Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Indie Features, Part 3: My Love Affair with Marriage

I'm truly fascinated by the whole concept of independent animated features - I think if there's some ambitious writers out there, this would make a terrific idea for a book.  When I was growing up, I'd be lucky to see a new Disney film every three years.  Then in the mid 1980's, animated features exploded - every studio was producing a feature and we have perhaps 6 or 7 animated features being released every year.  

Then along came Sundance, and up popped the whole scene with DIY filmmakers - so it seems to make sense that the two movements would combine and spawn a whole new art form, indie animated feature films.  And THEN the Japanese animated features came in and helped to create a larger audience for the movement.  There are now so many animated indie features out there, it's impossible to count them all. 

The Annecy Animation Festival in France is burgeoning with this films.  And some of them are just fantastic - "Klaus", "The Red Turtle", "Mind Game", and "I Lost My Body", just to name a few.  So for a few issues of "Scribble Junkies", I'm talking about animated features that are now in production, and how they're surviving.  If you're at all interested in the art of indie animated features, this is the place to be.  

For Part 3 of my series, I spoke with Signe Baumane, who worked for me as a cel painter, art supervisor, production manager and camera assistant for years after she first came to the U.S. from Latvia.  She was instrumental in the production of my second feature, "I Married a Strange Person" and after working with me on "Hair High" in 2004, she returned to making her own shorts in her own studio, and released her first feature, "Rocks in my Pockets", in 2014.  For the last few years, she's been focused on her second feature, "My Love Affair with Marriage", another semi-autobiographical film, this one focused on her relationships and, from a scientific point of view, the roles that biology and society play in the human process of forming partnership bonds and also separations. 

I interviewed Signe by e-mail, since her studio is out in Brooklyn and despite re-starting production, she's still under a modified pandemic lockdown, with a limited crew back in her studio. 

BILL: What motivated you to make an animated feature by yourself? 

SIGNE: The same forces that make a bird want to fly make an artist want to find new challenges.  Back in 2009, before I started working on my first animated feature film, "Rocks in My Pockets", I had made around 15 short films, and the short form kind of exhausted itself for me.  An artist, like a pirate, wants an adventure of exploring new lands and new opportunities.  So, I set for myself the most difficult task I could imagine at the time - making a feature film, live-action or animation.  I wrote about 4 or 5 scripts and met with a couple of producers. 

The reality of feature films is that it is quite an expensive medium and is treated more like business than art.  Money is a big part of it.  The producers I met with didn't see the money-making potential in my proposals, and of course, they were quite right.  I am an artist, not a business woman.  For me, storytelling is a way to express and share my thoughts and visions, rather than a money-making device. 

Once I understood that it would be very hard to get support from producers, I decided to start a feature film project on my own.  I didn't know how to go about making a live-action film, but I knew how to make an animated film, so started with what I knew.  I knew that I am a better writer than I am an animator, so I decided that the film would have a voiceover, so I would have to animate less. 

Around that time, I had been making paper-maché sculptures for a living, and I loved doing that, so I decided that 3-dimensional paper-maché sculptures were going to be part of the project.  And since I didn't have to appease some producer's idea of what kind of project would bring them money or an Oscar, I decided to make a deeply personal film - a journey into my bi-polar mind.  The strange thing is - once I started the project, and I started it with almost no money in my bank account, the Universe organized itself to help make it happen.  Producers and support came.  

Now I am working on my second animated feature film, "My Love Affair With Marriage", and I applied the same principles - take a personal story, start the project and see how it unfolds.  You can get more on the back-story of how we got started, and learn about the entire process on the film's web-site at:

BILL: Where did you get the funding?

SIGNE: For "My Love Affair With Marriage", the support comes from several sources - we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017, with 1,562 backers that raised over $132,000.  Some income came from my previous feature film, "Rocks in My Pockets", and we also registered to receive private donations through our non-profit sponsor, Filmmakers Collaborative.  We also received several grants in both the U.S. and Latvia that have helped to keep us going.  

We are still taking donations to help get the film completed by mid-2021.  If anyone would like to donate, they can find details here:

BILL: Who are your inspirations?

SIGNE: I have a lot of inspirations artistically - Eidrigevicius, Svankmayer, Miyazaki and many other artists whom I admire - but on a practical level YOU, Bill , are probably the biggest inspiration.  I had seen closely you animating, working with your team, promoting your work, and it looked not impossible. "I can do it, too," I thought.  Of course.  

But when I tried to apply your principles to my reality, not everything made sense to me.  Like, why wouldn't you include rent in your feature film budget?  It deflates the budget to an impossible number - one can not make a feature film for $200,000 if one pays studio rent in Manhattan, and has 2 or 3 assistants being paid minimum wage ($15 per hour) like you do.  

And the one thing I can not do that you do - is to get commercial work and use that income to cover the feature film budget.  Commercial people are aggressively not interested in my work.  So, I had to figure out, differently from your method, a way of financing my films.  

You are still a beacon of inspiration to me when I sit down at my animation table and start animating.  Your single-minded focus and joy of drawing inspires me.  You being professional and nice to your team inspires me.  When I get discouraged and depressed by my inability to perfectly draw what is in my mind, I ask, "What would Bill do?"  And then I remember that you never get stuck on trying to be perfect in one drawing, perfection comes when all of the drawings come together.  Your working speed is an inspiration.  Maybe this is an idealized version of you in my mind, but every day I am grateful that you exist and that I was privileged to observe you at work. 


BILL: Who is your target audience? 

SIGNE: For most of my films, my target is an adult audience with a taste for thought-provoking content. 

BILL: How long does it take for you to animate a feature film?  

SIGNE: I animated "Rocks in My Pockets" in two years.  Animating "My Love Affair With Marriage" is taking longer because it is a more ambitious project.  It has 29 speaking/singing characters, and over a hundred non-speaking characters.  I will finish animating in January 2021 after about 3.5 years of working on it. 

BILL: How many seconds can you animate in a day? 

SIGNE: On the days when I get to animate for 8 hours, I can do 60 to 80 drawings (pencil on paper). Many days I don't get to animate for 8 hours because I have to do other things - look over footage, work on line tests, lip-sync, shading, colors, producing, etc.  So I aspire to animate 5 minutes a month and every month I feel like a failure because I only did 3.

BILL: How important are festivals? 

SIGNE: Festivals are important for a feature film because that's where the buzz may start, if the film will get a buzz at all.  At a festival, a film gets reviews and coverage.  Why does Netflix even bother with festivals?  Because without reviews and buzz no one - even on Netflix will know to watch the film.  How do you pick the film to watch on Hulu or Netflix or Amazon? Because you have heard about it somewhere, and festivals are where it started.  I want my film to be seen by millions of people.  So, to me, festivals are a big part of a film's release.  I keep my fingers crossed that they survive the pandemic. 

BILL: Where do you get distribution? 

SIGNE: Not at the festivals, if that is your question.  For "Rocks in My Pockets", we and Zeitgeist Films found each other through word-of-mouth.  For "My Love Affair With Marriage", we have no idea what is going to happen, as the indie distribution is changing at a rapid speed.  Will art-house movie theaters exist in 2021?  Will Netflix be interested in purchasing an indie animated feature film for adults?  The uncertainty can cause ulcers, so I try to think of my studio tomato plants instead of distribution.  

BILL: What are the budgets for your films? 

SIGNE: The "Rocks in My Pockets" budget was around $300,000 (including studio rent during production).  The budget for "My Love Affair With Marriage" will be over a million.  Check out our numbers and how close we are here:

BILL: Will you still be making features in 10 years? 

SIGNE: If anyone will be interested in watching them - definitely YES.

BILL: Will you return to making shorts? 

SIGNE: YES, right after I finish animating "My Love Affair With Marriage", I would love to make a short film.

BILL: Do you know other women making animated features? 

SIGNE: To name a few: Ann Marie Fleming, Anca Damian, Ilza Burkovska Jacobsen, Roze Stiebra.   But I think maybe they don't animate their films, they direct them - not that it makes any difference.  Nina Paley directs and animates her films, like "Sita Sings the Blues". 

There are many more women animators and directors now compared to when I started out.  Still, making an animated feature film is a daunting task and it takes a certain kind of personality to want that particular bone-crushing experience.  A man may be driven by ego, by his desire to raise his status from an obscure short film maker to a feature film director and be treated by festivals and press on an equal level with such famous directors as Wes Anderson or Charlie Kaufman.  As a woman, I have been trained since childhood to tame my ego and to be cooperative with the needs and desires of a larger group.  My ego doesn't need a balm, although, of course, it certainly enjoys it when it pours on its wounds and bruises.  

I make films, despite the hardships of making them, because I feel I have something to say.  I want to provoke a conversation on the subjects that I find fascinating - sex, body, fate, womanhood, motherhood, depression and the interior life of a person.  I am driven by a desire to connect with an audience.  I think that is a basic instinct of an artist - to connect - regardless of gender.  But somehow women have a harder time connecting their stories/films to audiences, maybe because for 100 years, audiences have been conditioned to expect from movies a certain type of story - male adventures and a male point of view.  It goes with the old stereotype - that men are visual creatures, so movies are a perfect medium for them, but women like writing and reading novels, so they should stick to that.

My film "Rocks in My Pockets" was accused of making the gravest sin in filmmaking, breaking the rule of "Show, don't tell".  The characters are expected to move through a movie without their interior lives made explicit, so that the audience could project on them whatever the audience feels.  Does it sound familiar?  A man looks at a woman and projects on her his needs and desires, disconnected from the reality of that woman.  Can we turn this around?  Can we endow our characters with thoughts and desires of their own, apart from the desires and wants of the audience and still leave the space for an audience to feel and think?  

That is my challenge - to bridge the visual part of a character's life with their interior world.  Is this a particularly female approach to making a film?  Being on the margins of the film industry (as a female filmmaker and as an indie animator/director who makes films for adults, I am indeed on the margins of the film industry) allows me to experiment and try new storytelling forms.  This is a privilege, not a disadvantage.  Women filmmakers, let's go for it!

Signe Baumane (center) with Sturgis Warner (producer/set builder), Sofiya Lypka (sets/digital prep), Yasemin Orhan (sets), Yupu Ding (maps/digital prep) with the set for a Sakhalin village.

BILL: Thanks to Signe for taking the time to answer all of my questions.  Keep an eye on her web-site for updates on the progress of "My Love Affair With Marriage".  Portions of the film screened as a work-in-progress at the 2020 (virtual) edition of the Annecy Animation Festival, and Signe was JUST awarded the prestigious ASIFA Prize at the Animasyros Festival in Greece.   So congratulations to Signe, and we're all looking forward to screenings of the new film, hopefully sometime next year!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Indie Features, Part 2: The Orbit of Minor Satellites

In the last posting on "Scribble Junkies", I talked about "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" by Lotte Reiniger, which was probably the first independent animated feature film in existence. 

Today, I want to discuss Chris Sullivan's feature film "The Orbit of Minor Satellites", an animated feature that Chris has been working on since 2017. He told me that he first got the idea for it in 2010 and really didn't get serious about it until a few years ago. 

If you think his name sounds familiar, that's probably because he did another wonderful feature a few years back, called "Consuming Spirits". 

Now, there are a lot of animated features in production right now, but I really want to focus on Chris's film because his style is very creative - 2-D animation with 3-D puppets and claymation - and it's very adult noir. So, it's the kind of film I love to watch. 

Chris told me that "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" is an independent animated feature about a psychiatrist, Derwood Richards (played by T.J. Jagodowski) and his long-time patient, Rosemary Hamm (played by Sylvia Abelson).  The narrative unfolds through their last sessions, during a period of healing and breakthrough where the patient is ready to leave her doctor's care, and both are negotiating this triumph and loss.  Rosemary is a Hebephrenic schizophrenic, her condition showing signs after a family tragedy that claimed the life of her younger sister.

In her condition, she has conjured a fantasy world which is a Soviet/American space station, located on an undiscovered moon of Saturn.  This hallucinatory world of her mind is in fact 2/3 of the film and includes the Giant Buffalo, voiced by Boris Karloff. 

The film is a conversation between these two parallel narratives, the psychiatrist's office and the Moon Maelstrom.  The film is black and white, created with hand-drawn animation on paper, digitized and composited, with three-dimensional sets and live-action scenes as well.  The running time will be two hours, with an expected release in 2021 or 2022.

Chris said, "The film was first funded by Creative Capital, then my own finances, and in 2017 we ran a Kickstarter campaign - of course, all of that money has been spent, and we are seeking funding to continue production.  At the moment, my partner Laura Harrison (also an animator) and I are keeping our productions afloat with our paychecks from teaching."

Chris created the story, storyboards, character design, did the casting, directed the live-action scenes and is now directing all of the animation, doing about 1/3 of the animation and most of the body keys.  The primary production team is Chris, Olivia Rogers, Sara Payne, Guillermo Rodriguez and Pablo Lorenzana, with about 12 other people who have worked on the film, off and on, over the last 4 years in his garage studio - although presently they are all working remotely.  

I asked Chris why he spends so much time and money to make this film, when now it's very difficult to get distribution and make that money back.  He told me that his income is from teaching, and although he hopes the film will do well financially, this is what he does, just like a writer would sit in his garret and write a novel for 8 years.

Also, Chris says, "I prefer making features because that's the way my mind works narratively, and also that long-form animations are viewed as feature films, and therefore are part of a much larger viewing community, and, to be honest, the critical community.  After the release of "Consuming Spirits", I went from having zero reviews of my work to over 40.  I also love the reality that in a feature's festival or theatrical screening, the audience is film watchers, not all people who make animated shorts." 

The world of short films is a wonderful one, but it has its limits - so here I agree with Chris.  That's one of the big incentives behind making animated features - being able to reach wider audiences, and give them two hours of dark and luminous emotions.  Of course, I still make shorts myself, too, because I love them - they're a beautiful art form, and one can tell terrific, beautiful, funny stories in five minute films. 

Chris talked to me about the experience of working on a film for multiple years, and the pros and cons of that.  He said, "When you work on a film for years, there is a dark side to it - it gains importance, as a chunk of your career and a chunk of your life.  You are also pulling your employees along on this ride without an end easily nailed down, they are also spending a part of their life on the piece.  The more years added, the more wait for the boat to float when launched.  One thing I do to help me through this is to make it my fault.  My fault and my responsibility to get the film right.  Its failure is only survivable if I feel I did everything in my power to bring it to people's eyes, and hold them in the theater with what unfolds. 


On the positive side of long-form productions, the film starts to guide you, and it becomes its own complex structure, you are dwarfed and lost somewhere in it, and you become more of a film shepherd than a carpenter, you have to follow it.  Just this year, I added a character and about 4 minutes of animation that galvanized some very important missing links in the narrative - it took time for this to make itself obvious to me.  I also am actually enjoying drawing these days, it does not feel like labor, but as an activity in itself - it's funny that took 40 years to happen.


I also feel good that I am a place of employment for some very talented artists, and they are making this feature, "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" instead of waiting tables. 

This spring and summer, I have been watching a lot of other feature animations that are made for adults, and being interested in visual inventiveness, I also love watching  the "making of" videos for these films.  They help me realize I am not alone, knowing that Anca Damian, Fernando Cortizo, Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane, Tomáš Luňák, and even historical figures like Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, Michael Arias, Mamoru Hosoda and Masaaki Yuasa go through these same struggles while creating independent features. 

In the end, I hope "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" speaks to people and is meaningful for all the years put into it.  To quote Mamoru Oshii, from an interview about "Sky Crawlers": "I did my best."  It will be exciting to see how this film lands, and what audiences think about it.  Corona has slowed us down, but I am pretty confident that it will be hitting the screens in 2022.  Check out our progress on:

The Orbit of Minor Satellites website

You can make a donation to the films production there as well, if you are so inclined."


Chris and I are part of a strange group of maybe 100 people on this planet who make films the way we do.  For my part, there's nothing quite like presenting your feature film at Sundance, Cannes or Telluride, where you can hear the gigantic applause from thousands of people, for something you spent three years (or more) making. It's one of life's greatest experiences - and it's as addictive as heavy drugs.  

Next issue, I'll talk about Signe Baumane's work in progress, her animated feature "My Love Affair With Marriage".  But before I go, here's this week's gag cartoon!



Friday, September 11, 2020

Indie Features, Part 1: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

I could talk endlessly about independent animated features - but I won't waste your time with my rants about them right now.  But perhaps someone should write a book about the subject - within the last 30 years there has been an explosion of wonderful animated indie features.

In Europe, of course, a lot of the feature films get their funding through local governments, and so it's somewhat easier for filmmakers there to raise money to finance their films.  And the quality of the films is usually quite good.

But, as you may know, here in the USA, the government doesn't really support the arts (and I've got a separate rant about that, also) so almost all of the indie animated films made in the U.S. are labors of love, and self-financed or crowd-funded.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to discuss three indie animated feature films - Lotte Reiniger's "Adventures of Prince Achmed" (1925), Chris Sullivan's "The Orbit of Minor Satellites" (currently in production) and Signe Baumane's "My Love Affair With Marriage" (also in production).

Right now, TCM - my favorite channel - is airing a retrospective of female directors throughout film history and this includes some of the more obscure ones.  For example, I was watching this morning and up popped "The Adventures of Prince Achmed", directed by Lotte Reiniger.  Over the years, I've seen excerpts of this groundbreaking film at festivals and such, but I'd never seen it broadcast on TV - and there it was!

This classic film is important because it's essentially the first (oldest) surviving animated feature -  Disney's "Snow White" came along 11 years later.  Plus, it was animated by just one person.  There was an animated political feature film from Argentina that pre-dated it, but apparently that was destroyed in a fire.

I was very impressed with the craftsmanship and artistic power of the "Prince Achmed" film.  It uses cut-out articulated paper, moved around under the camera.  But the characters had such grace and beauty that I forgot how it was created, and just enjoyed the story.

A little bit about the technology of the film - it was created between 1922 and 1926, so four years total in the making.  Reiniger created all of the characters with paper and scissors, all by herself, and then she manipulated all of the characters under the camera, while her cameraman handled all the technical aspects of filming them. And some of the sequences had multiple characters, sometimes up to 10 moving characters at a time!  Whew, what a job!

The print I saw had orchestral music, which of course was added later - plus there was limited color throughout the film, which added to the dramatic storytelling.  From what I understand, Reiniger had some rich patrons that helped finance the film, and although it was a critical and public success, she didn't get rich from it.  But as soon as Hitler came to power, she refused to work in Germany and became a vagabond animator, creating numerous shorts up until the 1960's.  As the first indie animated feature, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" is really a landmark film!

I'll discuss one of the other features next time - but here's this week's gag cartoon:

--Bill P.