Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Animated People: Patrick Jenkins

So there I was, a little over a week away from teaching a paint-on-glass workshop for ASIFA/Central when, out-of-the-blue, Patrick sends me a pre-release DVD containing his film "Labyrinth" so I could show it in my workshop in addition to the handful of clips from the other paint-on-glass animators that I had found on the internet.

Membership in the Toronto Animated Image Society has brought many positive things to my life: opportunities to learn new animation techniques, cameradie with like-minded people, colleagues to discuss production problems with, just to name a few. However, one of the most favorite of mine has been the opportunity to spend time with animator and filmmaker, Patrick Jenkins. Over the course of my membership, I have had many opportunities to visit with Patrick, watch his films, and learn from his years of filmmaking experience.

Most recently, I had the chance to exchange e-mails with Patrick and have an in-depth discussion of his career, his films, and his thoughts on the future of animated filmmaking. The following is the result of that discussion.

Patrick Jenkins
Click on image to visit Patrick's website
Q: How long have you worked in the field of animation?

A: When I was in art school studying visual art in the late seventies, I made experimental films that used a lot of single framing, but I never thought of it as animation, it was just one of the techniques I used to make my films. Eventually, around 1984, I drifted out of experimental film and into animation and basically taught myself how to do it. So that’s coming up on 30 years in the field of animation.

I really enjoyed watching “Rocky and Bullwinkle”, “Warner Bros.” and those early black and white “Popeye” cartoons as a kid, but I never thought of becoming an animator. Back then, I thought of myself as a budding artist and drew all the time. I still tend to think of myself as an artist who uses animation, rather than an “Animator”. I don’t really have a lot of interest in working in the animation industry. I’d rather just do my own work.

Q: Your previous work spans traditional paper-based techniques, stop motion, and cutout, was there any overriding reason why you choose to make the jump to paint on glass for this story and your previous works: Labyrinth and Tara's Dream?

Artist at work.
A: I choose the technique that I think will suit the subject of the film I’m making. In 2004, after making flipbooks, cutout animated films, computer animation; I rethought how I was doing things. When I went to art school I wanted to be a painter and contemporary painting is one of my big areas of interests. I love to work with real paint and I wanted to come up with an animation technique where I could paint the animation.

At the same time, I had the notion of doing a surrealistic film noir movie that became “Labyrinth”. So I was trying to find a new way to do paint on glass animation. I did experiments with a black piece of Plexiglas which forms the background and the characters and imagery are painted on top of the Plexiglas with white gouache paint, mixed with glycerin to keep it wet.

Q: How did you learn paint-on-glass animation?

A: I basically taught myself paint on glass animation along with some advice from Wendy Tilby and later George Ungar, both of whom have made paint on glass animation.

"Labyrinth", 2008.
Click image to see clip.
Q: How did Labyrinth come about?

A: “Labyrinth” was based on an illustrated cyberpunk sci-fi story entitled “Hardboiled” that I was trying to write in the late 80’s. It was a futuristic detective story, mashing sci-fi with film noir. I never finished it, but I saved the drawings that went along with it, and that was the inspiration for “Labyrinth”. In the storyboarding process I dropped the futuristic idea and created a metaphysical film noir story where the detective encounters strange phenomena from other worlds. I’ve always loved film noir so it was great to explore that genre and take it to a different place. For instance when someone dies in the film, we see their spirit leave their body. The afterlife is present throughout the film. I pieced the story together from a set of images, discovering the story in the act of storyboarding.

Q: As Labyrinth was inspired by your story 'Hardboiled', what was your inspiration for Sorceress?

A: Well the stories for both “Sorceress” and “Labyrinth” evolved out of a series of sketches. When I started to plan “Sorceress”, I did some drawings of two girls and I wondered, “Who are these girls?” Then I had to find out what was the relationship between them. Eventually, as the story evolved, I found out that they were sisters.

What I’m trying to say is that the story is built in the storyboard process. It’s not written out first. I do drawings of sequences that intrigue me and piece the story together that way. It’s a messy process, full of trial and error but it’s how I do it. I’m always looking for different ways of presenting a narrative. I think of “Sorceress” and “Labyrinth” as mystery plays where the characters are trying to figure out and survive their peculiar world.

Q: You mention that your creative process involve a ‘series of sketches’ and ‘drawings of sequences’, after your idea starts to coalesce into a finished story, do you write out your stories and produce storyboards from there or do you skip the script and sketch out the entire story visually?

A: There’s no script, it’s very much a storyboarding process as opposed to a scriptwriting process as I’m more of a visual thinker than a literary thinker.

"Sorceress", 2012.
Click image to see trailer.
Q: Was the story in Sorceress meant to be an extension of the noir universe you created in Labyrinth or a stand-alone film?
A: Yes, when I finished “Labyrinth” I wanted to do another film to explore this world I had created which I call Noirland. It’s also the name of the punk club in “Sorceress” where the sisters go to hear a concert.

However I wanted to explore a different aspect of this world so I thought it would be interesting to have two girls as the main protagonists and as I mentioned take them on a mythological adventure story. My interest here was how the mythic coexisted with the urban environment of the city. The synopsis is: Two sisters head to the big city to see a concert. When the younger sister is kidnapped, the older sister embarks on a perilous journey to rescue her sibling from a wicked Sorceress.

So yes it is an extension of the world of “Labyrinth” but the films are stand alone pieces in the sense that you don’t have to have a knowledge of the other film to enjoy it.

Q: Given the success that Sorceress has seen in the festival circuit, do you have another film in the same 'Noir-style' planned?

A: In my mind “Sorceress” and “Labyrinth” are part of a trilogy. The third film that is percolating in the back of my mind is a science fiction film. I’ve storyboarded some of it.

Q: As you now have animated multiple narrative and non-narrative films using the paint-on-glass technique, which do you find easier to produce: animating to a set storyline or abstract non-narrative animation?

A: Well both approaches intrigue me. I generally tend to do more narrative work but occasionally I’ll do something abstract. For me the biggest challenge with abstract filmmaking is trying to solve the question of what is driving the film forward, if there is no narrative. Somehow you’ve got to bring the audience into this abstract world and take them somewhere. That’s incredibly hard to do without a narrative.

"Inner View", 2009.
Click image to see clip.
In “Inner View”, which is a homage to the paintings of Canadian abstract artist Kazuo Nakamura, I used paint on glass to make his paintings grow or appear on the screen, as if an unseen hand was painting the picture before your eyes. Nakamura loved science and the natural world, so I decided that I would start the film in the nature, with leaves blowing in the wind, chimes ringing, and a drop of water hitting the surface of the water. Then the film enters Nakamura’s world and we see his paintings germinate in front of our eyes. All the images are based on an actual Nakamura painting. In a way it’s not an abstract film at all, more of a document of his works. I loved doing that film, partly because I had loved his work since I was in high school. It was made as part of the Toronto Animated Image Society’s “Eleven In Motion” Project, eleven films based on the art of the Painters Eleven.
For “Amoeba” I solved the problem of how to structure the film by basing it on a piece of music by New York composer John Zorn called “Shilhim”. It’s a very short and highly energetic piece of music performed at breakneck speed by his Klezmer/Free Jazz band called Masada. What I liked about the piece was that it feels like the music grabs you by the ears and takes you on a manic trip, almost like you were sucked into a tornado. So the music is propelling the viewer through the piece. My challenge was to make the imagery on the screen interact with the music. It was a hard piece to keep up with visually because it has a really fast tempo. I also liked that although the piece is energetic it also had a dark side to it but that’s life too.

"Amoeba", 2010.
Click image to see clip.
I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen when it was in competition at the Anima VI, the C√≥rdoba International Animation Festival, in Argentina in 2011. The sound was really cranked up and the whole screen lit up like a light box with all this vibrant energy. That was pretty cool! It had the feeling like the film was out of control, which was the quality I was intending, like a rampaging force of nature.
So even when I’m doing abstract or slightly more “out there” work, I’m always interested in how do you lure the audience into the odd world of the film.

When I do narratives, I tend to examine genres. For instance “Labyrinth” explored film noir. Many people like the world of film noir so I thought that was a good way to draw them into the universe of the film. Then I play with the form of the genre. In “Sorceress” I was looking at what I called a mythological adventure story. So again I use trappings of pre-existing film genres to bring the audience into the film.

"Tara's Dream", 2010.
Click image to see clip.
A hybrid of this is “Tara’s Dream” which I animated straight ahead without a storyboard just letting images come to my head. In the film we see a woman named Tara who for some reason can fly. She flies towards an apartment tower and into a window, after her cat has leapt of the sill and then she glides over to sit at a table and look into a bowl of liquid and the sequence starts all over again. Then I had fun with placing 5 different versions of the sequence, slightly out of sync with each other on the screen at the same time, so that the film becomes a meditation on time passing.

So both narratives and abstract films have their own challenges. Sometimes it’s fun to do a film like “Tara’s Dream” so that the film emerges from the animation process, rather than being totally preplanned at the storyboard stage.

"Tara's Dream", 2010.
Click image to see clip.
Q: Once your scenes are filmed, how much time do you find yourself working in post-production before you have the completed scene? Does your paint-on-glass technique reduce or increase the post-production efforts?

A: Well I only animate about six hours a day as paint on glass animation can be tiring and really hard on the body. The rest of the time I’m editing or compositing the imagery and adding some special effects. Lately I’ve been starting at the beginning of the film and just working right through the film in the order in which it appears on the screen. The exception to that rule is a scene that re-occurs at several different points of the film; then I animate all the action that occurs on that location. For instance in “Sorceress” the sisters go to and come back from the big city on bus at an isolated gas station in the desert. All the action that happens there is shot together.

'Gas Station'
"Sorceress", 2012.

Concerning post-production, all the sounds are added later with Foley or sound effects. Paul Intson, a Canadian musician, composes the music for most of my recent films. Paul has an incredible feel for what music will enhance the picture. Usually Paul will see the footage as the animation is being done so that he can mull it over.

I’ve already set the visuals to the way I’d like them in the final film so there’s not a lot of color correcting involved in post-production.

'Kim and Tina'
"Sorceress", 2012.
Q: Setting aside the pre- and post-production processes, how long did it take to animate Sorceress? Did you find much of a difference in the time it took to animate Labyrinth and Sorceress?

A: I worked for 12 months to animate Sorceress. It was a much more complicated film to animate as some of the scenes were more challenging. Labyrinth took place at night but for Sorceress, I had scenes in the daylight, which took much longer to animate as all the color in the characters had to move with them.

Q: Given that you've worked with traditional film cameras and also a computer-based/DSLR setup, how do you feel that the recent leaps in technology have enhanced or detracted from your filmmaking experience?

A: Oh I love it. I like how the digital tools let you build a film step by step. You can try out some ideas, fairly cheaply.

Q: Do you work using gouache and glycerin for a particular reason when you could make the jump to a tablet/mouse setup with digital tools like Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, or Painter which could simulate your technique?

A: Yes I like working with my hands, touching the paint. I’m not against digital tools. I use them as part of my working process. I just like doing things in the real world. Ha.

"Flipbook Animation"
by Patrick Jenkins
Q: What advice would you give to filmmakers who are just starting their education in the art of animation?

A: I’m not sure how to answer that question because every person who works in the arts takes a unique path through their career. I think it’s important to identify where you want to go and go to the school that will help you achieve those goals. That being said, I’m a firm believer in just teaching yourself how to make films by simply making lots of films.

Q: Given the lower cost and increased accessibility of digital tools, do you think that it’s important for students to study these old techniques like paint-on-glass, direct on film, or sand?

A: I think it’s important for students to look at a broad range of animation techniques because each technique has a unique aesthetic quality and I think it’s good to be aware of that.

Q: You were a previous president of the Toronto Animated Image Society, were you also one of the founding members? And if so, why did you decide to create the Toronto Animated Image Society?

A: Yes I was TAIS President for 3 years and then the TAIS Administrator for nearly 2 years when we set up the production centre. I wasn’t a founding member; Ellen Besen, Gerry Paquette, Barry Parker, Vivi Ludlow, Arnie Lipsey and others set it up in 1984. They invited me to be in a group exhibition of art from animated films in 1989 called Art In Animation at the John B. Aird Gallery in Toronto, which was a fantastic experience and I’ve been a member ever since.

In 1998, TAIS had been on a short hiatus, so I revived the organization. I was interested in having access to a community of people interested in the art of animation, as making animated films can be a pretty solitary activity. I was learning a lot about animation in the process, so it was personally very rewarding.

"Tara's Dream", 2010
Click image to see clip.
Q: Given that we've seen the NFB closing their Mediatheque location in Toronto and funding for the arts is being reduced all across Canada, what do you see as the future for independent, non-commercial animation in Ontario?

A: We’re fortunate in Canada to have the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council that give grants to filmmakers. There’s not a lot of money available and there is a lot of competition for those funds. I’ve been fortunate in the last 10 years to get funding for some of my films.

As for the future of independent, non-commercial animation, all I can say is that I came into animation from the visual arts, so I’m interested in exploring themes that interest me like “what is life?”, “why are we here?”, so I try to stay focused on that exploration. I just try to stay focused on making work.

There are very few outlets, outside of film festivals that show short form animation. Television, with the exception of Bravo!, by and large don’t show short films. I think it’s a very big problem for independent animation as no one is seeing it and animators can’t derive any revenue from the exhibition of their work.

Q: You state that there are few venues for short animated films, so what are your thoughts about monetizing your films via newer digital outlets like iTunes (or the NFB’s online rental store/app mechanism) especially versus older-ish outlets like VHS and DVD?

A: I would really welcome that possibility. I’d like to see something like Netflix do short films. Digital distribution seems to work really well for Features but not so much yet for shorts. I would really be into that.

Q: Do you think that crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are viable venues for fundraising short animated films (versus feature-length animated films produced by well-known animators like Bill Plympton or Signe Baumane)?

A: I think crowdsourcing is a great tool for fundraising for certain types of projects where the concept can be easily communicated. Animator friends of mine have done some of those campaigns it is a lot of work to raise money that way.

Q: What kind of things are you working on now?

A: Well, as I mentioned I’m working on the storyboard for third film in the Noirland series. I’m also doing some experiments with some new techniques such as stop motion object animation and pinhole camera. I’m shaking my artistic practice up a bit, which should lead to some interesting new paths for my work. I’m still interested in paint on glass animation, but I’m looking for ways to take it in new directions.

Patrick Jenkins
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I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Patrick currently has DVDs of his paint-on-glass films on his website's store, including "Animation Noir" which has the first two films in his Noirland trilogy: "Labyrinth" and "Sorceress". Additionally, you can purchase copies of his flipbooks, several chapbooks, and additional DVD's of Patrick's work which include his earlier animated films, his instructional video for kids, and two of his documentaries which showcase sculptor Mark Adair and independent animator, Jonathan Amitay.

In addition to the information provided in this interview, I encourage everyone to visit fellow TAIS member Grayden Laing's website "Canadian Animation Blog" where he showcases two videos featuring Patrick: one where he interviews Patrick about his thoughts on filmmaking, and the second where Patrick demonstrates his paint-on-glass animation technique.

* All photos used in this interview are copyright Patrick Jenkins and used with the owner's permission.