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Wendy and Amanda Go To the Ballet

Award winning animators Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis are currently taking on the stage.

Co-directors of the Oscar® nominated When the Day Breaks (1999) and Wild Life (2011) Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis also work occasionally on exciting commissioned projects and this month they’re going large. In collaboration with choreographer, Jean Grand-Maitre, they’ll be animating projections for Caelestis, Alberta Ballet’s contribution to Encount3Rs, a commission by the National Arts Centre in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa.

I caught up with them in Calgary, Alberta by Skype.

Sharon: Your hand drawn animated films have a very personal feel. So hearing that you’re working in collaboration on a large ballet production is quite a surprise. But before we get into that, tell me a bit about how you both got into animation.

Amanda: At art school, we were both interested in live action film and fell into animation without really planning it. I had been on enough awful film shoots in the rain for hours. I was really attracted to the fact that animation was so much less limited. I could have an idea and I didn't need a huge crew to create it. I could do it myself. 

Wendy: I was also attracted to it for the solitude and the control. It kind of synthesized all the arts in an intensive way. I loved the idea of being able to create a universe by myself - like having your own tiny stage.

af: If it's handmade animation, it's evidence of the workings of a person’s brain on the screen. I had a drawing teacher who said that when you make a drawing you're standing there naked in front of God and everybody.

sk: Animating for clients is a million miles from your own tiny stage! What happens to the intimacy when you’re working for ad agencies?

wt: Well it goes out the window.

af: That's just what I was going to say!

wt: I say that in a good way. When we do commercials we think of it as an interesting counter balance to the agonies of personal film making because you get to offload the pressure of your idea, and questions like ‘is it good enough’ to the people you're answering to. 

af: It's also an education because sometimes we think we know better and we actually don't. We have to give those ad agency people credit for what they're doing. 

wt: Often they want an ad in the style of one of our films but in a context that we think is odd or inappropriate. 

af: Also our painterly technique is tough and takes a long time - and usually they want us to do it in two months which seems impossible.

sk: Do you find that collaborating with an artistic group, like the Alberta Ballet, is almost a half way point between the personal and the commercial? You're collaborating with a big crew but you're also working with people who are very sensitive to the artistic development of the work. How did this exciting collaboration come about?

wt: We’ve done projections for them twice before - Mozart's Requiem in 2008 followed by Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins in 2009. We totally enjoyed the seat-of-the-pants process and so were thrilled when Jean Grand-Maitre invited us to do Caelestis. It’s a fabulous project. 

sk: Tell me more about that.

af: As you say, it’s a commission but one with a lot of artistic latitude. And this one feels scarier (although they're all scary). It’s in commemoration of Canada's 150th birthday this year. The National Arts Centre commissioned Ballet BC, Alberta Ballet and The National Ballet, so it's a triple bill and each piece runs about a half hour. The mandate was that each artistic director would choose a composer. I believe we will be the only company with video projections.

sk: And what’s it about?

wt: Jean’s concept is mathematics as the intersection between technology and nature. He wanted to explore humanity’s progress into the digital realm as a double-edged sword - as one of both beauty and destruction. 

af: The composer is Andrew Staniland from Edmonton. He composed the piece based on the Fibonacci sequence. I don't know if he used that exclusively but it’s definitely a structure in his work.

sk: So you worked with Fibonacci imagery to parallel that.

wt: That was the idea but we and Jean have departed from it significantly. 

sk: Was there collaboration at the conceptual level?

wt: Andrew did the music first and Jean created a loose script in response to it. There were certain key points he had ideas about but, for the most part,  he left the imagery completely up to us. He wanted us to respond to the music as well. And, because of schedule constraints, the choreography and animation were created pretty much at the same time. 

af: The music is a really strong guide in whatever we do. One thing I remember particularly with the Requiem is that we used one stock shot for each movement of Mozart's Requiem and we got these absolutely thrilling, accidental choreographic moments between the projections and the dance. So it's an exciting process and we just have to hope that we're not doing anything that goes flat against the character of Jean’s dance. 

wt: We have a very short amount of time in the theatre in Ottawa, which is the first time we'll see everything together - our only flexibility at that point will be to pull back intensity or cut something completely. We’re nervous about the images overwhelming the dancers because we’ll be projecting on the floor as well as the back wall. 

sk: Oh wow. 

wt: Much of the lighting on the dancers will be the projections. And because there will be two projectors, our comps have to be split. Which also makes it technically more complicated.

af: And we haven't a clue about this sort of thing: what kind of projector, what lenses, where to hang them, all that kind of stuff. We’ve been in close communication with Adam Larsen (a projection artist based in New York) who does a lot of work with Alberta Ballet. 

wt: He has been enormously helpful.

af: And of course the timing changes according to the way the piece is being conducted. 

wt: Because it's a live orchestra. 

af:  When Andrew (the composer) rehearsed the piece at the NAC, he reported that “the timings look pretty good, they're not out by more than a minute per movement." 

sk: A minute per movement!

af: Which is catastrophic for us!

sk: Animators think in frames!

af: I'm breaking into a sweat just talking about it. We’ll be using a software called Watch Out which is specifically for theatrical projections. You build the show as a series of cues. The stage manager follows the score and calls each cue to the video person who pushes the button triggering the next shot and re-syncing the images with the music. 

wt: So we’re building long tails into each shot to give it elasticity. If the orchestra is playing slowly, we don’t want a shot to run out!  

sk: And it’s a live performance so the expectations are different from a film.

wt: Absolutely! We need to keep reminding ourselves that we’re not the main event. We’ll look at a shot and think “it’s too long” or “it’s boring” then remember that there will be dancers on stage distracting the audience!

af: It’s hard to get that into our heads. As animators, we’re used to paying attention to every detail, every frame.

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Encount3Rs was performed in April 2017 at the National Arts Centre in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. Coming up next is a blog on the ballet itself along with some striking images of the projections.

For more on video projection as an art form :

Book: Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection by Marc Mayer

Book: William Kentridge: Five Themes

video: William Kentridge, Black Box, Chambre Noir, Deutsche Bank AG Frankfurt and New York Guggenheim Foundation

article: Using Projection as a Theatrical or Digital Backdrop

article: Animation and projections expand theatrical experience

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