An Interview with Independent Animator Signe Baumane
Latvian-born, New York City-based Signe Baumane has made a name for herself through her consistently intriguing works and willingness to tackle topics that others do not. Her 2014 feature film Rocks in my Pockets received widespread praise from critics and viewers alike. Currently in the midst of producing her next feature, My Love Affair With Marriage, Signe graciously took some time to answer a few tough questions from me.
1. How soon after you finished your previous film (Rocks in my Pockets) did you decide to create this one?
While were were in production with “Rocks In My Pockets” my head was very preoccupied with animating, producing and marketing. There was no space to think about anything else. But the moment the film hit the festival circle the space in my head opened up. Eight hour flights are good for contemplating or conjuring ideas. I always knew that I wanted to make a personal film about marriage, I just was not sure about specifics. So on those transcontinental flights I started to define the idea more and in summer of 2015 wrote the treatment and from that treatment went on to a year long neuroscience research and script-writing process.
2. What was the most valuable experience you learned from creating ‘Rocks in my Pockets?’
I learned a lot of things, so I have to stop to think what was the most valuable. Hmm…
The most valuable from all the things I learned while making “Rocks, I think, is learning to trust the project. Which is very hard for me as I aspire to be truthful with myself and one of the ways I access to truth is through other people’s valuation. In 4 years of making “Rocks” I heard so many negative opinions about the film (“too much voiceover!” “your voice sucks!” “you are ruining your career with this one!” etc), from friends and strangers alike, that my faith in the film towards the end started to shake. In my daily actions I persisted, continued the work as planned, but inside I was dying with the desire to self obliterate. Doubt is very destructive and penetrating.
As the film started going the festival rounds and it was becoming obvious that large percentage of audiences connected with the film I still could not shake off the doubt. I may never be able to completely shake it off. But now I know that no matter what people say I have to continue on, even with doubt. Because only when film is done and presented in its final form will people see your intent and only then they will be able to judge it. And of course, I have to accept that there will be always part of audience that will not get what am trying to do.
When starting a project no one – you or anyone else – knows if you fail or succeed. You just have to trust the project, cast doubts aside and do your best to bring it to life.
3. You’ve extensive experience as an animator. What’s the biggest change to the challenge of creating animation you’ve seen over the years? What’s been the biggest positive change? And negative?
I am not sure if I can separate ‘the positive change” from ‘negative’ in challenges of creating animation in the last few years. The BIG CHANGE is that there are many digital tools capable of making animation visually exciting while making the process of creation easy and accessible to anyone with computer and basic skills. I personally became a much better animator because of the digital tools. And the mix of a stop motion with traditional hand drawn animation that I used in “Rocks In My Pockets” and now in “My Love Affair With Marriage” was only possible because of the developed digital technology. THANK Goodness for that!
Of course, it has a flip side – now everyone is making animated shorts or webisodes or features. Suddenly, there is a wave of content that is hard to sift through. This wave needs an organizing principle and we don’t have that quite yet.
4. Independent film is needed now more than ever. How well do you think the industry is fulfilling that need?
You are right – we need more independent films. And truly independent – with a personal point of view, author’s / artist’s vision. A lot of animated short films have that vision and points of view, that’s why I never miss an animated shorts program at a festival. Even the shorts that fail, they present something unique and interesting, being an experiment in visuals or storytelling.
With animated feature films its often not the case – animated features require great funding effort, and people who invest in them have profits in mind. That is the reason why you see lot of animated feature film for children – that makes sense from profits’ point of view. An artist can come to a producer to ask to produce her animated feature film, but producer will not talk to her unless the feature film in question is for children. That’s why Bill Plympton produces his own films. And I have to do the same thing.
Producing is not my favorite occupation, but if I believe in my project I have to do it.
At the moment there are very few truly independent animated feature films out there whose purpose and reason of existence is an expression of a personal, artist’s point of view.
I happen not to believe that industry is going to change that. It is up to the artists to fight for their stories to be told.
5.Do you think that controversy (real or imagined) will become a fact of life for animated filmmaking?
Well, in that regard animation is no different from the rest of the world. I actually think animation is the Mother of contemporary controversy! Remember “Beavis and Butthead”, or some “Simpsons” episodes, “King of the Hill” or “Family Guy”. 🙂
6. ‘My Love Affair with Marriage’ is inspired by personal experiences. Do you find such experiences a more rewarding source of inspiration than say, creating an idea from scratch?
One real day in a real human’s life is about 100 [times] more interesting and rich than anything I could suck out of my brain trying to make up some story. I am interested in human life as it is, not what I can come up with. I am interested in the truth of human life, not its glamorous representation or ideas about it. And to find the truth one must start with examining herself.
Now, I admit, there are other storytellers that are infinitely much better than me conjuring stories out of their brains. 🙂
7. The visual style of your films are rather unique yet simple. Do you think there is a chase towards total realism in animated films that’s ultimately self-defeating?
Yes, you are right. That aspiration for realism kinda ruined “Red Turtle” for me (I loved the dream sequences, though :-). Animation is the best at using metaphors and visual shortcuts to reach the core. Like in “Waltz With Bashir” – a documentary that discovered the personal truth of the filmmaker by avoiding realism.
And if one works in 2D animation then aspiring for realism is – you’re right – self defeating. Richard William’s “Prologue” was an exercise in this futility, to my opinion. To contrast that – Bill Plympton’s “Cheatin'” scene where the married couple share the same bed while their marriage is falling apart – had the best visual representation of intimate alienation that I have ever seen! Imagine, if that scene was animated in real time with realistic approach. First, it would take much longer to achieve anything meaningful. Second – why use animation at all if all you want is realism?
8. The New York animated community is famous for its independent streak. Was the decision to produce the film there an important one for you?
New York is probably one of the most challenges places in West to live/work as an artist. Rent is insanely high. The city is teeming with amazingly talented, super ambitious artists that compete with you for scarce jobs. Rich people treat you as a rat. Poor people fight with you over pizza slices. Rats dance on you when you fall asleep on subway. But New York is also a very dramatic place, every time I walk out of the studio I observe or participate in some dramatic event. It is rich with diversity and energy. It is exciting. Just the thought of moving to some quiet place where I could make a film undisturbed makes me bored and sleepy. 🙂 I need stress to create and people to look at to get inspired.
9. Lastly, very few independent productions are a solo effort. Is knowing the right people a critical necessity in order to get a production completed?
You are right – there is no solo operation in making an indie feature film. One needs some kind of team and structure of support. For example, running a Kickstarter campaign. You can’t run a campaign in an empty place. You have to foster relationships, be part of your community for years before you can ask for support. In order to take you must give. Knowing people is critical in any business. Knowing people is the the life itself. As to knowing the right people – who can say that the janitor who gave your Kickstarter campaign $100 is the wrong person? To me that is the most right person in the world. Meet all kinds of people and learn to love them. 🙂
Thanks again to Signe for taking the time to chat with me. The Kickstarter campaign to help finance her film ‘My Love Affair with Marriage’ is running now.