Review of ‘Kiss the Water’ by Eric Steel with animation by Em Cooper

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Last weekend I was lucky enough to go to the splendid Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, to watch the documentary film ‘Kiss the Water’ by Eric Steel.The screening started at 11 am and I didn’t expect many people to be there at such an early time on a Sunday morning. However the auditorium was at least three quarters full. Following the screening was a lively Q&A session with animator Em Cooper and passionate audience members.

The film features animated segments by Cooper who has previously featured on animateddocumentary.com with her films 30% and Emergence. ‘Kiss the Water’ is not strictly an animated documentary, but the treatment of the animation is closely aligned to principles of animated documentary and therefore should be part of the discussion of the genre.

This is a slow film, suitable for a Sunday morning screening. The film is about the life of Megan Boyd, a Scottish woman who devoted her life to making flies for salmon fishing. She designed every fly she made and sourced the finest materials from all over the world. Her flies were famous amongst salmon fishers, and Megan received orders from all over the world. Megan died in 2003 and it was on reading her obituary that American Eric Steel felt the need to make a film about her.

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Megan spent her life living alone. She is described as ‘manly’ looking and every day she wore a tie and shirt with her tweed skirt. She drove a motor car and rode a motor bike and was remembered for her fast driving. Her home and adjoining fly-making shed, which is featured in the live action segments of film, is still standing, although it is now a ruin.

The treatment of the live action enables the animation to weave throughout it by various means. The interviews with people who knew Megan are set against a black backdrop, likewise the winding of the flies. The colours have been desaturated and there are some interesting edit decisions where the live action intercuts with the animation.

The animation is created using Cooper’s signature style of oil paint on glass. Cooper describes her self as a ‘live action film maker and animator’, as she often uses the filmed image as her source for the first frame of animation – a technique called Rotoscoping. In Cooper’s animated world, the camera is forever moving, searching through layers of oil paint, for glimpses of the figure of Megan. Thematic elements from the live action scenes and interviews are often revisited in the animation and metamorphosis features heavily to convey meaning, combining abstract elements. For example one of my favourite bits is Megan dressing herself, tying her infamous red tie, which turns into the same action used for the tying of the flies. These statements are significant in subtly addressing some of  the interesting aspects of Megan’s life – in this case the question over her sexuality.

I leave you with a segment from Megan’s obituary, from the New York Times in 2003

“Whose fabled expertise at tying enchantingly delicate fishing flies put her works in museums and the hands of collectors around the world and prompted Queen Elizabeth II to award her the British Empire Medal … From tiny strands of hair she made magic: the classic Scottish flies like the Jock Scott, Silver Doctor and Durham Ranger … and the fly named after her, the Megan Boyd, a nifty blue and black number famous for attracting salmon at the height of summer, when the water is low, hot, and dead.”

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‘Kiss the Water’ is available to buy as a DVD at the film’s website: http://buy.kiss-the-water.com/ and here is the trailer for the film: http://kiss-the-water.com/trailer/

‘Rocks in my Pockets’ by Signe Baumane – trailer

Check out the trailer for Signe Baumane’s first feature expiring mental illness through the stories of five women in her family – ‘a funny film about depression’.

Upcoming screenings around the world in Sept & Oct 2014 listed here:
http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/Screenings.html

And a series of ‘making of’ shorts here: http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/Process.html

Signe’s portfolio site here: http://www.signebaumane.com

‘Dock Ellis and the LSD No No’ by James Blagden

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Ah! the experimental seventies! This funny short animated doc gives an account of what its like to play baseball under the influence of mind altering drugs. Towards the end of the animation the simplified frame rate comes into its own as a means to expose the narrators experience of judgement.

http://www.shortoftheweek.com/2009/11/24/dock-ellis-the-lsd-no-no/

‘The gift that keeps on giving’ by Jeff Lassahn

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http://theclusterproject.com/bombs/the-gift-that-keeps-giving/

A short, thought-provoking animation about the effects of cluster bombs. This film is part of a larger project called the Cluster Project, an online gallery of art works and space for dialogue on the ethics of warfare.

http://theclusterproject.com/

‘A is for Atom’ by John Sutherland

Well, what you might expect from a US 1953 public information film about nuclear power and weaponry: simplified science and a rather narrow political view!

This came from Public Domain Motion Pictures on Youtube, a ‘free channel devoted to Public Domain, Open Source and Copyleft movies, TV shows and serials’.

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.

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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!

‘There’s No Tomorrow’ By Dermot O’Connor

“We’re all doomed!” muttered an internal voice whilst watching this thoroughly bleak yet seemingly rational animation about the fundamental incompatibility of environmentalism and the current fuel based economic paradigm.

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Initially conceived as a lighthearted parody of the pro-capitalist propaganda cartoons of the 1940s and 50s, this Flash animation maintains a commitment to the juxtaposition of serious or complicated concepts with lighthearted and infantile graphic techniques; the characters are cute and inanimate materials are personified. Dermot O’Connor does his best to extend such jollity into the graphic representations of data. However when the flow of imaginative imagery inevitably runs as dry as some of the film’s subject matter, enough distraction is provided by the film’s apocalyptic overtones that criticism is effectively stifled.

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Efforts are made to keep levels of panic at a low simmer. Twinkling classical music soothes the tone of the film as catastrophic statements are churned out. Similarly the female narrator’s soft delivery greatly contrasts the alarming information she imparts.

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Gradually I started to mentally add two dots above each bell shape graph that predicted decline of a resource or living standard, resulting in a stream of crude sad-face emoticons.

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The Frequently Asked Questions on O’Connor’s website made for interesting reading. In this the writer/animator bitterly describes the film ‘consuming’ up to ‘three full years of personal labor’. In response to the question ‘Would you do it again if you knew how long it was going to take?’ O’Connor retorts ‘No. In the intervening years, it’s become clear that people are deeply set in their opinions, and that most of the writing/commentary/movies that are made simply reinforce existing beliefs, rather than change them. In addition, dealing with this subject is likely to have one labeled a Eugenicist/Genocidal-maniac/New World Order puppet/Illuminati/Oil-industry-shill/The AntiChrist, or worse. It would have been wiser to create a cartoon about crime-fighting squirrels with super-powers.’

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Despite being sympathetic and interested in much of O’Connor’s concerns this film has an uncanny pacifying effect. Rather than a call to arms the lasting sentiment is that of inevitable doom. Readers may ask ‘why write about a project that seemed to bring down both creator and audiences.’ In response I suggest it might be a good idea to consider the worst every now and then. The blissful comfort of ignorance can be as inversely distorting as crippling paranoia. We all need a bit of doom in our lives if not just to provide perspective on the triviality of our own day-to-day soap opera or maybe even help us re-think our tangled relationships with non-renewable energy sources.

‘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.

‘Truth has fallen’ by Sheila Sofian

“If they’re not doing time for this, then surely for something else.”

The new film from US director Sheila Sofian, follows inmates on life sentences in the US prison system. Sofian “conjures up an inferno of expressive animations painted on glass, abstract re-enactments, and surrealist details, which condenses into a passionate appeal to politicians to abolish prejudgements and racial discrimination.”

The films world premier will be at Dok Leipzig this November and has been nominated for the Animadoc Award.

We have featured Sheila’s work on the blog before, most notably her writing on animated documentary.

We wish Sheila the best of luck with her new film and also her nomination for the Animadoc award!

http://films2013.dok-leipzig.de/de/film.aspx?ID=6096&title=Truth+Has+Fallen

‘Injunuity’ by Adrian Baker

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http://www.injunuity.org/#!/about

Four episodes of this series about Native American identity are available to watch online.  I found the episode ‘Two Spirit’  of particular interest. It’s about gender, sexuality and identity

“Injunuity is a collage of reflections on the Native American world, our shared past, our turbulent present, and our undiscovered future. From Columbus to the western expansion to tribal casinos, we are taught that the Native way, while at times glorious, is something of the past, something that needed to be replaced by a manifest destiny from across the ocean. But in a world increasingly short of real answers, it is time we looked to Native wisdom for guidance. It is time for some Injunuity.

Injunuity is a mix of animation, music, and real thoughts from real people exploring our world from the Native American perspective. Every word spoken is verbatim, every thought and opinion is real, told in nine short pieces and covering such topics as language preservation, sacred sites, and the environment. But rather than simply revisit our history, the goal of Injunuity is to help define our future, to try and figure out the path that lies before us, to focus on where we are going as well as where we have been.”

An Interview with the director can be found here: http://injunuity-discussion.tumblr.com/