Friday, March 28, 2008

Interview with Bob Sabiston

As it seems that we as a society like definitions, and also knowing that it's hard to speak in absolutes about any art form...Could you name some essential qualities that you feel should be present in a work that is labeled "Documentary Animation."

Well, I think the same qualities that apply to documentary film -- those should be in documentary animation. For me, sound is a big part -- our sound is mostly real, and the animation is based on video that accompanies that exact sound. Telling a "true" story, that is the main part.

Also I think that the film should be at least at much an "animated film" as a "documentary one", but that it just a preference. By that I mean, it should seem like the reasons for making the film were at least as much about the visual art of it as they were about the
documentary subject matter.

Do you feel that once a work is labeled "Documentary" that it's set up for a deeper level of public scrutiny and potential controversy than it's non-fiction counterparts?

I'm not sure ... I mean, if you label something a documentary, then you are stating that you are presenting some form of the truth, and that sort of deserves scrutiny, or at least it is making a claim. It is like that public outcry over James Frey's book "A Million Little Pieces" -- I read it and liked it a lot, but it isn't the same to me now that I know they were claiming it was something it wasn't.

Do you see documentary animation playing a unique role in communication of "truth" that hasn't been tapped into by documentary film?

I like it because it is another layer, or medium, between you the director or artist and the audience. You can use the animation to express yourself in a way that is more clearly defined than in a live-action documentary. It is fun to play with that idea at least.

What was the inspiration that led you to structure your work around interview footage? Would you consider yourself someone who prefers to work with non-fiction content?

I guess...I think though that is because I am not confident of my abilities as a fiction writer. Still, I have always liked the idea of interviewing people, playing reporter, since I was a kid actually. And films like "Vernon Florida", "Gates of Heaven" (all of Errol Morris' films really) as well as pseudo-documentary animated shorts like "Creature Comforts" (Aardman) -- they show that documentary can be as entertaining as any narrative. So I'm going after that kind of thing, hopefully adding my own element as far as the animation itself. I feel like my true goal is to create interesting animation, cool visuals, and documentary is an easy, but still entertaining, "subject matter" for it.

How would you describe your process? You often use interview footage as the basis for your work, do your subjects influence your image making process? Do you ever feel a sense of
responsibility to get their feedback along the way?

I always am excited to show the people our animation of them, with one or two exceptions where I wasn't happy with the look of it. They naturally influence the process, as does the sensibility of the particular artist who is drawing them. I work with many artists, which I really like to do, and it is always interesting to see how another person can capture that person's essence in a drawing, either better or differently than you do yourself.

But mostly, each person's personality naturally is the whole focus on the animation, we are portraiting them in a way, so the more influence the better.

If you've produced both Fiction & Non-fiction work, how does audience response differ to each genre?

I have not produced much fiction work. The first two or three shorts I made were fiction, but that was 15-20 years ago. We have done more narrative work for other people, and for me there isn't much difference in the quality of the response from people. It just depends on the short itself. Fiction/Nonfiction can be equally good or bad.

How has your work been distributed/ screened...has it reached your ideal target audience?

Very sporadically has my work been distributed. I sell the one short off my website, and I've got a few shorts on YouTube that people can watch, though I doubt that looks very good. Mostly our films are seen in festivals...I guess I think of it like art exhibitions, they show a little bit and then become part of an archive. I hope one day I'll get them out on DVD, all packaged together.

Interview with Joanna Priestley

Name some essential qualities that you feel should be present in a work that is labeled "Documentary Animation."

[J.P.] Documentary animation is based in images and sounds of actual events.

Do you feel that once a work is labeled "Documentary" that it's set up for a deeper level of public scrutiny and potential controversy than it's non-fiction counterparts?

[J.P.] Animation, in general, does not engender much scrutiny from most viewers. Many people are not aware that animated documentary is a genre and they do not distinguish non-fiction from fiction animation. They are often surprised to see a serious subject dealt with in animation and they watch the film in a mild state of shock. I have never seen people critique a documentary cartoon as they would a live action documentary.

Do you see documentary animation playing a unique role in communication of "truth" that hasn't been tapped into by documentary film?

[J.P.] Because animation is considered a "friendly" genre that lots of people are comfortable with, it can reach an audience that might not watch live action documentary. It is sometimes easier to incorporate difficult subjects in a animated documentary. My recent film about menopause, "Streetcar Named Perspire", is a funny cartoon but it also touches on subjects like anxiety, female facial hair and vaginal atrophy.

What led you to create Pro & Con? Have you created other work that you would call "Documentary" or "Non-fiction"?

[J.P.] Pro and Con was made as a part of the Percent for Art Program in Multnomah County, where a small fraction of the construction budget of a public building (funded by taxpayers) is used to acquire art for the building. In this case, the building was the Inverness County Jail. A national competition was held to select a film project. Joan Gratz and I were the only animators and the only women to apply.

In the "Pro" section of the film, I incorporated self-portraits by inmates in the art class at the Oregon State Penitentiary and handmade crafts (tiny weavings, macrame crosses and pipes) that were made by prisoners. I was also able to animate weapons that were confiscated from inmates: butcher knife, meat cleaver and saw. This section of the film is based on interviews with corrections officer Lt. Janice Inman.

To write the text of the film, we send questionnaires to 450 inmates in the Oregon Prison System. One of the replies we received was outstanding and we used it for the "Con" section of the film (directed by Joan Gratz). This was written by Richard Green, an inmate who was in solitary confinement for over two years. "Pro and Con" took three years to make and it includes numerous animation techniques: stop motion, rotoscope, drawings, paintings, puppets and clay painting. The documentary aspects include original sound footage, interview footage, biographical narrative and based on a true story.

Having produced both Fiction & Non-fiction work, how has audience response differed to each?

[J.P.] A surprising number of people reject animation as being either for children, silly or "arty". Every time I show "Pro and Con" someone (or many people) come up to me afterwards and say that they loved the film and were stunned to see animation used to examine the prison system. After screening "Pro and Con", I often hear people say that they did not know that animation could be serious.

Has "Pro & Con" been seen outside of festivals and academic forums?

[J.P.] Yes it has had excellent distribution.

Has the internet been a channel to distribute this film?

[J.P.] Not the full length version.

Film Description

Pro and Con looks at an African American, female corrections officer, taken from interviews with Lt. Janice Inman, and a white, male inmate, written by Jeff Green. It includes self-portraits that were drawn by inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary and animation of contraband weapons and crafts confiscated from inmates. Pro and Con uses a variety of techniques: object animation, puppets, drawings on paper, cell animation and clay painting.

"Pro and Con is a brief but excellent exploration of the thoughts and emotions of those working and living in our prison system."

-Rebecca S. Albitz, Pyramid Film and Video

Directed, produced and animated by Joanna Priestley and Joan Gratz. Sound designed and produced by Lance Limbocker and Chel White. Music by Chel White. Narrated by Lt. Janice Inman and Allen Nause. "Con" written by Jeff Green. Commissioned through the Metropolitan Arts Commission's Percent for Art Program, Multnomah County, Oregon

Awards/Festival screenings: Black Maria Film Festival: Director’s Choice Award, Cindy Competition: Gold Award, Annecy International Animation Festival, Northwest Film and Video Festival: Honorable Mention, Bombay International Film Festival, Worldfest Charleston: Worldfest Gold Award, Birmingham Educational Film Festival: First Prize, USA Film Festival, Columbus Film Festival: Honorable Mention, CINE Competition: Gold Eagle Award, Holland Animation Festival, Sinking Creek Film Festival, Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Interview with Paul Fierlinger

[Paul Fierlinger] This is what I just sent to MyToons for their upcoming newsletter:

“I refuse to read this letter”, cried the baroness, dropping an envelope into the flames… page 32.

My films are just like those old illustrated books with enticing captions, only my illustrations are set in motion. I’m old enough to have read such books when they first came out; before I would start reading I used to first intently inspect each illustration to see if everything was depicted correctly (or at least plausibly) because there is no other discipline so driven by the need to see the truth as the Arts, and art teaches us how to be observers. I have spent my entire professional life aspiring to uncover and describe the truth as best I could at the moment.

Animated documentaries differ from live camera ones because just by the nature of the media they are expected to be personal, since drawings are accepted as personal views of the world whereas the camera shutter is considered always the more objective one. A documentary film following a criminal case is going to be a more convincing depiction of the truth when told through a camera’s lens, but an animated film documenting the succession of emotions the victim of that crime might have felt at the time can go deeper and reach people’s souls through the use of illustrated metaphors or analogies.

Animated characters allow viewers to identify with them more readily because they represent merely an icon of a true person – a much broader representation of the truth than a photograph, towards which one viewer might feel drawn to and another repudiated by.

Sometimes drawings can pinpoint the truth better than photography; for instance, most guides to bird identification choose to be illustrated by drawings rather than photographs. There’s a reason for this; if a certain bird is most identifiable by the length, color and shape of its beak, a drawing can bring this out using a slight exaggeration which would look monstrous if the same was done by retouching a photograph. I create such exaggerations to make the truth more salient in all my films.

This covers the most blatant points of how animated documentaries compare to live camera ones, but there are other practical reasons to go this route, for instance to make up for missing stock footage or to tell a historic event which occurred long before the discovery of photography.

It’s useful to remember that the very first pictorial documents of the way things once were existed on caveman’s walls entire millennia before even written history came into existence—and will most likely outlive all the current media.

Q1: As it seems that we as a society like definitions, and also knowing that it's hard to speak in absolutes about any art form...Could you name some essential qualities that you feel should be present in a work that is labeled "Documentary Animation."

[P.F.] A typical documentary narrative such as of the CNN variety is not usually good enough for an animated film, unless you want it to come off as a parody. An animated documentary should always have a personal touch to it since the viewer will most likely expect that from drawings. To have a newscast type narrator shout in his professional baritone, “…and this is what happened that fateful Thursday morning, November fifteenth…” and show a drawing of a little old lady will never be accepted as the truth. But to have a non-professional voice say, “… this is what I felt that morning…” will be convincing and accepted as the truth as long as

1. It is the truth, and

2. There is as little to be thought of as typically cartoony about the drawing. Uhm… unless your point is to say she felt like a cartoon. There can be an endless string of qualifiers to everything one says on this sort of subject.

Q2: Do you feel that once a work is labeled "Documentary" that it's set up for a deeper level of public scrutiny and potential controversy than it's non-fiction counterparts?

[P.F.] Yes; even worse—hokey. I’d never want to claim that.

Q3: Do you see documentary animation playing a unique role in communication of "truth" that hasn't been tapped into by documentary film?

[P.F.] That should be the singular overlying principal. As with all animated films, there should be an evident purpose for it to be made that way. Here’s the time for live camera documentaries to come off as corny or hokey because animated films are better at documenting emotions—whether they are my emotions or the subject’s emotions. How do you document with imagery what a person speaking on camera feels deep inside? Room for more qualifiers: unless the person shows extremely well defined facial features etc., but even that can take you only so far before it becomes tiresome, or embarrassing. The viewer might even get angry with the cameraman if this goes on for too long…

Picture for yourself now a victim of Katrina recorded on tape breaking into tears or just describing in a quivering voice what it means for him to have lost everything. If shown throughout the soliloquy on camera, you (or at least I) might become unsympathetic after two minutes, but if we just hear his authentic, failing voice say, “I lost everything, everything, everything…completely everything…” and with each “everything” and each pause in between I’d morph not just lost objects into one another but entire events such as family gatherings, I’ll tell a much larger story in a very short amount of time.

Here, the importance of condition number 1. is all important, depending on my integrity; I can either make up everything, or I can choose to find out from this person what are his memories and of the lost place. Look here: at 01-Wanderlust. The girl complains about sitting at a computer under fluorescent lights but at the same time we see the rat race going on behind her back, including the type of people she has to be with. These things she talked about at length and would have never fit into a two minute documentary, so I am showing the truth and I know by now that everyone trusts this film as the truth.

Q4: What led you to create incredibly personal auto biographical films & what drives you to continue to do so?

[P.F.] I suppose this has been answered above.

Q5: Having produced both Fiction & Non-fiction work, how does audience response differ to each genre?

[P.F.] There is no comparison; the non-fiction genre is so much more fulfilling because it resonates with audiences on such a deeper level. We get letters almost daily from viewers commenting on our documentaries, but not just commenting… actually asking to buy a DVD and asking for more films such as the one they like so much. So this turns into money, which turns our work into a vehicle for a living. We’d never get this from any of our fictitious films, but this might just be because I’m not very good at inventing fictitious stories.

Q6: As I've personally not seen documentary animation screened for the general public...I wonder if your biographical work has been seen outside of festivals and academic forums? Has the internet been a channel to distribute your non-fiction work?

[P.F.] Once more, answered above.

Interview with Sheila Sofian

Q1: What is your impetus/inspiration to produce Non-Fiction animation? Or Why have you chosen the path of Non-fiction Animation?

For me, it was a natural evolution from working in both documentary and animation forms. I feel much more inspired by other people's stories and am fascinated by their lives. I am also very passionate about the subjects of each of my films, and that helps inspire me to create the film.

Q2: As any form of animation/media is hard to fully define in absolute terms, are there qualities that you feel must be present in an animated work to qualify as "documentary animation"? Or perhaps is there one quality that separates documentary animation from other genres?

I think that in order to qualify as "documentary animation" an animated film must have some relationship to non-fiction. There are some non-fiction soundtracks that have been paired with fiction images (e.g.. "Creature Comforts".) I have a hard time describing that as "documentary animation" since the intent of the soundtrack is changed. Some people may disagree with me. Aardman has excellent examples of what I would consider "documentary animation" I am more comfortable with the idea of the audio being "truthful". In other words, not intentionally changing the meaning of the words. (That's not to say I don't love "Creature Comforts"!)

Q3: Considering the scrutiny that is often placed on documentary work as opposed to purely narrative film, do you feel that once you add the label "documentary" or "non-fiction" to animation that you tap into the potentially controversial response that is not uncommon to documentary film?

On occasion it has been controversial, but rarely. A lot of live action films are criticized for having an "agenda", and probably all documentary films do have an agenda of sorts. Animation can be criticized for being manipulative, but only by people unaware of media studies and of how manipulative live action documentary is. (As one USC documentary professor told me, a live action filmmaker selects a few minutes from many hours of footage- it is a HIGHLY selective process what goes into the film.) So, I guess the answer is "yes" the same arguments can apply. However, the most controversy I have encountered is when the topic itself is deemed controversial (political.) "Survivors" is surprisingly not controversial at all.

Q4: Do you feel that documentary animation has a unique role in the field of animation?

Yes. I think that if we are talking about a documentary soundtrack paired with images, animation can interpret the words in a unique way. The sound:image relationship is fascinating. It can also inform and educate people in a profound manner.

Q5: If you've produced both narrative & non-fiction animated work, have you found that there is a marked difference in audience response between the two? If so, what has your experience been in terms of audience response to your non-fiction work?

I think there is often a stronger emotional response to non-fiction animation. Perhaps there is an added power in the voices of actual experience. When you know someone is relating an actual event that happened, you tend to pay special attention (I think, anyway.) If they dislike the point of view of the film they have a very hostile reaction. If they are engaged and empathetic with the interviewee they have an incredibly emotional reaction.

Q6: How has your work been distributed...has it reached the your ideal target audience?

"Survivors" has been the most successful so far. It is being distributed educationally- a great market for documentary animation.

Q7: Any advice for aspiring animators that wish to focus their energy on non-fiction animation?

I think it is important to feel passionate about your target and to be very responsible with the "truth" or "intent" of your subject. There is so much potential for documentary animation that has not been explored. Please further the art form!

SHEILA’S WEB PAGE for more information.