‘Private Parts’ by Anna Ginsburg (NSFW)

Anna Ginsburg’s snappy animated documentary, Private Parts, sidesteps social taboo by presenting frank and funny discussions about sex, with particular focus placed on the female anatomy.   

 Commissioned by Channel 4’s Random Acts, in partnership with It’s Nice That, Anna Ginsburg felt compelled to address the lack of attention given to carnal gratification when female sexuality is depicted in our society: “Conversations I’ve had with close female and male friends over the last decade have shed light on the continuing struggle that women have to engage with and love their own bodies, and to access the sexual pleasure they are capable of… I’ve been exposed to ‘dick drawings’ since primary school but have rarely, if ever, seen a vagina visualised other than in a clinical medical context. So I thought that talking to men and women about vaginas, masturbation and pubic hair – and then animating them as talking genitals – would be a good place to start in my crusade to open up these issues of sexual inequality and get the conversation started.”

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The ‘nuts and bolts’ of sex is a difficult matter to discuss both directly with an intimate partner but also between friends. In many respects the leap between the noticeably non-verbal language of sex and frank discussion is vast. This void is often first bridged by state sanctioned sexual education, however the increasing reach of internet pornography means that children as young as 8 are first learning about sex through media largely tailored to the male gaze.

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While it is not Anna’s explicit intention to make a sexual education film, she is clear about her interest in promoting open discussion: “Communication is the key to improving sexual confidence and sexual relationships… This documentary does not give any answers it just presents the sexual struggles, insecurities and successes of a range of people.”

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Ginsburg is working in the tradition of Creature Comforts, Aardman’s first Oscar winning short featuring non actors in vox-pop style interviews. Each subject was represented as a personified animal. Crucial to the success of this claymation documentary was the enormous attention paid to the characters facial expressions and gesticulation.  

 Directing 14 animators, Ginsburg places special focus on the design of each personified genitalia,: “Details like the foreskin, pubic hair and labia are used to give each penis and vagina a specific character, reflecting the specific human voice it embodies.” 

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Anna interviewed 22 participants for the film: “Usually it was just a case of talking to the person and giving them enough time to relax and adjust to the fact they were being recorded…I found interviewing people in small groups worked well as people would be encouraged by each others’ honesty and often get over-excited and hysterical which led to entertaining interactions.”

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Anna was compelled to address these issues as an interview based animated documentary.  Such a methodology allowed for authentic voices to be brought into the limelight without pushing the participants into a public forum. This anonymity minimised their feelings of embarrassment and inhibition. 

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Ginsburg added that this process also puts the audience at ease: “Drawings are abstract enough to bring the feeling of universality to an individual voice… The use of animated characters in place of photographic footage works as a protective barrier which can quash ingrained prejudice and allow empathy to flow unobstructed. It is way easier to pass judgement on a person based on a photograph than based on a drawing – even if it is a drawing of a giggling vagina.” 

Reference:

Source of interview itsnicethat.com/features/anna-ginsberg-private-parts-channel-4-random-acts-170516

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Tess Martin’s new film ‘Mario’ – film-maker interview

Mario from Tess Martin on Vimeo.

“In Italian playgrounds a song is sung that dates back to World War I. This paint on glass animation tells the dark tale of a soldier who returns home from war to find his girlfriend has left him.”

Tess Martin is a film-maker whose work ‘The Whale Story’ we featured last summer. We are thrilled to have not only an online exclusive of Tess’s new film ‘Mario’ which premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival on 24th May, but also an interview with the film-maker herself.

Alys Scott Hawkins: So, Tess, tell us about your new film…

Tess Martin: My new short is called ‘Mario’, and it’s based on an Italian children’s song which translates as ‘Everybody Calls Me Mario’. As far as I can tell, it’s a song that started out as a folk song in either in WWI or WWII. People don’t really know how far back it stretches. It references war and a specific battle, but there are several different versions of the song with different lyrics so the origins are kind of mysterious, but it comes from the northern part of Italy, either near Torino or near Venice. It kind of mutated into a song that children sing in elementary schools, and when they sing it they also play a hand clapping game.

That song and that game is something that I played because I grew up in Florence. We were living in Italy because of my dad’s job and I was at an Italian elementary school, and this was one of those playground games, but I remember even at the time thinking that this is kind of a weird song for kids to be singing, because it is quite dark. Kids relish dark things, I think, which is probably why it was popular. For whatever reason it stuck with me, and I always remembered it even after years had passed. At a certain point I started doing research into the song, to see if I could find anyone else who remembered singing the song, and where it came from.

Then I got a grant from 4Culture, an arts organisation in Seattle, so that’s when everything really started. The research I tried every which way, and there’s not a lot of information out there about this song. But it definitely exists – it wasn’t a figment of my imagination! There is one recording of some people in a village, that an ethnomusicologist recorded in 1960, and this is held in an archive in Rome, but it’s not accessible unless you go there in person. There is also a version on YouTube, but it actually has quite a different tune from the melody that I remember. But you can find people on the internet talking about the song and discussing the different lyrics they remember from their childhoods. Clearly its one of those things that’s mutated so much that there are now different lyrics, and different melodies, and no-one really knows where it came from.

Mario_hands1

It’s a really haunting story of a soldier who becomes enraged with jealousy at his ex-girlfriend. It has a lot of connotations, like was he just a jealous person, or did it have to do with the fact that he’s been at war? And the girl is clearly the subject of his obsession but we never hear her side of the story. It’s just from his point of view, so she remains a mysterious figure. We don’t really know did she actually do something wrong to him or is he just really over-protective?

And at the end there’s this last stanza where he addresses his mother [laughs] which is just such an Italian element to it! And he asks for forgiveness from his mother for having committed this crime. I don’t remember that stanza, that wasn’t in my version, but I found it in most of the other versions and I decided to include it because it seemed like an appropriate conclusion that he ends up repenting in some manner.

I had been working with some techniques that were modified base techniques, mostly marker-on-glass and ink-on-glass, but I hadn’t tried proper paint-on-glass before. There was something about the old fashioned tone of the song that made me feel that paint-on-glass would be appropriate. I worked on it over about six months, and I found the technique quite challenging and so I had to do a lot of experimentation, and in the end I combined it with marker-on-glass technique, so you’ll see some scenes that have both a paint fill, but also a clear marker drawing outline of the characters.

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I ended up finishing the film here in the Netherlands, just because I moved here in between [to begin a Masters course in Animation at St. Joost, Breda], and I finally got it finished a few months ago because I’ve been juggling my course and the film.

ASH: Could you tell us anything more about the production process?

TM: Well, the first stop was doing the storyboard and testing the paint technique, but at the same time I spent a lot of time on the audio, because I knew that was going to be a very important part of the film. So I started scouring Seattle for Italian speaking children, and I finally found a few and taught them the song and recorded them. It was super fun, but I realised I needed a strong voice to be the main voice, because it was such a singular point of view, from his perspective and I felt that one strong singer would be really appropriate.

And then I moved to the Netherlands. Luckily I have an Italian friend here, and I was at his house in Torino for new year and his mother agreed to sing for me. I had sung the song as the temp track, to get the rhythm down and start storyboarding and planning the animation. But I am not a talented singer, so I was really looking forward to being able to switch out my temp track for an actual singer. I had Anna listen to my version on headphones as she was singing, so that she could know exactly what the tune was and the tempo. It was pretty easy! We just did four takes, and the fourth one is the one you hear, and then I added in the kids’ voices where I felt it would be good. And then I worked with a very talented composer who I’ve worked with before in Seattle, called Jason Staczek and he took the audio recordings and cleaned them up and added his own really simple score, because he said this thing was so powerful that it didn’t need a lot of elaborate instruments. That was a really important part of the process. I feel like the film didn’t really come together until I got that singing on tape.

ASH: Can you talk us through the rest of the process?

TM: The whole process was me singing the song to myself on the temp track, just to get it down in an MP3, just to figure out how long the different sections were. Then I make really basic storyboards: brainstorming, just figuring out images that might be appropriate for that part of the story. I had to figure out how to visualise the different elements. How could one moment transition into the next and how could I make it a cohesive story? I hit upon the metaphor of the birds because one of the lyrics is ‘I had a girlfriend, she left me like a swallow in the spring’. That’s right at the beginning of the song, so we see the girl but then she turns into a bird and flies away but then the bird comes back in various forms throughout the song. Once I hit upon that it was a good thing to hang the rest of the visuals on to.

After the storyboard then I started testing with the paint, asking ‘what can the paint do? Is the paint better for detailed close ups or rough smudgy imprecise drawings?’ You also see a lot of texture, so there are a couple of scenes where the paint fills the screen or the paint is being erased, and that’s just fun to do. Then I started animating and I completed about half of it before I moved to the Netherlands, but I didn’t have my same multi-plane stand here, so I had to figure out how to deal with that.

'Mario' soldiers_bomb

At first I was a little bit worried about it, but I liked the layering of the paint and marker together, and I had just recently, finally, properly learned how to use After Effects, so then I realised I could just composite the two together. The scenes where that appears towards the end were animated twice, once in paint and once in marker, so instead of doing them both at the same time on a multi-plane I animated them by themselves and composited them together.

I definitely used post-production more on this film than I have in the past. Most of my previous films were pretty straightforward frame-by-frame techniques. There’s really not much post-production needed – it’s just ‘straight ahead’ animation. For this one, because I was trying to solve various problems, it was actually really fun, it was liberating. There were a lot more possibilities, I found, if I opened myself up to this filter or that layering technique, for example.

ASH: It sounds like you’ve learnt a lot in the making of this film?

TM: I always like it when it turns out that way otherwise it’s boring! It’s true that whenever I start a film I do think about new ways to animate that I haven’t tried before; and I know some people disagree with that approach because it means you’re learning on the job. But I love it because to me that’s the most fun and exciting part about animation: figuring out how to do something and what can this technique do and that another technique can’t, and how to take advantage of that. And those are the types of animations that I most enjoy watching – the ones that really are exploring and stretching what animation can do. It’s true that it is a gamble, if you happen to suck at that particular technique, then it’s a challenge to make it work.

ASH: At the storyboard stage everything is potential, but sometimes the production stage can be like just carrying out a set of instructions if there’s nothing new to discover along the way.

TM: That’s an excellent point, and I know that a lot of people don’t have that flexibility, like maybe you’ve got funders or producers breathing down your neck, who are worried about your creative choices, or you’re working with other people and you need to make all those decisions earlier so that they need to know what’s going to happen. And, to be honest, part of the reason why I’ve never worked that way is that I don’t like being tied down so much. I’ve always been super-open to collaboration and I’ve always collaborated with sound designers and musicians and post-production people to a certain extent, but in terms of true collaboration with a capital C, that hasn’t really happened for me yet. Partly you need to meet the right people but also for that reason: I really like being able to change my mind when I want to!

ASH: So how much did the funding you got for this film tie you down to what you’d proposed? To what degree did you have to specify what the film would be like?

TM: I was quite lucky that while I was living in Seattle, I was just applying for artist’s grants, which painters and sculptors and poets are applying for, and these are very open. You have to show a sample of your previous work, and you have to describe the film that you want to make, but then after that they pretty much leave you alone, you just have to finish it. That’s something that I have come to realise, since moving back to Europe, that is quite special. Here in the Netherlands there are the film funds, but it’s more like a live-action granting organisation where you have to have a producer, and a budget, and prove that you’re going to be employing so many local film-makers and contributing to the local economy and so on. And I’d love to get a Dutch film funds grant, so I’m happy to learn how to do it that way, but there’s definitely a little more planning involved.

'Mario' feather_lightbox

ASH: It’s really interesting to hear this behind-the-scenes part of the process which is not usually visible. Funding and the limitations it imposes always make an impact on the work produced. It sounds as though the loose nature of the funding allowed you to develop the film in a fluid and flexible way?

TM: I think I didn’t know how lucky I was! Of course there might be downsides to it as well. If you were to try to fund a film the more traditional way, and have a producer who is applying for grants and perhaps a co-producer from another country, and then you can apply for their country’s grants; it all takes forever and a lot of people are involved. I find the main advantage of that system is not actually the funding but the distribution part of it. With all the funding advantages also come the distribution advantages, so you will actually have someone who will try to get your film seen, and try sell it to the various TV markets and actually submit to the correct festivals in the correct order. And that of course doesn’t come with the loosey-goosey art grants. They just give you a pot of money and then you’re on your own! Unless you’re really smart and you use that money to hire in a producer to do that for you…

It would of course be great to have the best of both worlds, but there is no magic solution. Each route has pluses and minuses, and you have to figure out what’s best for you. I’d still love to work with a producer properly, but once I do that, perhaps I’ll find out that that experience wasn’t as amazing as I expected!

ASH: I know a lot of film-makers – myself included – who dream of finding that Holy Grail of a producer, the person who understands and champions your work, finds the funding, can identify where you work will be well-received and so on…

TM: It’s a nice dream to keep an eye out for that person. Something that I admire about live action film makers is that they’re generally bumping into those sorts of people more, because their structure is already set up for that; that they are more used to finding producers and trying out different relationships. Doing what I do, I don’t really need a producer, so it makes it more something that you have figure out, and then find people who are actually interested in this brand of weird independent animated shorts which aren’t going to make any money! I do sometimes envy live action film-makers because I feel like they have more of a support network around them.

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ASH: Do you describe your films as animated documentaries?

TM: I don’t think I’ve ever called them that. If someone asks I say they’re documentary-style films, because that makes it a little clearer to people what I mean. So for example, ‘They Look Right Through You’ which is a film about people and their pets; I went and interviewed people, and I used the interviews as a basis for the audio, and in that respect it’s quite documentary – it’s real people with real pets. But it’s very much a philosophical meditation on the topic. It’s still quite non-narrative, not like I’m following one person and their relationship with their pet.

Most of my work is I would say is more ‘documentary in style’. Not because I don’t want to be considered in that category – I am honoured if people think they are animated documentaries – but because I don’t want people to expect an actual documentary! I’m not a journalist, I don’t have the same ethical constraints that a ‘proper documentarian’ might have to deal with.

ASH: So can you tell us what’s next? What lies ahead for you?

TM: I’m finishing up my masters degree, and my graduation film is using a cut-out technique. I’d call them photo cut-outs, so it’s using real actors but cut out of paper. It’s based on a medical case of a man who had a neurological disorder which meant he couldn’t form new memories, and had also lost 30 years of his memory, so he thought he was 19 years old when really he was 45. Every few minutes he would reset and say “Where am I? Who are you?”. It’s a film exploring what it must be like to live in that way and how it affects the people around him. It’s based on a true story, but at the same time I’m taking some creative liberties with it and using actors and animation, so it’s definitely not a ‘proper documentary’, but I hope that it retains that ‘true’ feel to it. And then I’ll probably end up hanging around Netherlands or Europe for at least another year after I graduate, just because I can with my visa. After that, we’ll see!

ASH: Is Seattle the place you call home?

TM: I think it is now but I only moved there about six years ago. Seattle is great, it’s a beautiful place and there’s a community of independent animators there. In fact I have been touring with a programme of their films while I’ve been here [in Europe]. I’ve showed films in Brussels last weekend, and before that Amsterdam and Budapest, and Prague and Vienna. It’s been really great to show people what is being made in Seattle. But home is such a tricky question for someone who grew up living around the world. I love Europe and being so close to everything. That is the struggle when you’re living in the north-west of the States. Everything is so far away and so expensive. Trying to make films anywhere is a challenge, and learning how to make films in different countries and systems and communities and funding bodies and criteria is definitely a learning experience!

‘StoryCorps Animated Shorts’ by the Rauch Brothers

StoryCorps is a US independent non-profit oral history project, charged with the task of recording, sharing and preserving personal stories of American lives. Many of the thousands of stories are broadcast weekly on National Public Radio’s ‘Morning Edition’ while a handful have been adapted into short animated documentaries.

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Image from ‘A Family Man’

The Rauch Brothers co-directed all fifteen of the shorts. The series demonstrates a strong influence from the school of American cartoons; Tim Rauch’s distinctly caricatured personalities inhabit beautifully constructed backgrounds designed by Bill Wray. The off-kilter geometry of the architecture and pastel colour palette is reminiscent of the 1960s-era ‘Pink Panther Show’, while the thick outlined digital character animation has a stronger connection to contemporary Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network kids animations.

Image from ‘Eyes on the Stars’

Image from ‘Eyes on the Stars’

Many of the StoryCorps recordings selected for animation deal with themes of mortality. ‘John and Joe’, ‘Always a Family’ and ‘She Was the One’ commemorate individuals lost in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, where family members recall their last conversations with loved ones. Meanwhile ‘Danny and Annie’, ‘Germans in the Woods’, ‘A Family Man’ and ‘No More Questions!’ deal with natural deaths. In some instances recordings were made with an elderly family member not long before their passing. Every reference to mortality is a celebration of that individual’s life, highlighting their idiosyncrasies and honouring memories of them.

Image from ‘She Was the One’

Image from ‘She Was the One’

Films like ‘Eyes on the Stars’, ‘Facundo the Great’ and ‘Icing on the Cake’ refer to the experiences of racial minorities, including stories of inequality and immigration. They are however told with a stereotypical American optimism and sentimentality. The people involved look back from improved circumstances, mocking the absurdity of racism or displaying awe and wonder for the struggles of their parents’ generation.

Image from ‘Facundo the Great’

Image from ‘Facundo the Great’

Eccentric personalities seems to be another theme which pops up in these films. ‘Sundays at Rocco’s’, ‘Q&A’, ‘The Human Voice’, ‘No More Questions!’ and ‘Miss Devine’ all feature domineering or uncongenial characters. These stories celebrate diversity and highlight the importance of individuality.

Image from ‘The Human Voice’

Image from ‘The Human Voice’

While many of the animations make reference to romantic or family love, ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’ concerns an extraordinary circumstance that leads to a digital age fairytale ending.

Image from ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’

Image from ‘To RP Salazar, with Love’

Occasionally the animation is noticeably clunky, in particular lip-synching feels a little rough. However the character designs are marvellous. The Rauch Brothers have sensitively depicted a variety of ethnic groups without leaning on illustrative clichés. Family members are designed with an appropriate level of genetic resemblance while managing to avoid looking identical and the exaggerated use of body language and posture helps bring the individuality of each character to life.

Image from ‘Miss Devine’

Image from ‘Miss Devine’

The StoryCorps project has now been running for ten years. An archive of the recordings is being collected at the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress. Although we couldn’t embed all the ‘StoryCorps Animated Shorts’ here, I recommend taking time to flick through them on the StoryCorp website.

‘Are You My Mother’ by Alison Bechdel

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In this reflective, self-referential lesson in psychoanalysis, Bechdel sketches out every inch of her conscious and subconscious. She includes immaculately drawn extracts from Winnicot, Freud and Virginia Woolf, cross referencing and applying them to some complicated relationships with the women in her life.  It is impossible not to relate to this brutally honest memoir. It is even more impossible not to devour it in one sitting.

If you’re a graphic novel novice like I was, reading this will have you forever veering towards the comics section of your bookshop.
There are freshly signed copies at Gosh Comics, Soho, London.

See all things Alison Bechdel at http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/

‘The Trouble With Love and Sex’ by Jonathan Hodgson for the BBC

A 50 minute film, made for the BBC, in which several couples discuss their relationship problems. In the first full-length animated documentary made for British television drawn characters lipsync to the audio testimony recorded in the counselling rooms of Relate.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0113fwl

And co-director Zac Beattie writes on the making of the film here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2011/05/wonderland-trouble-with-love-and-sex.shtml