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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Women in Animation: Joan C. Gratz, Part 2

Puffer Girl  1
CW: Now with ‘Puffer Girl’ you recently got into digital tools like After Effects. Do you find that it enhances your claypainting style, or is it more of just trying to use the digital tools to find ways to save time?

JCG: ‘Puffer Girl’ took me several years as I was learning After Effects in the process. An early realization was that I needed a far more powerful computer. The content of Puffer Girl was based on what I wanted to learn and what the program was able to do. The actual claypainting was my traditional hand method, but the editing, Photoshop filters, masks, distortions, etc. were the result of After Effects.

CW: How did you get involved with Joanna Priestly's "CandyJam" project?

JCG: Joanna and I were at the first animation festival in Hiroshima in 1985. We were fascinated by many things including the beautiful and strange candies. Inspired by Marv Newland’s film ‘Anijam’, we decided to co-produce one with multiple directors from around the world. The only stipulation was that the pieces use candy and be one minute long.

Candyjam  1
CW: Were there any concerns about the legality of using other people's products?

JCG: Oh, it never even occurred to us. It wasn't a commercial project. I can't imagine that anyone would have any objections.

CW: You were nominated for an Oscar in 1980 and again in 1992 which you won for "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase", how did winning the Oscar affect your career?

JCG: Creation was nominated for 1981, and Mona Lisa won for 1992. Both short films inspired advertising agencies to approach me about doing a commercial in a similar style and in the case of United Airlines, similar images. The commercial I did for Coke may have been the result of the Oscar win or increased visibility.

The Creation  1
I left Will Vinton Studios in 1987 to direct a commercial in Bristol. This commercial won a prize at Cannes. Since I had done a lot of work before receiving the Oscar, it is hard to know exactly what the effect of winning was. But it did mean that I could join the Academy, get all the free screeners, and vote.

CW: How did you get involved in working on Khalil Gibran's 'the Prophet'?

JCG: I was approached about five years ago by Ron Senkowski, one of the producers. My style has a certain ethereal quality which fit Gibran’s poetry. It went through a long period of development during which they approached many animators. I was never sure if the project would materialize and if I would be included.

CW: Did Salma Hayek Pinault give you artistic freedom to interpret Gibran's poetry as you saw fit, or did she come to you with an idea in mind?

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet  2

JCG: Salma was a producer and Roger Allers was the director of the framing story and our contact person for the producers. The Chapter directors developed their own storyboards and animatics. Roger and the producers gave us feedback on the animatics. Since I work directly under the camera and the last image is covered by the following image, it is almost impossible to make any changes. Most other forms of animation can accommodate revisions.

Before we went to Cannes, I had a conversation with Salma about what to wear on the red carpet. She said “you will come dressed in your own talent." Over the course of premieres in Cannes, Toronto, Doha and Los Angeles, I learned how articulate Salma was and how dedicated she and Roger were to this film and to Gibran’s ‘The Prophet.’

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

JCG: I don’t know because I have primarily been an independent. I think it depends on your level of talent, drive and luck.

Puffer Girl   1
CW: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to women who want to pursue a career in animation?

JCG: I also have no idea about that either. I don't know if you can really differentiate on the basis of gender. It is difficult for anyone who wants to be an independent animator. Often people with great student films are snapped up by ad agencies or do children’s television. They are successful in those genres but never make another personal film. For the truly independent animator with their own vision, gender doesn’t mater, it will be difficult.

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

JCG: I don't have a daughter, so I guess I would just say to whomever, do whatever you want.

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

JCG: If a person wants to do something, they do it. Why should you need to encourage them? Animation can be dull and slow, so unless you have a drive for it, there's no way that you could really encourage them.

Candyjam  1
CW: Tell us about your new book: “My Tesla - A love story of a mouse and her car.”

JCG: With the profit from ‘the Prophet’, I bought a Tesla. It is a picture book about a mouse and her electric car. It is for adults but in the guise of a children’s book.

CW: Did you do all the writing and the illustrations?

JCG: I did the writing and illustrations. It is truly an autobiography. My animation tends to be less personal and often abstract. This book is based on my impulse purchase of the Tesla and the succeeding pleasures, concerns and consequences of electric-car ownership. Last year I purchased the smarter Tesla which is capable of driving itself, parking, and coming when called. So far I haven’t let it do any of these things. My obsession with the car pales in comparison to my obsession with book sales on Amazon. No one on a plane or at an animation festival is immune from my advances. My Oscar is of less concern to me than my ratings on Amazon.

'My Tesla - A love story of a mouse and her car’ is available on Amazon.com.
My Tesla - A love story of a mouse and her car  1
Joan’s is currently sending her latest film ‘Night Weaver’ out to the film festivals. Look for it at an upcoming festival near you!

Night Weaver  1

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For further viewing of Joan’s greater body of work, ‘the Joan Gratz Retrospective’ is available for digital download on iTunes as well as streaming on Amazon. The video includes the films Mona Lisa Descending the Staircase, Puffer Girl, Pro and Con, Lost and Found, Kubla Khan, Dowager’s Feast, and Dowager’s Idyll intercut with discussions of her work by Joan.

‘Mona Lisa Descending the Staircase’ is also available on DVD from Amazon.

Joan’s website is located at www.gratzfilm.com along with excerpts and images from both her independent and commercial work as well as links to her books and DVDs.

Distributed by GKIDS, 'Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet' is currently available for digital download and on DVD and Blu-Ray at Amazon.com.

A small selection of Van Aken clay at Hobby Lobby  3
Students interested in exploring Joan's claypainting style can find Van Aken clay at a Hobby Lobby near you as well as online at their website: www.vanaken.com/clay.htm or on Amazon.com.

Always be sure to observe proper safety procedures whenever preparing the clay and mineral oil.

1. Image copyright Joan C. Gratz and used with permission.
2. Image copyright GKIDS and used with permission.
3. Image copyright Charles Wilson.

Copyright 2016 Smudge Animation LLC, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Women in Animation: Joan C. Gratz, Part 1

My Tesla - A love story of a mouse and her car  1

During the 2014 Ottawa International Animation Festival, I heard a rumor that Academy Award winning animator Joan C. Gratz was at the festival. As she was at the top of my list of women animators that I’ve wanted to meet for quite some time, I kept my ear to the ground in the hopes that I'd figure out where she would be. Well, during the Women in Animation mixer, I asked Gary Schwartz if Joan was there—thinking that if she'd be anywhere at the fest, it would be at the mixer (and if anyone would know if she was there, he would). Gary said that he thought she had been there but had left. Fair enough. So I went to the evening screening and sat down in the Bytowne theater with a friend from Grad School. Not five minutes later, a woman with the nametag "Joan C. Gratz" sat down in the seat in front of us. Serendipity at Ottawa strikes again! Having first seen Joan’s work back in 1988, this was an interview worth waiting for and it’s my pleasure to share it with you.

CW: Your website said that you started working with Will Vinton back in '77, was that your first entry into the animation industry?

JCG: Working with Will Vinton was my first job with regular hours and a small salary. I developed my animated paintings while in architecture school. My work in film predates my job at WVP by about 12 years.

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase  1
CW: Did you show him examples of your clay-painting and he immediately saw a place where you could use that in his films?

JCG: No, two of my unemployed architecture classmates met Will Vinton at a party. They had no particular interest or experience with animation, but ended up working with Will for many years. They were finishing up on Rip Van Winkle and just needed someone for a couple months.

CW: What made you choose animation as a major course of study? You mentioned that you went to school for architecture.

Lost and Found  1
JCG: I do not have a background in animation. After I received a degree in art from UCLA and not wanting a job, I enrolled in Architecture school at the University of Oregon. While there I began painting again. Rather than having stacks of paintings, I started filming my progress on a single canvas. I was using a regular eight camera which didn’t even take single frames. It didn’t initially occur to me that I was making an animated film since I had always associated animation with working on cels in factory-like situations.

CW: Now is that pretty much the key to your process: it's more of a stream-of-consciousness or do you plan out like the cel animators do?

JCG: It depends on the job. If I have a client, I will do a complete storyboard with claypaintings of the key images. With ‘The Prophet’ and an earlier film ‘The Creation’, I was working with a script so the timing and images were worked out in advance. For personal projects, my method is much looser and more surprising to me.

CW: Now just a quick technical question. The only reference I found to your claypainting process is that you use plasticine clay that's heated up and mixed with mineral oil, is this correct?

JCG: Yeah.

Kubla Khan  1
CW: Just any mineral oil, anything special?

JCG: No, I get it at the drugstore because I think it's generally used as a laxative or something. And then when I'm checking out I always feel like I should say " Oh, it's not for constipation it's for my art."

CW: The plasticine, any particular brand you like working with?

JCG: It goes by different names but it's basically kids plasticine modeling clay. I think maybe now it's called "Van Aken" or something like that. Just any meltable clay.

CW: When you say meltable, you just heat it up on the stove?

JCG: The desired hardness or softness of the clay depends on if I am sculpting or painting with it.

Mona Lisa Descending A Staircase  1

CW: It's been reported that Mona Lisa took you ten years to complete. On average how long does it take you to produce one of your films?

JCG: Well, it really depends. 'Mona Lisa' was a ten year process. The first seven doing research and limiting the scope of the project. I received a 20K grant from the American Film Institute which has a two year time limit, so that was a great incentive to finish the animation. The actual animation time was about two - three years. Now because I do all the post myself and there is no lab work or optical printing, the process has become so much cheaper and faster. The actual animation time is the same.

CW: Martine Chartrand said a very similar statement about that, but she made the point that because she's working directly under the camera it's almost impossible to take on interns to help with the work.

JCG: I have never used an intern or had someone work on my claypainted films. The impossibility of this makes the technique so appealing. I have directed others in clay puppet commercials and did mentor a back-lite claypainter for Vinton’s Christmas special. The back-lite technique was developed by Ishu Patel at the NFB.

CW: Since you're doing both independent work and commercial work, which one do you prefer?

Mona Lisa Descending A Staircase  1
JCG: I don't know if you can really make that comparison because for one you get a whole lot of money and for the other you have complete freedom. Now, the budgets for commercials have gone way down and most animated commercials are CG so I haven't been doing much commercial work lately.

CW: Are you finding that the demand for claypainting commercials has been influenced by computer animation?

JCG: There have never been many painterly commercials at any time. Possibly even fewer commercials shot directly under the camera.

CW: So it's not something that you could track--whether it waxed or waned based on introduction of technology or individual tastes.

JCG: I'm just not that interested in commercials to follow what the trends are. It's something that you do and then it's done and then you're rich and you move on. I've done a couple commercials that I really liked--one was for United and one was for Coke. And then a couple were for Wishbone salad dressing. But then there's many others that I'd just as soon forget about. Not that they were terrible but they were of no particular interest to me.
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Tune in next week for part two of Joan's Interview where we discuss more of her independent films and talk about her work on the recent animated feature: "Kahlil Gibran's the Prophet".

1. Image copyright Joan C. Gratz and used with permission.

Copyright 2016 Smudge Animation LLC, all rights reserved.