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Emily Hubley Talks 'Toe Tactic'

Joe Strike sits down with Emily Hubley to explore her her life as an artist and animator -- and being a Hubley.

Emily Hubley's first feature-length film, The Toe Tactic, premiered this winter, and is playing at festivals this spring. All images © 2008 The Toe Tactic. All rights reserved.

Animation is in Emily Hubley's genes. The daughter of animation legends John and Faith Hubley was drawn into the family business at an early age when her parents animated Cockaboody in 1977 to recordings of Emily and her sister Georgia at play when they were 3 and 5-years-old. (In a bit of Benjamin Button-style reverse aging, nine years earlier, in 1968, the Hubleys made Windy Day, a similar film in which 6-year old Emily and 8-year old Georgia's musings about life are set to animation.)

All the Hubley siblings have made challenging and creative lives for themselves: Georgia is co-founder of the indie rock band Yo La Tengo, Roy is a film editor and Mark a Kentucky horse trainer. Emily pitched in on her parents' films, first as a production assistant, then as an animator working on Faith's films after John's death in 1977. Beginning with the semi-autobiographical The Emergence of Eunice in 1981, Emily has created and directed numerous short animated films while providing animation for a variety of other peoples' projects.

Emily has entered the world of feature filmmaking with The Toe Tactic. Animated segments are interspersed throughout the live-action film as a quartet of cosmic card-playing dogs help set a confused young woman's life back on track. The film had an unusual production partner -- New York City's Museum of Modern Art, which gave the film its first Manhattan run in one of the museum's theaters. MoMA has a world famous film archive, but Toe Tactic was the first film to be acquired by the museum while still in production.

The Toe Tactic had its Los Angeles premiere on Feb. 20 at the American Cinemateque's Aero Theater with Hubley, producer Jen Small and several cast members on hand.

Not long after Toe Tactic's MoMA premiere, Emily and I sat down to explore her thoughts about creativity, her life as an artist and animator -- and being a Hubley.

Emily Hubley: I had very little, almost no artistic training. I really do see it as somewhat genetic. Once a year, I'll draw something and say "John would've drawn that." [John and Faith] spent a lot of time drawing. They painted every morning. They considered being an artist a real responsibility and that kept them healthy. Mom would paint and play cello every morning; a great start to the day.

[Most] people don't use [their creativity]. That's one of the big themes for me. I think it's an important human faculty to make stuff, whatever that is. I'm really against the idea that you should only do it if you're "good" at it, because that's irrelevant to me. Sometimes people just throw up their hands and think they shouldn't do it. After one of the Toe Tactic screenings, a woman came up to me and said, "Thank you very much, I just have to go away now and write some poetry." It shouldn't just be for the people who can make a living at it, it should be for anyone. What I got from [my parents] was never questioning whether it was a valid thing to do.

Mother had done theater; my parents had friends in theater. They were interested in improvisation and wanted to extend that to filmmaking in ways that would address serious topics. Early on it was as simple as them overhearing my brothers playing. Later they had them recreate it and that became Moonbird [the 1960 Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Subject].

My mother always said Georgia and I protested we didn't get a movie, but that sounds like folklore. They did stuff with us talking later. They recorded a bunch of material but couldn't find the money [to film it]. They made Windy Day with Paramount [a 1969 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Short]. Then they had the idea of teaching a class in the course of making a film. That became Cockaboody which they did at Yale in conjunction with a study of child psychology. They had all these people analyzing the film which they were making as they went along. They're still in touch with some of those people.

Joe Strike: Where did you go to school?

EH: I went to Hampshire College in western Massachusetts [an experimental school that is part of the Five Colleges in the Connecticut River valley]. I had a great film teacher who encouraged students to make biographical features -- I was the animated version of that. My film was The Emergence of Eunice. After that I wrote a play and a bunch of stories about her.

The stylized animated dogs try to give the main character something to live for in The Toe Tactic.

JS: Is Eunice sort of an autobiographical projection of yourself?

EH: Yes and no. I haven't looked at that stuff in a long time. I pulled it out to show it to [my son] Max, who's in college now and was curious about it. You think you're really young when you go to college. At what point have you achieved your selfhood? You think, "Is this is myself, now I'm me?" In one regard you're always you, and in another, I thought I had it then, but that was such an unformed version of me.

JS: What is The Toe Tactic about?

EH: It's about Mona, a young woman who revisits her delayed grief over her father's death when she hears her childhood home has been sold. She goes back to visit the house and triggers a connection to a game being played by four animated dogs who sense she's not really engaged in the machinery of her life; they have to kick her back into the process of living. I think they're sort of in another dimension -- when something's not working [in our world] they have to "kick the vending machine" again.

I always loved the idea that, like in Jason and the Argonauts, there were parallel realities where one thing would affect something else, and that as invested and important as our lives are to us, maybe they're not so important, maybe they're just someone else's entertainment.

Originally, it was just going to be a joke at the end of a live-action movie with very little animation. The idea was that at the end the whole movie was just a game being played by some dogs. I tried telling people about that. [People said,] "Whad'ya mean, a game played by dogs? What's that mean?" No one understood.

JS: The dogs in Toe Tactic are presented as stylized, almost geometric forms that reminded me of aboriginal art.

EH: I worked for a very long time on my mother's films and she drew from a lot of ancient art. I'm not anywhere near that conscious. [The dogs] came out in my hand and felt true to what I draw. They really emerged in a pretty organic form; they sort of presented themselves.

JS: Does Mona represent you?

EH: There are elements of Mona that are certainly in common with my history, but I never considered her as me. There are elements in Leticia [Mona's mother in the film] that are from my experience as a mother. It all draws from things I've either witnessed or felt in why life.

I was 19 when my father died. It was sort of a surprise; he went in for surgery that wasn't supposed to be such a big deal, but he didn't come out. [After time passes] it becomes a thing. For a while I felt like I couldn't make another movie about a dead father but it was just there. I remember telling my brother it's embarrassing, but it's what you have. It's not like it's talking about me at this point. The Pigeon Within [my 2000 short] was much more self-expression. Toe Tactic is more an investigation of some of those feelings, but it's not me.

Delivery Man, my very first film, was made from essays and things I'd written about, from dreams dealing with both the death of my father and my mother's cancer -- again, using what's on your mind. But I've made other films -- Delivery Man was in 1980, One Self: Fish/Girl [1995], The Pigeon Within. One Self: Fish/Girl isn't really about that, but it is based more on my personal narrative.

Lily Rabe as Mona Peek in The Toe Tactic.

JS: Why did you move into live-action filmmaking?

EH: After college I did some playwriting; I'd always felt I'd neglected it by going into animation and always wanted to get back to that.

There were two other things: one was doing the animation for Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That was really fun and [director] John Cameron Mitchell asked me if I'd ever made up characters. I just started thinking that way, playing with ideas about it. Then Pigeon Within showed at Sundance and someone from the Sundance Institute called. "Are you working on something? We're interested in your voice." That was Lynn Auerbach, who we thank in the film's credits.

I spend a long time writing the screenplay, then submitted it to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. It was accepted in 2002. I worked with advisors, had meetings with screenwriters, more one-on-ones. Then the advisors would meet and discuss the project with each other, without you there.

JS: That sounds like the dogs playing cards.

EH: It was. In that group there was an anti-dog faction that wanted to end them as part of the movie; they thought dogs were unnecessary. If I could've gotten rid of them I would've, then I wouldn't have had to animate anything, but they're here now, I can't get rid of them.

Sundance was total immersion in your project, you get feedback from all different points of view. I went through a long period of rewriting and revision, then went back the next year and workshopped some scenes. I got some practice directing, which I'd never done before. It was fascinating, like "Ohmigod, they're waiting for me." It was very interesting to discover there are as many ways to direct as there are directors. It helped me find my way to working as one. It's really just a matter of trusting your people instincts.

JS: It sounds like you have good people instincts.

EH: I was lucky to have good people. The bulk of the job really seemed to be paying attention to them and seeing what they needed. That was the funny flip side to animating, which is a very lonely, very solitary thing to do. To be thrown into a crowd of people was thrilling -- the opposite of lonely.

JS: Who put in the first production money?

EH: I had an Annenberg grant from Sundance that helped free my time to work on the project and cover early expenses like a casting director, etc. I can't remember when I found Jen Small [the film's producer]; I'd met a lot of producers and knocked on a lot of doors, and continuing to rewrite the script the whole time, I don't think any of that time was wasted.

Jen was the first to pony up money and set a shoot date. We were just milling around and around and around. Jen had the notion that we had to start making the film and people will understand as we go, because people were fearful of putting me in charge -- surprise, and this [script] is hard to read on the page.

Raising money was very patchwork. We had contributions, investors. Every movie goes through the same thing -- you do whatcha gotta do. We had some big investors -- David Raymond [a noted New York art collector] came in as one of the executive producers and threw in money, plus we had surprise donations from people all over. We still have to pay some back, but we had a really nice group of investors.

We recorded the voices in November 2006, then started shooing in January 2007 and finished in March last year.

JS: Why did you decide to do a live-action feature? How did the Museum of Modern Art become involved?

EH: It was a new initiative of the museum. They wanted to acquire films for their collection before they're done, to align themselves with contemporary filmmaking as much as classic cinema. My shorts have been in their collection for a long time, my parents left a lot of their archives with them -- we have this relationship. While we were shooting, they kept calling me for a meeting. I figured it was about my parents, [so I said,] "I can't do it now, I've gotta finish the movie."

It was a real surprise when I went in. It turned out they were interested in helping us finish the film. It was an honor and a great surprise. We were pretty close to being done, but there's no bad time to get help and that was a good time to get it.

JS: Do you think we'll be seeing more independently-produced animated features, that you're part of a movement?

EH: To some degree animation is pigeon-holed -- if you couldn't make a giant animated feature [you couldn't do one at all]. But remember Ralph Bakshi succeeded at it, he got them made. There's a lot more excitement and openness to the form now. The new tools make it more practical. You can do it -- you can make a feature on your laptop, if you have a really good laptop. People like Bill Plympton and Nina Paley have been doing it for a while but there's even more now because a lot of kids, people don't necessarily think about a story in live-action form.

There's been sort of an explosion with things on Cartoon Network that are very independent. We're not as likely to be shunted aside and given the kiddie corner or the smutty fart joke corner. It's been a long time coming. My father wrote a paper in the 1970s about going beyond pigs and bunnies, about how the personal nature of art can work its way into animation -- that's where it belongs. Fifty years later, here we are.

JS: Is it tricky to make a living in independent animation?

EH: My husband works for Factiva [a health services company]. He has a more regular corporate job that helps support us. A lot of filmmakers don't have that. [Together with co-animator Jeremiah Dickey] we do animation for other peoples' films like Hedwig, but we've also done animated inserts for documentaries, I love working with documentaries. That's always changing too, coming up with ways to illustrate ideas -- you get to learn about other things.

We worked on William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which was made by his daughters, and What's on Your Plate, which looked into the politics of food, things like school lunches. We had to make the segments fast, but they came out really good. We worked with Judith Helfand, who makes personal films that are also documentaries, that investigate the vinyl industry or climate change. You find people who enjoy the process. It's how to fill in gaps [in your work schedule] -- you go in with spackle.

My favorite way of working is when it's a collaborative process -- "What do you need?," then you wait for light bulb to go on. There've been two or three times when no light bulb went on, but for most part something happens and the light bulb comes on.

[Combining work-for-hire and personal projects] is good because it keeps your creative muscles toned and [after finishing a work for hire project] you really search for doing something personal again -- "Let's go into the cave with a flashlight and see what's there." There's always the fear there'll be nothing there, or what's there is really crappy, [and you'll say,] "I got nothing." But it's exciting. There's always something there.

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.