Resting unassumingly between avant-garde film and tiny toons, experimental animation has long been neglected in the festival circuit. But, longtime pals Alexander Stewart and Lilli Carré set up the Eyeworks Festival Of Experimental Animation to celebrate this artistic gray area. With four separate programs, the fest will be showing off some of the best stop motion, paper cutouts, and digital animation since the advent of Cinema Nov. 5 and 6 at DePaul’s CDM Theater.
To get a relative understanding of the subgenre, The A.V. Club chatted with Eyeworks’ organizers about curating a film festival, the incredibly time-consuming process of animation, and how to say no to being overly ambitious.
The A.V. Club: First off, where did the fest’s name come from?
Alexander Stewart: It’s kind of a pun. Originally, there was this animator from the 1920s and ’30s was named Ub Iwerks, who worked with Walt Disney, and later did some stuff on his own. I always thought the name was really great. And when we were thinking of an idea for a festival name I was like, “Well, that’s just a great word.” It has the possibilty to pun as classic animation, but also as something that’s more eyeball-focused, in an avant-garde sort of way. You know, experimental film, artwork for your eye, something to make your eye work hard. It really had a lot of cool applications when you spelled it a little differently.
AVC: What sparked the idea of hosting an experimental film festival?
Lilli Carré: We were doing an artist residency at CSSSA at CalArts the summer before last, and they showed an amazing range of animated films on 16 mm from the school’s collection for about an hour every day. It was really inspiring to be able to view some of these animations on film, and to discover new pieces in this way. Upon returning to Chicago, we discovered that Chicago Filmmakers has an impressive archive of experimental animation on film as well. We thought it would be a great project to create an event where we could show some of these, and seek out other classic and new experimental work that we thought deserved more attention.
AVC: Why do you like to include classic works in the festival lineup?
AS: With the rise of YouTube and Vimeo, there’s more animation being shared today by individual artists than [there was] really any time in history. The thing I think is really interesting about that is not the quantity, but the way people are influencing each other and where things are coming from. It’s nice to know that it’s not just in a vacuum; there’s a history for this kind of work. When you see a quirky, little Internet video, you’re like, “Oh that’s really cute.” But it’s also nice to know that individual artists have been making their own animation work based on their own ideas, in their own styles, since the beginning of cinema.
AVC: What do you look for when you’re selecting the films?
LC: Alexander and I share a lot of the same particular taste in what we like, and we aim to include pieces that are somewhere in-between the realms of experimental film and character animation. There’s a category between the two that is fairly underrepresented in festivals and general knowledge, and that’s the kind of work that we want to devote these programs to.
AVC: Why do you think experimental animation tends to be underrepresented?
LC: This kind of work definitely asks a lot from the viewer. It’s much more a product of the idiosyncrasies of one person’s mind, and is generally offbeat in approach or sense of humor, and therefore may feel a bit strange to many viewers. There are plenty of regular animation festivals, as well as a handful of experimental festivals, but the work that can’t be placed neatly into either of these venues generally lacks a solid place to encounter it, and so we wanted to give it a home with Eyeworks.
AVC: Animation is a ridiculously painstaking process. What kind of person does it take to be an animator?
AS: That’s a good assessment. Animation is extremely tedious, time consuming, and exhausting in terms of inspiration. In general, a 3-to-4-minute short film, would take an artist a year or nine months to make. So you need either to be crazy, or else mind-bogglingly patient to be an animator. You’re not depending on actors or a director of photography to make your film; you can sit down and, with the simplest tools, you control the ingredients involved to make exactly what you want to put in. It’s about expressing a singular artistic vision.
AVC: Does singular artistic vision sort of translate into “control freak”?
AS: That’s one way of looking at it, but that obviously has a negative implication. I would say no more so than being a painter or sculptor, and only having your hands on the artwork as it’s being made. There’s a tricky assumption that’s inherited from the fact that animation is presented as cinema. That assumption is that cinema is a collaborative art form, or that it’s necessary to work with a big team to get your film made. That’s true in some cases, especially big-budget studio animation or feature Hollywood narratives, but there’s a real beauty and power that can emerge from the type of focused, singular creative process that experimental animation requires.
AVC: What are you particularly excited to be screening this year?
AS: One of the things we wanted to do was present a very small number of films, in order to have a very concentrated film experience, so that, in theory, you could see every film. It’s hard, when a festival spans three or four days, to see everything in the festival. But the other thing we wanted was to be excited about everything we showed in our festival, instead of being like, “Okay we have five days to fill, so we have to put all of these films in.” So, kind of weird answer to that is, every piece I’m really excited about; it’s a nice feeling when I’m looking at the media I have, and every single one of them is like, “Oh man, I wanna watch that one right now.” But I guess one would be Cibernetik 5.3, by John Stehura—and that’s a super, super early computer animation that this guy worked on it for about five years. It’s got an amazing soundtrack and is really a legendary film in certain film communities for abstract cinema and psychedelic cinema. But it’s really rare and very difficult to get a copy of, but we tracked it down this year.
LC: I’m really excited to be able to include work by Priit and Olga Pärn—Priit is one of my absolute favorite animators—as well as a 1930s film called Joie De Vivre by Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin. This was one of the films we saw while at the CSSSA residency that blew us away. Lori Damiano, the festival guest, is a great animator and extremely charming person, and I’m really excited to have her here to present her work.
AVC: You guys even managed to turn the event poster into an animation, how’d that come to fruition?
AS: We worked this year with a really amazing pair of artists called Sonnenzimmer, and they wanted to do something that reflected the spirit of the festival, so we came up with this crazy idea to do a poster run where every print of the poster was different, where things would change and I would take a whole stack of posters and shoot them one at a time on a camera stand, basically like a giant flip-book. So, it’s about a 20-second animation, and every frame is a poster that we’ve been hanging up around town, but it’s nice to know that a poster you might see in a coffee shop is actually one frame of an animation.
AVC: Now that it’s been expanded to a two-day festival, where do you want to take Eyeworks in the future?
LC: We want to keep the festival manageable for the two us to keep going in future years. We’re not so much about expansion of the festival; we’re mainly interested in sustaining it as something enjoyable to put together, that the community is getting something out of. We want to maintain Eyeworks as an annual event that allows more people to see the films that are being made in this vibrant corner within the field of animation, and have a good time while doing so.
AS: We want to finish the festival, and then want to do it again. Not like, “Oh man that was fun, but that’ll probably be it.” So I think it was a great sign that, within a day or two of last year’s festival, we were already planning what we wanted to do this year. I think one of the ways we try to do that is to say, “How much work can two people do realistically?” and then set our festival goals within that. Because there seems to be the danger of ambition where it’s like, “Oh man, we could actually do five days of a festival” and, “Okay, now we’re gonna get this extra person to help us,” and that just seems like a spiral of work that we just knew we wouldn’t be able to maintain in the long run. I think we both agree, if in 10 years we’re still doing about what we’re doing right now, it would be fine. We’re not in it for the money; we’re not in it to sell big and go crazy. We want to keep every single piece excellent and something that we’re thrilled and exited about.