Workshopping my graduation film

I’ve now had two opportunities to workshop my graduation film in a professional setting and it has been so useful!

The first was with Clare Murphy, who delivered an amazing storytelling workshop for our class last week. Since doing it I am itching to get started on my graduation film, even though we’re entering crunch point with the ENO project. Clare started off making a contract with us about we want to work for the day, we all suggested some rules we should stick by including “listening to each other without judgement”, “taking tea breaks” and “having fun”. I think it was a really good way to get buy in from your participants. Then we played some drama games – my two favourite were gibberish dictionary where we had to make up words and definitions for them under time pressure and an improv one where we had to give each other weird increasingly large gifts and explain why we had chosen them. It was a yes and game and I thought it worked really well to get our minds out of their routine. 

In the afternoon everyone told their graduation idea and then everyone else brainstormed more ideas to help them refine or clarify the original. Clare called it collective genius and I was surprised by how well it worked, everyone came away buzzing with thoughts.

It was helpful to me to voice my idea out loud to a group of people for the first time and get really positive feedback as well as have some potential pitfalls pointed out. The main one was how to represent a non-binary character – how do we know when a character is non-binary. Obviously this goes to the heart of the problem with the gender binary in one fell swoop as the whole point is that one shouldn’t assume gender by appearance, which perhaps makes representation through a visual medium difficult – so I will need to think about that.

A couple of weeks later I went to a workshop at the Barbican led by CN Lester and Kate O’Donnell who are the creative brains behind Transpose a showcase of trans performers, dancers and musicians opening at the Barbican next week. I was really excited to meet the two of them as they are both prominent activists and speakers in the trans community and their workshop didn’t dissapoint. Over the course of the weekend we covered

  • trans representation and who should tell trans stories?
  • barriers to access for trans people
  • Ways to cast and run projects creatively to create more space for trans narratives
  • workshopping project ideas.

CN and Kate didn’t think that representing someone as non binary would be a problem and instead I should make my film as a universal struggle to be seen rather than stared at, to be believed rather than doubted, to find community and escape violence. It was helpful to have this conversation although in many ways it left me with more questions than it answered. I liked what Kate O’Donnell described as the “dehumanising process of the gaze”.

CN Lester also reminded me of this quote by Toni Morrison:

“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”

I don’t have to make my work understandable to people – if it reaches lots of trans people and intrigues a few cis people I will be more than happy.

 

 

 

Directing my first film

No one ever understood this spreadsheet except me – learning point: make better spreadsheets

So I’m coming to the end of my ENO journey – which is also the first film I’ve ever directed in which other people were involved. It’s been a huge learning curve and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to try it out.

The main things I’ve learned as a director:

  • You have to make decisions all the time, be brave and get on with it.
  • Have a really good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of your team.
  • Make a really good clear and detailed storyboard (not just animatic)
  • Make really good clear model sheets
  • Make decisions early about brushes, sizes and colours and stick to them.
  • Tie down a schedule as early as possible and stick to it as much as possible
  • If you have a clear idea of how you want something give clear instructions to animators working with you.
  • If you don’t have a clear idea of how you want something work out one before you give the task to someone else.
  • Don’t expect others to have as much attachment to the project as you do but try to give them creative buy in as much as possible.
  • Being a director is as much of a producer role as a creative one. Have a spreadsheet and keep track of what is done and not
    • Order and number your files meticulously and insist that your animators do the same.
    • Make everyone individual to do lists that are clear and achievable.
    • Follow up on every task.
  • Accept that the movie will look different from how you imagined it, but also enjoy those differences.
  • Give lots of praise, encouragement and beer?

Graduation film: the narrative

Rosie wrote a script for me based on all the ideas discussed in the previous blog post, I won’t put it up here because it is bound to change a lot in the next few weeks but the idea looks like this:

The film will begin with a non binary person waking up and getting ready for their day. Visual first of a seed, which opens to become an eye. The person unfurls themself from sleep, their movement mirroring that of ferns.

They get up and start getting ready to leave the house. They procrastinate, putting off the inevitable. The briefly flex in front of the mirror, a secret smile…
When they finally leave the house eyes pop up all over their body (or swarm around them like flies), they begin to hunch and shrink over – again mirroring ferns. The people on the street who are turned towards them are eyeless – as if it is their eyes that have got stuck to this person… The character is stared at but never actually be seen.
As they move through their day, ordering coffee, remembering the doctor’s visit, the eyes bubble and boil.But then they spot other people surrounded by a haze of angry buzzing eyes and the move towards each other, they use their bodies to construct a wall against the angry eyes which fad away. They look each other in the face and begin to unfurl. Some of their swagger returns.

They construct a beautiful space from their unfurled bodies and the film ends with an image of support and solidarity shining out of them like light.

I have found a queer youth group, project indigo who are up for working with me on this project and I have started designing a series of workshops in which the young people will design and make characters which are their own idea gender and we will make gifs of them furling and unfurling. More on this to follow once I have developed the workshop outline…

Graduation film: the unfurling

I asked my friend Roisin Dunnett, a brilliant writer to help me put the mad mind map I had created into something both narrative and beautiful. I sent her the mish mash of inspirations from my last blog on the subject as well as some examples of my work. Her first thought was of

“That bit in the Cyborg Manifesto where Dona Haraway talks about ferns:  ‘Cyborg “sex” restores some of the lovely replicative baroque of ferns and invertebrates (such nice organic prophylactics against heterosexism).'”

I loved the idea of a person unfurling like a fern and I think this could be rendered so beautifully through animation. We talked about this a bit and I told her about a Gendered Intelligence conference I had been to that weekend, based around safe spaces for trans youth.

Here are some of my favourite ideas from the conference:
  • Spaces (Materials bodies and atmospheres in spaces all contribute to feelings of safety or danger)
Mary Douglas writes about  how language constructs the world around us. We categorise things and where they should be (ie dirt in the field, chairs in the kitchen) when we disrupt categories (ie dirt in the kitchen) it creates DISGUST. Not all societies have categorised gender as binary, in Indonesia there are 5 genders. Trans bodies are transgressive of categories so we are familiar with the disgust they engender – people experience our bodies that way AND we experience our own bodies that way too. In a trans space we can create our own categories, you can be your individual self, we are allowed to interact with our past without it casting doubt on our present. In the world our past is ERASED. Being able to exist alongside your past allows you to be present. 
What makes a space safe?
  • a space that allows me to be myself
  • a space where we are safe from being outed.
  • a space where I am not punished for who I am but celebrated. When I feel safe there’s no limit to what I can accomplish.
  • Being seen for who we are and belonging somewhere.
Euphoria and dysphoria
  • Dysphoria feels like not filling the flesh of your body
  • there is social, mental and physical dysphoria
  • What is safe for you might not be safe for me
  • Euphoria feels like being able to breathe after a cold
  • Euphoria feels like extreme safety
  • Euphoria is celebration of what should be normal
  • How can we enable euphoria in our lives?
Time travel (quotes from young people)
  • “When I met trans people for the first time I thought I might have a future”
  • “Sometimes I feel guilty for being a young trans person, because I get to start living my authentic life now, whereas older trans people had to struggle for so much longer.”
  • “In some aspects I feel younger because I haven’t lived my whole life being me but in some ways I feel older because I’ve had to think about my future”
  • “We are forced to grow up without support. It’s hard not fitting in with your peers”

Spending time with these young trans people made me think about the process through which I want to make my film and I have decided I want to make it a participatory project where part of the process is engaging with young people about their ideas around gender and making animation based on those ideas.

Animating with old people

I’ve started a new project this week working with The Albany – a performance space come community centre come charity hub in Deptford where I live. I won a bid in the summer as an emerging artist to document dancing workshops they run for old people all around the borough of Lewisham. So every Monday afternoon I go to an assisted living facility in Forest Hill and get to hang out with the coolest bunch of old people I’ve ever met, full of stories and jokes and laughter and kindness.

Working them really reminds me of an essay by Ursula Le Guin called The Space Crone in which she describes a scenario where aliens come to earth and ask for one human being to take a way with them so they might better understand humanity:

“What I would do is go down to the local Woolworth’s, or the local village marketplace, and pick an old woman, over sixty. […] She has worked hard at small, unimportant jobs all her life, jobs like cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, selling little objects of adornment or pleasure to other people. She was a virgin once, a long time ago, and then a sexually potent fertile female, and then went through menopause. She has given birth several times and faced death several times–the same times. She is facing the final birth/death a little more nearly and clearly every day now. Sometimes her feet hurt something terrible. […]

The trouble is, she will be very reluctant to volunteer: “What would an old woman like me do on Altair?” she’ll say. “You ought to send one of those scientist men, they can talk to those funny-looking green people. Maybe Dr. Kissinger should go. What about sending the Shaman?” It will be very hard to explain to her that we want her to go because only a person who has experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition–the essential quality of which is Change–can fairly represent humanity. “Me?” she’ll say, just a trifle slyly. “But I never did anything.”

But it won’t wash. She knows, though she won’t admit it, that Dr. Kissinger has not gone and will never go where she has gone, that the scientists and the shamans have not done what she has done. Into the space ship, Granny.”

This passage really speaks to what a privilege it is to spend time with older people, who have seen and experienced so much, I had never worked with them before and am totally hooked.

I spend most of the session chatting with the older people as I sketch them, over christmas I’m planning to make these sketches into very simple animations with quotes from the individuals involved.

Here are some of the characters:

Designing Characters

As I’ve never worked with other people animating my work before I never understood quite how crucial a strong model sheet is (even though Steve has emphasised this many many times). But I realised quickly this would be essential for this project as I draw very differently from my animators.

All my characters have the same bodies, and their faces change only slightly, main differences are in the hair and the animal head dresses which they all wear and which are probably the most difficult part of the design.

As my style is pretty loose I struggled at first to make model sheets with any consistency, here are some of my attempts below:

 

 

 

 

ENO animatic

Here is the animatic for our film for the English National Opera. I think storyboarding is my favourite part of the film making process. It’s exciting when everything still feels so open and possible. It’s also been really great working in a team and sharing ideas. For example, we couldn’t work out where the dinghy would come from and Jorge came up with the idea of one of the kids grabbing a note and blowing it up into a boat. I loved that, and it got me thinking even more about the sea being staves that were full of music a theme that we plan to continue throughout the film. We also added a couple of post-credit shots that show the children reaching land but then facing a final insurpassable obstacle, which I think is a stronger ending than leaving them out at sea.

 

Amy Sillman: Landline

I went to see the Amy Sillman exhibition at the Camden New Arts Centre this week and absolutely loved it.

 

The exhibition was a series of oil paintings, part abstract, part cartoonish and a couple of animations, one based on Ovid’s metamorphoses that I particularly liked. But my favourite thing was her  zines, comics and writing. I particularly like the way she talks about shape and colour and this passage on awkwardness:

“We are trying to surprise ourselves, and that is hard to do. I think it is a kind of metabolism that drives me to change and change and change my forms, searching rather earnestly for something I don’t quite know already, a kind of questioning machine, endlessly discontent. I would say that form is the shape of my discontent and that what interests me is how form can match that feeling or condition of funny, homeley, lonely, ill-fitting, strange, clumsy things that feel right. In other words, a form that tries to find itself outside of what is already OK. Awkwardness is the name I would give this quality, this thing that is both familiar and unfamiliar.”

Graduation film: ideas and inspiration

The earliest iteration of my graduation film idea looks a bit like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made this based on lots of bits and pieces that I’ve been researching recently including

  • This piece of writing byTravis Alabanza.  I’ve added the emphasis on this really precise description of a feeling that I would love to capture.

“This week i’ve really noticed my transness a lot. I do not feel like this is different from other weeks, but sometimes, it hits more.I am thinking so much about how often for me dysphoria does not come from when I am alone, but from the moment I step outside. Often, with myself, with my mirror, with me taking a selfie – I feel a euphoric sense of content with exactly how I am. My stubble, my shoulders, my hair, my legs, my voice all feel at ease and perfectly imperfect. I feel like nothing and something at the same time. I feel full of woman, empty of it, avoided of it, and none of the above simultaneously. I feel, gender euhphoric.

and it is then that I step outside that I am reminded of how people will view me. I will be misgendered by someone who has known me for years, or be in a conversation with three other [cis]women and feel them as they remove any chance we can have a bonded experience. I feel myself ease out of this comfort with my body and into a disbelief or sense of confusion in how I could ever think for a moment that the world will see me how I am seeing myself. It is this harsh change, this reminder, this snap back to reality – that often sources my dysphoria. I think for me my dysphoria is less about my body, and more about a reminder. It is less about me and my problems that are inherent with my body, more about the moment in which the world reminds me of the problem it has with me. It feels like I am fine before I go outside. Fine before I step out. Fine before I encounter. I realise so frankly that they will be more comfortable if I look cis [read:dissapear] and I realise that often my dysphoria comes from feeling their want for me to dissapear. To be neat. to be tidy.”

 

 

My pitch to the English National Opera

I pitched my Noye’s Fludde animation to the English National Opera this week. One moment in Britten’s opera particularly moved me: Mrs Noye  is refusing to get on the ark, ignoring the pleas of her husband and children she decides to stay put and drink with her friends:

“But I have my gossippes eveyone,

They shall not drowne, by Sante John!

And I may save ther life.”

But there is no question of taking the gossips on board and Mrs Noye is eventually dragged onto the boat while they are left to drown: we hear their screams as they are swept away by the flood. The wrenching away of a person from their home, their friends, everything they have ever known, to set adrift for an uncertain future was the feeling I want to capture in this film. It reminded me of a line by the British Somali poet Warsan Shire:

“you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land”

I want my animation to draw a parallel between this famous biblical journey and today’s migrants whose boats cast off into the Mediterranean every day in search of safety for them and their children.

 

I also wanted to incorporate elements from the original opera, among them things I had discovered on my research trip to Aldeburgh so I decided to set my animation in the rehearsal room while a group of school children get ready to put on Noye’s Fludde.

 

While they are playing with their instruments and fighting over bits of costume a wave comes in and crashes down on the room sweeping the children away. Luckily one child catches a note and blows it up into a lifeboat into which they all clamber.  Will they find land or be rescued?

For the style I decided to use that of the sixteenth century woodcuts that illustrate Britten’s copy of the mystery plays upon which Noye’s Fludde is based. All animation would be done in black and white with strong outlines, the only colour in the film being the orange of the children’s life jackets.