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!

No comments:

Post a Comment