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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.

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