Thursday, March 16, 2017

Caroline Leaf Interview

Caroline Leaf's early films were first introduced to me in High School. They were amazing to watch, because all the images were created under the camera on glass, with sand and later with ink and paint . They were the first non-traditional animation films I had ever seen.

Fast forward, I mentioned Caroline Leaf's work on this blog and recently met her at this year's Annie Awards in LA.


I invited her to write a post about herself and her work. She agreed, and so, here's Caroline Leaf.

As a kid, I don’t remember looking at cartoons. I don’t think I knew what animation was.  But in my last year of college, I took an animation class. In 1968, liberal arts colleges were beginning to offer film courses, and film was taught like creative writing, as a form of personal expression. Film stock and lab processing were getting cheaper, cameras were getting smaller, it was affordable. At Harvard/Radcliffe, where I was a student, Derek Lamb, an animator/writer/director who came from London England and had been working at the National Film Board of Canada, taught the 1 year course. Since students came from all parts of the university, medical school, engineering or the business school, for example, we were not expected to be able to draw. We did pixilation and stop motion and animated cutouts. We did exercises like moving keychains and giving personality to the movement of dimes and quarters.




My family has a house near Boston on a beach with very fine white sand. I remember thinking I could achieve more personality and story telling if I put sand on the lightbox under the camera, and drew shapes in the sand. There was no tradition of drawing in sand, so I felt free to develop my own style. I remember the excitement of seeing my first animated creature move, the duck in my student film Sand or Peter and the Wolf.

 


I developed sand animation. I liked the feel of my hands in the sand and loved the graphic quality of the images it made. It’s limitations forced me to be creative. 


For example, a pile of underlit sand has an edge, a silhouette. The edge is where the information about shape, character and personality is. I was animating silhouette characters. I liked the economy of sand animation: I could make a film from a bucket of sand and it cost nothing. I liked the fact that after I shot an image, I erased it and drew the next one, and in the end there was no artwork left, just the film. 
 

We shot 16mm film, and later, when I moved to the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal, shot 35mm film. I usually worked for a couple of weeks to accumulate
enough film to make it worth sending to the lab for processing. Until the film came back from the lab, I couldn’t see what I had done. There wasn’t instant feedback as there is now with animation shot digitally.

When I wanted to work with color images, I tried using colored sand. I sent away for bags of colored sand. But the colors got mixed and muddy and it was frustratingly slow. I looked around at my co-workers at the Film Board, and noticed that a medium was added to cel animation paint to keep the paint flexible so that it didn’t crack off the cels. I added some of this medium (glycerine) to water based gouache paint, stirred, and found that it didn’t dry. I could push wet paint around with my fingers like sand.   

I made The Street with paint-on-glass. Again, I love the imagery wet paint makes. 

Here are a few clips from "The Street"

 
TheStreet (clip01) from Toondini on Vimeo.


It’s important to be happy with the graphic look of an animated image. When the image is a delight, it’s fun to work with and to sit with for the long hours of making animated movement.
 
Later, trying to eliminate everything between me and my animated movement, I got rid of the camera entirely, and scratched images in the soft emulsion of exposed color film. I made a one minute clip for MTV scratching into 16mm film. My last animated film, Two Sisters, was scratched into 70mm Imax film.







I like to give workshops for sand animation or paint-on-glass. It feels good to get young animators excited about direct under the camera animation. I’ve been teaching animation for animation directors in an MA program. The teaching is about how to tell a story in film. It’s about film language, how sound and picture work together, and how to guage what an audience will understand from the presentation of images over time. I don’t care what technique the animators use, and they are mostly working with computers.

After I left the National Film Board of Canada (1992), wanting to explore the world outside the dark room where I animated, I began to draw and paint more full time. The compositions became more complicated and ambitious. I painted with oils and drew with gouache and ink on paper.

When I animate, individual drawings are unimportant. It is their displacement in relation to the film frame, the change between the drawings, that creates perception of movement. These drawings are line driven and simple. All through my animation years, when animating was my day job, on the side I was making drawings that did not move. They were quick drawings from memory of things seen during the day. They were my daily visual diary entries. I was storytelling about myself.

Early spring on the Lachine Canal

Over time, the figurative element has become less important, and concerns about mark making, perceptions of space and depth, the composition of the 2d surface, and perception of content have become interesting. It is satisfying to explore complex pictorial structures that are not possible with images designed to move. The painted images have become more abstract.


My animation films and paintings both involve hard work, discipline, and concentration, even as they are improvisations. I try to work alittle bit each day. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration.  For both, I am disciplined by the goal of making a total work. Even as I enjoy surprising myself with details in the composition and am happy accidents that occur, I am thinking about serving the needs of the whole image or the whole film story.

You wouldn’t think this is an issue, but improvisation easily gets off track from the main goal. Straight ahead animation shooting film did not let me go back to make changes. It was tough to be focused on getting it right, not making mistakes. The work kept me on my toes. Exciting but tiring! Perhaps I burned out animating like this












 
 
Now the paintings are finished in days and I’m on to another idea. I’m not sitting on a stool in a dark room. I’m in sunshine, dancing around, looking up close, standing back, turning the picture upside down, putting it on the floor. I feel lively when I paint.

To see more of my work: carolineleaf.com

Films are streamed on line by the NFB at: https://www.nfb.ca/explore-all-directors/caroline-leaf/

The Owl Who Married a Goose                 1974
The Street                                                   1976
The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa             1977
Interview                                                    1979
Two Sisters                                                1990

Many thanks to Caroline Leaf for sharing her history, wisdom, animated images and still ones.
  
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