Reminiscing about Marcy Page’s career reveals her tremendous impact on Canadian animation.
In preparation for a retirement shindig being held for animation producer Marcy Page at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in Montreal, I was putting together a small tribute on behalf of the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF). We’d decided to make up a small scroll containing all the films Marcy had produced that had screened at the OIAF. Traveling down her production trail is like scanning over the roster of the Montreal Canadien dynasties of the 50s and 70s. It is littered with all stars: Ryan (2004), The Danish Poet (2006), Madame Tutli-Putli (2007), Subconscious Password (2013), Wild Life (2011), Flux (2002), The End of the World in Four Seasons (1996), How Wings are Attached to the Back of Angels (1997) and on and on. Even more impressive is the Hall of Fame roster behind these films: Chris Landreth, Chris Hinton, Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby, Craig Welsh, Janet Perlman, Don McWilliams, Paul Driessen, Torill Kove etc… So, just how did a converted Californian end up becoming Canadian animation’s golden girl?
“While I was teaching animation production and animation history classes at San Francisco State University,” says Page, “my teaching partner, Marty McNamara, and I taught some intensive ‘Focus’ classes, including some on the films of the NFB. We were able to get 16mm prints from the local Canadian Consulate and they also generously helped by flying in special guests for these classes. As a result, we met a lot of enormously talented Canadian animation directors.”
Impressed by the strong soundtracks of Canadian animation films, Page and McNamara approached the Consulate about bringing in a composer they both admired. “[Paul Driessen’s] An Old Box,” adds Page, “was one of my favorite films at the time and we also very much admired The Sweater and Crac. So, we decided on the composer we saw in the credits, Normand Roger.”
Roger agreed and presented his work in San Francisco. McNamara then convinced Page to show Roger parts of Paradisa (1987), a film she was animating at the time, in front of a production class so that they could show students a sample first encounter between a director and a composer.
The presentation went so well that Page felt confident enough to approach Roger to ask him if he would compose the music for Paradisa. Roger’s response would change the course of Page’s life.
“Normand kindly agreed and when the film was ready for post, I came to Montreal for the final phases of the sound production. After the film was mixed and I felt elated and released from the bondage of a long production, it was also easy to notice that Normand was a very charming man. Ultimately he asked me if I might consider moving to Montreal.”
Fittingly, the Californian arrived in 1988 during a typically brisk Canadian winter. “Since I fell in love in (and with) Montreal during the summer, it was sobering to actually move here in the middle of January. Normand took me straight from the airport to La Baie and got me a big coat and warm boots.”
Culturally, the adjustment wasn’t as challenging as one might imagine for the unilingual Californian transplant. “Many of my ancestors were coincidentally French Canadian,” says Page, “so despite being disdainfully American or bizarrely Californian, I am secretly ‘pure laine.’ Unfortunately the ability to speak French is not genetically encoded. There were some family memories passed down from my grandmother that I finally understood. Still I am clearly a cultural transplant. Fortunately Canada has lots of immigrants. Being an outsider, in voluntary exile, is however not a bad place to consider artistic culture.”
And what’s an immigrant animator to do in Montreal? Well, work for the NFB, naturally. “While I was endlessly waiting for my landed immigrant status,” recalls Page, “then NFB producer David Verrall ominously invited me for lunch one day and asked me about my future career plans.”
“I had seen Paradisia,” says Verrall, “and in truth more than one person mentioned to me I should meet this new talent in town. In particular Wendy Tilby - who had met Marcy somewhere - urged me to at least meet Marcy.”
On the day in 1990 Page got her landed immigrant status, Verrall presented her with a mini Canadian flag and immediately hired her to direct, animate and associate produce on an NFB documentary about paleontology. As Verrall recalls, “I was in the midst of a complicated co-production with PBS, a Canadian indie company and as I recall Japanese partners, on a dinosaur doc for which we were to provide all the animation sequences of dinosaurs imagined. I already had a bunch of animation talent engaged - there were still some staff animation directors at that time - but not enough creative leads in play for every segment. So my offer to Marcy, once she was legit to work in Canada, was for a directing and animating role in the studio particular to this big co-pro.”
While Verrall was impressed with Page’s design and animation work on the project, he had even greater respect for how well she worked with other animators. “What Marcy refers to as associate producing was much less formal. This involved my observation that Marcy was a natural (producing-wise) that other players gravitated to for advice and encouragement and, best for me, that advice and encouragement generally led not just to better work by those seeking it but contributed materially to actually getting the work done and out.”
So impressed was Verrall that he “became determined to woo this talented animator/director towards the less certain pleasures of producing.”
With Eunice Macaulay on the verge of retiring as a producer, the timing was perfect. Boosted by the encouragement of animator John Weldon, Page applied for the job, got the job, and, well, the rest is animation history.
While Page acknowledges that making the adjustment from animator to producer was difficult, she was philosophical about the change: The arithmetic is better. “Some animation directors can only count the short films they can create in a lifetime on their fingers. As a producer, you can touch a lot more productions, though arms’ length is a long distance.”
David Verrall though recalls that the discussion with Page about redirecting her career “was much more consequential as I remember it. There is no doubt this will have deprived the world of some personal films from Marcy's hand but as I am an unapologetic advocate for the crucial symbiotic role of Producer beside Key Creator, I say this choice was for the greater good.”
Few will disagree. Actually, I’d be hard pressed to find a single person who would quarrel with this decision.
Page admits that even now she does miss the direct thrill of animating. “Animating is such a powerful kick. I still remember vividly seeing my first animation exercises move on film. Such a miracle to make something come to life like that. Maybe I will find it in me again…if I can forget the arithmetic.”
Leaving animating behind it one thing, but how does one just become a producer – especially with minimal experience? “I suppose I tried,” says Page, “to channel the lessons of my father, Jerry Page, who was an educator and whose style of leadership was about coaxing others to find their own voice, their point of view, their faith in their own abilities - always a paradox as when it worked the best it was often the most invisible.” Page also tried to imagine what she would have needed in a producer when she was a director.
When you look at the diversity of directors, techniques and films, Page has produced, one word comes to mind: eclectic. “I love the many ways that animation present itself, so the variety of what appeals to me is hard to pin down. I remember [American animator] Sara Petty once telling me that when she makes a film, she has an audience she keeps in her head of about a dozen people …and half of them are dead artists. I agree that creating or seeking out animation is a conversation with, among other things, the history of art and film. The audience, living and dead, that I keep in my own head has grown over the years.”
Page’s productions have straddled the borders of linear and experimental narratives. While she admits to loving “a well-told story” that has touches of pathos, irony, humour, vitality and the ability to surprise (e.g. The Danish Poet, Dinner for Two (1996), Snow Cat (1998), Page is also smitten by more experimental approaches like those of Paul Driessen, Craig Welch or Chris Hinton’s wonderful film, Flux. “I like the visual games of Paul Driessen that with each project seem to invent new rules to expand cinematic language,” Page adds. “When Chris Hinton proposed Flux, it was the appeal of a film that just bordered on comprehension but that pushed all the edges toward abstraction.”
Another characteristic of Page’s productions are their innovative and striking graphics. “I am attracted to compelling visual style like the graphic mastery/mystery of Craig Welch, who fearlessly visited the dark side with his How Wings are Attached to the Backs of Angels,” says Page. “Or the under-camera moving paintings of Lynn Smith - each image so luscious that you wanted to lick the paint… or the inventive mixtures of abstract and recognizable form in the work of Malcolm Sutherland … or the completely entrancing otherworldly creations of the ‘Clyde Henrys’ [Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski]. One look at their sympathetic heroine [Madame Tutli-Putli] standing with all her meager possessions waiting for the train and I was ready to take the ride. Chris Landreth’s visual style [psycho-realism] transcended the eye candy of most CG work of the time and he was passionate about ideas, the perfect blend of medium and message. Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis too seem, in the balance of their mammoth talents to always put forth a perfect union of art and idea, visual and sound.”
And what about the personalities behind these creations? Just how important is it for a producer to have some familiarity with the filmmaker or to at least be able to manage hotheaded and fragile egos (which, admittedly, are few and far between in animation - at least by comparison to their live-action compatriots.) “Animation filmmakers are as various in their personalities as their art forms,” admits Page. “They seem genuinely appreciative of anyone who can articulate just how amazing their work is. They are, as a group, quite exemplary - funny, smart, humble and kind. The easiest part of my job was in being an advocate for these extraordinary people.”
Of course, a producer can’t just sit back and stroke their filmmakers’ egos. They have to be able to give honest feedback no matter how difficult it might be for a filmmaker to hear. That requires time and trust. When talking to a number of filmmakers who worked with Page, it’s clear they had complete trust in her approach.
“When I worked with Marcy,” says Malcolm Sutherland (2008’s Forming Game), there was a sense of openness, as if anything were possible. She is patient and has a great sense of the long view. Marcy was very hands off, unless you asked for her help. For me this was ideal.”
Marcy is good at many things,” says Torill Kove (2000’s My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts, The Danish Poet) but I think for me personally, her unique contribution is her trust. It's like any other close relationship where you are left alone to be who you are. It is liberating. “
“Marcy,” adds Munro Ferguson (2003’s Falling in Love Again) was the best producer I ever worked with. Her method was simple. She would find a director that she really believed in and then back them 100%. She brought to the table wisdom, humor and sensitivity. Her approach was nurturing. And she has the gift of a beautiful, calm voice which could the sooth nerves of the most freaked-out director.”
Building a trusting relationship first requires being able to have faith in oneself. That inner trust takes time and experience to find. “Overall,” adds Page, “I suppose I’ve learned more to trust my instincts - some inner barometer of passion - when you feel something is the right risk to take. Is it finally only the risky projects that make sense to pursue? It is not always possible and of course one can deceive oneself, but when it works, the conversation in your head with that internal audience and all those dead artists is worth it!”
Okay… so…it’s some 23 years later and Marcy Page is closing the door on a remarkably rich period of her life. I asked her about the most invaluable things she’s taken from her NFB experience. Surprisingly, her first response was connected with technical stuff: “Some small words of advice…given the company I keep [i.e. Normand Roger, in case you forgot already dear reader], I’ve learned a lot more about the relationship of sound to image in filmmaking over the years. I know now that while one can often consciously excuse an incomplete or rough visual assembly, sound tends to act on us more unconsciously. We won’t realize that it is a rough track or incomplete mix but more likely we will say that it is just a bad film. It is very, very important to get the relationship to sound right and that it conspire in the novelty and innovation of the work.”
That’s it? Come on Marcy! Give us something sexier. “The big takeaway for me is that I really do have fondness and respect for the people with whom I’ve worked all these years. That has always made any trouble fade to insignificance. The NFB is a miraculous and improbable institution built on the pioneering dedication and creativity of decades of such people. I hope it outlives us and our children’s children. As we near the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman McLaren, whose founding vision for the Animation program there still informs the producers who follow me, it seems important not to take it for granted.”
Take note Canadian taxpayers and Government funders.
Marcy Page’s retirement is a huge loss for animation, not just because of her golden touch as a producer, but because she is one of the most genuinely good people in our little world. When I stumbled into animation not long after Page joined the NFB, I was lured less by the films than by the generosity and openness of the people creating them. Marcy Page is one of the good souls that I’ve encountered and quietly admired beneath the unpolished veneer of my apparent bad boy image. Her positivity, calm and compassionate nature, warm, and slightly sly smile, along with her unabashed love for animation and its creators is something that we will all sorely miss. There will always be more great animation films, but there will never be another Marcy Page.
Chris Robinson, otherwise known as the Animation Pimp, is creative director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.