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Joanna Priestley: Goddess of Independent Animation

Animator Joanna Priestley celebrates 20 years of innovation, imagination and squiggly lines with the recent release of her two-disc DVD anthology, Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits.

I have enjoyed her work for years. You have to see this.
Gus Van Sant
Portland animator Joanna Priestley celebrates 20 years of experimental film with the release of a two-disc retrospective, Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits. All images © Joanna Priestly/PrimoPix.

Portland animator Joanna Priestley celebrates 20 years of experimental film with the release of a two-disc retrospective, Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits. All images © Joanna Priestly/PrimoPix.

The world does not want for creativity. People are inherently creative beings, whether as cooks, gardeners or artists. The limiting ingredient is, if not time or resourcefulness, most often money.

Priestley started as a printmaker and painter, and her first film was made using rubber stamps. Photo credit: Kosawa.

Priestley started as a printmaker and painter, and her first film was made using rubber stamps. Photo credit: Kosawa.

The common perception is that big time animation has its center in Los Angeles after all, thats where the money is and that indie animation has its fingers dug into the gritty scene of New York City. In the United States, Los Angeles and New York are the foci of the entertainment business, whether one is doing television, features, commercials or public service announcements.

And yet, in the forgotten outposts of other cities and towns, the lamp of animation burns just as brightly. Paul Fierlinger comes to mind, having worked as an independent animator for the last 30 years in Philadelphia. And, with the recent release of her two-disc DVD anthology Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits Portland animator Joanna Priestley also deserves a note of celebration for her 20 years of experimental film.

Opening up the anthology, Priestley does not waste any time: a paper insert falls into your lap, and happily reports, How to Make an Independent Animated Film. The ideas and inspirations are a dime a dozen. But where is the magic genie to fund the project? For those willing to investigate and pursue fellowships and sponsorships, there is hope.

Now, Priestleys films are largely experimental in nature, meaning she is more concerned with the technique and process of creating her work than in remaining beholden to narrative expectations. So, switch your thinking caps. As she animates candy, meat, glass and sculpture, in addition to such mundane media as watercolor and pastel drawings, there always emerges a kind of warmth in the stories she shares.

Priestleys artistic origins were as a printmaker and painter, and her first film was made using rubber stamps. She says that she has been strongly influenced by the work of Canadian animator Norman McLaren whose films were each different, technically and thematically, covering everything from mathematics to dance. Since each short film (5-7 min.) takes upwards of two to five years to create, Priestley continually explores and challenges her own imagination through subject matter that is personally rewarding.

The 16 short films and four mini-documentaries of the anthology comprise almost two-and-a-half hours of viewing. Relative Orbits has eight of Priestleys earlier films, and Fighting Gravity has eight of her newer works.

Grown Up (1993) explores the pleasures and perils of becoming middle-aged, combining drawings with bubble wrap, Priestleys own hands and (in some cases) instruments of surgery.

Grown Up (1993) explores the pleasures and perils of becoming middle-aged, combining drawings with bubble wrap, Priestleys own hands and (in some cases) instruments of surgery.

Relative Orbits

All My Relations (1990) utilizes drawings on index cards to satirize the pitfalls of romance, upward mobility and other dilemmas of buying into the American dream. As a characteristic of much of her work, Priestley likes to frame her animation within a pixilated milieu of found objects or the organic world. In part, this technique adds another layer of possible meaning to the animation, though, more simply, Priestley is interested in the boundaries of things, where realities meet and come together. Regardless, All My Relations leaves a knowing smile on ones face. (The film was supported by a grant from the American Film Institute in association with the National Endowment for the Arts.)

Pro and Con (1992) is an interesting collaboration with Joan Gratz, briefly discussing the world of our penitentiary system and the need for reform. A corrections officer offers her pro(fessional) perspective, and an inmate offers his con(vict) perspective. The film uses a variety of techniques including object animation, puppets, drawings on paper and clay, and includes self-portraits and contraband weapons and crafts confiscated from inmates. Some of the puppets were made out of gum wrappers and chunks of paint. (The film was funded through the Metropolitan Arts Commission of Multnomah County, Oregon.)

Grown Up (1993) is also a highlight of Priestleys compilation of classic films, humorously discussing the wonders and horrors of, egad, becoming middle-aged. At the ancient age of 40, issues of friendship, career and body are somehow more poignant, yet the narrator remarks at her relative amazement for how alive, comfortable and brave she feels in her autumn years. (The film was produced through a grant from the Independent Television Service, with additional funding through Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowship.)

Fighting Gravity

Surface Dive (2000) was inspired while exploring an underground river in the Yucatan, Mexico. Priestley wanted to recreate the feeling of observing such a fantastical, alchemical world. During brief moments in the film, Priestleys homemade multiplane stand is shown as three layers of artwork are invisibly brought to life. More than 200 glass pieces, 600 sculptures and 2,200 pastel and watercolor images were used for the films drawn, object and replacement animation. Watching the movement through bits of glass provides an interesting, watery effect, and Priestley rummaged through dumpsters, contacted stain glass suppliers and picked up broken windshields off the street to find her materials.

The sculptures were made from Sculpey and surrounded with a silicone mold, and then 15 to 25 duplicates were made with Magi-sculpt to make an animated sequence for each. The sculptures were sanded, gessoed and painted with acrylics. (The project was funded through the Creative Capital Foundation for the Arts.)

Andaluz (2004) was created with Karen Aqua while part of a fellowship at Fundacíon Valpariso in Spain. Using prismacolor pencils on paper, Priestley and Aqua worked with a lot of improvisation and spontaneity. The final film is a beautiful love letter to Andalusia, Spain, which Priestley describes as a powerful intersection of desert landscape, cobalt sky, golden sun and turquoise sea.

Joanna Priestleys whimsical short films cover a variety of subjects, both social and personal, Dew Line (2005) is her most recent work.

Joanna Priestleys whimsical short films cover a variety of subjects, both social and personal, Dew Line (2005) is her most recent work.

Lastly, Dew Line (2005) represents Priestleys growing experimentation with computer-based animation. Using Flash, the film grew out of Priestleys interest in botany and a series of photographs she took for the Oregon Zoo while camping at an abandoned radar station in the Arctic Circle of Alaska. The title of the film therefore refers to the lines and shapes created by condensed moisture, as well as the DEW (Distant Early Warning) stations built during the Cold War. (The film was made possible by a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.)

Priestley is the founding president of ASIFA-Northwest. Her production company, Priestley Motion Pictures (www.PrimoPix.com), has an active apprenticeship program and she teaches animation at the Art Institute of Portland. In addition to festival screenings and retrospectives at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, her work has screened on both PBS and the BBC.

All in all, if you are an animation lover, and if you dont mind someone calling you that to your face, then I whole-heartedly recommend picking up Priestleys anthology. Either that, or encourage your local library to purchase a copy so you can borrow it (with the added benefit of allowing the rest of the community to see it, as well). It is the Golden Rule of Animation: support others in their craft and journey, as much as we would hope others to do the same for us.

Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits: Films by Joanna Priestly, 2004, Primo Pictures, 67 min. and 79 min, respectively; $20.00 each; $35.00 for two-disc set. Available at iwww.primopix.com and at select independent retailers.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.

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