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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

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