“Animation challenges everything that I’m interested in: drawing, anatomy, figure, character, design, storytelling, music, sound design. You’re never done,” says Shira Avni, BFA 98. “It’s constantly complicated.”
Avni is a graduate of Concordia’s Film Animation program, one of three programs in the Faculty of Fine Arts’ Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. While the term “animation” for many may bring to mind kids’ cartoons, it of course encompasses much more. “We teach the full process of frame-by-frame filmmaking,” explains program head Cilia Sawadogo. “We approach the image as a filmmaker does, and animation as an art form.”
About 30 students graduate from the animation program each year. Some continue as independent filmmakers or move on to make films at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Others go into private industry, working in such areas as features or animation series for television, as storyboarders, scriptwriters or background artists, or doing special effects for live-action films.
Concordia’s animation program has changed dramatically since its beginnings in the mid-eighties. In 1997-98, it moved from a tiny studio in the CB Building on Bishop St. to more spacious facilities in the Faubourg Tower on Guy St. Enrolment soon doubled — about 45 students are admitted each year — and the program became more focused and new computer equipment was acquired. Students can now specialize in computer-assisted animation or animation production using 3-D software.
The three graduates profiled here, among the many animation alumni continuing to do outstanding and creative work in their field, have a few things in common: They are all incorrigible doodlers. They all do traditional animation (as opposed to computer-based animation). They have all directed their own professional films. And they all do magnificent work, but are modest about it. “I guess it’s because it’s so long and tedious to make a film,” remarks Philippe Vaucher, BFA 99. “It humbles you.”
What Vincent Gauthier, BFA 93, loves about animation is seeing his drawings come to life. “It’s about being able to tell a story and render emotions through your drawings,” he says. “You have direct control over the characters.” He also likes that “animation is a mass medium; it’s not as hermetic as many other art forms.”
Gauthier once thought he’d become an architect, “a real job,” he chuckles. But he was inspired to pursue animation after seeing Hedgehog in Fog (1975), by Russian animator Yuri Norstein. Gauthier remembers, “It wasn’t sharp or fast-paced like Disney animation. It was beautiful.”
Gauthier arrived at Concordia from his hometown of Joliette, Quebec, in the late 1980s. In his second year he entered and won the Cinťaste recherchť contest, offered by the NFB’s French animation studio. This allowed him to make his first professional film, Territoire/Borderlines (1992). Done in paint on glass, the film is about the borderlines and compromises of a couple sharing the same living space.
In 1995, the NFB accepted Gauthier’s project for The Dead Tree, released in 1998. With vampire bats as its main characters, the film evokes the AIDS crisis. “It’s probably my least successful film, but it’s the one from which I learned the most, technically,” Gauthier reflects. He then continued at the film board, working as assistant director to Cilia Sawadogo for Christopher Changes His Name (2000), and as director for Christopher, Please Clean Up Your Room! (2001). Both films are part of the NFB’s Talespinners collection, which offers children stories from a wide range of cultural communities.
Over the years, Gauthier has also taught part-time at Concordia and one year at Cťgep du Vieux Montrťal. In 2002, Gauthier accepted a contract at the NFB to be an animator for NoŽl NoŽl, a half-hour children’s TV special to be released this Christmas. For NoŽl NoŽl and other such films, Gauthier explains that animators receive a script from the director, as well as a model to work from. Scene by scene, they make the characters come alive. At least seven animators worked on NoŽl NoŽl. “We can usually tell who has done what, but often even the producers can’t,” he says. Frame by frame the drawings are scanned into the computer (replacing the traditional camera), and once the timing and movements are right, background is added and the pictures are digitally coloured.
With his NoŽl NoŽl contract now ended, Gauthier feels it’s time to move his own projects forward again. “I’ve enjoyed animating,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about my craft, and it gives you a break from the pressure of being the director. But now it feels like I haven’t directed in a while. I have things I need to say.”
Stained Glass in Motion
“It’s a bit like having to do 10,000 oil paintings for 10 minutes of film. I never thought I’d have the patience for something like that.” That’s how Shira Avni, BFA 98, describes working with the medium she’s chosen for her current film, John and Michael (working title), in which clay is spread thinly on Plexiglas and lit from behind.
Working on a light table, Avni shapes the clay onto the glass to create her scene, takes a shot with the camera, paints the scene again with a slight change and then takes the next shot. There’s no going back. The results are, as she describes it, "stained glass in motion.”
While at Concordia, Avni’s student work earned her the Dean’s Award in 1997 and the Cinema Prize the following year. Her first film, 48 Second Blues, won Best Animated Video at the Montreal World Film Festival’s student competition in 1997. More recently, she has received international recognition for From Far Away (2000), which she co-directed with Serene El-Haj Daoud, BFA 99. Like Gauthier’s Christopher, Please Clean Up Your Room!, From Far Away is part of the NFB’s Talespinners collection. It tells the story of a young girl’s tribulations adjusting to life in a Canadian classroom upon her arrival from war-torn Beirut.
Tackling serious subjects in kids’ films is one of the things Avni explored while recently completing her MFA in Film/Video/New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The film she began there — John and Michael, which she hopes to finish within the next six months — is about the relationship between two men with Down’s syndrome. The idea for the humorous and touching film emerged when Avni learned of the death of one of two men she had known while working at a camp for developmentally disabled adults. “I was sitting in a cafť, really sad, and I just kept sketching pieces of memories of them. Within a couple of hours, a whole storyboard appeared on the page,” she says.
As a child, Avni always loved to stick eyes on things and turn objects into puppets. When studying fine arts at CEGEP, she was frustrated that her art didn’t move. While she began at Concordia in child studies and still loves teaching, it was in animation that she found herself truly at home.
Avni began at the NFB in her last year at Concordia. After From Far Way, she worked on several other films in the Talespinners collection as an animator, clean-up artist, digital colourist and checker. She then headed to Chicago, which heightened her appreciation of the training she received at Concordia. “Not everywhere do they combine technical instruction with artistic freedom the way Concordia does,” says Avni. “I was in what is considered the best arts school in the entire U.S., and I felt that the education I had received at Concordia was far superior to what a lot of my fellow students had gotten.”
Philippe Vaucher, BFA 99, grew up sketching and doodling in class, discreetly hiding it from his teachers. So when he looked up guiltily from sketching during his first class at Concordia — and realized that everyone else in the class was sketching too — he knew he was in the right place.
Of Concordia’s Film Animation program, Vaucher says, “University is a time to experiment, to discover new techniques, but also to develop your own personal style.”
While at Concordia, Vaucher received the Atypic Inc. Award for The Colours of Mourning (1997) and the Dean’s Award for The Maskarade (1998). In his third year, he entered and won the NFB’s Cinťaste recherchť contest, allowing him to make Chasse papillon/The Song-Catcher (2001), about an old man obsessed by the memory of the woman he once loved. Starting with his charcoal and pastel drawings, Vaucher used computer software to create thousands of layers and blurring effects, pulling the character from past to present, from dream to reality.
Vaucher now does freelance illustrations, storyboarding (such as for live-action films) and teaching (including a stint at Concordia). He recently began working on a new film at the NFB, Rave, but the project is on hold for lack of funding. Such problems are not uncommon, so Vaucher has teamed up with four other animators — all Concordia alumni — to create the Montreal Animation Collective. Their objective is to help members make their own films. Vaucher also hopes to recreate the stimulating, group-sharing environment he experienced at university. “At Concordia, we all worked in the same small studio, often until 3 a.m.,” he recalls. “Limited by time, resources and our wallets, we still managed to make films. It was amazing.” So far the collective has a space provided by a friend and is applying for grants.
Meanwhile, Vaucher is writing and illustrating a children’s book. The illustrations, in pencil, ink and watercolour and then digitally enhanced, are in pure, vibrant colours. This is particularly interesting when one learns that Vaucher is colour-blind. “You develop tricks to get around the problem,” Vaucher reveals, such as labelling his paint tubes and pencils. “And the great thing with computers is that you have a palette that says, for example, ‘red’!”
Yet his preferred medium is still charcoal. “I love the texture. I love smudging it and having charcoal on every article of clothing,” says Vaucher. He likes to play with his drawings on the computer, adding effects, applying colour, correcting imperfections. “But,” he says, echoing his fellow animators, “I’d be reluctant to go strictly computer and leave that piece of paper.”
Eve Krakow, BA 92, is a Montreal freelance writer.
Visit the Concordia Film Animation program website for more information, and visit the National Film Board website