17 September 2007

Interview: SARA POCOCK

Sara Pocock is a young animator who received considerable attention for her animated film Ballvaughan Story(see below). With the amount of Flash-based vector animation around, her hand crafted work is refreshing and reminiscent of Yuri Norstein's work. I hope to see the spark of her talent fully take flame in future.

How did Ballyvaughan Story come about? What was your interest in this period of history and how did you settle on using charcoal for its creation?
Well, the film came about as a result of direct contact with the real village of Ballyvaughan, Ireland. While I was studying animation as an undergraduate, I decided to take a semester off to study abroad and work on my own film. I don’t know what drew me to Ireland, but it seemed like the best possible place to go for inspiration. Ballyvaughan is located in a part of Western Ireland that’s dubbed “The Burren.” The landscape is incredible and almost otherworldly in nature.

I began studying at the Burren College of Art and met a local man named Jim Hyland, who was a bit like the town historian. He had this deep and vast pool of knowledge about the history of the village and I became interested in his stories immediately. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sitting down for an interview and he agreed. He spoke for almost two hours, but one of the tales that really jumped out at me was a story about his mother and her involvement in the Troubles in 1921. It was then I knew I had my story for the animation. The original recording of Jim’s voice was used as narration for the piece to preserve the feeling of traditional oral storytelling.

Around the time I began work on the animation, I was spending a lot of time outside, taking advantage of the Burren’s unique and beautiful rocky scenery to create large charcoal landscape drawings. I liked the imagery from these drawings and thought it might be interesting to create the animation backgrounds in a similar style. I drew some smaller images as a test and was pleased with the result, and the style of the animation just snowballed from there.

Would you tell us about the practicalities of using charcoal for Ballyvaughan Story? What were the advantages and/or disadvantages of this medium?
Charcoal is great because it’s a flexible and versatile tool that’s relatively easy to control. The biggest challenge was maintaining consistency in the character animation. It would be distracting if the light and shadow areas shifted too drastically from one frame to the next. Charcoal can also be very messy and is easy to smudge. I would generally add charcoal to one shot at a time (I drew all the animation in pencil first and added the charcoal later) and scan it right away, or else it would smudge. I went through a lot of trail and error to finally nail down an efficient method.

And would you tell us about your integrations of 3D elements? How did you achieve this and what were the difficulties in the process?
I got Ke Jiang, an amazing 3D animator, to help me out with the 3D elements. Originally the film opened with still drawings of the charcoal landscapes, which felt was a bit too static. I still wanted to use the landscape as an establishing shot, so I asked Ke if he could help make it look more interesting. He basically took my original charcoal drawings and built a topographic map of sorts in Maya, a process called 3D mapping. He then built a camera in Maya and used subtle pans and zooms to create depth. I was quite pleased with the result.

There’s a wide variation in your work and you’ve used a variety of techniques from stop motion and CGI to the freeflowing forms of your latest works. Would you say you’re still experimenting with your styles? And what advantages do you see in the different methods you’ve used?
I’m definitely still experimenting. As I’ve only taken baby steps into the independent animation world there are obviously many techniques I haven’t had the chance to try yet. And because of my relatively young age and inexperience, my own technical skills aren’t developed yet.

I hope to work in as many animation mediums as possible. Each type of animation has its own charms and drawbacks. I’m most drawn to classical 2D animation because of my love for drawing and interacting with a pencil and paper. But I love what artists are doing with 3D animation and especially mixed mediums. My next piece, in fact, is a 2D/3D hybrid that combines traditional ink drawing with cut-out character animation and 3D environments.

How did the collaboration with Ke Jiang develop? How do the two of you approach collaborative work and have you learned anything while working with Ke Jiang?
Ke and I attended the same undergrad college, where we both majored in animation. We’ve been working together and helping each other out with our respective films for a while now, but the new project marks our first directorial collaboration. I think we’re both very detail-oriented people who know how to use our personal strengths to balance the other’s weaknesses. Ke is very good on the technical/computer/troubleshooting side of things, and also has an incredible flair for strange and unique stories and characters.

I tend to be a little softer in my approach to animation, with roots in more traditional storytelling and emphasis on character movement. For the new project, I storyboarded the animation and designed the characters, while Ke handled art direction and experimented with ways to animate the characters in a 2D/3D hybrid environment. We’re in the process of animating the film now, and I’m very happy with the initial tests.

Would you tell us about your upcoming animation? Are you experimenting with anything in this film in terms of story or design?
It’s loosely titled Monkey and Bear, and Ke Jiang and I are co-directing. The story itself is rather folklore-ish, and won’t rely on dialog to tell the story, but rather the characters’ interactions with each other and their environment. The design is all over the place—we’ll have sequences entirely in 2D animation, and some sequences that are entirely 3D animation—but the overall art direction is heavily inspired by 1970s Russian animation. Ke and I both admire the work of a famous Russian animator named Yuri Norstein. His films, specifically Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales, were a huge influence for the look and feel of this piece.

"I originally planned for Ballyvaughan to be completely black-and-white"

What is your approach to colour? In Ballyvaughan Story and your upcoming collaboration, the colours are almost entirely absent with the exception of the characters giving it a brilliant folksy feel—How did this approach to colour develop?
It just seemed to happen. I originally planned for Ballyvaughan to be completely black-and-white. But somewhere along the way I decided I needed a visible symbol for the protagonist’s development—her growth from a scared little girl into a courageous young woman. And I intuitively decided to gradually turn her from black-and-white to colour throughout the piece.

In the new film, again, I’m borrowing a Russian colour theme, with slightly more vibrant colour on the characters to match their complicated personalities.

You’ve sourced elements from your childhood for Memory. How much would you say growing up in Bremerton/Puget Sound area influenced you and your work? And in what way? Likewise for other places you’ved lived/learned like Ballyvaughan?
Well, I moved around a lot as a child. I lived in Bremerton for five years, in a tiny rural town called Macungie in Pennsylvania for six years, and finally in a suburb of Houston, Texas for another six years. I moved to Minnesota after that for college. And I live in Los Angeles now. Because of this, my memories from childhood are divided into very specific sections—I have the Washington era, the Pennsylvania era and the Texas era. Out of those, I think it’s Pennsylvania I feel the most nostalgia for.

Whenever I imagine the “good old days,” it’s always in that small countryside town. I was at a time in my life then (6-12 years old) when my imagination was free to roam unchecked and the country provided more than enough inspiration. Most of the crazy ideas I have stored in the file cabinet in the back of my brain originate in that age, and the themes I’m drawn to—folklore and coming of age tales—are stories I want to tell to that dreamy, fanciful little Pennsylvanian girl.

What animators do you admire and inspire you? And what other artists inspire you and why?
I always get nervous when this question arises because the sheer amount of artists I admire is so large I could talk, literally, for days on end. There are so many talented people in the world using their gifts to inspire, inform and delight—I wish there was a way I could broadcast my appreciation for every single artist whose work I’ve encountered in my life. Just to name a few, though…

Yuri Norstein is my biggest animation inspiration right now. His work is so incredibly delicate, both in its storytelling and its visuals. I admire how he can invoke powerful emotions with relatively simple imagery, without words and traditional story arcs. I hope to someday create a film that can touch someone’s heart the way Tale of Tales affected me.

On the technical skill side of things, there’s a Japanese animator named Shinji Hashimoto I’m currently in awe of. His character animation is stylized and wonderful (and decidedly un-Japanese) and I could watch it for hours. His drawings are very free-form and often break away from the model sheets, and his senses of timing and movement are similarly unique. I hope to one day achieve the same level of expression in my character animation.

I’m also a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. He was a brilliant satirist who encouraged people to think outside the box. I’m in love with his prose. Finally, there’s a harp player named Joanna Newsom whose music I can’t get enough of. Not only is she an amazing songwriter, but she’s a brilliant lyricist as well.

Would you choose a colour (it doesn’t have to be a favourite) and explain the ideas and feelings it generates for you? This doesn’t need to be a straight answer – express yourself in any way you feel is suitable from an explanation to a haiku or image
I love green, especially in a natural, environmental context. It makes me feel relaxed and nostalgic. Green is a colour I wish I saw more of in Los Angeles. The greys and browns of concrete (and polluted air) get depressing after a while.

Also, would you select an image that you feel is powerful (it can be a painting, a photograph—and does not need to be art, it could be a package design or an object) and explain why it has an impact on you?
Wow, that’s a tough one. Hm… it may be a cliché, but I get goosebumps every time I look at Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Can you imagine what it would be like to look up into the sky and see those brilliant flashes of light and color—stars and galaxies as large and bright as the moon? I enjoy stargazing myself (although I’ve never been an expert on constellations by any means) and love the idea of a vast and infinite universe. It’s perfect for stirring the imagination.

What are you aspirations and where would you like to be in 10 years? And when do you expect your latest animation to be released and are there any other works in development?
I’m crossing my fingers and hope that I’ll still be an animator 10 years from now. I honestly couldn’t see myself doing anything else for a living. There are a lot of things in the animation world I’d like to try. I definitely want to spend more time in the independent scene and attend more festivals. I admire and respect independent filmmakers so much for all the love and determination they pour into their films. As long as I can keep creating art I’ll be happy.

Thank you, Sara.


Sara Spot
Ke Jiang
Sara Pocock (No fat clips)
Sara Pocock (Animation blog)

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