Marisa Materna got in touch with five recent animation short winners from the biggest festivals in the world to find out more about the making of their award-winning work.
At the halfway point of the 2006 film festival season, we took time to reflect on the film festivals and the life of an independent filmmaker from some recent award winners. We discuss their backgrounds, process and the award experience with:
Gaëlle Denis (U.K.) City Paradise: Grand Prize, Stuttgart 05
Adam Parrish King (U.S.) The Wraith of Cobble Hill: Best Animated Short, Sundance 06,
Anthony Lucas, (Australia) The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: Best Short Animation, AFI 05 and nominated for an Academy Award in 2006,
Lev Polyakov (U.S.) The Piper Goat and the Peace Pipe: Best High School Film, Ottawa 05
Joanna Quinn (U.K.) Dreams and Desires Family Ties: Winner, Grand Jury Prize, Zagreb 06
Marisa Materna: The festival experience do you like this system as a way to promote your work?
Adam Parrish King: The festival system, in my mind, is the best venue for an independent filmmaker to showcase their work. The venues that you can find online are wonderful in that they open up your film to a much broader audience that, otherwise, wouldnt have the chance to see it. However, nothing can compare to seeing these films in the theater environment, on the big screen, with good sound and a responsive audience.
Lev Polyakov: If you stuff enough producers and animators in a confined space for a week, the act of promotion will naturally occur.
Joanna Quinn: Yes, I adore festivals. My first film in 1986 was called Girls Night Out. I didnt really know the animation community until I went to Annecy and saw all of the films from all over the world, not just cartoons, but these wonderful pieces of art, it completely blew me away. When I showed my film, I met Terry Thoren and Ron Diamond and got acquainted with Acme Filmworks and thats where Ive been ever since. If I hadnt had shown my film, Id probably be working in a supermarket or something. (Editors note: Ron Diamond is the publisher of AWN.)
MM: Joanna, how has the festival experience changed for you since that first Annecy to Zagreb this past June?
JQ: Its completely different. When I first won in Annecy, I felt like I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and now I recognize that and I know a lot more. Im more fearful, more anxious, worry about failure more. You know everybody now, having been on a jury I know what they are saying about me. Now, winning awards, deep down, means a lot more to me. Winning awards, particularly Annecy because a lot of people go there, is terrific because you know who is watching and the buyers are there. So we made some sales recently. Zagreb doesnt have the big commercial aspect but seems to have more tradition. Annecy is much more manic, while Zagreb seems to be more calm and focused.
MM: Adam, what was the Sundance experience like? Did you feel like the animation filmmakers and community was included in the star-studded atmosphere?
APK: I had such a great experience at Sundance. I had expected a much more intense, business scene with everyone running around promoting themselves, but, instead, I found a gathering of down-to-earth cinephiles that had gotten together in this beautiful, snowy mountain landscape to check out and share some interesting ideas in film. I think my experience there was a little bit atypical, because I was editing the sound for a TV show back in my room in Park City during the day, then every night, I would try to check out a film and grab some dinner somewhere in town with family and friends, so I missed the skiing and the round the clock parties this time around. Sundance screened the majority of the animated films together in a program called the Animation Spotlight, and all four screenings, including the one at the 1200 seat Eccles Theater, were packed. So though we didnt have paparazzi following us down Main Street, I felt like the animated films had a visible enough presence there.
MM: Anthony, what about being nominated for an Oscar? How was this experience?
Anthony Lucas: It was exhilarating and a real door opener for me.
MM: Joanna, how about your Oscar experience, you went twice!?
JQ: My Oscar experience was great and of course surreal! Trouble with having a taste of it you want it again and its the one thing that everybody recognizes. I cant think of much else to say except how excited I was to see Karl Maldens nose in the flesh!
MM: Lev, what was your award experience like at Ottawa, being a first timer?
LP: When Chris Robinson called my name as the winner I felt so happy that I was ready to hug everyone in that wonderful theater. I think I was literally running on stage trying to kiss the jury members. For three months after that I felt very proud. I noticed that other directors and producers started taking me more seriously. However, three months later I watched my film again and felt terribly ashamed of how amateur it actually was. It took me a lot of mental effort to keep my face when speaking about it to other people. Of course, my family supported me. Soon thereafter I dreamt up another story for a new film, and it gave me new energy, inspiration and the will to work. These days, when I recall how I won in Ottawa, it brings me happy memories and renewed enthusiasm. And many people I meet now still remember me as that guy who won in Ottawa last year and made a show on stage. Thats a pretty good thing to be remembered by, career-wise.
MM: Anthony, you won in Bilbao in 2001 with another short, Holding Your Breath. How was this experience compared to Cannes five years later?
AL: Different films appeal to different festivals they all have a style Cannes certainly likes the more thoughtful pieces, as does Bilbao.
MM: Are there too many festivals?
APK: I dont think there could ever be enough festivals. Theyre the gathering places for unique ideas in film.
AL: In the USA, there are so many that I only go for the big ones now.
LP: I agree too many to send to. And for a rookie like myself, there is not clear enough information of which are better to send to than others, since they all present themselves with a good name. And the entry fees some of them are charging make them look more like business enterprises than avenues for appreciation of artistic expression. Try to apply to too many and youll go broke.
JQ: There do seem to be a lot. You cant go to every one. I know some who go to a lot like Bill Plympton. And Ive got a young daughter, so I cant go off to every one of them. I have to be more selective. Weve sent this recent film to about 30 festivals and I was surprised to hear there were so many, but Im happy to send them out to them, its hard to get it seen on television and festivals are great way to get them seen. The more the better I reckon.
MM: Lets talk about your influences. What were they growing up?
AL: Very influenced by Greek myths, Jules Verne and monsters of any description.
LP: My mother, small animals, my fathers surreal paintings, A Clockwork Orange, Fellini, Kurosawa. What made me become an animator was Miyazakis Spirited Away, combining all the things I love about animation (good cinematography, acting, animation, art, etc.)
APK: The very first influence I can remember was the Mona Lisa, when I was about five years old I used to go to a Unitarian Church in Knoxville and during the long sermons, Id have to go to the bathroom which was down a long hallway where a print of the Mona Lisa hung. I thought she was a zombie and thought the line on her face was where her head had been sawed off and her brain had been removed. One day, I drew her head, piercing stare and sadistic smirk in black crayon and the blood coming from her lobotomy scar in red crayon and showed it to my parents and friends and recall that first act of communicating something to someone else that intensely affected me.
Gaëlle Denis: Ive always been influenced by fashion designers like Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake and photographers like Dave Knight.
JQ: Being an only child, drawing all of the time. I was alone a lot of the time. I was an obsessive drawer. I got introduced to animation in college, I didnt always want to be an animator, I really wanted to be a photographer but in college, I took a graphic course and I started seeing folks doing these animations. I got the bug and excited by the medium.
MM: And now?
AL: Monsters still, and just about anything with great graphics.
APK: Well, now filmmakers like Harmony Korine, Jim Jarmusch, Werner Herzog, The Brothers Quay and Nick Park.
LP: Going to animation festivals, there are rivers of animated films, which give me inspiration in their own ways. Now Im watching the 1920s UFA films like Metropolis and Nosferatu. But its a mixed bag one day, Pulp Fiction, and the next day, Fox and Friends.
GD: For this film, I was inspired by photographs of women southeast Asian tribes made up and dressed in traditional costumes. I am very inspired by light, texture and shapes.
JQ: My films tend to deal more with observations. I do a lot of life drawing. My ears are always flapping for funny dialogue around me, trying to get inspirations and humor. So I tend to be influenced by the world around me. There are animators I absolutely love that Ive met on juries and through being invited to film festivals. Im admiring of anyone who can finish a film. I appreciate good movie making. Sometimes when I teach, students are quite dismissive. I cant do that anymore, because I understand how hard it is.
MM: Lev, you are now attending the School of Visual Arts? What made you choose this school?
LP: I had no doubts about where I should study. I love New York so much that it wasnt much of a question whether I should go to some other city. And Ive been to several animation schools in New York, including Parsons, Pratt and NYU. But when I first came to SVA I fell in love with that place, love from the first sight as they say. The people I met in the corridors seemed somehow different from other schools. SVA has brilliant and very talented people teaching there. Also very important is that its a very cozy place, like a second home for me. I like simply being there.
MM: How did you come up with the story/theme for your films?
AL: I was very influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and the illustration of the turn of the last century.
APK: I lived in Brooklyn in the late 1990s and in Brooklyn people are living on top, under and next to each other, youre constantly hearing brief glimpses into your neighbors lives through the windows, floorboards, walls and pipes. Most of these glimpses are not much to make sense from, so your mind fills in the blanks and constructs a story form the pieces it receives. I wanted to write a story that revolves around a moment like this, in which a character is trying to make sense of the sounds he hears from the neighbor above, then the rest of the story followed from that.
LP: I was having a friendly conversation with fellow animator Signe Baumane about which farm animals feel better to the touch: a sheep or a goat. She said goat, since their fur doesnt get as dirty. I agreed. So as I was drawing sketches of goats, I drew one that somehow reminded me of my mother. I imagined the types of situations that goat could get into and imagined how my mother would react since she is a fragile creature. From there I needed a name and Piper sounded good plus that meant she could hold a pipe. While doing research on pipes, I discovered the Native American peace pipes and since my mother/goat was a peaceful creature, I decided that Piper should offer the pip as a sign of peace to all the creatures that she met.
GD: I had done a few sketches and illustrations representing funny alien creatures living in a secret world beneath a big city and then imagined building a story around a foreign person arriving in London and being let into that secret world. I wanted to give life to my own vision of London, a lively and beautiful yet surreal city. A slightly scary yet comical place populated by creatures with strange walks. I wanted people to be able to identify with the main character, Tomoko, a foreigner lost and confused in such a manic city like London. This is something that most of us have experienced when being in a foreign place.
JQ: Beryl the main character from this film is from my other films, Girls Night Out and Body Beautiful. She was very popular and everyone kept saying you need to do another Beryl film! But Ive been so busy doing commercials that it took some time to get around to do this one. My writing and producing partner, Les Mills, had being writing scripts for her, but they kept getting pushed aside because I was so busy. Then we finally decided it was time and went after financing for one of the ideas we loved. We wanted to do a film that was appropriate for the time. Girls Night Out had a very 80s theme girls going to see a male stripper, while Body Beautiful tended to be more thematic to the early 90s with Beryls standing up to the Union at her work and dealt more with body image. In this one Beryl is more rounded and interesting, she has a mid-life crisis trying to learn about her she wants to be an artist. And its really about doing things she never had the opportunity to do.
MM: What was the production process like during the making of your films?
AL: It took a couple of years to develop the story and about a year and a half in production. Post was kind of long winded as we had to remake it sort of to make the film print. It was the first time I had made a film completely digitally and before that I had used traditional stop-motion methods. So it was fun and quite and adventure combing the digital and older methods. But its a great hybrid in the end!
APK: For Wraith of Cobble Hill, the brick exteriors, fire escapes, tar-blackened rooftops and shoebox interiors were all modeled after the Brooklyn streets that I lived on for a number of years. The corner store is modeled after H & M Deli on the corner of 14th street and 7th Avenue. The shelves are lined with products originally designed for this film, such as The Ugly Pupil, Wrenchead, and Hog comicbooks, Holster Smokes, Nutty Chocolate Logs, 20/20 40s and Eat Bacon TV dinners.
The process of creating from scratch the Brooklyn-inspired sets, the characters, the costumes and the hundreds of props, was all consuming. In the time it took to create this short film, nine new planets were identified in the cosmos, a draft of the human genome was completed, Lance Armstrong won five Tour de Frances, the existence of hobbit-sized humans was discovered in Indonesia, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed and released and the Red Sox won the World Series!!
But, the duration of the process was not the biggest challenge. The animation studio was a converted bedroom in a small, one-bedroom apartment a space that was cramped, dark and hot, frequently reaching up to 95-100° with the heat from the studio lighting. The temperature problem was further exacerbated by the black, duvatine curtain over the window, which collected heat from the California sunshine it worked to block out. Throughout the six years of production, my wife and I, displaced by the animation stage, slept on sleeping bags on the floor next to the kitchen.
GD: I wanted to use a variety of techniques including live action and 3D to create a unique look. My background is fine arts and traditional animation, so it was quite challenge to direct real actors in a bluescreen set. The challenge was to make the combination of all those elements work and come across as looking natural and not made up or artificial.
I worked on the art direction of the film with Photoshop, using drawings that I made and photos I took, creating original textures and elements. Before we shot the live action, the bedroom was laid out and modeled in LightWave to use in a vision mixer while shooting against blue screen. We had also used some of the info for the 3D for the art department to build a window frame (which was painted in blue). The same room model was then refined and texture mapped to finalize the bedroom we have in the film. All the characters were shot against blue screen and had blue skirts.
We then tracked all the live and time remapped it in After Effects and then printed out stats for each scene and used those to create 2D legs.
LP: It took a surprisingly short time to make my film when compared with how long it was. If you dont count a vacation to Key West, it was approximately three and a half months of work. It was drawn on paper, scanned into Photoshop, where each layer, being each frame, was colored put into Premier for digital compositing. My dad, who has experience in making beautiful wooden toys, built an equally beautiful wooden animation stand, whose light is brighter and more superior to the regular stands and light boxes. From there it was an Epson Scanner, then Photoshop, then Premier.
APK: There were other obstacles I faced mid-way through production such as long periods of isolation in that sunless space resulted in a variety of social anxieties, like awkward encounters with grocery-store clerks after stretches without human contact, I developed a bad back and carpel tunnels syndrome hunching over the animation stage, the film stock used to shoot all the footage was suddenly discontinued by Kodak, and negative that represented months of shooting was lost by the vault and never found.
JQ: It took about two years to finally get the film finished, but because I was working on commercials in between, it should have only taken one year. But it was all hand-drawn then scanned into the computer than composited in After Effects. We went after financing finally from S4C, which provided about 60% and made the film.
MM: What are some other ways for a filmmaker to promote his work besides film festivals?
AL: DVD is great because it is easier to get your films released.
APK: Online film festivals are growing in popularity, as well as distributing through new technologies such as iPods. Also simply having your film accessible through a personal webpage is a great way to get it out there.
LP: Websites also help with such things as show reels and designs. But usually, people may not spend much time watching an entire film online when they can watch a film with better resolution on DVD.
JQ: We are looking at this at the moment, like our website. We need to revamp it and Ive got about ten billion boxes of art works that Im sure would sell. Now we are looking at putting our work on a DVD now that we have body of work to put something together. Festivals are still the best place to sell stuff though.
MM: Is it easier/better to work with a production company?
AL: Its best to be open to different producing partners, see what the have to offer, or what track record they have with animation. Mostly you need a champion of some sort within any organization that supports your vision.
APK: Its definitely doable to produce your own film if you have good business sense, which I dont, but, luckily, my wife does, so she produced it. I dont know enough about production companies, however, to speak about them.
LP: Bill Plympton produces films on his own and manages to do it somehow. I dont really know from experience, but if you dont feel you need to do things your way only, then producers may as well be you best friends.
GD: I was lucky to have connected with Passion Pictures through the Animator in Residence (AIR) scheme, which is funded by Channel 4. One of the reasons I chose to make City Paradise at Passion Pictures was the experience they have of combining live action with animation. I felt they could offer technical expertise and provide an animation crew with the experience of creating the kind of film effects I wanted to achieve.
JQ: I like having control and keep it small and simple and luckily I have the means to do it. I feel very fortunate that because of doing my commercial work, I am able to balancing doing both. We have our own production company, Beryl Prods., and we are able to help with the financing on our projects.
MM: Has it been hard to get distribution?
APK: I think there are so many outlets these days to find distribution, especially if you consider distribution via the Internet, that its not hard to find. The tricky thing is being selective about distribution, making sure youre signing on with a company that will really make the most of the opportunities to get your film out there, without, meanwhile, taking advantage of you and your film.
AL: Not for Jasper Morello and I have included some of my other shorts with it, so all is well.
MM: What are you working on now?
AL: We have just raised the finance to develop the two sequels to Jasper Morello, which will make a trilogy of half hour stories. We have stories and we start the scripts on Monday! We have money to develop the feature script for a Jasper Morello feature and we have been developing that for the last two months as well.
GD: I am working on commercial projects with Passion Pictures and start shooting my next film in a week.
APK: The two ideas Im most interested in pursuing take place where I grew up in the valley of the Smokey Mountains in east Tennessee. One is an animated documentary love story about an interracial couple in the south, bridging two cultures during the turbulent beginnings of integration. The other is a cycle of 12 short stories, one for each month that, together, forms a portrait of the middle class suburbs of east Tennessee.
LP: I am almost done with my new film Morning, Day, Evening, Night and Morning Again (which will be done in a week), and then I will start another independent film for which my storyboards are almost finished. Then there is one more film which will probably be more epic than the ones I am doing now, but a lot more research will have to go in it before I can start to animate. I am also working on a couple of show ideas that I will pitch in August in L.A.
JQ: Commercials and working on my next film, which will look at Beryls childhood and her mad sister Beverly who is obsessed with death and has since moved to America, shes become the American Dream.
MM: How has winning a major festival award affected your career or changed your life?
APK: Winning the award at Sundance has had a great impact on my career. It helped me attract a great manager who in turn has had me meeting with a lot of creative development people in Los Angeles, which, hopefully, will lead to me getting my first feature film off the ground within the next few years. It also helped me find distribution for Wraith overseas, not in North America yet. Its being distributed on a compilation of shorts called Cinema 16: American Short Films, which includes shorts by Tim Burton, Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, George Lucas, Gus Van Sant and DA Pennebaker, among others.
AL: Since winning there has been some studio interest and with my agent we are acting on it.
JQ: Festivals have been so instrumental to my career. I feel so lucky to have been part of this world. I tell my students that if you make a good film you can travel the world and meet wonderful people. You become a complete rock star although then you do have to come home eventually, but its the best place to meet people especially for us in England where we can get into an island mentality, but its wonderful to meet people from all over.
Because I did illustration work first, I didnt think so much about how can I get into animation. I never listed myself an animator. Perhaps that helped me take some pressure off of myself. When I see my students now, maybe they think there is a magic formula to how to make it, but the reality is it can be hit or miss, you bounce off and can be doing something else, go from thing to thing. And you end up doing the one thing you never thought youd be doing and have a wonderful life!
MM: What is the best part about being an independent filmmaker?
AL: When you realize a project you have worked on for years and years.
APK: The best part is the creative freedom you have by not needing to answer to anyone but yourself.
LP: For me, it is the phase in which I design the characters and the atmosphere of my film. I get to play around with a lot of stuff and anything can be thrown in at this stage. And later when I animate the characters, drawing them with emotionally powerful expressions or gestures always makes me happy.
JQ: I feel like an artist and I have freedom and incredibly luck to do what I enjoy. And I think we have a lovely balance of doing commercials and doing films the two go hand in hand. A lot of people can get swamped by doing commercials. But I made my film at just about the right time because I appreciate the commercials world. Deadlines, thinking on your feet, pressures of working in commercials are such great training. I feel incredibly lucky that Im in the position to do that.
MM: The worst?
AL: Trying to realize all of your projects.
LP: Probably having to do a lot of the technical things in films, like setting up and numbering frames, importing from one program to another, etc. Its not even hard, but time consuming and a lot of detail has to be observed so you dont loose track of each frame. If you dont have a band of professionals to record sounds for you, finding sounds for your films, let alone making them yourself, is quite problematic. Also, preparing the envelopes to send to the festivals I hate that.
APK: The hardest part about being an independent filmmaker for me is the persistent financial struggle that results from the lack of consistent and predictable work.
JQ: I cant think of a worse part. I think Im luckiest person in the world. Sometimes you can get wrapped up in searching for funding, I feel refreshed that I dont focus on that so much anymore and just carry onlife is so short. Keep working away; you never know whats around the corner.
Marisa Materna has worked in the entertainment and non-profit industries as a special events coordinator and recruiter and is a freelance writer for online publications and a variety of educational materials. Marisa is based in Los Angeles.