Saturday, August 13, 2011

Interview: Isobel Knowles

I first discovered Isobel Knowles when I went to a Craft Victoria talk called Make It, Design It, Fund It a couple of years ago. An Experimenta catalogue was circulated and flicking through stumbled upon Isobel's amazing artwork with Van Sowerwine called You Were In My Dream. I was really interested in stop-motion at the time and had experimented with using it in my own artworks but couldn't believe the amazing conceptual use of the medium in their work. This was also long before I dreamed of starting this blog so I can't believe I am here right now interviewing Isobel about her work and in particular the work that inspired me so much!

I think I had inspiration overload reading about Isobel's inspirations - so many great new people to find out about. If you would like to see more of Isobel's work you can go to her website here or her Vimeo channel here.

Tell us a little about your arts/design background

I was one of those kids who would draw and draw. I chose art in school wherever I could and started animating in my final year of high school. I went on to study Media Arts at RMIT where I got into making animations for installation in galleries and made a few short films as well. I started collaborating with Van Sowerwine at university and we have had a productive working relationship ever since.

(Image of Clara from the short film Clara (c) Film Camp, Directed by Van Sowerine .)
I made a music video for Architecture in Helsinki just after I graduated and during the production of it they asked me to join in and play trumpet with them. It was such a great experience but at the same time it was tricky leading a double creative life. I was shooting a short film, Clara, with Van and recording with Architecture in Helsinki at the same time and it was a difficult balance. The band took over and became a full time occupation for a couple of years. I had a great time and fell into making music videos because of all these music connections I was making. It was a lot of fun!

After I left the band I spent time overseas trading music videos for accommodation. When I came back to Melbourne I decided I wanted to do animation full time. I have managed to strike a good balance between artistic projects and commissioned work and I'm enjoying it immensely!

When did you first discover stop-motion animation?

Sesame Street! I loved that show to death. All those different vignettes made by incredibly talented animation artists!

I discovered stop-motion for myself when I started making animations in high school. The first few were pretty silly but for my graduating project I made an 8 minute alphabet with 26 different styles of animation to teach myself a broad range of techniques. There was a lot of stop-motion in there. Clay, cut-paper, objects, wire sculpture. I had a lot of fun with it.

Do you have any particular favourite stop-motion works or other artists that inspire you?

(Image still from Lotte Reiniger's Papageno 1935)
So many! Lotte Reiniger is my all time favourite paper cut animator. Suzy Templeton's Dog and her version of Peter and the Wolf are really beautiful puppet films. I loved Sinna Mann by Anita Killi. David Daniels stratacut animations are mind-melting. Yuri Norstein's Hedgehog in the Fog has the most beautifully made 2d puppets. Jan Svankmejer wins for amazing concepts. I love kids shows like Towser, Magic Roundabout, Gumby and Spanish cartoon Capelito. Fantastic Mr Fox was a very exciting addition to the animated feature film world.

(Image still from the children's series The Magic Roundabout)
(Image still from Yuri Norstein's Hedgehog in the Fog)
What mediums do you like to work with to create your sets and characters?

Anything really! You Were In My Dream had a lot of real tree branches which I loved the look of. Feathers, dried flowers, dried leaves. We tried to use as much natural material as possible and interspersed that with model making and craft supplies. I also love using cardboard. I recently made a factory set out of shoeboxes and felt. It was pretty free-form - just hacking away at cardboard with minimal precision, doing all measurements by eye. Van and I continued that lo-fi cardboard aesthetic with our new work that's in production now.

(Image of Isobel animating her factory in her collaboration with Cat Rabbit. Image source via Cat Rabbit's Website)
(Image still of a beautiful paper cut bird from You Were in My Dreams)
What has been your favourite stop-motion piece that you have worked on?

It's hard - like choosing a favourite child! I really enjoyed shooting You Were In My Dream. It was a collaboration with Van and I love working together with her on something big. I really loved animating the character transforming into various animals and the set was so pretty to look at all day long. But Clara was such a great project to work on too. We had decent funding so we got to use a lot of high-end equipment. We also shot it on 16mm and it was always such a rush at the end of each week when we'd take our roll of film off to be developed and watch the rushes from the week before.

Can you talk a little on the processes used and experience of making this stop-motion animation? 

I'll talk about You Were In My Dream since it's the most recent.

We originally wanted to make a 3d puppet animation like the ones we'd done together before but because of the animation needing to incorporate a live video feed of a face onto the animated character's face we decided that a 2d puppet would work better. We still wanted the sense of depth though so we made these giant sets full of the things I mentioned above and added a sheet of perspex with the cut paper 2d characters and sets to the top of that. I was really happy with how it looked in the end.

(Image still from the artwork You Were In My Dreams in use by Isobel and Van. You can see how their faces are projected into the stop-motion animation!)
(Image of a character in the process of being animated with the blank face which allowed for the projection of the viewers face to be placed there later when in use)
Our setup consisted of a custom animation bench which held the camera perpendicular to the set and had a tracking system for the set to travel left and right. The sets were 120mm long which gave us roughly three screens in length. It was important for the forest to feel quite big and like the character could run around and explore a large area. We had one set for the forest floor and one for the tree tops. We used a digital SLR connected to the computer and used Dragon Stop-Motion to capture and play back the animation. We had to use Flash for the interactive element.

(Image of Isobel on the right and Van on the left hard at work on the project)
The animation took a really long time. A lot longer than we'd expected. Van had just had a baby so I think we may have spent too much time tickling little toes! We animated about fifteen minutes worth of footage and because it's interactive and non-linear, people generally see two or three minutes at the most. It was important to the work, though to create a seemingly endless world of possibility. In addition to the fifteen minutes of stop-motion we had to animate a digital mask for the video to sit on top of the character's face. For every frame in the stop-motion we had to do a frame in Flash! So looking back it was an awful lot of work. Of course you never realise this before you begin!

(Image of a frog being animated bit by bit with a pair of tweezers!)
(Image of some of the many characters they would have cut out)
We were working to vague storyboards but most of it was on the fly editing decisions. Because we were shooting on a flat plane, though, we really only had the choice between long shot or closeup. I think this made it more manageable to shoot without a proper storyboard.

(Image of the final artwork being exhibited)
Do you think there is a resurgence in stop-motion animation in the recent years?

I think with digital cameras becoming cheaper and better, stop-motion has become more viable again. Consumer digital cameras are perfect stop motion tools so it's easy for anyone to try which is always a good breeding ground for new and exciting work.

After years of animation becoming predominantly digital and the 3d motion graphics developing into the default animated style, I think people are excited to see stop-motion again. There's still something very magical about an inanimate object moving around like it's alive that you just can't achieve in any other medium.

Do you prefer working on collaborations with other artists/clients or do you prefer creating from ideas of your own?

I like both worlds equally. I prefer spending the bulk of my time realising my own creative ideas but I love being able to make something that serves a purpose. It's like fitting a jigsaw together. Having constraints makes it exciting to find a solution for the challenge. It's also nice to be part of a creative community in this way. I've been very lucky with clients though, and pretty much find myself working for and with friends most of the time.

(Image Still from Isobels collaboration with Cat Rabbit. Source via Cat Rabbit's Website)
What are your future plans in animation? Do you have any exciting collaborations, artworks or music videos in the pipeline that you would like to talk about?

(Image still from a test animation on My Good Half . Isobel's collaboration with Anna Jeffries)
I'm working on a new artwork with my friend and collaborator Van Sowerwine. It's an interactive animation that is semi-stop-motion. The backgrounds are shot to camera and the characters are being done digitally. It's looking pretty good so far! We built a train interior and set up two enormous lazy susans with sets on them. The sets are cardboard renditions of garages, back fences and houses. Corrugated cardboard really does look like corrugated iron, especially when you do some texta tagging! We're exhibiting it in the Melbourne International Arts Festival at Screen Space in October so look out for it!

I'm also planning to do some more work with the wonderful Cat Rabbit which will be a delight I'm sure.

And a new collaboration is on the horizon with director, Anna Jeffries, who has written a script about some siamese twins from 16th Century Scotland. Hopefully that will get off the ground early next year.

I like how things have been developing so far and I'm sure finding it easy to keep busy animating! I'd love to do more short film work and maybe go work somewhere overseas for a while. Maybe Poland or Estonia. Seems like a girl like me could learn a thing or two from Eastern Europe!

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