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Interview

Joanna Priestley

by Anouck Iyer, Spring 2002

Joanna Priestly is one of the cofounders of the ASIFA NW chapter. As a third generation Portlander, she remains in the forefront of the NorthWest independent animation community. In addition to producing her own films, Joanna runs an apprenticeship program through her studio Priestly Motion Pictures. Currently, Joanna is working with new animation technologies as well as collaborating on a film with east-coast animator Karen Aqua.

  • The ASIFA NW chapter was cofounded by yourself and Marilyn Zornado?

    Yes, that’s right, it was founded in 1988 after I graduated from CalArts.

  • What was the impetus for creating the chapter?

    It was definitely to create a community. There had been a group called the Animation Collective in the late 1970s and early 80s that had been full of enthusiasm. It culminated in a big gallery show exhibiting Northwest animation art and then there was a big gap (in events that brought the animators together). With ASIFA NW we had monthly meetings and these fabulous holiday parties in December where we would give away original animation artwork.

    We had a lot of fun. We wanted it to be as regional as possible, we had people coming in from Eugene, Olympia, and occasionally from Seattle if they were already in the area. Rose Bond and Amy Collen Blumenstein started the newsletter, so that made the information available to a much wider area. Certainly my hope was that people from Seattle, and other areas, would be able to organize their own events to connect with their local animation communities.

  • What lead you to choosing film as your medium of artistic expression?

    I started as a painter. I had been working at a studio in Paris and when I returned to the states I relocated to the town of Sisters in central Oregon. At that time there were no movie theaters in Sisters nor in the three surrounding counties, which encompassed a vast area. So, a friend and I started a group called “Strictly Cinema.” We starting renting 16mm prints and showing them at the Bend High School. The screenings were wildly successful, there was no VHS back then so people came in droves to see these films. Later we started showing films at the Redmond High School and in the summers we held outdoor screenings at local parks.

    We just kept doing more and more screenings because there was a demand for it. This led us to organizing film festivals. Our first big event was an animation festival. We brought in a filmmaker from Portland named Bob Gardener who won an Oscar for a film he did with Will Vinton called “Closed Mondays.” That event was a gigantic success. It got me interest in animation and it was the first time I was able to see noncommercial animation art. From “Strictly Cinema” I got a job as the Film Librarian, then the Regional Coordinator at the Northwest Film Center working for Bill Foster. That was at a time when Bill Foster was bringing in a lot of independent filmmakers and animators, like George Griffin, Jane Aaron, and Marv Newland. So I was able to meet them and they were actually guests in my home. I was exposed to lots of work. I got so excited about the possibilities of translating what I was doing in painting to filmmaking.

    I went to the Safeway store across the street, bought some index cards and started experimenting. From there I took a class taught by Roger Kukes who was the first animation teacher at the NW Film Center. He is a brilliant artist who is still active in town, but not in animation. He got me really excited about animation and made want to pursue it, so I went on to study at Cal Arts’ Experimental Animation program.

  • What was the time frame between when you were just starting to dabble in animation from when you began to pursue it in earnest?

    Well, I started my first film in 1979, it was “The Rubber Stamp Film.” I completed it in 1983. It was the film I used to apply to Cal Arts. The early 80s seems to have a pivotal time in the school’s history. The Experimental Animation department turned out many animation artists that are now giants in both the independent circuit and in the industry. When talking to the alumni who attended CalArts during that time period, they all speak of the animation program as a transformative experience.

  • Can you talk about what Cal Arts was like for you?

    I heard about the school from coordinating the Northwest Film and Video Festival when Gene Youngblood was a juror. He was on the faculty at Cal Arts and so, through him, I heard all about the program and all about Jules Engel, who was the founding director of the program. When I went there, I made sure I was one of Jules’ mentees and eventually his teaching assistant. It was an incredible, super high-energy, exciting time. I took as many different classes as I could.

    I studied African dance, Indonesian Gamelan, took classes in the Art School and I even tried to get into the Character Animation Department’s classes, which at that time was forbidden. I took a live action filmmaking class which was also forbidden, but I begged and pleaded and was finally allowed into Sandy MacKendrick’s class. I learned a lot about cinema and of course I learned a lot about animation through Jules and the other faculty members. It was a very exciting time to be there. One day, this huge box appeared at the school. It was one of the first computer animation systems, called the Cubicomp. Vibeke Sorensen was hired to teach a class on how to use it. Both Jules and I were in the class along with Ed Emshwiller and Christine Panushka. The class was half faculty and half students.

    Jules and I immediately saw the possibilities in using this machine to animate and started to collaborate on a film. We set up a Bolex and pointed it at the computer screen. Some kind soul from the Character Animation department wrote a program that would allow us to click off a few frames at a time once we had figured out what we wanted this machine to do for us! Everyday, Jules and I would lock ourselves in this little closet-like room and sit in front of the computer. Everyday Jules would turn to me and said, “Honey, how can we do this differently?” He wanted to make something different each time we sat down at the computer. It made quite an impression on me. He was not at all phased by this enormous box we were typing away at. We were definitely charting new territory and he could have easily been baffled by the technology. But Jules wasn’t daunted in the slightest, he immediately wanted to jump on and create artwork that was fresh and new.

  • It seems as though you adopted this philosophy into your own films. Each film you make uses a different technique and explores a new visual language. You are setting out very different problems to tackle. Is it a conscious goal of yours?

    It’s definitely a conscious choice I made about my career. When I was in high school the local library had a collection of films by Norman McLaren. It was the first exposure I had to animation, outside of Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons, that I saw on TV. When I studied his work, I realized that he used a different technique in almost every film he did. That’s what I imitated.

  • Is it true that you are done with using film and that you’ve moved to on making animation using video? I remember that after you made “Utopia Parkway” you said that you were never going to go through the “heart break of using a film laboratory again.”

    No, with my most recent film I went through the heartbreak of using a lab again and it was really awful! But it was a totally different process, I shot this film in 35mm and when I started the film, we still had a lab here in Portland. They went through some troubles and shut down about 3 years ago.

    I had spent 20 years developing a relationship with them and I adored them. They were so good to me. Bob Zurcher was the head of that lab and they were so kind to filmmakers. So, I went from working with this lab that I adored to working with a lab in Seattle where they didn’t know me and their priority was to get the commercial work processed first. I would call and call and they still would not have processed my film. I think they did their best under the circumstances, but it was such a shock to become a nobody in their eyes and it was very difficult working with them. I ended up editing the film on an Avid system and having a lab in LA called 4 Media transfer it from digital Beta to 35mm. It was a wonderful experience.

  • I can see that currently you are not working with film, but rather working on some experiments using Flash?

    I really like Flash. It is really simple, really easy to use. The color selection is a problem if you want to send things over the internet because you are limited to the web palette. That’s what I have been doing, sending little animated Flash movies to people. It is so much fun. In terms of drawing I find that the Wacom tablet and the stylus pen provide such a soft smooth surface. It is so easy to draw, even easier to draw than using pencil on paper because it just glides.

    I really have not run into too many problems, though there are some bizarre restrictions with how the artwork looks in Flash. My husband Paul Harrod calls it the “Matisse look” because of the chunkiness of the solid lines and the solid blocks of color. I notice I have a tendency to scribble because of the way the pen feels sliding along on the Wacom tablet. It’s showing its hand in your work like it would with any other medium. Yes, just like if I chose to paint on rough watercolor paper, that material would contribute to the final look of the piece.

  • What are your plans for this Flash film?

    Well, actually I don’t know what I’m planning. I find that in the past couple of years I have a tendency to plan less and less and less. I am seeing what the moment brings. I don’t know what this film will be.

  • In other films you were more deliberate with your process? Were you much more likely to use storyboards in the past than you would now?

    Every film is completely different, I haven’t story boarded a film in a decade. Going through menopause, which has been this really interesting and challenging initiation, has really affected my process. So I’m really just putting one foot in front of the other in terms of work. “After the Fall” I dreamt from start to finish. I woke up, wrote it down and spent the next three years making the film. But that was unusual for me. I didn’t have a storyboard. I just had the notes from the dream and that1s what I kept referring back to.

  • In addition to menopause informing your creative process, your films are often about female issues and some have dubbed you to be a feminist filmmaker. Is “the feminine” a topic that is a natural inspiration or is it a response to a lack of female voices in much of today’s film world?

    I would say that if you look at the content of all 14 of my films and analyze them in terms of feminist film critique you would find that they are really not feminist per se. But in our culture any woman who says something, who is out in the world saying something, she is called a feminist. That is our culture. It’s ridiculous. But, I definitely consider myself a feminist and if there is anything I can do in my career to support and empower other women, I want to do it.

    Almost every time I’ve had a show of my films, women come up to me and relate (stories) about something they saw in my films that they find inspirational. It is one of the things that keeps me going. Men will come up and say those things to me too. It definitely helps keep me going.

    In some ways, I see other aspects of my career supporting the empowerment of women more than my films. I think my apprenticeship program has been really good in doing so. When I first starting filmmaking I felt so alone, I didn’t have any support. I didn’t know who to turn to. I didn’t know who to ask. I’ll do anything I can to help anyone get started because it is so difficult.

  • I know that the presence of Will Vinton Studios has also been important for your apprentices. You’ve assisted your apprentices in getting work at Will Vinton Studios.

    Yes, some of my apprentices have gone on to the Will Vinton Studios and had wildly successful careers. Will Vinton Studios has been very important in my (own) career as well. I don’t know if I would have made it as an independent animator in this town if it weren’t for Will Vinton Studios and the Northwest Film Center. Every time I’ve run into a horrible problem, I’ve called someone there. They have helped me out on hundreds of occasions. It’s amazing having one of the world’s major animation studios just down the street. They have been so kind to me, I love them. It is a really special place.

  • Aside from directly helping young filmmakers with your apprenticeship program, when young filmmakers approach you for advise on how to continue as an independent animator, what do you tell them?

    I think the most important thing is to make a film. It is certainly difficult, but there are lots of people around that are willing to help. You have to ask for that help. Somehow, get the money together, and make a film. That film can lead to a job, it can lead to getting grants in the future. The first step is the hardest part, if you can get one film done, you can get funding for the next one. Or, you can go to graduate school. Making a film is the most important step, it establishes you forever as a director. It’s amazing how important those first films are, it’s incredible. Once the film is finished, it should get sent to festivals.

    But, entering film in a festival is like entering the lottery. There are a thousand factors as to whether the film gets selected or not. So, get your film out there and go to one or two festivals where your film is going to show. Festivals are so important in energizing artists to get working again. A really good, well organized festival can be such a shot in the arm in re-energizing you for the next project. It has happened to me repeatedly. My first festival was the Telluride Film Festival and there I met Andre Tarkovsky.

  • Really?

    My greatest hero! I met Andre Tarkovsky! It was unbelievable. The festival circuit is really important for filmmakers. It reminds you that there are people out there that really enjoy cinema. Otherwise, you can start to feel very isolated.

  • Who or what are some of your other major influences?

    “Blade Runner,” “La Jettee” by Chris Marker, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” by Werner Herzog. In animation, one of my favorites is “The Man who Planted Trees” by Frederic Back. George Griffin’s film “Lineage” was very influential for me. I love Miyazaki’s work. I think he’s brilliant.

  • What your favorite Miyazaki film?

    Well my cat’s name is Totoro, so you can say I do have a fondness for “My Neighbor Totoro!” I also think his recent film “Princess Mononoke” is brilliant.

  • What’s your next project?

    I’m working with Karen Aqua, from Boston, on a film about southern Spain. It’s an experimental animated documentary. We are going to split the expenses of making the film, so that helps. Making a film is always a bumpy ride. I always think about Faith Hubley. When she married John Hubley, they agreed to make an independent film every year, and they did. When he died, she continued to make a film every year for the rest of her life. Somehow, Faith found the funding. She was a filmmaker for life, and she made a film each year. That is a miracle, I don’t know how she did it. I try to make a film every two to three years and when I get discouraged, I think about her example.