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An Interview With George Griffin

Ann C. Phillipon talks with "quintessential independent American animator, George Griffin" about his life and art.

George Griffin.

As the quintessential independent American animator, George Griffin produces films which defy categorization. Part of what makes viewing a cross-section of Griffin films intriguing is the variety of approaches he takes to his subjects, rarely repeating a theme or style. In some of his earlier works, such as Head and Lineage, Griffin explores the depths and boundaries of his art, mixing animation with live action, flipbooks and trick photography. During the same period, however, he also produced strictly narrative films, such as the whimsically satirical The Club.

Later, during the 1980s, Griffin ' s style changed; his films became less confrontational and subversive in their relationship to the audience, and more traditionally " cartoony and entertaining. " Nonetheless, he continued to examine his artistic heritage in works like Flying Fur, which entangles a cast of crazy animal characters in a frantic Tom and Jerry soundtrack. He also produced more narrative projects, such as It's an O.K. Life, done for PBS, and tackled intensely personal emotions in Thicket.

While busy with freelance commercial projects in the late 80s and early 90s, Griffin also made playful films such as Ko-Ko, which synchronizes a dancing collage of magazine art with a Charlie Parker recording, and the sarcastic New Fangled, a humbling caricature of advertising creativity.

Most recently, Griffin has returned to the traditional narrative in A Little Routine, which provides a charming and intimate glimpse into father/daughter bedtime routines.

Rather than invoking a recurring style, all of these distinct films are linked instead by their personal expression of the artist's maturation. Griffin's body of work represents what it means to be an independent animator; his free experimentation with style and technique defines an art which is constantly in process and an artist who embraces his own evolution.

In my recent email correspondence with Griffin, I asked him, " What first inspired your interest in animation? "

I grew up in an art-loving family. My father had been a newspaper cartoonist as a teenager before turning to architecture; he had natural drafting talent which he exercised in a deliberate, self-confident manner. My mother was a marvelous piano player and acted in community theater. My sisters both played (viola, clarinet) in the local symphony orchestra.

I learned to value drawing and music; the one linear, precise, and highly personal, the other emotional, yet interpretive. Though I had numerous early, inconclusive music lessons (piano, cello, saxophone), the influence shows up in my sense of rhythmic montage and animation, and my notion of putting on a show. Particular music has provided the temporal backbone for some films (Ko-Ko, Thicket, Trikfilm 3), while improvised jazz riffs have been mixed as tracks for others (Head, Viewmaster, A Little Routine). Though my ability to draw was inherited and encouraged at every opportunity, I also felt quite intimidated by my father ' s clear mastery. Rather than compete with him directly, I chose parallel interests (photography, cooking, electronics) and didn ' t ever pursue formal art education. But through these activities, I learned many of the skills necessary for both art-making in general and animation in particular.

What kind of experience had you had as an artist by the time you graduated from Dartmouth? Whose work influenced you?

I graduated in 1967, two years late because I had dropped out in my sophomore year. After two years in the army and my hometown school, the University of Tennessee, I returned to Dartmouth. I majored in Political Science, but was quite active as a cartoonist for the literary magazine, and for antiwar posters and broadsides. There I learned the rudiments of typositing and silk-screening, often over the objections of the professional staff. I wolfed down everything the film society offered and was impressed with visiting artists Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, and the films of Robert Breer and Stan Vanderbeek. These film explorers were my introduction to animation as an experimental form, which might include drawing, photography, scratching, burning. Though not particularly ideological, they were revolutionary, perfect analogs for the defiant anarchism of the counterculture.

New Fangled

My first films, which I made in New York after I graduated, were Brakhage imitations with rapid single-framing, vertiginous swoops, double exposures, and random focus--all shot off the cuff in 8mm.

In 1968, I gave up the security of a day job, bought a used Bolex, and attempted to teach myself how to animate. What came out was warmed-over Brakhage with glimpses of static drawings. Very disappointing. Yet, while job hunting, Fred Mogubgub liked them so much he offered to give me money for a workprint. Another job interview resulted in my drawing (and redrawing) a storyboard for John Hubley. These encounters with demigods of animation were great for morale.

I got a job as a photographer ' s assistant (more accurately described as messenger), which resulted in a tip that a commercial animation studio needed an apprentice (or as the union labeled it, a " Xerox Operator " ). By the end of the year, I was drawing inbetweens for spots animated by Jack Schnerk, formerly of Disney, and designed by Tomi Ungerer, an acerbically witty Swiss cartoonist.

I worked there at Focus Design for about a year before being laid off. I then worked as a freelance assistant animator, then animator, at various New York commercial studios for the next three years. Here I encountered a kind of aristocracy of character animation: crusty, old geezers in two-toned shoes, with plastic pocket protectors. Actually they were quite a varied lot, while I was definitely the hippie with a college degree. By assisting the likes of Marty Taras, Johnny Gentillela, George Rufle, and Dante Barbetta, I learned that there was no single road to " good animation. " Their drawings ranged from chicken scratches of pure volumes, to violently reworked roughs, to perfectly rendered, " cleaned up " illustrations. What these men all had was a sublime sense of timing, posing, and problem solving. Because my lowly duty was often to redraw animators ' roughs to conform to character models, then do inbetweens, then flip the drawings for the animator, director, or clients, I could learn from the whole process.

As I learned more of the history of animation, I began to formulate a critical analysis of the studio system and recognized the need for another production model.

The most important first step was simply " doing my own thing. " During slow periods, I drew my first flipbook (abstract shapes that transformed to faces) and also practiced animating a rudimentary walk cycle. While making One Man ' s Laundry during this time, I hit upon a number of techniques which made one-person production feasible.

These experiences suggested that the studios ' division of labor and the alienation of the worker/artist from the final product would conspire to limit any artist who wanted to control the final work on the screen. I resolved to work toward an ideal: to write, design, animate, and shoot with one sweep of the hand. This meant forgoing cels, working and finishing directly on paper, cutting where necessary, and if possible, shooting at the same time, thereby collapsing the rigorous functional geometries which the animation industry had copied so well from Detroit.

The more I believed this line, the more I pounded my shoe on the podium, and found to my delight that I wasn' t alone. Of course, there were other more emotional factors: I had an enormous disrespect for authority and couldn ' t handle criticism well; I was allergic to some cute character designs and found that super smooth lines required a skill I didn ' t possess. I was quite dismayed by Ralph Bakshi ' s slicking up of Robert Crumb's cat in Fritz the Cat. I didn't draw cats fast enough and refused to clean-up Rufle ' s brilliant tornado-like drawings, which lead to my firing.(In retrospect, the actual film ain ' t nearly as bad as I then thought.)

Linda Simensky recently described "New York animators " as a " surly, black-clad bunch, who smoke, say whatever is on their mind, and can ' t draw--or can ' t or won ' t follow directions. " That pretty well summarizes my position then, and still resonates today, especially the " can ' t draw " part. My ideas about art tend to favor experimental exploration over illustration, mistakes over professionally " good " work, primitivism over sophistication, the personal over the commercial. (Remember, Emile Cohl was an " Incoherent " before he started to animate, stick figures at that).

A Little Routine.

In 1978 you put together a book entitled Frames, a collection of drawings and statements by 69 independent American animators. How much interaction did you have and do you currently have with contemporary animators in New York or elsewhere?

Frames grew out of a series of loosely organized meetings of animators and filmmakers held in the mid to late 70s (including Al Jarnow, Anita Thacher, Kathy Rose, Victor Faccinto). We were a kind of Downtown ASIFA, with an experimental, slightly conspiratorial, anti-commercial attitude. We were convinced that our films had more in common with the art world than the cartoon world and long debated who we were and what we were doing. The group's most tangible outcome was programming a show of films and artwork as a sidebar of the 1978 New York Film Festival, and Frames was as an extension of that show, a kind of manifesto of experimental animation.

We requested contributions from optical filmmakers like Pat O'Neill, Gary Beydler, and Ken Kobland which we hoped would expand what was meant by "experimental animation." Another aim was to obliterate the phony distinction between abstract and representational, even "cartoon" art. That many of the pages could be cut up and bound together as flipbooks was an unexpected delight.

In retrospect, I am less convinced that the art of animation has as much to do with paintings and drawings, which are really by-products ripped out of context, as with their synthetic fusion in time. The real art takes place on a bright screen, in a dark room, where the audience sees shadows cast from duplicated film. Being cheaply reproducible as "media," it will always have an uphill battle to claim status as an art commodity.

Today's scene has been radically transformed by MTV, Nickelodeon, and others. ASIFA-East is much more open to personal, experimental work. Students are hired to do interactive web animation. It's all a little amazing.

Your video collection, Griffiti, spans the period from 1973 to 1994, including over 13 independently produced and commissioned films. What ' s missing?

In general, I left out early work I considered derivative or awkward, or which was designed for gallery installation. The first group included very early films (The Candy Machine, One Man ' s Laundry, Rapid Transit, Displacement, among others). The latter group, produced during the late 70s, were mostly silent serial pieces dealing with variations on color cycles (Step Print), methods of duplication and representation (Block Print), and perception of movement (Thumbnail Sketches). Whatever else Griffiti might be or become, it does deliver a good cross-section of my work, with particular emphasis on the last 15 years.

An integral element in films such as Trikfilm 3, Head, Viewmaster, and Lineage is your fascination with the artistic process of animation. You seem eager to inspire equal fascination in this process in your audience by revealing some of its tricks, tools and challenges. Was this a primary goal for these films? Do you think one of these films achieves this goal better than another?

This self-consciousness grew out of various tendencies to become my one "Big Idea." The art world ferment of the 60s and 70s contained strong flavors of minimalism, process, conceptualism. If narrativity and objecthood were in retreat, then what better focus than the filmmaking process itself.

But the more I developed this concept during the mid-70s, the more I became aware that I was repeating a major theme of animation's pioneers--James Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl, Winsor McCay, the Fleischers. What for them had been a continuation of vaudeville's " lightening sketch " routines, for me became a simple skeleton on which to build complex, personal, even mysterious stories. Instead of backing off for fear of plagiarism, I plowed ahead, thinking that reworking the ancient themes would act as a kind of restorative, " back-to-basics " hustle to counter the slick monolith of factory-based cel animation.

In addition to the reflexive impulse to consciously include the filmmaker's craft (especially the busy, manipulative hands), I turned the camera on my talking and gesticulating face. This automatically alluded to an autobiographical tendency in experimental film at the time, even though I sought to modify any hint of earnestness with abstraction and irony. Head started out as a self-portrait and ended more as a portrait of eccentric, obsessive animation techniques.

Flying Fur.

I can't call any one film more successful than any other. But here are my thumbnail comments: Trikfilm 3 was one of a series "animator-at-work-on-a-flipbook" pieces. Head was conceived as kind of Trikfilm 4, but it grew beyond its borders and became both more personal and open-ended. Viewmaster was the most elegant, concise, conceptual, and entertaining, because its length was determined by a formula (it used but eight drawings) and it contained images which were pleasing to the mind, if not exactly funny (a naked man, woman, and dog; stick figure waiters, running blobs, and a faint hint of Mutoscopic self-reference). Lineage was as far as I went toward a summation of statements on process and artistic paternity.

Particularly in Trikfilm 3, Head, and Lineage, you take great pleasure in walking the line between reality and illusion. You invite the viewer to step into the animation process with you as his/her guide, betraying some " tricks of the trade " along the way. No sooner has this supposed breach of process been committed, however, than the viewer finds him/herself further from reality than ever. Your images begin to transform in the unnerving environment that is the intersection of photographic reality and illusion.

Just as you can't teach someone to make art, you can't demonstrate a process or cinematic trick within a movie without resorting to more analogies, metaphors--tricks. Behind the guy who is behind the black velvet curtain, there's another . . . well, something. Gears and levers; a Rube Goldberg diagram. My reflexive films tend to abuse their own documentary authority by playing with photographic "reality" as if it were yet another pallet in the animator's toolbox. Animated drawings, which conventionally connote fantasy, can lead a viewer to deal with very real psychological or social themes.

Lineage (1979) has been called your most ambitious work. I enjoyed watching this film, but honestly I also had some trouble understanding it. You seemed to be targeting formalism; yet the film felt quite analytic and overwhelmingly layered with meaning. When you began Lineage, what were your plans for its message or meaning? In the end, did the film accomplish what you originally intended?

As to why I made Lineage, I often cite the frustration of teaching a year in the windowless basement of Harvard's Carpenter Center, surrounded by wise guys, unable to do my own work. Back in New York City the next year, a lot of stuff just tumbled out. Conflicted you say? No doubt. The analytic component is actually a mixture of self-parody and earnestness which made sense to me at the time. Consistency in art seems to be most critical when words are a major part of the mixture.

Today I see it as a kind of polemical essay demanding that animation have its own avant-garde--an unapologetic, un-edited, not for primetime region, quite outside but somehow tethered to the mainstream.

Another theme is my attempt to find reconciliation with my fathers, both biological and artistic (Cohl and McCay). I try to get at the philosophical nut embedded in the animation process but I also attempt to pay spoken homage to emotional content and the therapeutic quality of laughter; silly cartoons do have a place in my life, much larger that I was ever able to admit. (This was demonstrated more visually in my next two films, It's an O.K. Life and Flying Fur.)

Giannalberto Bendazzi, in his book Cartoons, notes that in the 1980s you backed down a bit from your earlier extremist position against the studio system. The films on Griffiti postdating Lineage (1979) do indeed have a very different feeling. Can you talk about what happened in the 80s and how your work changed?

It is indeed exhilarating to be called an " extremist " (at least in regard to my criticism of the studio system). My article, " Cartoon, Anti-Cartoon," in Gerald Peary's anthology, The American Animated Cartoon (1980), was a kind of manifesto trumpeting a brave new era for animation. It was written after Head, when the New York City group was just getting together. Animation companies were, with very few exceptions, in artistic decline; no shorts were being produced, Saturday morning children ' s shows were universally acknowledged as dreck, commercials had recoiled from the Pop explosion and were playing it safe, and features hadn ' t yet caught fire. So, while it seemed a bit radical to insist that the future would smile warmly only on the independent animator, being loyal to your friends while standing up to the perceived threat of assembly-line mediocrity seemed perfectly reasonable. And, when one considers the current upsurge of computer animation and the Internet, there's always the fall back position of being ahead of one's time.

But by the 80's things began to change. My debt to cartoon history came to the fore. I attempted to negotiate a place for myself and others within that lineage, claiming that Disney had unfairly usurped the term and contracted its meaning to only one slick sensibility. " Cartoon " originally meant sketch, plan, or provisional drawing for a final work, such as a stained glass window. Nothing about cute, anthropomorphic animals. So my current job description ( " makes animated cartoons " ) covers all bases.

The breakout films, It ' s an O.K. Life and Flying Fur, while made for different reasons, were both cartoony and entertaining. It' s an O.K. Life was a three-minute diary of a little man ' s life in the future depending heavily on voice over narration, spoken by Marshall Efron. It' s an O.K. Life demonstrated the practicality of a collaborative studio cartoon, produced on a deadline and budget, using " independent " designs and techniques. Flying Fur, in contrast, was much more reflexive in its cartoonal acknowledgments. A 1940s Tom and Jerry soundtrack (created by Scott Bradley) provided the rhythmic organization, while archetypal chase scenes were reinterpreted for a cast of simply-sketched animals and a square man. So, after the introspective intensity of speaking directly in Lineage, which concluded the " anti-cartoons, " I quite naturally retreated to rework more traditional forms of storytelling, in which formalist chicanery was backgrounded as a kind of leitmotif.

Do you most enjoy working on your independent, noncommercial work?

For the past 10 years, I have made a living directing TV commercials in my own studio, Metropolis Graphics, which has maintained an association with larger California companies, Colossal Pictures and now Klasky Csupo. I also take other commissioned assignments, as I have since the early 70s. In addition to this freelance work I have also received grants for my independent work. The professional work is generally performed in a scaled down studio setting with a small ad hoc staff of two to three artists, who tend to be independent filmmakers or painters. More often now the independent work is done the same way, though considerably more time is spent alone writing, drawing, animating before helping hands arrive. Both types of work provide valuable technical experience, which often has a crossover value. But I do keep the two worlds apart. One is essentially collaborative, the other is my own voice and vision.

It's an O.K. Life was made for PBS (which edited out the ending for broadcast), but I claim authorship of the whole film. My role as line producer for R.O. Blechman's Soldier's Tale in 1985 was another positive experience, even though it entailed working within the dreaded studio system. And a number TV spots, while not done in "my style," forced me to develop new ways of working with traditional material. My current involvement with the computer, for example, can be traced to my problem-solving work in commercial production.

New Fangled and A Little Routine are quite accessible, particularly relative to your earliest work. Has your approach to your independent films changed a great deal since you began regularly doing commercial work?

I don ' t think they are more accessible for that reason. I certainly wouldn ' t have made a parodic piece like New Fangled before having some experience in the creative side of the advertising world. I think A Little Routine is my most personal and revealing film, perhaps because of its accessibility.

How do you look back on films like Trikfilm 3, Head, and Lineage now? Do they still convey the same messages and evoke the same self- reflection and questions that you originally intended?

It ' s the nature of art, music, and literature to change in our reception and interpretation through the years. Everything above suggests that I would see my films differently now. Much of the intellectual content in these films seems pleasingly naive now. But even as I was making them, my main interest was more visual than verbal; this continues to be true for me.

Ann C. Philippon is a freelance writer and recent graduate of Dartmouth College where she studied art history and physics. She remains at Dartmouth working under a grant from the National Science Foundation.