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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?

I am an independent animator - director

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

Since 1989

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

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?

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?

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?

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)?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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".