I’m sitting on a plane (window seat) back to Seattle from Chicago. I had a great four days in Montreal, bookended with travel troubles. On the way up from Vermont my Greyhound bus broke down and they had to send another one so I arrived into town 3 hours late, just 90 minutes before the screening was supposed to start at the Cinémathèque québécoise. If you remember the Cinémathèque brought in a program I curated in 2011 called Inter-Action, of animated shorts from Seattle. That was my main reason for taking a side trip to Montreal after my residency in Vermont (more on the last week of the residency in a bit). And today one of the legs on my journey was cancelled and had to go through some rigmarole to end up actually on the same second leg I’d always been booked on. Go figure.
But the screening went great. It was in the Cinémathèque’s smaller theater and we got a small but respectable attendance, including two Montreal animators, Jacques Drouin (of ‘Paysagiste’ fame – Jacques took over the care and use of the pin board from inventor Alexeieff. More on this in a bit) and Michèle Cournoyer. I’m very happy they came and they had a lot of questions afterward.
Marco de Blois, the Cinémathèque programmer was also great to work with – a true champion of Montreal animation. He programs animation events every week! Sometimes more than once a week. He also organizes a yearly animation festival in December. Seriously, I think Montreal is probably the city most saturated with independent animation culture in the world. But, tellingly, despite this, Marco said most Montrealites (?) were unaware of the animation history and culture in their own city, and it was hard to get them out to the screenings. I thought, if Montreal is having a tough time making the public aware of independent animation, what chance do we have in Seattle?
But we’re trying. I feel like SEAT (Seattle Experimental Animation Team) has been successful at this on some levels, but perhaps the community is still too small for it to have a giant impact? Do we have enough animators and enough animation aficionados to warrant our own animation festival like Marco is doing? I don’t know think so. But for now we have individual programs that can be curated like the Inter-Action one that screened on Friday. I would love it, though, if more independent animators moved to Seattle and became active in SEAT. That way, even if we didn’t have our own festival, we would become more of a presence at the NW Animation Festival in Portland (happens every May) as well as SIFF and Local Sightings here in town. It would be cool if Seattle became the city where independent animators moved to, as opposed to Portland where studio animators live. (I’m sure there are also independent animators who live in Portland, but I figure most animators there are there because of LAIKA – the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman).
My four days in Montreal were great, and the definite highlight was a trip to the National Film Board of Canada to see Alexeieff’s pin screen. This is a piece of equipment invented by the animator in the 30s. He made 6 or 7 in his lifetime, improving on them each time. But only this one is currently functional and being used by an animator. Only this one in the whole world! Five are in museums and too deteriorated to use, and one needs restoration and will eventually be available for artist use in an archive in Paris. But for now, this is the one. Animator Michèle Lemieux is currently the ‘keeper’ of the pin screen, and is working on her second film with it. Her first one is called Here and the Great Elsewhere. You can see a trailer here. She showed it to me in her studio and it was lovely. Very meta, referencing the pins the images are made of.
To explain the object itself a little: it’s basically a metal frame that is squeezing together 140,000 tiny pins. Each pin is encased in a tube that is only just big enough to fit the pin. Together the pins become a prickly field that can be pushed in from the front, and pushed back outwards by reaching around behind the frame. In this way you can push the pins in and out and change the relief picture. But that’s not all. What really creates the black and white shades on the screen is not the pins alone, but the shadows of the pins cast by a lamp on the left. Where there are shadows, the image is dark. Where there are no shadows, the image is white. It’s a little hard to understand which is why I’ve always wanted to see one up close to figure it out. Michèle Lemieux was very kind in letting me into her space and I’m forever grateful. I was practically skipping down the sidewalk afterwards, except it was -20 degrees F so I couldn’t actually do that.
I’m hoping to create something akin to the pin screen in Seattle and see how I can use it.
Back to the Vermont Studio Center. The last week was very busy! I created the basis of three new short shorts during those last three days. The first was the snow film – yes, it finally snowed again and though the snow was not perfect packing snow, it was good enough and I managed to shoot my film outside. Good thing too, because the next day it warmed up and all the snow melted away. The pictures require a lot of color correction but eventually they will make a nice one minute short.
The second project was an experiment I carried out in the print studio with the help of Catherine Rondthaler. I wanted to see if it was possible to animate a print, and we made a simple loop together of a ball rolling into frame. Someone mentioned it looked like a snowball, so maybe there was a snowball theme happening that week. What we did is we scratched into a piece of plastic (instead of a traditional metal plate), inked it, printed it, then scratched in the next position of the ball, inked it, printed it, etc. By the end of the action the plate had ten scratches in it, and with each successive print, the ink from the earlier scratches fades away (as it’s picked up by the paper). So you get these kind of ghost images of where the ball used to be. We played around with this and made a nice loop. I photographed the prints on my stand and was able to show the little film at open studios that evening. I will re-photograph them once I get back to my studio with better lighting, though.
The third project was a one inspired by life drawing. Steve the life model was very patient and he let me direct him in two minute poses that followed an action. The action was a boxer bouncing in place, as if fighting an invisible opponent. He throws a punch, he avoids a punch, he gets knocked out. I drew these poses on lots of different sheets of paper with the aid of my lightbox that I brought in the studio. This was actually the fist time I’d ever used paper and a lightbox to animate, which is unusual as it’s usually the first thing people try. I only had 3 hours with Steve so I need to finesse some of the drawings and shoot them properly, but I think it will make a cute short. It’s kind of a story of the life model fighting to stay a ‘life’ model as opposed to a still life. It will make sense when it’s finished.
So that was my last week at VSC! Very full! I’m so grateful to have met all the other wonderful artists and writers and to have had the chance to focus so intently on my work. So many new ideas were spawned there that would not exist otherwise. I’m looking forward to the next residency already.