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Northwest Animation: The Roots of Creative Variance

The Seattle Story

by Ruth Hayes
January 5, 2002

Seattle has been subject to the same ebb and flow of public support for the arts as Portland and the rest of the nation and for that reason, the most fertile time of animation production remains the decade of the seventies, up to the beginning of the Reagan years. However, many factors distinguished the filmmaking scene in Seattle from that of Portland. For reasons too complex to investigate here, in Seattle there seems to have been a greater separation between business and arts community. While the “majors” (the Opera, Symphony, Art Museum and Repertory Theater) have enjoyed strong business support, the same has not been true for smaller arts organizations and individual artists themselves. Also, according to a number of people interviewed, local commercial producers did not, with a few exceptions, mentor or provide much in-kind support to younger or art filmmakers as was the case in Portland.

In addition, where the Portland Art Museum’s early interest in local filmmakers led to the founding of the Northwest Film Center, Seattle’s major visual arts institution never wholeheartedly embraced film. Anne Focke, who worked in the Seattle Art Museum’s education department from 1967-71, says they did give a few direct animation workshops for children during those years. Museum film curator Greg Olsen, hired in 1968-69 to work in shipping and exhibitions, initiated screenings around 1970. He began by programming a wide range of experimental films and cinema classics but since the Museum expects film series to pay for themselves, Greg gradually came to depend on genres such as Film Noir and British comedy to fill the house rather than experimental shorts and animation.(1)

An important influence cited by numerous artists was the Bellevue Film Festival founded by Carol Duke in 1967. It ran in conjunction with the Bellevue Arts & Crafts Fair at the old Bel-Vue Theater through the early eighties. Bellevue awarded David Lynch his first festival prize, screened Yoko Ono’s “Bottoms,” films by Brakhage, Vanderbeek and the Whitneys and works by local producers. Jurors included Willard Van Dyke, James Broughton and Standish Lawder. Greg Olsen sat in on the jurying and frequently presented a sampling of the Bellevue selection at the Art Museum later in the season.

Seattle-area colleges made minimal efforts to teach filmmaking. Richard Jameson taught film appreciation at the University of Washington where, starting in the mid-sixties, Robert Dale programmed the longest running non-commercial film series in Seattle. Film production wasn’t taught at the UW until avant-garde filmmaker Robert Sperry started his class at the School of Art in 1968-69. Filmmaking was taught at Cornish College of the Arts from 1968 to the mid-seventies and at Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University into the eighties. The Evergreen State College has had an animation stand since the seventies, but no serious effort to teach animation was made until the eighties.

Seattle lacked the institutional support for independent filmmaking developing in Portland, but artists took advantage of public funding opportunities to initiate projects and found small support organizations and festivals. In 1971, the newly established Seattle Art Commission began to support local arts endeavors. SAC’s “Artist in the City Program” facilitated artists’ use of CETA(2) funds for projects sponsored by government agencies and non-profits. Though these organizations, festivals and projects were often short lived, they provided immediate resources, valuable experience and an example for other artists inclined to take matters into their own hands.

———— Poles Apart: Bruce Bickford and Jim Coffin ————

Two artists, Bruce Bickford and Jim Coffin, can be identified as the first animators in Seattle. Very different in their styles and approaches, they represent, in a sense, two poles; one firmly planted in the commercial world, the other on the less stable ground of artistic expression.

Bruce Bickford is a self-taught, eccentric independent who began animating in 1964 at seventeen and returned to it in 1969 after three years in the armed services. Unfortunately, he lost the rights to all the films he made before 1974, when he entered into an unequal partnership with Frank Zappa.(3) In both content and style, Bruce’s drawn and clay animation is anti-authoritarian and anti-structure. He animates on ones, creating a uniform, hypnotic pace in which all parts of the frame are alive. Faces, bodies and landscapes melt into and erupt out of each other relentlessly, regardless of integrity of form and without pauses to enable viewers to digest new images. The plethora of animating figures and lack of time to digest them are made more disorienting by Bruce’s frequent use of violent or sexual imagery.(4)

Jim Coffin, though also self-taught, provides a striking contrast to Bruce Bickford. He came to Seattle to work for Boeing in 1962 after attending Art Center in Los Angeles and working as an art director in Washington, DC. In 1964, he started his own advertising business, later entering animation through title design. A self-taught character animator, he produced work for Weyerhauser, Boeing, AT&T and Fred Meyer as well as interactive installations, educational films and rotoscoped chalk animation for the Seattle Opera’s 1972 premiere of “The Black Widow.” Coffin is a gregarious man whose social skills and business savvy have contributed much to his success. Through the seventies, he maintained an active studio, employing up to ten other artists at a time. One was Terry Tennesen, who studied painting and printmaking at Pacific Lutheran University and received an MFA in Animation in 1977 from the Rhode Island School of Design. Terry left Coffin & Co. in 1980 to start his own studio, now located in Port Townsend. Coffin still teaches animation from his studio on Capital Hill.

Between these two animators lies a complex of artists and filmmakers who, in varying amounts, combined the gregarious organizing abilities apparent in Coffin’s career and work with the anti-authoritarian content and approach evident in Bickford’s. Though most used animation as one of many production strategies and therefore don’t consider themselves strictly animators, their work illustrates the extent of experimentation and exploration in the Seattle independent art and film communities of the late sixties and seventies.

———— Work from the Counter Culture ————

The NW Filmmakers’ Co-op operated on the Harvard Exit Theater’s second floor in space donated by owners Art Bernstein and Jim O’Steen, where photographer and time-lapse cameraman John Nonnemacher kept his home-made animation stand. It offered classes and low-end equipment, published a magazine, “Handheld,” and produced the Northwest Film Festival at the UW in 1969. Paul Dorpat and others founded the Co-op in 1969 to document the second Sky River Rock Festival. The Sky River Festivals were fund-raisers for KRAB radio and The Helix, Seattle’s first alternative weekly, also founded by Dorpat. The 1968 festival was the first big outdoor rock concert in the US and attracted an estimated crowd of 40,000. The Co-op documented the second festival using guerrilla filmmaking techniques, mixing outtakes from King TV footage with animation and performance elements.

To help support his later filmmaking, Dorpat held two CETA jobs: researching local pictorial history and as media consultant to local non-profits. He produced public service announcements for the City, station IDs and spots promoting the 1978 King Tut exhibition. He also created multi-screen projections for arts events. “Celebrations,” produced for Bumbershoot in 1975, was a three screen, quadraphonic sound montage of footage from other festivals. In 1976, Dorpat produced a seven screen light show of film loops for The One Reel Vaudeville Show’s production of “Conan the Barbarian.” After stringing 16mm film the length of his studio to paint and put Letraset letters on it, he bi-packed, step-printed and shot negative of the film on his animation stand and then had colors added to it at the lab.

Paul Heald, a painter who received an MFA from the UW in 1958, also participated in Co-op activities. Acquainted with filmmakers and art animation during the years he lived in the Bay Area, he created his first film, “Plight of the Pyramid,” on a three dollar budget using an 8mm Bolex, animated cut-outs from magazines, “flipbook style” drawings and sequential photos depicting motion. A cut-out background of photographers flashing bulbs intermittently faced an image of J. Edgar Hoover, whose bottom half balances on the dancing legs of a tutu clad little girl. “Plight of the Pyramid” was broadcast on the UW’s public television station (now KCTS). Encouraged, Heald made “Frogs & Switches,” an abstract 16mm film shot on Dorpat’s animation stand. He describes this film as a series of small cel paintings in a grid format within which squares of color danced. Heald also experimented with rear projection filming and did title work for the Sky River Festival films.

The Northwest Filmmakers’ Co-op lasted only four years, but it was a precursor to and/or gallery which was founded in 1974 by Anne Focke and several other media artists who had been experimenting with video at KCTS. Until 1984, and/or provided a financial umbrella, alternative exhibition, screening and performance space and a library to local artists. and/or’s film and video component, Focal Point, survived into the present as 911 Media Arts Center.

Karl Krogstad also began filmmaking as a result of counter culture activities. Raised in Seattle, he was in a rock band in 1968, supporting himself by doing light shows. He turned to filmmaking to gain more control over his shows by shooting effects in 16mm. Although mainly self-taught, Karl did take Sperry’s UW film class. Karl’s early films move back and forth between live-action and animation, using different techniques opportunistically. In the same film, different characters might be portrayed by humans or clay puppets. Karl also employed elements from any genre to further his narrative. Using an unruly mix of noir first person voice-over, wild sound and visual references appropriated from westerns, sixties spy shows and other elements of pop culture, “Party Line” (1977) follows a secret agent, portrayed by a GI Joe doll, as he attempts to unravel a Chinese Communist conspiracy to take over AT&T.

Karl gained a reputation as a maverick filmmaker. At a Motion Picture Seminar of the Northwest meeting in the early eighties, mainstream producers were outraged when he advocated running up debt on as many credit cards as possible in order to finance films. Beginning with “Egg Nog” (1972), Karl staffed his productions by “sucking in the unsuspecting crew members.” Many local talents have contributed to his films. Current “ER” cast member John Aylward, as well as several other Seattle actors, provided voice talent for “Party Line.” Other artists produced clay animation and titles and edited sound and picture. In return, Karl has helped other filmmakers. He shot footage for Bruce Bickford and Jan Baross, loaned armatures to Paul Boyington for “King Tut Goes to McDonald’s” and in 1980, let Janice Findley use his studio for the nine months it took her to shoot “Beyond Kabuki.”

———— College Filmmaking Courses ————

Filmmaking and animation has been taught in Seattle area colleges intermittently. Paul Heald taught filmmaking at Cornish from ’68-73. Paul Dorpat and John Nonnemacher also taught it at Cornish for a year, encouraging students to do animation because it was cheaper to produce than live-action. Dorpat says he later advised Cornish not to teach film because production costs were so high.

Jan Baross, who moved to Seattle in 1967 from San Francisco where she’d become familiar with art film, took the Cornish film class. Her first film was a boy-meets-girl story animated in white “cookie dough” in which the characters take on color as their relationship develops. Her Super 8 animations won prizes at both the Bellevue and Northwest Film Festivals. Jan became friends with Greg Olsen and Karl Krogstad and served on the board of the newly formed Seattle Film Society. In 1971, she moved to Corvallis and turned to documentary production.

At the University of Washington, photography professor Ron Carraher took over Sperry’s Art School film class in 1969 and ran it until 1980. Carraher had taught at RISD in 1965 and become aware of experimental animation techniques through Derek Lamb, then at Harvard. The Art School filmmaking class was taught on a shoestring. Across campus, the Medical and Communications Schools had good equipment and facilities, but Carraher’s students were not allowed access to these (though Jan Baross, not a UW student, reports that her friends on the Audio Visual staff let her use the Medical School equipment). Carraher describes the Art School film class as an empty room where his role was not so much to teach but to be an accomplice. Because they had nothing, students approached film with a naiveté which freed them to try anything.

One of Carraher’s students, Bob Hutchison, had studied stained glass at Ohio State. He moved to Seattle in 1969 to work in liturgical stained glass but when that failed, enrolled at the UW for an MFA in painting. As Bob gravitated from painting to collage, the activity of moving shapes around inspired him to try animation. He shot 15 minutes of cut-outs on a Regular 8 camera, before he joined Carraher’s class, which he says had great camaraderie in spite of minimal resources. After Carraher turned him loose with a 16mm camera and motor, Bob produced three films: “The Prodigal Wiener” (1972) which won a prize at Oberhausen, “Night Blooming Boppers” (1973) and a stop motion piece shot at the beach, “The Mating Habits of Northern Pacific Kelp” (1974). With these films, Bob was hired by a public TV station in Tacoma where he produced station IDs and other animation. He developed a technique of chalk board animation and won an Emmy with the resulting film, “Chalk Trio” (1979).

To educate himself, Bob went to screenings of independent experimental and animated films, including the Bellevue Film Festival and a series held in the Post Alley studio of photographer Jim Ball which featured guest filmmakers such as George Kuchar. Ball’s series inspired Bob to start 2nd Saturday Cinema in 1976. He ran this series of vintage and experimental live-action and animated films out of a shared studio, In Cahoots, for seven or eight years, then moved it to Focal Point Media Center for two more.(5)

Paul Boyington also took Carraher’s class. Now a visual effects director in Los Angeles, Boyington first studied film at WSU Pullman as a high school student in the late sixties. In graduate school at the UW, he took Carraher’s class and made friends with Karl Krogstad and Bob Gardiner (Vinton’s collaborator on “Closed Mondays”). In 1976, he made a 16mm direct animation about an oil spill, “Crude,” and won a Cine Golden Eagle. As a CETA artist from 1977-78, he produced clay animated public service announcements for the City and used his spare time to make “Art with a Capital R” and “King Tut Goes to McDonald’s,” a 20 minute clay animation written by Carol McCarthy which satirized the hype around the King Tut show. At the film’s climax, Tut, having escaped his sarcophagus, jumps into the cooling tower of the Trojan nuclear power plant and causes a melt-down. “King Tut,” released just a month before Three Mile Island, played theatrically all over the US and earned more than its production costs. With this success, Boyington moved to California to pursue his career.

Photography faculty George Robert Elwell taught a film class at Pacific Lutheran University which lasted into the eighties. Janice Findley took this loosely structured class in conjunction with her undergraduate painting and sculpture studies. She had produced three Super 8 films for her Anacortes high school English class-one live-action piece inspired by I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and two clay animations based on the Book of Job-which were screened locally as part of a Rotary and Lions Club tour. Elwell introduced Janice to Norman McLaren’s films and she began to experiment with pixillation using PLU equipment. Elwell also found her a Bolex which she bought with a loan from her grandfather, and included her work in a program of experimental films in Tacoma.

Janice finished her first 16mm film two years after graduating from PLU. In “Tripletime” (1978) the fierce appetite of her pixillated cast leads them to ingest fruit, forks, and furniture with no difficulty. Janice appears in the film performing an effect she reprised in “I Am the Night” (1992) in which she tosses her head back and forth, single-framing her hair at the moment it extends straight up in the air. Through “Tripletime,” Janice discovered she preferred working with a crew over the solitary activity of painting. Since then, she has gravitated to a stream of consciousness style of filmmaking which uses live-action and in-camera effects in addition to stop-motion.

After “Tripletime,” Janice met Karl Krogstad and volunteered as gaffer and crew on one of his films, learning important skills such as producing with a zero budget, lighting, camera and post-production techniques. Karl’s elaborate sets influenced her design of “A Nermish Gothic” (1980). “Nermish” in turn influenced Karl and he screened it with his next film “Palm Sunday” at the Seven Gables Theater.

Maxine Martell, an artist and museum curator with a double MFA in painting and printmaking, moved to Seattle from Spokane in 1976 and began to make collages using the city’s first color xerox machine. Echoing Bob Hutchison’s experience, Maxine became interested in animation as she moved collage pieces around. She rented an Evergreen State College dorm room for a week and taught herself to shoot on that school’s animation stand. She also took an editing class from Paul Dorpat. In 1978 she produced “Elle,” which she was able to have shot on Alpha Cine Lab’s new Oxberry through her friendship with Alpha cameraman Randy Balsmeyer. One of the first color xerox animations, “Elle” attracted the attention of Jim Blashfield who was also experimenting with this technique. During this time, Maxine became involved with and/or gallery and curated “Suspended Animation,” a show of art from independently produced animated films which opened at and/or gallery in April, 1979.

“Suspended Animation” featured work by well known New York and California independents as well as Northwest animators. It was the first, and for a long time, the only, locally produced exhibition which focused exclusively on animation and its various production techniques. As such, it remained a high point for independent animation in Seattle for many years. As the eighties began, a new national politics ascended, cutting off support and avenues of distribution for this time-consuming art form. and/or’s evolution into 911 Media Arts Center continued to provide rare resources for independent producers and audiences with an appetite for independent and experimental work. Other small screening venues operated, but, until the mid-nineties, sporadically and at the margins. Independent film and video making in general maintained a presence in Seattle, but animation itself declined.

———— Concluding Thoughts: ————

We have personal and possibly provincial reasons for our interest in Northwest animation history, but through research and discussions of our findings we’ve discovered themes related to a broader context of the current state of independent media production, particularly animation, throughout the United States. The conditions which contributed to the vibrancy of independent production communities in Portland, and to a lesser extent, Seattle, included relatively modest federal funding of media artists, generous support from local business and commercial producers, and the active interest of local arts and educational institutions. One can debate the relative importance of these elements to each city. Where in Seattle, artists responded to the comparative lack of support from local institutions with a “do it yourself” approach which still manifests itself with great frequency, Portland’s stronger Northwest Film Center attracts noticeably smaller and less dedicated audiences. Does this mean that centralized institutional support isn’t important to an independent media community? The high numbers of active independent producers in Portland would argue against this. It may be that since Portland producers are not faced with the need to create their own institutions, they are freer to focus on their own work.

Public support for the arts in the US fluctuates with political fashions (and passions), but other countries, particularly England, Germany and Canada, have contributed to the development of artists, including animators, with a consistent stream of production and broadcast support. The US may still corner the market in traditional character and commercial animation, but the most successful innovations in independent and experimental animation in the eighties and nineties, have occurred on foreign soil.

———— Footnotes: ————

1 - As an offshoot of his Art Museum screenings, Greg programmed eleven non-repeating consecutive hours of film, including works by local artists such as Gary Hill and Bruce Bickford as part of “Festival ’71,” a Labor Day arts event initiated by Anne Focke and Rolon Bert Garner. “Festival ’71” was rechristened “Bumbershoot” and Greg did the film programming for it for another two years.

2 - The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was initiated by the Nixon Administration in 1973. In 1977, Joan Mondale influenced the Carter Administration to include the arts in the CETA program. CETA was abolished by Reagan four years later.

3 - Some of these films were made available in the “Baby Snakes” and “The Amazing Mister Bickford” videos, both now out of print.

4 - For more on Bruce Bickford’s work, please see Michael Frierson’s Clay Animation.

5 - Bob in turn advised Janice Findley in 1988 when she began her own series, New Film/New City, which ran until 1993.

Originally presented at the Society for Animation Studies Conference, October 1998