The celebrated animator has no idea how she does what she does (and that's why it works)
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As the daughter of famed cartoonists Faith and John Hubley (co-creator of Mr. Magoo), Emily Hubley grew up surrounded by animation and began collaborating with her parents and sister—musician Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo fame—on the family business when she was just a child. After more than 30 years, Hubley has established her own considerable body of work as an animator, creating inserts for films like Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Blue Vinyl, as well as several short, intensely personal films that explore weighty emotional themes with a touch of whimsy. Most recently, Hubley completed her feature-length debut, The Toe Tactic, a combination of live-action and animated film about a woman who becomes disconnected from reality after losing her father, and whose life is disrupted by cartoon dogs (voiced by David Cross and Andrea Martin, among others) playing a strange cosmic game, the outcome of which will determine her destiny. Hubley screens the film—which, like most of her work, features an original score from her sister's band—at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown tonight along with selections from the extensive Hubley Films archives. Decider spoke with her about her first time working with flesh and blood, why she never considers the audience when writing, and how we’re all cogs in a larger machine.
Decider: When most people hear “live action meets animation,” they probably think of movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Cool World. Were you wary of doing a film like that?
Emily Hubley: Oh, not really. I never really consider the real world or the audience in my work. [Laughs.] It’s hard enough to make the thing without thinking about how the world will perceive it. I mean, I was prepared for those comparisons, but it really just came from how I was already combining animation and photographs in my short work, and I was interested in doing that in a more conventional format.
D: What was it like directing live actors instead of animated characters, over whom you have complete control?
EH: That part was easier because I didn’t have to draw them! [Laughs.] And every actor really got the essence of their characters and the tone of the reality we were trying to depict, so all I had to was explain where the animation would be added later. People made me think it would be difficult, but the actors got their characters without much help from me, whether they were real people or cartoon dogs.
D: Do you feel as though making a feature-length film instead of a short makes you more vulnerable to scrutiny?
EH: With the shorts, I think people are willing to respect your voice and accept something for what it is. I think people come to features with their preconceived notions of how a story should unfold, so if it doesn’t agree with that, they feel very authoritative about what’s wrong with it. But you can’t please everyone. You just appreciate when people are with it.
D: What sort of reactions are you hoping for?
EH: It was really fascinating to see the première and how weepy everyone was. I just wanted to entertain people! I didn’t expect people to be so moved or emotional about it. But not every screening is like that. Sometimes people laugh, sometimes they cry… The whole thing is a Rorschach blot or a mirror. People get out of it what they put into it. I just want them to get the general ideas about the feeling of loss, or enjoy how the characters interact. The only thing that’s bad is when people leave. [Laughs.] Physically, mentally, or emotionally. As long as they’re still there, they can feel whatever they want.
D: The protagonist finds herself in an animated reality after losing connection with her own. Is that a metaphor for how you feel about your work?
EH: I think we all have these fractured periods in our life, and it’s really about how you doubt your perception of things. Things aren’t fair, or things aren’t working out the way you expected, or there seems to be some magic hand, and you want to figure out what that mystery is. I’m trying to convey the chemistry between external and internal forces, and to that degree it is a reflection of my work. It can be confounding, and it can be wondrous, and you can have these little chance moments of magic that you can’t believe are happening. The dogs are also about the idea that often people just take their lives so seriously, and realizing that there’s a larger machinery at work, and that we’re all sort of cogs in that, and we’re supposed to be working together toward some general evolution. The dogs are like, “This person is wallowing in their muck. Let’s kick ’em so they can get back into the world.” It’s an external view outside of humanity, one that doesn’t judge us as people, but as part of a larger entity.
D: Do you feel like your own life is something other than self-determined?
EH: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what the hell is going on. [Laughs.] I’m not driving this ship. I’m just trying to see where it’s going.
D: You spent your life surrounded by animation, which seems like something most kids would dream about. But has there ever been a point where you were like, “I’m so sick of cartoons”?
EH: Well, there are a lot of cartoons I don’t like. But we did grow up in a creative environment where art was revered, so that was great. We saw a lot of animated films, heard a lot of music—but that’s not just kids of animators. I never expected to do this at all, and in fact I was completely daunted by it. When I went to college, one of my teachers was like, “Why don’t you do this [story] as animation? You know animation.” I was like, a) I don’t know animation, and b) I don’t want to step into that, because I didn’t want to be compared. But he was like, “You don’t have to worry about that. Just see what your story has to tell.” As long as I’m viewing all of this through a prism of letting it grow into itself, I can do it. But if people ask me, “How are you making that?” I don’t know. I don’t know how to build a bridge. My process is about starting with a mysterious scribble and letting it emerge from there. I try not to wreck it by imposing ideas. I just slowly dig out what’s in there.