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Declaration Of Independents: Independent Animation is Alive and Well in New York

Melissa Chimovitz profiles the healthy independent animation scene in New York, focusing on the work of seven animators: George Griffin, John Canemaker, Kathy Rose, Debra Solomon, Steve Dovas, Lewis Klahr, Janie Geiser.

Download a Quicktime movie from Everybody's Pregnant by Debra Solomon. © D. Solomon. 1MB. Download a Quicktimemovie from The Pharoh's Belt by Louis Klahr. © Louis Klahr. 1MB. Download a Quicktime movie from The Red Book by Janie Geiser. © Janie Geiser. 1MB.

"A new method of making animated films has surfaced in the last decade, and with it a new generation of artists who use the medium primarily for self-expression. The new animators assume direct responsibility for nearly every aspect of the filmmaking process: concept, drawing, shooting, even camera-stand construction. This reclamation of creative authority contrasts sharply with the impersonal assembly-line production system of the studio cartoon industry and returns animation to its original experimental impulse as embodied in the work of Winsor McCay, Emile Cohl, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger." These words, published in the preface to Kit Laybourne's The Animation Book, were written exactly 20 years ago by George Griffin, the figurehead widely recognized as being responsible for mobilizing this new generation into a movement in the late 1970s. Although the independent movement had satellite members in all points of the country, nowhere was the sense of community stronger than in New York City, and at no time was that community more unified than at the end of the `70s. With Griffin as the driving force, animators like Jane Aaron, Al Jarnow, Kathy Rose, John Canemaker, Suzan Pitt, James Whitney, and Victor Faccinto, among countless others, redefined animation with their unique personal approaches to filmmaking. Aligning themselves more with the art world than with the traditional animation establishments of the time, these filmmakers were decidedly anti-commercial, often irreverent, sometimes even superior, but always expressive. In those days, the New York chapter of ASIFA was much more focused on studio-oriented animation and was not open to experimental, personal work. As a response, the group became Downtown's answer to ASIFA, meeting monthly in each other's apartments to screen films, discuss work-in-progress, organize events, and socialize. The hard-core group consisted of about a dozen people, but often artists invited out-of-town guests, and sometimes as many as 30 or 40 people would arrive at the meetings. "It was like a party," explains Griffin, "at which people would talk out loud to the assembled group. And then, after a while, when the discussion became tiresome, it just sort of degenerated into a regular party." Besides a strong sense of community, many serious projects were also generated as a result of these salon-esque meetings. At one point, the wife of a successful novelist became inspired by the group, and opened a gallery dedicated to experimental animation in New York's art district, Soho. For about two years, the gallery hosted screenings, open discussions, drawing exhibitions and art happenings.

Another notable result of the group's activities was the 1978 publication of Frames, a collection of drawings and statements from 69 independent American animators. Assembled by Griffin, the book acts as a visual manifesto of the independent movement. Each page reflects the poetics and style unique to each artist, and together, the collection clearly illustrates the wide diversity within the movement. While there are some common qualities that often link the work (i.e.: the use of a loose, expressive line drawn on paper rather than cels, or the frequently autobiographical content), overall, the only thing that defines the group as a whole is the resolute individualism within each artist and the general tendency to defy definition.

The influence of the independent movement is still reflected in the work of many of today's filmmakers, though the animation world has changed dramatically since the `70s. One important change that might have brought about the dissipation of the movement was a new openness and acceptance of personal and experimental animation by the New York chapter of ASIFA. Currently, ASIFA is extremely involved in promoting the independent animation community, and the executive board consists of many members of the original independent movement. The turnout at last month's ASIFA-East Awards screening was proof that New York animators support one another. Accepting her award for Grand Prize, Debra Solomon said gratefully, "This is the best place to win an award."

Perhaps the most significant changes though, are in the various new applications of independent animation, most notably, television. Venues like MTV, Nickelodeon, and The Children's Television Workshop have helped to bring fresh, innovative animation to a mainstream audience, and owe much of their success to the talents of the independent animators they employ. With the emergence of the Internet and web sites like the Absolut Vodka Experimental Animation Festival, small audiences at underground screenings and salon-style discussion groups have been replaced by a worldwide, virtual audience.

This new enthusiasm and emphasis on independent animation is a controversial issue, of course. Many feel that the loss of the community generated from a common resistance to the mainstream is a sad statement of the effects of commercialization. Others feel that these new venues represent a new respect for animation as an art-form, and new opportunities for talented, innovative artists who have long lacked the recognition they deserve.

Wherever the truth lies, one thing is certain: Twenty years later, independent animation is alive and well and living in New York City. Although most animators must make a living doing commercial work, finding grants, or teaching, the ever-stubborn New Yorker will find a way to continue making independent films. Says Griffin, "There's a kind of individualism... I mean old-fashioned, curmudgeonly, renegade spirits who just will do it, even if there's no commercial room for it, and despite all the odds."

Unfortunately, time and space only allowed for me to speak to seven of the many animators living and working independently in the Big Apple, but the following profiles represent a diverse cross-section of old-school, new-school, experimental, and traditional filmmakers.

The following artists are profiled:

George Griffin | John Canemaker | Kathy Rose

Debra Solomon | Steve Dovas | Lewis Klahr | Janie Geiser

George Griffin has been a zealous force in the New York independent scene, supporting other animators by sharing his studio facilities.

George Griffin has been a zealous force in the New York independent scene, supporting other animators by sharing his studio facilities.

George Griffin: The American Independent

George Griffin, called the "paradigm of the independent animator" by Giannalberto Bendazzi, has never abandoned the principles that motivated him when he began making animated films 20 years ago. His work alone reflects two of the major characteristics of the independent movement: a responsibility to himself as an artist and to his own style, and the freedom to experiment and change that style as often as he wishes. Few artists have been as dedicated to the promotion of animation as an art-form as Griffin. Griffin's interest in animation started with his exposure to avant-garde cinema just after college. Drawn to the radical aspirations of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, and Stan van der Beek, Griffin found that the anarchistic element of experimental film - "Forget all the rules, start from scratch, make mistakes, goof off, that's art!" - appealed to him. He began by emulating these pioneers, but was dissatisfied with what he was creating. When he began working in various commercial cartoon studios in New York, he not only had the opportunity to learn the rules he had been so eager to break, but he also recognized the growing need for rule-breaking within the animation world. Thus began a symbiotic relationship between Griffin and traditional animation that would continue over the next twenty years. He began by extracting the basic elements of traditional cartooning - a pen, paper, a simple line and some basic movement techniques - and applying his own sensibility. He scaled animation down to its barest form, creating several flipbooks and performing experiments when shooting them. He felt determined to create films that were written, drawn, and animated by only himself, thus eliminating the need for an "assembly line" production team. As his dissatisfaction with the studio system grew (he admits that a loathing of authority and an inability to draw like a Disney master were largely responsible for his growing distaste), so did his determination to go his own way. Once relieved of his job, he began making brilliantly innovative films that challenged the conventions of filmmaking. In films like Head and Lineage, Griffin mixes trick photography, animation and live-action to create a "film-within-a-film" kind of self-awareness. This self-reflexive approach, though he later abandoned it, was rife with the kind of irreverence that fueled his campaign for independent animation. Although in recent years he has yielded to the reality of commercialism, peppering his personal work in with freelance commercial jobs for larger studios, Griffin's independent spirit is as stubborn as ever. His most recent film, A Little Routine, may lack the irreverent bite of his previous work, but preserves the element of personal exploration that has always been there. It is an endearing slice-of-life look at the daily routine a father and daughter share before saying goodnight. This and many of his other, earlier works are now available on a video compilation called "Griffitti." Finally, Griffin is currently developing a new film that he actually conceived 20 years ago, at the height of his independent activism, proving that what comes around truly goes around.

John Canemaker's new film, Bridgehampton, will be included in an upcoming retrospective of his work at MoMA. © John Canemaker.

John Canemaker's new film, Bridgehampton, will be included in an upcoming retrospective of his work at MoMA. © John Canemaker.

John Canemaker

: Thoroughly Devoted

Just as George Griffin pushes and pulls against the mainstream animation world, discovering and rediscovering his relationship with that tradition, perhaps even more so does John Canemaker. His diversity, represented by his dedication to his work as a historian of early American animation (particularly Disney), and his concurrent work as a creator of personal, independent films, proves Canemaker to be one of the most thoroughly devoted figures in animation today - not to mention the busiest. Somehow, between heading the animation department at New York University, lecturing around the world on early American animation, teaching, and writing countless books, essays and articles, Canemaker has found the energy and time to continue to create the very meaningful personal films that he began making in the late `70s.

Canemaker started his career as an actor, but returned to his true love, animation, while studying communications in college. He made his first film as an undergraduate, and by the time he had finished his Master's in film in 1976 at New York University, he was already working with animators such as Derek Lamb on commercial projects. He continued to make personal work however, and in 1978 his film, Confession of a Stardreamer, gained attention, and he began to establish a commercial career.

Many of Canemaker's commissioned works were very topical in nature, and were often the most satisfying for him. Films that dealt with serious issues such as child abuse, war, teen suicide, and children with cancer presented Canemaker with the challenge of finding visual solutions to very complex thematic problems. His acute sense of animation's ability to venture into the feelings of a young child in chemotherapy in a way that live-action cannot is what won him the Academy Award for You Don't Have to Die, a film he made for HBO.

Canemaker began teaching with Richard Protovin at NYU in 1980, and in 1988 he took over the Animation Department. Naturally, students learn and apply the fundamental technical aspects of animation, however, Canemaker encourages his students to explore their individual voice. "They only have 4 precious years [in school] when they can make films, so they might as well find who they are. Then often times, the commercial projects will come to us because of who we are," says Canemaker.

This has certainly been the case with Canemaker, though the commercial projects have never been a means to an end for him; he continues to make a personal film every one or two years. Most recently, he finished Bridgehampton, a radiant 6 1/2-minute film inspired by the changing seasons in the garden outside his Long Island summer home. Collaborating with jazz pianist, Fred Hersch, Canemaker creates a wonderfully vibrant visual poem that incorporates all the colors and moods of each season. The style, derived from paintings Canemaker made of his garden, is fresh, loose, and fluid, representing his preference towards a more expressive kind of animation. "I like to see process. In animation, to see on paper something change a little bit, flicker and bubble, that's what makes the drawing come to life- that is the magic. The great thing about the illusion of animation is that you don't have to do very much for people to come into the world.

"That is totally the opposite of Disney's philosophy, which is if you embellish the design and make it as real and believable as possible, people will weep when Bambi's mother dies. And they're right, too." Therein lies the Canemaker dichotomy. He admits, laughing, "I'm a little difficult to pin down. I did try character animation, but found that as I simplified things, it became more me. Bridgehampton is an attempt to move towards a more abstract filmmaking, and I may go totally in that direction in the future."

In the meantime, he is busy working on several new books, including one on the storyboard artists from early Disney history, one on Disney's "Nine Old Men," and a children's book that he illustrated about his cat. In fall of 1998, the Museum of Modern Art will hold a retrospective of 20 years worth of Canemaker's work, from the commercially sponsored to the very personal, and including, of course, lectures by the artist.

While Griffin, Canemaker, and many of the other original members of that groundbreaking group of independents are still actively working in animation, for Kathy Rose, animation has become just one of many tools she employs to break still more experimental ground. By combining her many talents and passions, Rose has created a new genre of performance that mixes animation, live-action, music, and dance.

Kathy Rose performs with her own animated images on screen. Photo © Kathy Rose.

Kathy Rose performs with her own animated images on screen. Photo © Kathy Rose.

Kathy Rose: Combining Dance and Animation

As the daughter of a successful photographer in Queens, Rose's interest in art was cultivated at a very early age. "I was an artist from the age of three," she says. "I was just totally involved in creativity and drawing." She and her brother (filmmaker Pete Rose) were encouraged by their father to experiment with film; Kathy was 16 when she started making surreal, experimental films. While in college at Philadelphia College of Art as a film major, she became interested in dance and performance, and performed with a multi-media dance troupe. Upon graduating, she became interested in the animated films of Yoji Kuri and Karel Zeman, and set out to teach herself how to animate. Working in drawing pads, she shot storyboards that became more and more complex, and eventually began to move.

Having found the outlet for her love of film and her passion for drawing, Rose attended California Institute of the Arts in the early `70s, where she found a tight-knit community of artists doing experimental animation with the help of pioneer filmmaker, Jules Engel. After three years in California, Rose eventually returned to New York, and won first prize for her film, The Doodlers, at the ASIFA festival. At the awards banquet, she met George Griffin and Mary Beams, and became involved in the Independent Movement that had just begun to take shape.

Self-portraiture has always played a strong role in Rose's animated films. In Pencil Booklings (1978), she appears in the film, at first in rotoscope form as the creator of her characters. She interacts with the little doodle-esque figures, reprimanding them when they behave badly, and even walking out of the frame when they completely frustrate her. Finally, when one of the characters tells her that if she wants to create good animated cartoons, she must first become one, she follows the advice and transforms into one of her own characters. The work to follow seems to be a natural extension of that merger of artist and art.

After the death of her father, Rose no longer found animation fulfilling. While watching a double bill of Marilyn Monroe at the Bleeker Street Cinema, she realized that she wanted to perform again, and was encouraged by her then-employer, Bob [R.O.] Blechman, to mix animation and dance. When she received a NEA grant to produce a media project, she came up with Primitive Movers, a short performance that involved a row of animated figures, all her height, projected on a screen and dancing alongside her. The effect was a hypnotic, abstract and highly energetic piece of performance unlike anything else being done at the time. "I knew that (the piece) had to be something that would fulfill this personal craving I had to do performance, but I wasn't interested in just getting up on stage with a black leotard. I needed the color, I needed the visual input because I'm a visual artist. So, to have something that was part of my past and part of my imagination up there with me was very important."

Soon, Rose began projecting her animation upon herself and her dancers on stage, and the mixture of animation and dance provided a new freedom of imagination and possibility. A dress worn by a dancer could change color and pattern, fill up with water then drain itself, all to a pulsating African rhythm. Her hybrid performance style was well-received in Europe, where she often toured, as well as back at home, where she performed to a full house at New York's Museum of Modern Art in their Cineprobe series.

Although Rose feels that her new direction was a natural extension of the often irreverent, rule-breaking animation movement she was a part of in the `70s, she sometimes feels as though her work is perceived as a "wild tangent." Says Rose, "Occasionally, I get people who are very steadily ensconced in animation saying, `Don't you think you should go back to doing animation?' And I think, `Why would I want to do that now that I've opened up to this whole wonderful holographic world?'"

Instead, Rose's work has developed into its own complex and sophisticated genre, almost defying definition. She is currently working on a one-hour piece entitled Kleopat'Ra, which is rich with influences ranging from Japanese Noh theater and Butoh dance to Egyptian mythology and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The piece is the first time Rose will incorporate both animation and live-action into her performance.

While all of these sundry cultural and aesthetic influences and the myriad of techniques Rose employs could easily cancel each other out, they are instead woven together beautifully in Kleopat'Ra, making the performance much more than the sum of its parts. A collaborator of Rose's says, "I'm certainly conscious of the piece being about a personal journey that's meant to lead the audience on a journey as well.... It's definitely meant to create a whole other dimension, a whole other world."

Rose has been performing excerpts from Kleopat'Ra at various venues around the East Coast, most recently at New York's historical avant-garde performance space, The Kitchen. The piece, which Rose started creating in 1993, will be complete in December of this year.

Debra Solomon: The Best Medicine

After studying illustration at Pratt University in New York, Solomon spent several years working as a freelance illustrator. She soon noticed that her work was decidedly funny and would lend itself well to animation. "I had the sense that I wanted the characters I was drawing to move around and tell stories," she says, "But because I didn't really have any salable skills to get a job in a studio, and because I was so driven to do my own work (rather than someone else's in a studio-setting), I continued working as an illustrator for seven years." Her freelance experience not only furnished her with a lifetime supply of amusing anecdotes (a job cartooning for a pornographic magazine once provided her with the unexpected bonus of a loyal obscene phone-caller; he called her incessantly for three years until she patiently advised him on where to get some help), but it also enabled her to save up enough money that she was finally able to finance an independent film.

Solomon enrolled in Don Duga's animation class, and during a trip to the Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, she found inspiration. "You're at the exhibit, you're looking at pictures of Matisse's wife in a robe, his wife on the Quay, his wife reading a book, making dinner, doing this, doing that, and then halfway through the exhibit, there's this little sign that says, `Matisse moved to the South of France by himself.' And I said, `What happened to his wife?' She was about in her 50s, and I thought, `Well, that's about the time for gravity to have shifted everything downwards.... I know what happened to this woman!'"

With much encouragement from her husband and support from her "animation goddess," Yvette Kaplan, Solomon went to work storyboarding and writing a song for her first animated film, Mrs. Matisse. She hired her friend Ken Kimmelman to animate the film while she worked as his assistant. In this way, she was able to learn how to in-between and make her drawings move fluidly. The result is a witty, if somewhat bitter, tale of heartbreak told by a cartoon Mrs. Matisse to a rap beat.

Mrs. Matisse took two years to finish, and in the meantime, Solomon was still illustrating and producing humor books to keep her income steady. When that project was over, she animated a few commercials (most recognizable, perhaps, is the ad for Solo fabric softener: "Oops! Forgot to add the fabric softener!"), and began developing an idea for a new film. She and her husband had been trying to have a baby without success, and somehow, though she calls the experience "among the worst things that ever happened to me," she was still able to find enough humor in her situation to make a film about infertility.

"It is the situations in life that break your heart or are so overwhelming that are the ripest for humor, and are the places where you need to laugh the most," Solomon says. "At some point in a doctor's office, I had this very strong image of being on a meat-hook, hanging upside-down, going through his office on one of those motorized racks that they take meat around with, and I thought, `I have to make a film about this.'" Everybody's Pregnant spares no detail in illustrating the nightmarish steps some couples must take to conceive a child. All to a peppy synchronized beat, viewers hear about the grueling side effects of a particular test, a hysterosalpingogram. Another chorus blithely repeats, "My husband is a sperm machine..." In one sardonic swoop, Solomon has made a deeply personal but wonderfully humorous film that allows us to sympathize and relate to her experience, even if we've never experienced anything like it.

The film has been a success in more ways than one: it won the Grand Prize at last month's ASIFA-East awards, but more importantly, it marked a significant point in Solomon's artistic career. She says, "In all the work I ever did, all I wanted to do was find my own voice. That was always the most important thing... All of a sudden, in the middle of making this film, I thought, `This really is my voice.'"

Call Me Fishmael by Steve Dovas. © Steve Dovas.

Call Me Fishmael by Steve Dovas. © Steve Dovas.

Steve Dovas: A New Independent

When Steve Dovas showed John Canemaker, his professor at NYU at the time, some "patently offensive comic strips" ("vicious, evil, and post-adolescent in every possible way,"), the response was clear and direct: "You will animate!" The encouragement Dovas received from Canemaker and fellow NYU professor, Richard Protovin, was enough to launch a successful career as a freelance animator.

Over the past 15 years, Dovas has worked with some of New York's most important animators. Before graduating from NYU, he worked with John Canemaker on his 1983 film, Bottom's Dream. By the time Dovas left school, Canemaker had introduced him to Michael Sporn, whom he worked closely with on projects ranging from counting films for Children's Television Workshop (most notably, a counting film that Dovas himself concepted in which lemmings count off cheerfully as they hurl themselves from a cliff) to animated spots for HBO and MTV.

The life of a freelance animator in New York does not always prove to be conducive to realizing personal projects. "Because of a combination of an incredible level of self-criticism and practical financial considerations, I went a lot of years without making an independent film of my own," says Dovas. "I had aspirations to pay my rent and continue buying groceries."

Finally, an opportunity arose last year to produce his own personal project when the Sundance Channel approached Dovas to create a short as a promotion. Though the promotion never ended up happening, Dovas followed through with his idea for a short, and within a month, had finished Call Me Fishmael, his first totally independent film.

"It was something that I hadn't seen anybody do before. It seemed like a subject that was just begging to be chewed up," recalls Dovas of his concept for Fishmael, which is essentially an animated "pitch." In five minutes or less, a highly animated stick-figure (played by Dovas himself) enthusiastically pitches an idea for a high-seas adventure film involving a giant fish who sings like Mel Torme. At the end of the film, a short live-action video sequence shows the fruits of the stick-figure's labors: the giant fish is played by a well-disguised oven-mitt-puppet swimming in a pool of Gatorade in Dovas' bathtub.

"I wanted to do the most expressive physical character animation that I could possibly do with as minimal a figure as I could think of, " Dovas says. "This guy is minimal as a person - he has no sense of self-perspective at all. It seemed appropriate that his ideas would be fully rendered, but that he's this really crudely drawn crayon stick-figure."

Call Me Fishmael has received acclaim at festivals across the country. It was well-received at the World Animation Celebration in Los Angeles, and received an award (as well as a very hearty round of applause from peers in the audience) at April's ASIFA-East Festival.

Lewis Klahr's Altair. © Lewis Klahr.

Lewis Klahr's Altair. © Lewis Klahr.

Lewis Klahr: Master of Collage

Many New York artists found their inspiration in a generation of West Coast experimental filmmakers that preceded them. Pioneers like Harry Smith and Larry Jordan were highly influential to Lewis Klahr, whose work can be seen more as a natural extension of the experimental film tradition than of conventional animation. Like the members of the West Coast experimental movement, Klahr prefers not to delineate between live-action and animation. Instead, he refers to his work as collage filmmaking, which, when taking into account the arc of his productive career, is a very accurate description.

Klahr became interested in animation after a Whitney Museum screening of the work of Larry Jordan, whose use of nostalgic imagery, surrealistic collaged cut-outs and dream-like free-association left a lasting impression on him. At that point, however, Klahr felt he was not ready to begin making animated films. "When I saw cut-out animation, I had this sense that I wanted to try it...it was something I had been planning for a long time. I had this feeling that I was going to do rich work in animation, but that it was not something I wanted to waste in this early period."

Instead, Klahr's first films were shot using live-action, and were exploratory and diaristic in nature. He was drawn to the singularity of vision that this kind of work promoted. Klahr delved into this "first-person" approach to filmmaking, as he calls it, and over a 6-year period, he developed a complex visual language that incorporated collaged found-footage. The use of appropriated film imagery no doubt allowed for a natural transition into cut-out animation, and in 1987, Klahr focused his full attention to this area.

Klahr's entry into animation was anything but timid. On the contrary, over the past eleven years, Klahr has produced a large quantity of animation. One of his most ambitious projects is a 45-minute animated film entitled The Pharaoh's Belt. Using cut-out images from old magazine advertisements from the `50s, The Pharaoh's Belt deals with issues of childhood, gender, and identity - common themes that reappear in many of Klahr's films. He attempts to create what he calls a "cultural autobiography," an exploration of the parts of his identity he has culturally inherited.

The appropriation of nostalgic and often idealized imagery helps to illustrate this notion. "What's interesting to me about appropriation is that you are dealing with something that is received, but you are also shaping it in a way that might bring out latent meanings that are not immediately clear," explains Klahr. "I'm curious about the way an individual consciousness changes the trajectory of meaning."

Often, Klahr's films begin with hardly any preparation, and with only an indistinct idea of what will transpire under the camera. The action evolves naturally during shooting, and as Klahr sifts through his vast collection of images kept in various shoe boxes, flat files, and filing cabinets in his Lower East Side studio. The effect is a surreal juxtaposition of images, often haunting and dreamlike. "The way I compose is very intuitive. It's one of the most satisfying parts of the process because I'm in this kind of reverie.... I'm able to project myself into these images and create a whole world."

Janie Geiser's The Red Book. © Janie Geiser. Download a Quicktime movie of this film.

Janie Geiser's The Red Book. © Janie Geiser. Download a Quicktime movie of this film.

Janie Geiser: Experimental Puppetry

Multi-media artist, Janie Geiser shares this interest in evoking illusory, dreamlike worlds, and her unique visceral style translates beautifully from her illustration work to her experimental puppetry to her very personal stop-motion animated films.

After graduating as a painting major from the University of Georgia, Geiser saw a performance at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta that introduced her to the idea that puppetry could act as a means of personal expression, not just entertainment for children. Intrigued, she took a part-time job at the Center that summer, and spent hours organizing and studying their collection, thereby learning about puppets from all over the world.

Until then, the puppets, dioramas, and art objects Geiser had made were never intended for performance. When the head of the Center encouraged her to take on a theatrical project, Geiser says she became hooked. Her first foray into puppet performance was a piece based on a dream she'd had using traditional hand-and-rod puppets, and from there, Geiser continued to experiment with different styles and techniques of puppetry. Influenced by everything from Japanese Bunraku style puppetry to Indonesian shadow plays, Geiser developed a visual vocabulary combining her stylized handmade puppets and her highly intuitive storytelling technique. Her Obie award-winning work is widely recognized as having helped to promote puppetry as a respected theatrical art.

During the time that Geiser was developing her work in puppetry, she had also become interested in animation, but felt that she was too ensconced in puppetry to be able to take on film at the same time.

Ten years later, after learning the basics of filmmaking in a course at New York's School of Visual Arts, Geiser began incorporating film into her work in innovative ways. In addition to making several live puppet films that were later projected within her live performances, she began to experiment with stop-motion animation.

In all of Geiser's work, it is clear that she is motivated both visually and emotionally. In The Secret Story (1996), beautifully weathered antique toys and paper dolls act as ghosts of childhood memories, evoking the imaginative inner world of a girl. Throughout are reminders of motherhood and girlhood: a yellowing dressmaker's pattern acts as a shadow play screen, as a silhouetted woman hangs paper doll dresses on a line. Although the film's narrative is non-linear and uncompromisingly personal, the poetic nature of its imagery makes it universally meaningful.

Geiser's most recent animated film, Immer Zu (1998), is wildly different in genre, but is equally personal and emotionally engaging. Inspired by images of espionage paraphernalia and the classic noir films of old Hollywood, Immer Zu is filmed in black and white, and follows the clandestine exchange of coded messages between a man and a woman while a third man lies ill in a hospital bed. Geiser's initial idea to make a film noir evolved into a complex reflection on dying when the death of her father became a strong emotional force motivating the project. Since animation, unlike theater, allows Geiser to work in meditative seclusion, the process of making Immer Zu was very therapeutic.

Geiser continues to explore various media. In the works are a live-action collaborative film project with performance artist, Sally Mays, two new puppet pieces, and an on-going puppetry workshop for local New York artists, funded by a grant from the St. Ann's Arts Foundation.

Melissa Chimovitz is a freelance writer with a predilection towards run-on-sentences. Armed with a degree in photography from Rhode Island School of Design, a portfolio of handmade puppets, a short animated film ( Eat'm Up: A Very Short Film About Love [1997]), and a determination to become a great animator, she will enter Cal Arts' Masters Program for Experimental Animation in September 1998. In the meantime, she lives happily in Brooklyn, New York, where she is participating in Janie Geiser's soon-to-be-named puppetry lab and working on a new film.

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