Animation with a Mission
Independent filmmaker, community activist and co-founder of the Women with Knives tour Kelly Gallagher combines her love of art and passion for social justice in her collage animation. Her latest short, Pen Up the Pigs, addresses the roots of racially motivated policing and is creating a stir at film festivals around the globe. See more of her work at purpleriot.com. By Mercedes Milligan. It actually happened a bit accidentally. I was an undergrad in the film program at Penn State, working on the first film I ever made for a class, and I just started playing with the camera and handwriting my title cards and credits on paper. I thought it would look interesting if the text was moving a bit, so I just started having fun playing and learning the camera and what it could do and what writing out my film title 30 different times on different paper would look like, filming each one for a short time and editing it all together quickly. Before I knew it, every live-action film project I had to make for a class included some scene of stop-motion. I had too much fun doing it, and just couldn’t stop. I was essentially self-taught for the first few years I animated. I was in a film program that didn’t have any animation focus, but a couple classes that skimmed over some basic things like direct animation, painting on celluloid. So I learned how to scratch 16mm film and paint on clear leader and was inspired by a lot of experimental films we would watch in class. Once I got out of school I went to New York and worked for the amazing animator and filmmaker Martha Colburn who does beautiful, politically charged cutout animation collage, and painting. Working for her and a handful of other animators in NYC, like Richard O’Connor and Jeff Scher, I learned a lot of imperative technical skills that have helped me further develop my animation craft. Some major animation influences of mine are: Martha Colburn, Kelly Sears, Stacey Steers, Lewis Klahr and Lotte Reiniger. … A non-animator filmmaker who was a huge influence to me early on was Lizzie Borden, who directed the radical cult classic film Born in Flames. Craig Baldwin’s work and others who appropriate found footage and practice détour-
in various ways play a major role in how I think about the political possibilities of creating new meanings from found materials. What is the key message you sought to present with Pen Up the Pigs? Thematically, I wanted to visually explore historical connections between slavery and modern day racist policing and mass incarceration. I wanted to also explore violence, and make a film that was explicitly supportive and understanding of more violent means of resistance during struggles against racism, white supremacy and oppression. I wanted to challenge our ideas of what the word “violence” even means. White supremacy and racism are everyday violences against people of color in our country. Racist policing and mass incarceration are institutionalized systems of violence.
Aesthetically I wanted to explore the political possibilities of collage. … Utilizing collage in Pen Up the Pigs was imperative because it allowed me to explicitly bring light to links between slavery and modern day policing and mass incarceration. Conversely, It also allowed me to clash different worlds together, like placing the world of nature, animals and flowers against the world of people engaged in struggle. Every time someone in the film fights back against oppression or speaks out against racism, flowers blossom and bloom and gesture towards the new life that is born and created out of struggle. My creative process involves a lot of heavy researching during the preproduction stage. For example, for Pen Up the Pigs I researched the origins of the Philadelphia Police Department since I’m from the Philadelphia area, and
I found these horrific beginnings of policing in Philadelphia that mirrored the South’s slave patrols.
I generally research the film topics extensively and then I begin my search for images to cut out. I go to used bookstores and scour tons of books, scanning the pages for pictures and visual sparks. For Pen Up the Pigs, very early on I found an amazing book of giant pictures of pistols and rifles with the most beautiful color and detail. Alongside my used-bookstore scouring, I also do a lot of extensive Internet image researching. Early on in the beginning of my Google image research, I was noticing these mirror images of slave-owners beating slaves and police officers beating protestors of color. When I found all these images I knew I wanted to juxtapose them during one of the very early scenes on the plantation in Pen Up the Pigs. All the animation I do is completely by hand. For Pen Up the Pigs, I used paper cutouts that I animated on a multi- tiered system of plastic panes, so that I can have different backgrounds and changing foregrounds and play with depth and shadow. It’s all truly a pretty simple set- up, as I just use house lamps for lighting and a digital DSLR camera on a tripod to shoot stills while I animate. I believe that handcrafted animation is especially suited for exploring political and social topics and histories because handcrafted animation is itself such a radical aesthetic. Handmade animation makes labor processes visible. For example, when we see the scissor marks on paper, or handwritten animated text or hand-painted rotoscoped imagery, we are reminded that the filmmaker is a worker themselves, laboring over the process of animation and cultural production. Handcrafted cinema is also well suited to be utilized to explore political themes because it is a fairly accessible medium … anyone with access to a camera and some paper and scissors can make a handcrafted cut-out animation. In my mind, handcrafted cinema is one of the most radical aesthetics because it makes labor visible and the human relations of cultural production more transparent — and it also is one of the most accessible modes of filmmaking that exist today. Are there challenges to using the medium this way? The major challenge to using animation to facilitate social and political commentary would probably be time. It takes some time to make an animation, but that shouldn’t be discouraging. I actually think animation can have more immediacy then people realize. The more you animate, the quicker you can get with it. And often times some of the shortest films I’ve seen are the most politically poignant. What kind of response have you received for Pigs? Pen Up the Pigs has allowed me to engage in the most rewarding and interesting post-screening Q&A’s of any film I’ve made yet. It’s received acclaim from festivals, it won the Helen Hill Award at Indie Grits and it is currently being programmed in the Artists’ Film Biennial at the ICA in London. However there are always a couple audience members who are a bit unsettled by the film and it’s radically left politics. … The film has also allowed me to engage in some really great conversations with some audience members debating about pacifism and violence during struggles of resistance. I am currently mid-production on an experimental documentary entitled John Brown in Iowa, which is actually my first live-action film in a very long time (though there will certainly be some animation mixed in, of course!). And I am just beginning production on a 20-minute animated biopic entitled Relentless Resistance: Sindy’s Story, which explores the life of an amazing radical activist, Sindy, and her struggles as an undocumented woman in the United States.
Tom Taylor is one of the hottest names in comic books right now. A former playwright, he broke in to comics in 2009 writing Star Wars comics for Dark Horse. He’s since gone on to write the series Earth 2 for DC as well as Injustice: Gods Among Us, a digital-first prequel to the hit videogame that’s the best-selling digital title in Western comics history.
Now, he’s got his sights set on animation, turning a graphic novel series he created with artist James Brouwer called The Deep into an original series from Technicolor set to debut next year.
The Australian writer says his career path is anything but normal, and includes a stint as a child-care professional before he became a successful playwright — a vocation that was creatively satisfying but lacking in other ways.
“It sounds impressive that you have plays on four continents, until you realize that I was paid about $50, and realized that theater is a bit like a crime in that it doesn’t pay,” he says. But one of his plays struck a chord with award-winning New Zealand artist Colin Wilson, who adapted into a comic Taylor’s play The Example, which is about an unattended briefcase on a train platform.
The work impressed Dark Horse Comics enough to offer Taylor the writing gig on the Star Wars: Invasion series Wilson was drawing. “They obviously saw something in a 10page comic about a briefcase on a train platform and went, ‘Yes, that guy can write for Star Wars,’” Taylor says. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s literally how it happened.”
The Fan Factor
A longtime comic-book fan, Taylor took to the medium so quickly that longtime Dark Horse VP Randy Stradley said he’d never seen anything like it. “I had been a fan all my life of this medium and the more I read of them, the more I understood it,” says Taylor. “When it came time to finally do it, I was handed Star Wars, which had helped because I’ve always known Star Wars as well. I knew the voices of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and all of that and suddenly I was being paid to play with the toys I played with as a kid.”
Getting into the medium opened up a whole new world for Taylor. “Everything I learned about dialog, I probably learned as a playwright,” he says. “What comics does is it just completely expands you and expands your imagination. It takes you a while, but eventually you realize that you can write anything and that’s exactly what the artist will draw.”
Taylor hit the ball out of the park with Injustice: Gods Among Us, which has become a phenomenal hit in the still-new digital comics arena as well as in print editions. Setting up the game, in which Superman has lost his moral compass and taken over the world, the series chronicles the Man of Steel’s fall from grace and attempts by other DC characters to halt his decline. The comic’s third year, which Taylor describes as Superman versus magic, has just been announced.
Exploring Worlds Below
Obviously, a writer as productive as this isn’t going to stop at working on other people’s characters, and Taylor was inspired by his experience as a father to two boys in creating what became The Deep, about a family exploring the hidden depths of the oceans.
Once, many moons ago, the comic book racks used to be as full of titles based on cartoons and funny animals as they were of superheroes. And while the guys and gals in tights still dominate the comics scene, an increasing number of hip licensed comics based on animated shows are finding a successful niche in the market.
No title exemplifies this more than Adventure Time, which has spawned in two short years a huge amount of comic book material via a steady stream of miniseries, specials, annual, collected editions and more from kaboom!, the all-ages impreint of Boom! Studios.
Much of the comic’s success comes from the quality of its content. Boom! founder and CEO Ross Richie says it was key when Cartoon Network accepted the publisher’s idea of eschewing strictly on-model artwork to allow a wider range of art styles.
“Typically, animation companies are very focused on doing on-model material,” he says. “A lot of credit goes to the licensing department at Cartoon Network because they were supportive of that and it injected a lot of excitement into the titles.”
Boom! Studios has been involved in licensing all kinds of properties since it was founded in 2005, handling everything from Pixar and The Muppets to Planet of the Apes, Die Hard and Farscape.
It currently licenses animated properties such as Peanuts and Garfield and has a deal with Cartoon Network that gives Boom! the first option to license comics based on its new shows. That’s lead to successful comics based on Regular Show, The Amazing World of Gumball and, starting in August, Steven Universe.
Licensing comics helps independent publishers raise their profiles and publish books that can reach a wider audience than the die-hard superhero fans comic book shops traditionally serve. “Licensing comics guarantees you an audiences,” says Richie. “Whatever brand it is ... you know that there are fans who watch the shows and are potential readers.”
Licensing comics is also a way to keep older IPs active after they’re off the air. For example, IDW Publishing has picked up a number of older Cartoon Network properties in addition to currently active ones like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It is publishing this summer a traditional superhero crossover event titled Super Secret Crisis War!, featuring the likes of Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Ben 10, Dexter’s Laboratory and Ed, Edd & Eddy.
That approach remains a potent one in comics, even for a major publisher like DC Entertainment, which publishes comics based on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Scribblenauts.
“Sometimes, (these properties) are hot for a while and then take a break, so doing comics allows us to keep those properties out there,” says DC co-publisher Jim Lee.
sey-based comic Tom Scharpling, who plays the voice of Steven’s father, Greg Universe, and has not met any of his other cast members.
“We’re definitely going to show some secret unaired clips and I really can’t wait to answer lots of questions,” says Sugar. “I hope to also do something with music and I have lots of plans. I’m going to have to figure out what we have time for because I want to do it all.”
Spotlighting the cast and crew is another goal for Sugar. “I really tried to make the show flexible enough that we could all have it be personal to us,” she says. “The more we all learn I think the more interesting and specific it gets. ven to me,” she says. “And he’s very genuine, which is really right for Steven.”
Creating a Community
The same goes for the trio of actresses voicing the warriors: Deedee Magno Hall as Pearl, Michaela Dietz as Amethyst and Estelle as Garnet.
“The fact that Pearl is such a maternal character is really all Deedee, which seems really natural, and Michaela’s Amethyst voice is really her voice and she’s just the coolest person I know, so that’s been fun to write for because it’s very natural,” Sugar says. “And Estelle makes Garnet Garnet. The way that she says things, it’s like nobody else would say them quite like her. And the way that she does fight sounds always blows me away.”
For Callison, the ability to record most of the time with other cast members makes Steven Universe his favorite show to work on. “It creates a community,” he says. “And it’s really nice because it allows you to build off each other.”
The whole celebration is perfect for Sugar, who professes her love for comics like Hellboy and The Goon. And while having a panel for your show is extremely cool, conventions can’t help but bring out the fan even in someone as accomplished as Sugar.
“I’ve been to a lot of Comic-Cons as a comic artist, going around picking up comics that I wanted and liked, and meeting artists that I liked, so I think it’ll be interesting to be there with the show and with the crew,” she says. “But I’ll also try to sneak off to actually pick up some comics.”
cluding Batman Day, set for July 23. As part of the festivities, fans who visit participating comic-book stores and book stores will receive a free, special edition of Detective Comics #27, featuring a reimagining of Batman’s 1939 comic book debut, designed by Chip Kidd with a script by bestselling author Brad Meltzer.
In addition to the comic book, DC Entertainment is providing retailers access to an assortment of other collectibles to help in the celebration of Batman Day, including a Batman 75th anniversary cape, bookmarks featuring essential Batman graphic novels and four Batman masks designed by comic-book artist Ryan Sook spotlighting a variety of the character’s iconic looks from his 75-year history.
There also was a 75th anniversary short animated film from Timm, pitting the Dark Knight against Hugo Strange in typically stylish fashion.
Series, a veritable explosion of comic book titles, even more animated series, several animated DC Universe features, the acclaimed Christopher Nolan movie trilogy and, soon, a team-up with the Man of Steel in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Lee himself has contributed several key chapters in the Batman saga, drawing the acclaimed Hush storyline written by Jeph Loeb, and collaborating with Miller on the unfinished and controversial series AllStar Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.
“Those were fun opportunities for me to work with writers I long respected,” says Lee. “Generally, I like to work with writers I can learn something from. They both know the character so well and portray it differently but they know it so well and they really understand the mechanics of why this mythology works, that Batman works when he has great villains and foils to work off of.”
Recent years have seen the character redefined yet again by writer Grant Morrison, whose talent for innovating within the confines of strict comic-book continuity is unparalleled in comics. “Grant is a writer that prides himself on looking at the entire history of the character, every storyline that preceded his and, in his mind, figures out a timeline and continuity where they can all exist and be canon,” says Lee.
More recently, Scott Snyder has taken on the role of lead Batman writer in DC’s relaunched universe, The New 52. “The Court of Owls was just really a nice change of pace,” says Lee. “It had a very literary quality to it — probably more words on the page than one had seen in the past — but he really created a dense and vibrant take on Gotham City.”
The Batman titles are, by far, DC’s most popular, with two new titles — Gotham Academy and Arkham Manor — just announced for a fall debut, ensuring the Dark Knight will continue to protect the citizens of Gotham City — in any medium — for many more years to come.