Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Animator's Showcase: Corrie Francis Parks

Corrie Francis Parks
Following in the footsteps of the first sand animator, Caroline Leaf, but not afraid to make the technique her own through the integration of modern technology, Corrie Francis Parks has created a sand animation called "A Tangled Tale". Having made its way through the festival circuit which includes the Annecy International Animation Festival--the largest and oldest animation festival in the world--her award winning film is now available for viewing on the Internet.

I had the opportunity to chat with Corrie via e-mail a month ago about her experiences in animation and her game-changing film that blends digital and traditional tools: 'A Tangled Tale'.

Q: How much does experimentation with different media factor into your filmmaking? Put another way, do you find yourself coming up with an idea and then figuring out how to do it using sand animation, or do you just start with a blank pane of glass, a handful of sand, and then play while waiting for the happy accidents to teach you something new that you can integrate into your filmmaking process?

A: When I was first starting out with sand, I did a lot of experimenting. I would spend hours trying out different methods of shaping sand and figuring out how to make it move. My first sand film, "Tracks" came directly out of these experiments. The animals seemed to break free of the amorphous piles of sand and just want to run all over. So I definitely built "Tracks" up from the happy accidents I discovered during that time.

Now that I have worked a lot with sand, it sometimes work the other way. Having an idea in mind gives me a starting point for further experimentation. In some of my recent commissioned works, I have made it a goal to incorporate sand somehow, even though the concept may not necessarily make that the obvious choice of technique. This sort of puts me back at that initial stage of exploration again, and that's how I can push the technique further.

My goal at the moment is to play with different types of "sandy" materials. I have a sculptor friend who gave me a bag of his leftover marble dust from all his polishing, and a student gave me a jar of sand from Lake Michigan. I tried animating sugar in one workshop, because we didn't have any sand available, and it gave me a plethora of new ideas. So I never am very far from experimenting with materials.

Q: When you made the decision to work with sand animation, were you influenced by the works of silhouette artists like Lotte Reiniger or sand animators like Caroline Leaf--or even more experimental animators like Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeïeff (pinscreen animation)?

A: Caroline Leaf's work has been a huge influence. When I was in high school I went to a summer animation camp (CSSSA) at CalArts and at the time, my head was only full of Disney characters. The films they showed us absolutely blew my mind. Norman McLaren, Ishu Patel, Frederick Back and of course, Caroline Leaf. Her work taught me to think of materials as part of the story - that they are intimately connected and as visually powerful as the drawings that serve as their foundation. I have had professors both in undergrad and grad school that have encouraged me to play with a lot of techniques, which cultivated an experimental way of thinking. Each of my films from that era has a different look - and only one of them is sand. When you are in school you don't have the luxury of spending an insane amount of time working with a particular material because you have deadlines and parameters for your work. Now that I have been working with sand for several years I can see its potential both as a stand-alone technique and in combination with other techniques. To borrow a phrase from another animator friend, "A Tangled Tale" is definitely a "research film" in my mind. I still feel like I have a long way to go before I consider myself a master of sand animation and I look to those early experimental animators as inspiration to keep pushing the boundaries further.


A Tangled Tale from corrie francis parks on Vimeo.

Q: Sand animation carries restrictions, much like any 2d medium--most notably a lack of three-dimensionality in scenes as well as characters who are locked into silhouette. Do you find that these restrictions limit you as a filmmaker or does it help your focus on what's really important in your story? Do you ever find yourself thinking 'arrgh, I could do this really cool scene if only I was using cel animation instead of sand?'

A: Well, the main thing I catch myself thinking is "I could do this so much faster if I was drawing!" I don't mind the flatness of sand - I tend to think that way when I do drawn animation as well - crazy perspective shots were never my style. The limitations make me pay much more attention to the texture of the sand and the fluidity of its movement. I am a big proponent of limitations in my working methods. If I find myself struggling with something in an art project, I will create a set of rules to follow - like limiting my color palette or using only one type of brush - so I think the limitations of sand are an asset for me.

In A Tangled Tale, I was really struggling with how to create a dimensional feeling to the water without making the environment feel too CG. Most of the camera movements are along that 2D plane until the climactic scene at the end where the perspective shifts mid-shot. That was a very intentional moment which visually reinforces what's going on in the story.

Q: You funded your film through a variety of sources: grants, donations, Kickstarter, etc. How has crowdfunding changed the way you go about financing your films?

A: It has made it possible for me to make films that are at a professional level. Since I work as a freelancer, I strongly believe that trained, skilled artists should get paid a fair market rate for their work. Anything that I would want for myself, I want to offer to my team. I don't think I would have made this film without Kickstarter because I would not have felt right asking people to donate their time. Some people did without me asking and others offered me reduced rates because they believed in the project and that was amazing, but it was their impetus not pressure from me and that is what makes the film feel so polished and professional. The effect snowballs because when there are so many people invested in it, I make a better film and when the film is great, other people want to jump on board. The Montana Film Office gave me a very nice travel grant to take the film to festivals and other festivals have noticed it and wanted to promote it.

Q: From the perspective of a woman animator, what do you think is the most important thing that authority figures (parents/teachers/professors) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

A: I wish someone had made me sit down and learn a basics of how business and accounting works! This is probably NOT what any young animator wants to hear from their parents/teachers/professors. I certainly didn't listen to mine when they gave me good advice. The animation industry is changing. A lot of the work is moving to small, boutique studios as the big studios ship out overseas. So having some good business sense will be important whether you are going to start your own studio or work at someone else's. When I was in college, I interned at a small studio in New York and I was sure I would never want the stress of running my own business. Yet here I am, balancing budgets and pitching to clients in between the actual moments I'm animating. Having those skills is what enables me to do the work I really want to do - playing in the sandbox!

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Readers interested in the nuts-and-bolts of Corrie's animation process will enjoy viewing the following video. Corrie has posted a 'Making of' video that she recorded over the span of producing 'A Tangled Tale'.


Making Of - A Tangled Tale from corrie francis parks on Vimeo.

Another of Corrie's animations that showcases her sand animation technique is "Snow", an animated Christmas card that she produced.



Corrie's website and blog are located at: www.corriefrancis.com and corriefrancis.blogspot.com respectively. She has created a website for her film "A Tangled Tale" located at: www.atangledtalefilm.com. And you can follow her on Twitter at: @CorrieFrancis (https://twitter.com/CorrieFrancis)

You can view other animations that Corrie has produced throughout her career on her YouTube channel. Additionally, you can purchase copies of "A Tangled Tale" on DVD, which includes the making of video as well as several of Corrie's other sand animated films. Her webstore is located at: atangledtale.bigcartel.com.

Lastly, Corrie just published a short piece on "animationstudies 2.0", the official blog for the Society for Animation Studies, where she presents her film and discusses her filmmaking process. You can read it here.