Her films have taken top prizes at SXSW, Slamdance, Stuttgart Animation festival, Florida Film Fest, Arizona Film Fest, Vimeo Awards, the Annie Awards and many others. Her work has appeared as Google Doodles, on Yo Gabba Gabba, on MTV, Facebook, Nickelodeon and she’s worked with Whole Foods and Toyota. She has also directed an Emmy winning episode of Adventure Time. Yet, her Wikipedia page says she started freelancing “because studios weren’t calling her back”. It’s like that guy who didn’t sign the Beatles.
You are still very young but looking back to your childhood and teenage years, what did you read/watch/look at/listen to, and did anything particularly resonate and have a lasting effect on you choosing a creative profession?
Like most American kids of the 80’s, I grew up on Disney movies, sesame street, and then later Nickelodeon and MTV – all of which featured various styles of animation, graphics, and puppetry that captivated me from the start. The majority of my childhood was spent drawing, writing, sculpting with clay, and playing computer games, so I always imagined I’d pursue art in some capacity. Early on, especially after seeing a lot of those behind the scenes clips of Jim Henson stuff or just general special fx makeup, I thought I would become a “special fx artist,” although as I got older and started making my own films (first with the family camcorder, and then in programs like Flash) I got more sucked into being the filmmaker, which at the time meant being the one who wears all the hats – and sometimes still does. In a way, me turning out to be a (primarily) stop-motion director/animator makes total sense given my influences, since I get to combine the same processes used in special fx makeup, digital vfx, aspects of puppetry, and miniature fabrication into one medium.
My generation (I’m an late 70’s – early 80’s kid) grew up with Children’s TV that was full of amazing Stop Motion animation shows such as Bagpuss, Chorlton & the Wheelies, The Magic Roundabout and Morph (to name a few). This was usurped somewhat by the influx of computer animated shows until perhaps its mainstream revival by Aardman. How were you first introduced to the technique of Stop Motion?
Oh man, I haven’t heard of any of those except for Morph, hah! And even then, I only found out about Morph in college from doing research about Aardman. Bummer that those shows didn’t make it to the US! For me, I’m pretty sure Sesame Street was my big introduction to stop-motion. There were lots of little segments on the show, many of which were stop-motion, that really stuck in my brain (just search “Orange sings Carmen” on Youtube). Gumby was probably also an influence, as it’s the only solely stop-motion tv show I can think of from that era that I watched.
Can you describe your creative professional route to your current position?
I feel like I should start by saying my parents were always hugely supportive and encouraging of what I wanted to do which played a big role, and I’m also an very self-motivated person. That being said, my creative professional route started with teaching myself various animation softwares and techniques in high school, then attending MICA (in Baltimore, MD) for undergrad and studying Experimental Animation. After graduating, I moved back home to New Jersey and lived with my parents while applying for jobs at animation studios – I never got any of those jobs, so in the meantime I did small freelance animation projects, some of which came from my MICA professor recommending me. I taught myself After Effects in the process of doing many of those freelance jobs, which slowly grew bigger and bigger until I was shooting stop-motion spots for big name brands in my parents’ basement. All the while I only had one real friend in NJ (not in the arts) and the animation community in the area was population: me. My parents encouraged me to apply to Calarts again for grad school (I’d already been rejected once) and turned out second time was a charm. I graduated with an MFA in Experimental Animation in 2012 and filled in a lot of my missing technical gaps during that time, as well as finding a great mentor and creating two short films. After graduating I continued freelancing & am still doing that to this day.
“I don’t usually get inspired by watching other stop-motion work. In fact, I don’t really seek out animation work to watch, to be honest.”
Your Stop Motion animated work naturally involves a huge amount of hand-made & experimental sculptural elements, have you always favoured more tactile and analogue methods and processes, where does that aesthetic come from?
I do love using digital processes as well, but there is something special about the tactile quality of fabricating for and animating in stop-motion. It speaks to the kid in me that was constantly making little clay sculptures. I think there’s also something special for an audience about watching an animation featuring objects that are real and actually exist. It’s grounding, and it feels a bit like magic to watch a real inanimate object suddenly move around. I also end up choosing stop-motion as a medium for certain projects because I feel like there’s still a lot of uncovered ground there to pioneer in the way of untapped materials. You can literally pick up any object and make it move in any way you choose – have it defy the normal laws of physics, and make people think about that object in a whole new way. To me, that’s the single most exciting prospect in stop-motion.
What is your essential studio toolkit? Are there any new (or old) technologies that are having a big impact or shaping your practice?
It’s mostly old technologies, and really basic ones at that: lights, camera, table, power drill, wire, paint, silicone, epoxy, clay, fabric…I think the biggest new technology shaping my practice is probably Photoshop and After Effects. They’re enormously helpful in being able to quickly clean things up, removing rigs, changing/tweaking/retiming animation. Everything I make gets touched up somehow in AE.
OH, and there’s also a technology that WOULD shape my practice if someone would just invent it – I’ve been waiting for it for years – I feel like it would revolutionize the stop-mo industry.
Someone needs to invent a tint-able or paintable substance you can sculpt as easy as clay, but that dries/cures like flexible silicone. Someone hit me up if this actually exists and I will be eternally grateful.
One of our favourite animators, former Offset speaker David O’Reilly, directed an episode of Adventure Time (2013’s A Glitch Is A Glitch), which is just an incredible visual journey. The show itself is the epitome of experimentation, creativity and taking risks. Can you describe the process of how you first got the commission to direct an episode of Adventure Time yourself, if there was a brief, what was involved (length of project, size of team, input from showrunners etc) and share some insights on the experience?
It was a huge honor to be able to write and direct an episode of Adventure Time, as I’m a huge fan of the show. I had actually released my CalArts thesis film, Move Mountain, on Vimeo and then a week later got an email from the showrunner saying he’d seen Move Mountain and felt like it could have been an Adventure Time ep. They’d been wanting to do a stop-mo episode for a while and thought my aesthetic fit well with the show. No real brief, just “make an 11 minute episode in stop-motion.” I was super excited at their offer and immediately agreed. I did a bunch of brainstorming for concepts, and the only real meeting I had with their writers was where I pitched a bunch of very general ideas to them. We sort of narrowed it down more in that meeting, and from there it was just me alone in my bedroom writing an outline, that they approved, and then storyboarded it for about 5 weeks. The only person I showed it to was my husband (also a director), who gave me some good feedback that convinced me to reboard the ending. Next, I pitched it to a room of about 30 (superrrrr nerve-racking) and there were very minimal notes, luckily. The whole process with Cartoon Network was surprisingly hands-off as they gave me tons of creative freedom. After that we found a stop-mo studio, BixPix, to handle the production. I had such an amazing crew (of about 30 at it’s biggest) there at BixPix, who really put their all into this production to make our teeny budget look wayyy bigger than it actually was. From start to finish, the episode took about a year to make.
Do you still have time to produce personal work? Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
It can be really tough, not only because most of my time is spent on client work, but also because when you’re not doing paid work, the last thing you want to do is more back-breaking animation. You mostly want to veg on the couch and watch Netflix and get drinks with your friends and have a normal life. However, I did just get my ass off the couch recently to make a personal film I’m really excited about called “Hi Stranger.” It was part of Late Night Work Club’s new anthology. Oh, also hobby-wise I love to cook and have interesting eating experiences. I especially like science-y food projects like home-fermentation and the like. I’ve been making kimchi for years.