Sue Loughlin: An Animator's Profile

by Rita Street

Sue LoughlinSue Loughlin

British animator Sue Loughlin always knew she would have a career in the world of art. Even as a child she believed she was destined to bring the beautiful images in her mind to life. However, the piece in the puzzle she didn't see as a child and even as a young woman, was that she would make a living by making those images move. "Art was my favorite subject in school and I knew I would end up doing something art based. But when I went to the Liverpool Art School I initially wanted to do illustration. I only discovered animation by attending a lecture on animation history. For me, it was like a revelation."

Loughlin had always thought of animation as "comic" or for children, but after that lecture, after she saw that animation could also be theatrical and moving, she was hooked. "I left it thinking, 'God, that's so brilliant. That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to animate.'"

To Give Something Life
And animate she did. After completing her Bachelor's of Fine Art at Liverpool, she went for her postgraduate degree at the United Kingdom's National Film and Television School. There she learned the traditional skills of an animator, working as she says, mainly with pencil and paper because the price of cels was simply not within the limitations of her small student budget. She remembers those first years at the school, learning and experimenting with the medium, as a mixture of ecstasy and tedium. "I couldn't believe I was allowed to spend the whole day drawing. It was heaven. No one was going to say I had to do other things. On the other hand, it seemed weird that it took so much time to create animation. It's so labor intensive. But the quicker you worked, the quicker you could see your character move on the pencil test machine. And once you've seen something move, even though it flashes by quickly, you want to rush back and do all that work again, simply because it is so amazing to give something life."

Amnesty International PSAAmnesty International PSA

While in school, Loughlin kept exploring the medium of art. She studied artists from different ages, how they approached their work, the progression of their personal style and the materials and tools they worked with. She was attracted early on to the leader of the Fauvists, Henri Matisse and his experiments into the very essence of images, or Expressionism.

Grand National
Her first short film, Grand National is almost an homage to Matisse's strong lines, but it is also a send-up to Picasso, which is seen especially in the strength of her horses. Yet, Grand National, is much more than the influences of great artists on Loughlin's style. The piece has a strong personality all its own, reflective of Loughlin's own wit and passion.

Growing up in Liverpool, the home of the Grand National, Loughlin remembers going each year as a young girl, looking through the great gates, watching the attendees file in and wishing she could afford to go. "It was such a personal event for me," Loughlin said, "It was the only major event in our small town each year and it lasted for three days. The rest of the year it [the stadium] was closed. One year, my Dad bought me some tickets for my birthday and I got to see the horses. When I went to art school I thought I definitely had to make a film about the race."

Grand National is a moving portrayal of the very "real," even though it is painted with only black ink and dashes of color. The film opens on the empty streets surrounding the stadium--the quiet before the storm--then shows the arrival of hundreds upon hundreds of automobiles. As the crowds unfold onto the stadium like an irrepressible tide, the eye of the camera moves through the crowds, stopping to examine small huddles of race goers--blue collar workers comparing bets, rich women talking about the horses but actually evaluating each other's attire, young couples out for the day and impressed by all who are there to see and be seen.

The horses are led out, looking--with Loughlin's bold painted lines--like great beasts from legendary Troy. The jockeys arrive and Loughlin brings their racing colors to life with single strokes of purple, red, and blue. The race begins, and the sound of the crowd is at once deafening and utterly silent against the pounding of the horses' hooves. At each jump, riders and horses fall and brush, stripped away from the obstacle, flies toward the camera. The horses come around the corner on the last 400 yards and two horses are neck and neck. The remaining riders' colors blur together in a rainbow of power and speed. Rhyme & Reason crosses the finish line first and the jockey heads to the Winner's Circle. A typical day at the races.

The Grand National
The Grand National by Sue Loughlin

But as the crowd moves out of the stands into their taxis and cars, the audience is left with unanswered questions. Why do people go to the races? What does racing and betting mean? And, if racing means so much, especially to people in a small town, what is left to look forward to during those interminable days between one Grand National and the next?

To complete Grand National Loughlin invented a new lightbox so that she could paint directly onto a cel without using a pencil first. "I wanted that spontaneity," she says, "which gets lost drawing first and then rendering later." So she created a design that would allow her to put a piece of glass over a wet cel, keeping each cel about an inch apart, while painting another cel on top. "I had a carpenter make it for me. It was trial and error though because I had to have two peg bars, one on top of the other. Still, to keep the cels registered, I have to keep my head in the same position each time. If I move it goes out of registration." Although the system may sound awkward, Loughlin says it is actually comfortable, works fine and served her purpose even as she made the transition to professional work while still in school.

Social Reform and Women's Rights
One of the most impressive projects completed early on with her newfangled lightbox, was for the Genesis World Tour of 1992. For Dreaming While You Sleep, a song about a reckless driver, Loughlin created images of cars driving through hill country. Her animation, which was projected during the tour, had atmospheric blue backgrounds and for the night scenes, bright yellow headlights that whirled and sped around dizzying curves. Dreaming While You Sleep led to other professional jobs about social reform and women's rights.

Amnesty International PSAAmnesty International PSA

For an Amnesty International public service announcement, she created a world where an ordinary woman, a free sort of spirit, is torn apart from everything she has known. "It's like a black cloud comes over and rips her apart from her family," says Loughlin, who explains that the piece is full of symbolism, a tool she finds essential in much of her storytelling.

For Levi's "Jeans For Women" campaign, Loughlin created Woman With a Purpose, a 30 second spot about a woman who walks through all the many obstacles a city can conjure up, unafraid. "The city in that spot was like an organic thing that came alive," says Loughlin, who remembers that the only guidelines she received from the ad agency were to give the woman an attitude and to make her small. "Well, I didn't want to make her entirely small, only in comparison to how big the city was. I wanted her to walk through everything as if no dangers could touch her. She could cross a road without looking and nothing would happen."

Woman With A Purpose
Woman With A Purpose Art created for the 1993 Levis® Jeans for Women Advertising Campaign - Foote, Cone & Belding/S.F.

The spot ends with the tiny woman approaching an enormous door. She pauses for a brief moment, then decides without a doubt there is no reason to be stopped by a mere door--no matter how big and ominous it happens to be--and easily pushes through. The women in this spot is a lot like the persona of Loughlin herself, a person who is unafraid to make her own way.

When Loughlin discovered animation, she decided to make it her own. When she thought of a new way to create her art, she built herself a tool and launched her career--a career based on taking the seemingly everyday and making it controversial and turning the already controversial into art.

A woman who has certainly fulfilled her childhood dream, Loughlin is not only an animator, she is definitely an artist in the grandest sense of the word.

Rita Street, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, is the founder of Women in Animation and former editor and publisher of Animation Magazine.

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