors, gouache, and walnut ink, and shot the whole film on a light pad, two frames at a time. I arrived at this technique through pasting together a bunch of concepts I had seen from other filmmakers, and it worked well for what I wanted to do. I wanted to create this flowy environment where the color and sound merged and lots of events and emotions were suggested, but not made literal. I worked straight ahead, but the slowness of my technique allowed me time to think about what I wanted to do next. I made about 2,520 paintings for the film, which ended up being 3 minutes 21 seconds. I created about six complete sound tracks throughout the year, and experimented with many sound concepts. I play the fiddle so my violin was an integral element in my sound design, although I went through a brief period where I wanted only sound effects and percussive sounds and nothing "musical." When I had completed most of the picture, in late March, I decided it might be cool to bring my partner into the process, musically. He worked at the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School, so I was very fortunate in that they let us use their facilities after hours for four weekends. We recorded most of the final soundtrack in one of their magical recital halls, which had a grand piano. I set up my Zoom H4N field recorder in several locations throughout the room and we just played the film on loop on my laptop, and performed the soundtrack while watching it. I brought in a tiny tape recorder and put it underneath the piano which made a sweet distorted sound that I used for a few seconds of the film. I am grateful to have gotten into a few festivals – it's really affirming and thrilling to think of people you don't know actually watching your film!


BALANCE AND SWING from Anne Beal on Vimeo.

Q: How has your music influenced your filmmaking processes?

A:
For me, sonic and visual perception are complimentary parts of the same process. I think learning to play the fiddle at a young age integrated music into the way I communicate visually, and so colors naturally have a sound to them. When I compose on the violin, I imagine the sounds in colors and shapes. I know some filmmakers start with the visuals and then do the sound. In my filmmaking process, I work with sound and visuals in tandem. If I'm working on an animated sequence and I'm not sure how to proceed, I'll take out my fiddle and start improvising. Or listen to the noises around me, for sounds I want to collect on my field recorder to put in my film. I like to make sound collages...I think making soundscapes that aren't even directly related to my film helps the ideas surface.

Q: How much time did you spend experimenting with watercolor, walnut ink and gouache before you found the correct visual style you were looking for?

RISD FAV (Film/Animation/Video Department)
Triennial Show, February 2012
A: At first I wanted to paint and draw on the surface of 16mm film. I wanted to use found footage as well as my own, playing around with a Bolex. I can't remember what changed my mind, but I started messing around with brush markers (Tombos) and thought I might play with layering tracing paper...I experimented with mediums for about a month before I chose painting as my method. It felt the most natural.

Q: What festivals has “Balance and Swing” been accepted to?

A:
• Les Nuits Magiques (France)
• SENE (South Eastern New England) Film, Music and Arts Festival
• Black Maria Film Festival

Editor's Note: "Balance and Swing" was also screened at the 2012 Ottawa International Animation Festival as part of their Salon des Refusés program for exceptional films that did not get selected for the competition or the showcase screenings.

Editor's Note Update: After the initial publishing of this interview, "Balance and Swing" was screened at the 2013 Annecy Animation Festival in Annecy, France -- the largest animation festival in the world.

Q: Do you find submitting your film to festivals an important part of the academic thesis process?

A:
Yes. I have submitted to several festivals. I got some rejecton letters, and they were temporarily crushing...but the festivals I have gotten into felt so gratifying. The more festivals I research and submit to, the more I realize that festivals have to put together a program...they might think your film is awesome, but they don't have a space for your particular film because it doesn't fit in with the others it would screen with. Rejections or not, getting organized and making myself submit to festivals has been enough of a learning experience to make it worth the trouble. It's like officially acknowledging my project and saying, Hey, I made this, I am responsible for getting this out into the world, and I would like for you to see it!

Q: Did you choose freelance work over a full-time position at an animation studio or is that just the way it turned out due to the nature of the economy and the animation business?

A:
Going to film festivals, especially Ottawa, and attending the filmmaker panels has helped me to understand a little about what to expect as an independent animator. It's not easy. I'm at the beginning of my career and am learning as much as I can, including taking a web design course at SAIC so I can make my own website. In the short term I would like to continue to take on freelance projects, building my portfolio along with my skill set.

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

A: I would say that the past five or ten years have made it easier to access information about independent animation. Now you can go online and find great animations – Vimeo has become a great vehicle for that – and it's easier to find out about film festivals. So that means more chances for your films to be seen, but also more filmmakers to be inspired by. As far as making animated films, developments in technology make it so much more feasible for an individual to make an animated film, on minimal equipment and a meager budget. Of course, I am not discounting the countless hours it takes to make many kinds of animated films, which also require money, if for nothing but food to sustain oneself...but I would say that one person can do a longer, more involved film much more easily now than they could even fifteen years ago.


Cut to the Chase from Anne Beal on Vimeo.

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

A: Being nervous about the software and equipment. In general, at least in my experience, guys have more confidence about operating cameras and jumping into animation software. It's like they were "trained" earlier than we were – video games, Nintendo, X-box... "boy activities." At some point I threw away the notion that I was less competent than the guys around me, and just really worked hard to learn the equipment and programs.

Q. If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?

A: Grab a camera and start filming things. Home videos, experimental stuff, make-believe stories...just mess around, and get comfortable using a camera. Read stories, practice telling stories, and listen to people tell their stories. Watch movies, taking note of how they are structured. Keep a sketchbook. Get used to making art every day. Remember that animation is informed by everything you do, and it is easy to make it a solitary art form. So go dancing, go outside and look at your surroundings, take long walks, people-watch in restaurants, take a class in something you wouldn't normally do. Be aware of your own movements, and of what is moving around you. Take in as much information about your surroundings as you can - colors, smells, light, and especially people. Use that to make art.

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

A: Encourage them to resist self-editing early in the process of making a film. Just "make" and don't let your inner judge block your progress. My animation professor at RISD, Amy Kravitz, helped instill that concept in me while I was working on my degree project and it was exactly what I needed to hear


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All photos and videos used in this interview are copyright Anne Beal and used with her permission.

* In the interest of full-disclosure, I didn't enter animation through the visual arts either but rather through a degree in English Writing.


Women in Animation: Carol Beecher

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my Smudge Animation site on March 12th, 2013.

My first experience with Carol Beecher was at the 2000 Ottawa International Animation Festival where she sat on a panel discussing how to fund your work--the lone woman with three male independent animators. After the usual introductions were over, the panel found itself caught up in a back-and-forth about the integrity of art that is financed versus that of art which is created for the sake of art. I would like to say that my side of the species held its own and came out on top, but it was apparent very quickly that not only was Carol very educated on her topic and knew her opinions backwards and forwards, but that she was also up to the challenge of debating the men on any issue they raised. My brother and I left the panel discussion afterwards, shaking our heads at the spectacle we had just witnessed. I decided then and there to never make the mistake of entering into a battle of wits with Carol.

Several years later, again at the Ottawa Festival, I found myself sitting right next to Carol in a lecture on production bibles, presented by Heather Kenyon (then of Cartoon Network). After working up the courage to speak to her, we ended up chatting about the Quickdraw Animation Society and her current labor of love: "Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning." Afterwards, she handed me a small button with a skull, which she was using to promote her film and her company Fifteen Pound Pink Productions. She told me to check it out when I got the chance. I did. And it was hysterically funny--enough so that 'Mr. Reaper' remains one of the top five shorts* that I recommend to friends when the topic of Canadian animation comes up.

More years passed by and I found myself, once again, sitting next to Carol at the Ottawa Animation Festival. This time we were waiting for a competition screening to start. But this time, I was prepared. Having reviewed her films and her work for Quickdraw, I asked her if I could interview her for the 'Women in Animation' series on my blog. After explaining the purpose behind this series of interviews, she enthusiastically agreed.

When her responses to my questions arrived in my e-mail's inbox several weeks ago, I read an interview that delivered on every level as I secretly hoped it would. Given what I have witnessed of Carol Beecher since that panel discussion back in 2000, I expected no less. And I knew that she would find a way, whether intentionally or not, to challenge me into thinking beyond my own opinions and biases--much like she did thirteen years ago in Ottawa.

*  *  *

Q: What is your current job description?

A: As an independent animator, that question doesn’t have a straight forward answer, what job I do depends on the day. I would probably be a described as a Producer/Co-Director/Animator, as a “title” and which ever one of those jobs needs doing at any given time then that’s what I do. I’m also involved in writing, researching, designing (visual and sound), and promoting the projects we do.

Q: How long have you worked in the animation industry?

A: I’ve been involved in animation for about 23 years, I’ve never worked in the industry per se, my world runs parallel in the independent/academic/non-profit sectors.

Q: What roles have you performed during your career in animation?

A: I started out in 1990 as the first Operations Coordinator at the Quickdraw Animation Society in Calgary, while working on my own animation projects. That job was pretty big, as I did all the administrative work (operations, equipment and project grant writing, book keeping, programming organization, volunteer coordination, vacuuming), but I got to meet and work with a lot of great people and help to push the production and promotion of independent animation, eventually on an international scale. I stopped being involved with QAS in 2004. In 1994 I formed Fifteen Pound Pink Productions with my life partner Kevin D.A. Kurytnik. We did a few client projects but mostly concentrated on in-house art and entertainment projects. Our biggest production was Mr. Reaper’s Really Bad Morning, we worked part time on it for about 10 years, and it was released in 2004. On that project I was Producer which mostly meant writing all the grants (we submitted 14 funding requests for various amounts, got turned down a few times, and landed the big fish with one grant from the Canada Council for the Arts for $60,000.00!) and keeping everybody organized, as well as co-Director, and lead animator for Norman the Daisy, and I was the only clean-up artist, so I touched every single drawing that we did (and we did a lot! There are a dozen banker boxes of Reaper artwork in the basement right now). All of the animation was pencil on paper, then scanned and processed in computer. I also did all the promotional work, festival entries and all that good stuff. With the Intergalactic Who’s Who series it was more of the same, but not so much clean-up. We’re now working on a project with the National Film Board of Canada, working title True North, a 10 minute animated film set during the height of the fur trade, creating a mythic horror story that touches on our stewardship of, and our relationship with, the environment. My Producer role has become more production management, but I am also Head Researcher, which is great fun as I’ve been able to get behind the scenes at several museums across the country and discover really interesting things about the fur trade and Canadian history and geography. We should be starting the animation process for the project this summer. I’m also involved with animation education, I’ve taught classes at the Alberta College of Art + Design and am currently helping to develop the animation curriculum there. And I do quite a bit of mentoring with grant writing and animation production.


"Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning"
(click on the image to view the entire film)
Q: Is there a book or film that you worked on that you are particularly proud of?

A: It would have to be Mr. Reaper. As both Kevin and I are self taught as animators, I equate that film with being our Masters thesis. And we got it finished! We were both working at other jobs (QAS, ACAD, bits of client stuff) and cobbling together the rent and grocery money, but we were incredibly stubborn and just kept going until we were done. I think it stands up really well, and the sound design that Tona Ohama did for us is pretty incredible.

Q: Your previous work spans short narrative animations (Intergalactic Who’s Who) and a longer-form animation (Mr. Reaper’s Really Bad Morning). Which story format do you prefer to work with—short vignettes or longer form stories?

A: With our process now it seems that longer form is more the direction we’re taking. Our NFB project is bashing against the 10 minute running time and wanting to be longer. It’s usually the story and concept that eventually dictates running time, but you can’t let it get out of control. We had a 25 minute version of Mr. Reaper that didn’t work, so we threw out a bunch of the story that we discovered was really just extraneous (and a lot of it was almost finished animation!) and got it down to 17 minutes. The next thing we’ll be doing is developing a feature film. Kevin says he’s done with shorts, but I think I may do some shorter work on my own down the road, exploring more abstract concepts.

Q: Given that we've seen the NFB closing their Mediatheque location in Toronto and funding for the arts is being reduced all across Canada, what do you see as the future for independent, non-commercial animation in Calgary?

A: What happens in Toronto has very little impact on what happens out here (I’ve never even seen the Mediatheque), and historically Alberta has been the least supportive province for arts development, so we’re used to dealing with limited resources out here anyway. There is a problem with getting animators to stay in Calgary, artists of any stripe haven’t been that welcome here and people only tend to see value in black stuff that you can pull out of the ground and not so much the arts and culture thing. I do feel that changing in the last few years, but the situation is quite complex as to where this animation community could be headed in the future. The NFB North West Centre is currently supporting 2 animation productions in Calgary, and I’m sure they’ll be looking for more in the region, but they have to be very careful with their budgets right now. One aspect that very often drives the success of building cultural capitol is the colleges and universities that exist and what their emphasis is. None of the institutions in Calgary has ever had focused programs for animation education. That’s why Kevin and I got so heavily involved in QAS, we wanted more than what we were being offered and we wanted to create something for artists like us so that we all didn’t have to move away to get it. There’s some movement afoot post-secondarily that could have an amazingly positive impact on independent animation here in Calgary, but right now there’s some stagnation occurring. I can’t really say much except that I’m being cautiously optimistic about it.

This animation stuff was never easy to do in the first place, so it tends to attract the really obsessive and tenacious. Technological advances with digital programs like Toon Boom and After Effects is making production avenues more accessible, and laptops are becoming pretty good low end workhorse computers, so now-a-days you can set up at home for a modest investment and once you get a handle on the programs (and I don’t mean presets and short cuts) you can just go nuts. I don’t know of too many animators in the past that could get animation stands and film cameras set up at home, and now there is absolutely no need to spend a bunch of money on post-production, you can upload work to the internet and author your own DVDs at home. Digital projection and BluRay is practically as good as film for presentation, so again that’s a plus for affordability. When we did Mr. Reaper it cost us $16,000.00 just to make the 35mm film neg, we had to pay it off in installments, and that doesn’t include the release prints, which to be safe you should have at least 3 - 5 made. So the technological aspects for supporting animation production is pretty positive, the trick is to make GREAT work, or even good work. This is a combination of talent, knowledge, and drive, and if a person wants to do this bad enough they will. Probably the trickiest part is the knowledge aspect, and I don’t mean just book learnin’ (although that is important) but being aware of and open to all aspects of the art and craft of animation, as well as cinema. My work is informed as much by live action film history and processes as animation, and depending on what we’re trying to achieve visually or conceptually probably more so.



The Vegetation of Zig 5 from Fifteen Pound Pink Productions on Vimeo.

Q: You’ve been heavily involved in the Quickdraw Animation Society in the past, what role do you see societies like QAS and TAIS fulfilling within the animation community? And with the greater accessibility to animation tools (cheaper computers, animation software with more affordable options: Adobe’s Creative Cloud), do you see a future where younger animators continue to take advantage of animation societies like Quickdraw?

A: This is a tricky area, as mentioned above access to technology is becoming easier, so that is something that the co-ops are less and less being accessed for. It was different when you needed several thousands of pounds of animation stand and camera, with all the maintenance required, that’s something that you just couldn’t set up in your basement, even if you had a basement. Now people can set up a pretty decent animation studio in their one bedroom apartment if they wanted to. Probably the biggest issue is the time it takes to actually create animation, it’s not like live action where you can rent a camera and lighting kit and get a short film in the can over a weekend, of course after you’ve done all the pre-production. Animators need to be attached to their technology for months or years, even after the storyboard and pre-production stages. There is a faster turn-around time for the film and video production co-ops who offer equipment resources, so unless an animation co-op is prepared to have a bunch of equipment suites that can be occupied for extended periods of time they need to rethink whether or not that is a service that they should offer.

One thing that I see that most animators (hell, most indy filmmakers) don’t do so well is with financing, promotion, distribution, and archiving. They seem to be completely at odds with what to do once the production is complete, and filling out forms and paperwork and organizing unbelievable amounts of data or artwork, and anything to do with contracts and legality, forget it. Even setting up and maintaining a website or blog can become a job that consumes more time than expected. I struggle to do all of that and would love to be able to hand that off to someone else to deal with (that I could afford). It’s like the co-ops should be offering production management services to their members to handle all those types of concerns.

Programming is also an area that should be a focus, film screenings, artist talks, panel discussions, workshops, celebrations, even open critique events. Animating can be an isolating experience, and getting knowledgeable feedback can be hard to come by. One thing that a lot of students say they miss once they graduate is the class critiques (believe it or not). Showing stuff to friends is all well and good, but showing stuff to another animator who can see things your friends can’t, and who will be honest with you and not just tell you something isn’t working, but will tell you why they think it’s not working, and then offer suggestions on how to make it work. It also forces you to really think about what you’re doing, and if you disagree with the critique then you have to justify your approach and that often reveals that something is missing, you’re not communicating your great concept or story properly so you need to fix that. That’s what helps to build good work, and keeps your mind open to other possibilities.


The PraePredatorPrae from Fifteen Pound Pink Productions on Vimeo.

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

A: There’s always been a stronger tradition of women gravitating to independent production, people like Nina Paley, Erica Russell, Joan Gratz, Caroline Leaf, Signe Baumane, Joanna Quinn, Faith Hubley, Joanna Priestley, Helen Hill, Wendy Tilby, Amanda Forbis, Suzie Templeton, I could keep going, so I don’t see much difference in that part of the animation world. I couldn’t make a similar list of women in comparable roles in the animation industry, there’s a more complex organization at work there, and women only have a token presence in the creative areas of directors, writers, lead animators (which in combination define what an indy animator usually does). Society continues to evolve and change, and as more women enter the field, more opportunities will be made available, and there will be closer equity in the make up of the industry over time. But this is still a highly competitive industry, so you really really have to want to do this to succeed, doesn’t matter what gender you are.

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

A: The independent animation world is a pretty good leveler, the obstacles are much the same for everyone as far as my experience goes. There are still pockets of typical sexist behaviours here and there, but you will very seldom find someone turned down for a grant, refused entry into a festival, or can’t fit in at an animation co-op because of their gender, artists and culture workers are much more sensitive to that type of thing it seems. There are all sorts of other stupid reasons for excluding people, and those stupid reasons can go against men as well as women.

The only real obstacle is having the desire and discipline to be an animator, and then having the courage to make the life choices in order to do that.

I can only speak about the industry based on anecdotal information, it appears to be getting better at the entry level of production, or in the production executive and administrative areas, but there still seems to be significant issues once you get higher up the creative food chain to the director and writer positions.

Q: If your daughter said that she wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give her?

A: Go to a college that has a more open program for animation, not one that specifically focuses on character or digital animation and jobs. If the final graduation project is a demo reel and not a short film, then do not go there. Find a mentor that you can go to for honest advice regarding your projects and career development. Hopefully this will take care of itself in school, but unfortunately not all instructors are capable of being that for their students, and this is probably one of the more important roles for a teacher, especially in the final years at school.

Make a good short film.

Really develop your drawing skills -- especially figure drawing -- and keep working on that for the rest of your life.

Never stop learning and always stay open to new experiences. One thing that drives me nuts is when people close themselves off by only watching anime or only listening to jazz, or passing judgment on things before they’ve even really tried it themselves. I’m not saying you have to like everything, but you have to be aware of what’s out there. I don’t like most rap music, but there are some approaches to that form that surprise me and that I can actually listen to and enjoy, and that take me to other musical areas that I would never have discovered if I just closed myself off to that musical form. And you never know what could inform and strengthen a concept or story, make it surprising and take it beyond cliché.

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

A: Show them everything about animation and film, current and historical, books and comics, prose, poetry, non-fiction.

Get them working with digital technology.

Be honest and fair with criticism, positive and negative, don’t be dismissive, don’t mince words, and don’t oversell.

Challenge them when they start to pigeon-hole themselves.

Help them to find their own voices.

Never ask them “when are you going to get a real job?”

And do this for the boys too.

*  *  *


The Pork 'n' Being from Fifteen Pound Pink Productions on Vimeo.

The videos and images used in this blog entry are copyright Carol Beecher and Fifteen Pound Pink Productions, and used with her permission.

* For those who are interested (listed alphabetically):
1. "Black Soul", by Martine Chartrand
2. "Labyrinth", by Patrick Jenkins
3. "Mr. Reaper's Really Bad Morning", by Carol Beecher and Kevin D.A. Kurytnik
4. "Reboot", by Mainframe Entertainment
5. "Sand Castle", by Co Hoedeman


Women in Animation 2013

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my Smudge Animation site on March 5th, 2013.

Well, it happened again. The other month, as I was working on interviewing three women who work in the animation industry for this year's blog entries, the woman who works at the convenience store across the street from my office struck up a conversation with me.

After a minute or so of idle chit-chat, she asked me what I do for a living. Upon hearing my response that I'm an animator, she got all excited and said that her high school-aged daughter watches tons of Japanese animation with one of her friends, draws a lot, and is interested in maybe studying animation in college. Since 2004, I've walked into that store several times a week to buy lunch or a soda or some munchies to make it through the day. Nina and I have exchanged pleasantries for just shy of nine years, but not once has she ever mentioned having a kid with an interest in animation--or any kid, for that matter.

"Women & Animation"
by Jayne Pilling
This is pretty much the story of my life. In the past, when I've committed to doing something, either resources will start falling into my lap and people with similar interests will cross my path--or doors will unceremoniously slam shut. This has long been my personal indicator that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, having had doors abruptly closed on other life goals.*

Case in point: "Women & Animation". I've been trying to branch out a little more, partially for my own edification and partially for making these blog posts more informative. It's mostly taken the form of research about the history of women who have worked in the field of animation and their contributions to the art form. However, obtaining a copy of Jayne Pilling's book has thus far eluded me. Copies are available on Amazon.com starting at $200 with shipping. Eh, it's an import from England published by the British Film Institute which was printed back in 1992. At the moment, it's a little more than I'm willing to spend on my research. But a quick search through the interlibrary loan yielded the welcome discovery that the Michigan State University Library had a copy in their archives. A ten-minute drive later and I had her book in my hands. The poor thing hadn't been checked out since 2004! Unfortunately, I had to apply for a library card and wait for it to come in the mail before I could take the book home and read it. But, as I sat there in the library and flipped through the pages, what a joy it was to discover that some of the animators contained within its pages were women who were professional acquaintances, good friends, or those whom I had met in passing at animation festivals. Serindipity. Or perhaps something more.

One thing worth mentioning is that 2013 was a very momentous year for women working in the field of animation. Jayne Pilling states in the introduction of her book on page 5:

"Animation is area [sic] in which women as artists and filmmakers have made a real impact over the last two decades, far greater, proportionately, than in live-action feature films."

We now have another milestone to add to the history of women in animation: this year, the first woman director won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Brenda Chapman, the first woman to [co-]direct one of Pixar's feature films, won the Academy Award for "Brave" (along with co-director Mark Andrews).

As was pointed out on Cartoon Brew's February 25, 2013 post:

"It took only twelve years of the Best Animated Feature award before the Academy recognized a film directed by a woman. By comparison, it took 82 years before the Academy awarded an Oscar to a live-action film directed by a woman."

and

"... I should point out that Vicky Jenson co-directed Shrek, which won the very first Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2001. Sadly, Jenson did not receive an Oscar because the award was given to the film’s producer in that first year."

With alternative methods of funding (like Kickstarter and Indiegogo) gaining acceptance, and the cost of production tools coming down, I have to wonder if we are that far off from seeing an Academy Award presented to a female director who creates a feature-length animated film--geared for a female audience--without a male co-director.

Getting back to my conversation with Nina: for once, I actually had advice at the ready for her daughter. I pointed her to my blog and told her about all the women animators that have graciously agreed to an interview--all of them interested in sharing their experiences, good and bad, to both the current and future generations of woman animators.

Starting next week, I'll be posting interviews with animator and musician Anne Beal, Calgary-based animator, instructor and lecturer Carol Beecher, and the 'Queen of indie animation' Signe Baumane. So while you're waiting, feel free to read my previous interviews and thoughts about Women in Animation. And if you're near the MSU library, check out Jayne Pilling's book.

March 2012
Women in Animation: 2012
Angie Hauch
Lynn Dana Wilton

March 2011
Women in Animation: 2011
Jessica Borutski
Jessica Bayliss
Ellen Besen
Eiko Tanaka and Women in Animation

March 2010
Women in Animation: 2010
Lynn Smith
Martine Chartrand
Madi Piller
Stephanie Maxwell


* As I approached graduation from College, I lost my chance to be a fighter pilot due to an astigmatism in my right eye, then a training accident cost me the opportunity to study the martial arts in Thailand shortly thereafter. After making one discrete inquiry on a computer graphics message board six months later, doors started flying open for me to become an animator. Three years after that, I graduated from R.I.T. near the top of my class with an M.F.A. in Computer Animation.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Animated Events: The Ottawa International Animation Festival 2013

Well, September was host to the second largest animation festival in the world: the Ottawa International Animation Festival. So since I was in attendence for the fest, I thought I'd share some of the animated films that were either produced or co-produced by women animators.

Most of these haven't hit the internet yet because they're still working their way through the festival circuit, but I've included trailers where possible. Definitely check them out if you have a chance.

"Soup of the Day" was animated by Lynn Smith through the National Film Board of Canada using her animation style mixing paint-on-glass and cut-out animation.

Ottawa also had the world premiere of Eleonore Goldberg's short film "Wandering".

"Virtuoso Virtual" by Thomas Stellmach and Maja Oschmann is an abstract non-narrative animation that synchs a classical score with an animated line of ink. On the big screen during the fest, this film just hypnotized the crowd.

Virtuos Virtuell (clip) from Thomas Stellmach on Vimeo.

"But Milk is Important" by Elrik Bjornsen and Anna Mantzaris told the story of a man with social anxiety... and the fluffy, well-meaning monster trying to help him overcome his fears.
Animasjonsfilm “But Milk Is Important” from Grafill on Vimeo.

I was very happy when "But Milk is Important" won the Public Prize at the festival. Meaning, this film received more votes from the viewing public than any other film at the festival's competition screenings.

Two films that I can't find trailers for are the student films "Fists of Finance" by Sheridan College's Melissa Allen and "Unfortunately" by Karla Monterrosa from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Quoted from the Ottawa Festival's website:

"Fists of Finance" is: "The story of when the greatest kung fu master refused to pay his bills and unleashed the math fury of his otherwise mild-manned accountant."

and

"Unfortunately" is about a girl who "After getting her first period, an antsy teenager tries to find her new place in the world as a woman."

I wish that there was more that I could post about these two delightful films, as "Fists" has this really cool "Samurai Jack" look-and-feel to it and I really enjoyed the thoughtful perspective shared by "Unfortunately". But, I'll just have to keep an eye open for them after their festival runs are over and post more info later. Hopefully, I'll be able to track these two animators down and maybe get an interview out of them.

Another set of student animators: Kyra Buschor, Anna Habermehl, and Constantin Paeplow screened all four of their "Rollin' Safari" animations that they produced as third-year projects at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg (all of which can be viewed on their youtube page at the following link).

Lastly, Russian animator Anna Shepilova has posted her entire film "It's Raining" on Vimeo. I highly encourage viewers to watch it--though be warned, as this film's themes are a little more mature, it's probably not suitable for viewing at work.

All told, I counted thirty-eight films at the festival competitions and retrospectives (student, international, canadian, etc) that were either created by women animators or where women were prominent members of the production team. One of the things that Ottawa does, which I really appreciate, is that they publish film and bio information on their website for most of the films screened--which you can access via clicking on the hyperlinked animator's names in the above post.

I have to say though, that one of the highlights of the festival for me was when I had the opportunity to meet Lauren MacMullan, Walt Disney's first ever solo-woman short film director.

Eric Goldberg and Lauren MacMullan