Friday, November 4, 2011

Animondays Interview: Signe Baumane -part I

*above photo of Signe Baumane taken by Katz.

The longer I've known indie animation director/filmmaker Signe Baumane, the more I've admired, respected, and appreciated her both as an artist and a human being. She's genuinely interested in what others are doing, and always sincere and honest in her critiques.

When I met Signe in the late 1990s, she was working for Bill Plympton, supervising his ink & paint assistants. While that period was where she built her NYC indie-scene cred, in my opinion, she hit her stride later with the sensational and personal series of shorts under the title Teat Beat of Sex. This was Signe at her most confessional, direct, and uncensored, and I think it's some of the finest and most powerful animated filmmaking ever done. Today, the director is at work on an indie animated feature film, "Rocks in my Pocket," and she's documenting her journey in fascinating posts on her blog.

I interviewed Signe in 2009 (for use in my "Directing Animation" book), and her answers were among the most useful and insightful. I'm happy to feature the part I of the interview on today's post. Enjoy!
A drawing from Signe's feature-in-progress.

1-What skill sets go into directing animation for your own independent film?
For me the most important work of a director, be that a director of animated short, feature, live action etc. is organizing the time of the film, structuring the visual material with the help of timing. Is that a skill? I dont know. It might be a talent.

Quite often you see films that have great design, great concept, but something is missing, when you look closer, there is something wrong with the timing, it's either they give too much or too little time to visuals, usually too much,
and they forgot about pacing, it is too even. Change of pace is crucial.

The director is the one with the vision, and she/he has to carry this vision into the reality. You could say, a writer has a vision, too. But the writer doesnt struggle to bring the story out into reality in full, it does stay in her/his head and on the paper if she/he writes it.

In any case, as in indie animator, since I alone write, design, animate, direct my own films it took me a long time time to understand what directing really is. ASIFA-East judging nights really helped me: the independent films are judged by animation, writing/humor, directing, design, sound.

You have to really think which is what and how to judge it. I think it is a GREAT exercise, when I teach animation, I make my students to do the same thing.

2-How important is it to have worked in animation in other roles before being ready to direct?
No, not really. I mean, it doesnt hurt, but I think you dont need it. Although, lets say, if I was about to direct a feature film that 23 animators are going to animate in Flash and I don't know Flash (I am serious, I still don't know Flash and am proud of it) then, I personally, would drop any prejudices and learn Flash as soon as I can, so I would be able to communicate with my team.

In Latvia, where my  "Veterinarian" was animated by 8 animators, I would see some of the animators trace, for example, a hand moving across the screen, it looked like a  cut-out, so I confronted the animator, and she said, "No, I did not trace, I animated."

I said, "In that case, did you flip?"

Judging from the smooth, untouched paper edges, she did not flip.

She swore by her poor mother's health that she flips. What I was to say to that? I took the scene and animated the freaking hand myself during the night. Which is NOT a good example of what a director should do. It would have been so much better if I did not know how to animate and made the animator to do what I wanted her to do by persuasion or threats. I am too much of a wuss to push people around, that's why prefer to work on my own.

3- Who are your indie animation hereos and what has their work taught you?    
Well, Bill Plympton, of course. He gives us a great example of how an independent animator can be independent and successful.
We all think, I can do it too. But no, we can't. It's impossible to do what Bill does. We all have our different path. But in any case, Bill does set a Golden Standard for indie animators. He is the North Star, a guide in the night. A beam of a hope. An encouragement to jump out of window and try to fly (I have seen people so inspired by Bill that they did something equal to jumping out of a window).

When I met Bill in 1995, I had done 3 films in Latvia, on government grants, in a studio, where I had animators, painters, cameramen and a producer to pout at if something went wrong. Bills taught me that you can do it all yourself and he taught me not to pout when things go wrong.

4-Can you list some common mistakes and challenges that are faced by the first time indie animation director?
First, and the most important challenge of a first time filmmaker is that she or he cannot imagine how the movie in their head is going to come out into the reality and how the audience is going to understand the story. The fragile, fleeting images that you conceived, they look so crude and inept when drawn on paper or in computer. You have been waiting for so long, excited to draw what you had in mind but all of sudden you stop, disappointed and frustrated. You're right––the drawings are terrible, but please keep going, because only by confronting the reality and overcoming your limitations can you grow as an artist. You don't become an artist just by dreaming about it.

The first time filmmakers sometimes can't see what is most important and what is not and they get very stubborn about totally stupid things, like: "I am not going to change the design of the horse, because that's the horse I've drawn!" Unfortunately, the horse looks like a dog and is easily confused with this other dog in the film and it is essential for the punchline that we understand the difference between the horse and the dog.

Sometimes, first time filmmakers borrows from their teacher or people they admire. They try to imitate Bill Plympton or Simpsons or anime or what not. It is not going to get them very far. Because we already have Bill Plymton, Simpsons, anime and what not.

Develop your unique voice, find your own story.

Actually, I believe that a story has to come out of necessity, a need to tell it. There should be some intense fire it it for you to do it.

First time filmmakers sometimes conceive totally complicated stories and try to squeeze them in 3 minutes, and then everything happens so fast that an audience is lost and confused.

First time filmmakers sometimes try to tell one little punchline for 3 minutes, taking it so slow that those 3 minutes turn into 3 hours.

First time filmmakers sometimes create an absolute work of perfection, I have seen it again and again and again.

5-What are the ingredients of a good production pipeline, process, and schedule? And, what role does this have on an indie production where there are not necessicarily any rules?
I don't know what are the ingredients, unless it is a good organization when everybody knows their place and work that has to be done, and files are easy to access and oversee.

In indie production is the same thing: good organization even if you work alone or with 2 people.

6-In your indie films, in what areas have you sought out collaboration with other creative people and why?
I used to like to work with camera men although everybody hated them. I thought, they educated me on how things are done under camera. Now, of course, this knowledge is useless.

I love working with sound designers. I am a control freak and I think it is good to break up your instincts and inclinations a little bit, so my collaboration with a sound designer gets things out of my hands, I let it go and I like it. It always comes out well, too.

A composer is crucial for a project.

A producer, too. Without a producer my "Teat Beat of Sex" would have never had happened. Or maybe it would, but not all 15 episodes.

A still from a Teat Beat of Sex short.

7-Is there a secret to good communication with your collaborators?
Be nice, but remember what you want.

I actually don't know a secret to good communication with my collaborators. If they are nice, I am lucky. If they decide to push me around, or deliver bad stuff and claim its the best they can do, I cry and then I slip away in the night. I dont really have a good character for bossing people around or dealing with bullies. It destroys me, to do that.

But, a collaborator, just like  a dog, has to know who is the boss and you have to let her/him know this is your project and you are making the final decisions. Once, a sound designer aspired to direct my film that was already shot, he kept suggesting changes, funny, to his opinion, gags. I kept laughing it off but it didnt end well. We are not on speaking terms.

I am not on speaking terms with another collaborator, a co-director, the production part was all fun, we enjoyed each other's creativity it was wonderful ... till the festivals came and we had to share a spotlight. Then it turned out, there was only one director of the film according to my co-director, and it wasnt me.

Since that day I strongly advise not to co-direct anything with anybody unless it is your brother, sister or wife or husband.

8-What creative mistakes have you made as an indie director and what have they taught you?
Oh, endless mistakes! SO many I cant even count!!!!!! Each of my films is full of mistakes like a sick cat with flies. It is painful to sit through my films with an audience, but I make myself do that because that is the only way I can internalize what went wrong and why.

But big mistakes? Like choosing sex as one of the subjects? : )

NO, I dont regret that, but I advise my fellow indie filmmakers not to get carried away with the subject of sex. It only looks hot,
but causes major sufferings (no one wants my sex films, they are so hard to sell, even "Teat Beat of Sex" with the huge festival 
success, hasn't gotten a distributor).

9-How is technology changing today's indie animation process?
I love working with computers! I was probably the last one in the industry to shoot on film (I shot "Dentist" on 35 mm in 2005).
But once I went digital (although not completely, I still do drawings by hand on paper, I love that handmade look) I don't think I'll ever go back. Computers allow me to work with timing, color and many other things till I can't improve them anymore (at one point you have to stop working on a project even if it's not perfect, there is always another project to work on!).

I like that more and more people make animated films, (computers make it easy for everyone) because people who normally wouldnt know much about animation now are the experts! The animation field is growing, i think there are endless possibilities there!

Partners in Crime: Bill Plympton and Signe Baumane hawking their wares at MoCCA Fest. Photo by Liza Donnelly

10-Do indie animation directors get stereotyped as comedy or action or etc? And, if so, does that have a negative impact on one's industry career? And, what can be done about it?
Every time I show up at a festival for a Q&A people tell me that my work is just like Bill Plympton's. I always get upset, because it isn't. Bill doesnt do the kind of films I do. It turns out, Pat Smith gets the same reaction. And he gets upset, too.

Then, one day, I was talking to George Griffin and I told him how people think my work is just like Bill's, and George laughed and laughed and he said that he put his "Club" (his film where all the members of a club are penises) on Atom Films and a few comments he got were something like this: "Oh, this guy is just ripping off Bill Plympton!" or: "This is nothing new, looks just like Bill Plympton." In fact, "Club" was made in 1978 when Bill was not making animated films yet. Indie animation gets stereotyped as "Bill Plympton," because that is what audience knows is indie animation, because Bill is so well known like none of us will ever be.

So, is it a good or bad thing to be typecast as another Bill Plympton? I gave it a thought and came to conclusion, that it is a great thing, because it shows that Bill carved a niche for all of us.

As to indie animation getting stereotyped as comedy or artsy stuff––not sure if I ever felt that.

*Stay tuned for part II of this interview (coming next week, I promise)!


Patrick Smith said...

great post, can't wait for part 2. signe is one of those artists that keep all of us going, professionally and emotionally. thanks dave!

David B. Levy said...

Thanks, Pat! Part 2 is just as interesting. Signe is one of a kind! Her answers really got me thinking...

Janet Perlman said...

This is a great interview with Signe. Interesting points and very funny too!