Friday, 23 March 2007

Sara Pocock "Ballyvaughan Story"

This is the third of our series of interviews with those animators whose work has particularly appealed to our students here at South Axholme. Each interview is available in a more colourful format, along with suitable illustrations, on our website.

Geovanna Dodge interviews Sara Pocock

Geovanna: First of all, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me, Sara. I think you took animation at university. Why did you choose this degree?
Sara: I majored in animation at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). I chose an art school I knew had an animation program, because I've always been fan of animation and fascinated by the process. When I took my first animation course, I fell in love immediately and knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There's really no feeling in the world like watching your very first pencil test. What used to be drawings are suddenly moving! It's an amazing thing.

Geovanna: What sort of training did your university provide for you?
Sara: The graduation requirements included the introductory animation course, which covered the basic animation fundamentals (walk cycles, lip/sound sync, etc). I also took a Character Animation course, an in-depth study of Disney's 12 Principles and classical character movement. All the animation students were also required to learn 3D (Maya) and stop-motion animation, and to complete a senior film before graduation. And I was in the last generation of students required to learn 16mm film. Additionally, each student was required to complete an internship or externship pertaining to their field of study. And although it was optional, students were encouraged to study abroad, which I did. It was in Ireland that I began working on Ballyvaughan.

Geovanna: Did you know then that this is what you wanted to do or did you have a different career in mind?
Sara: I definitely knew I wanted to draw animation for a living. At first I thought I'd like to work at a studio or network, but when I learned about animators such as Joanna Quinn and David Russo I was drawn to independent work because of the artistic freedom it provides.

Geovanna: What software do you use? Do you use any special equipment?
Sara: I use Adobe After Effects for most of my animation post-production. Photoshop as well, for clean up. All my animation begins on paper, though. The piece I just started working on with my colleague Ke Jiang is a little different; it's a hybrid of traditional ink drawings and 3D background animation; we're using Maya for the 3D segments.

Geovanna: Have you received any awards for any of your animations?
Sara: Ballyvaughan Story, which is still running the festival circuit, has picked up a handful of awards so far, including Best Animated Film at the LA Femme Film Festival and Cartoon of the Month in the popular Channel Frederator podcast.

Geovanna: In "Ballyvaughan Story" I noticed you used drawings/sketches and it is fairly obvious you are a great artist. How was the process of animation achieved and how did you learn to draw so well?
Sara: Thank you for the compliment. The animation was achieved by completing first the keyframes and then the in-between drawings using pencil and paper, as is the standard process in traditional animation production. After all the rough animation was completed, I went back and drew over each frame of the animation with vine charcoal and chalk pastel. It was a very time-consuming process, considering the sheer amount of drawings. There are over 3,000 drawings in Ballyvaughan Story. As for how I learned to draw, it's a constant learning experience, really. I practice drawing from life as often as I can and have many, many, many, many books on anatomy and figure drawing that I've accumulated over the years. Looking back now, I can see lots of mistakes in Ballyvaughan I wish I could fix or re-draw, but I know that's a good thing since it means I'm still improving.

Geovanna: Again in "Ballyvaughan Story", you worked with other animators to create an animation. How did this work?
Sara: Myself completed most of the primary animation for Ballyvaughan Story, but after a few months of working, I did realize I needed some help with some parts. For instance, I'm no good at drawing weapons or machines, so I asked Ke if he could animate some of the shots with soldiers. He animated the shot of the IRA soldier aiming his gun and a few of the other soldiers in town. As soon as all the rough animation was finished, he also helped me add charcoal to the pencil drawings. I also hired some assistants to help me with some of the more time-consuming aspects of post-production. After I scanned each charcoal drawing into the computer, I needed to get rid of the white space and smudges around the character so I could later bring it into After Effects and align it with the background. Normally, deleting the white space in Photoshop isn't very hard or time-consuming, but because I was using charcoal I had to pay special attention to the outlines of the characters and make sure no smudges were left behind. This took a lot of time. I could easily spend an hour working on clean-up for only 20 frames of animation. So I had people help me with that, while I worked on other things.

Geovanna: On average, how long does it take for you to create an animation? For example "Ballyvaughan Story"?
Sara: It really depends. Ballyvaughan Story took a year and a half to complete, but part of that time I was working on other projects as well. Some of my other projects, like the Nicktoons Network commercial bumpers, were finished in 4 months. The new project I'm working on is 10 minutes long and will likely be finished by September, and I started working on it in January. So I guess around a year is my average, from storyboard to post.

Geovanna: In "Ballyvaughan Story" the British soldiers are not exactly nice. Yet you could have made them far worse. Were you tempted to do this?
Sara: I think it's very important when telling a story like this, especially in these politically-charged times, not to demonize anybody, regardless of the story's point of view. Years ago, when Jim Hyland first told me the story of his mom, which became the narration for the piece, I was surprised that he described the British Marines living in town as popular and well-liked. I had known relatively little about the Irish troubles before that, and what I did know was told from the Irish point of view. So as you can imagine, the picture painted of the British was not the most pleasant. However, when I actually began research about that time period I realized that the conflict created bitterness on both sides, and it was much too complicated a situation to divide into black and white, good and bad. Warfare makes people do sad and desperate things, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're bad people. The point of Ballyvaughan isn't so much that a girl has to save her village from the English; that's just the external plot. It's more about a girl coming to terms with her fears of the threatening world around her. It's not just the English that frighten the girl in Ballyvaughan, it's really all the adults involved with the conflict. The IRA member who walks by on the street as she pets a dog and the man who shoots the marine are just as menacing as the English soldiers--perhaps even worse, since in the context of this piece they don't even have a motivation for their actions. History has a way of dehumanizing the people it dictates as "the bad guys" and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible, while keeping the excitement of Jim's original story as intact as possible.

Geovanna: We discussed the use of colour in class. In a black and white movie why do you use touches of colour?
Sara: Concerning the use of color, it's used as a symbol of growth. I explained before that the film is about a little girl coming to terms with her uncertainties of the adult world. The color is used to signify her growth. Her eyes change color at her first contact with the troubles, and the rest of her subsequently changes as she grows stronger and more sure of herself. By the end of the film she has re-invented herself, and is fully colored, casting aside her childhood naivety and taking her place alongside the other countless unspoken heroes (and heroines) of the Irish Revolution. Also, I knew that black and white can be a problem for younger audiences and quite a few short-attention-spanned adult Americans ("movies with no colors are boring!") and I was trying to think of a way to spruce it up to make the film more engaging, while keeping its original integrity. My mentor at the time I was beginning the film suggested some kind of visual sign of the girl's maturity and things fell into place after that.

Geovanna: Is animation your full time job or do you have another career as well?
Sara: While independent animation is "what I do," I pay the bills by working as a Flash animator for various website here in Los Angeles. It's a nice way to make a living, and since I often work from home I have plenty of time to concentrate on my own films. I have plans to open my own studio in a few years, as soon as Ke is finished with graduate school.

Geovanna: Do you have any plans for future animation projects?
Sara: Like I mentioned earlier, I'm currently working on a new film. It's titled Monkey and Bear and it's about two animals who run away from a Gypsy camp together. I'm co-directing it with Ke Jiang and it should be finished before the end of the year.

Geovanna: Finally, are there any other animators whose work has inspired you?
Sara: There are so many! I think my biggest inspiration right now is a Russian animator named Yuri Norstein, who makes these incredibly beautiful and intricate cut-out animations. He's the main influence for the piece I'm working on right now. Igor Kovalyov is another big influence. He's great at creating lyrical rhythms in his films without relying on music and dialogue. I've been lucky enough to meet with Igor on several occasions and he's been a great help in putting my new storyboards together. William Kentridge was a huge inspiration when I began Ballyvaughan. I loved the way he used charcoal in his animations. Finally, there's a highly creative and iconoclastic animation studio in Japan called Studio 4°C that produces some of my favorite work, particularly a film titled Mind Game. This studio has recently been a huge source of inspiration in terms of experimenting with new styles and mixed media in animation.
And of course, there's a whole slew of other names I cite regularly as people I admire: Aleksandr Petrov, Bill Plympton, Wendy Tilby, Isao Takahata, Norman McLaren, Rosto, and Michel Gondry... not to mention filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, etc. It literally goes on and on, never ending.
Thanks so much for contacting me!

Geovanna: It’s you I should thank, Sara. Thank you for the painting and photograph.

Sara Pocock’s website is where all her animations to date can be found.
Her movie Ballyvaughan Story is featured on our website here:
“New Movie of the Week 8”, and our animation blog here: animation blog: Ballyvaughan Story

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