Jim Trainor

By Edwin Rostron

The films of Jim Trainor can be unsettling and strange, yet also very moving and funny. Often they create a combination of these feelings which is difficult to describe. The films’ humour is very much a part of their disconcerting atmosphere and, like the animals he often portrays, they might make us laugh one minute, then leave us horrified the next. There is also a peculiar sense of poignancy made somehow more powerful precisely because of the films’ limited means of production and the restraint of their delivery.

The Bats (1998) by Jim Trainor

Jim’s hand drawn animations have a deliberately crude and basic aesthetic, albeit one with a real beauty of its own. They are made on 16mm, using sharpie markers and typing paper – no layers or cels. The background elements are photocopied, and then the animation is drawn around them. He doesn’t punch holes in his animation drawings, instead he just piles them up neatly and peels them off the top one by one when shooting.

The films’ primitive form connects with their subjects – prehistoric animals, the rituals of ancient civilisations, the basic urges of man and beast. They draw playfully on the forms of ethnographic and nature documentaries, imbuing them with haunting poetry and obscene detail. Drawings that recall both scientific diagrams and ‘high art’ abstraction convey mystery and beauty whilst simultaneously depicting the most base of animal exploits. The spare quality of the animation provides space for the viewer’s own imagination to work, activating the unconscious. In his 2008 film The Presentation Theme a hypnotic feeling of doom pervades; as disturbing hieroglyphics dance, an extraordinary combination of voiceover and music pulls you back into something completely weird and upsetting that might have happened to you in a previous life. Jim Trainor’s films are like no others, and his place in animation is a valuable and important one.

The Presentation Theme (2008) by Jim Trainor (starts at 0.30)

EoF:  Firstly I wonder if you could give a bit of biographical information, and tell us how you got into animation.

JT:  I got into animation in a funny way. When I was in elementary school, and middle school, I was something of a cartoonist. This was in the suburbs of Washington, DC. In seventh grade a kid I knew told me his father and he had set up an animation stand, using an old 8mm movie camera. They weren’t so much interested in animation, but they enjoyed the engineering of it. Since I did cartoons this kid asked me if I would like to come over and be the creative person for this animation operation. It was very out of the blue – but in fact I had already fantasized about doing animation, and so I was very excited about it. We made a short little animation called “Super Shrew” and we all liked the results so much that we continued to make films together for the next six years (through the end of high school). I think somehow that my friend’s parents thought it was a healthy thing for him to be involved with (he was a bit antisocial, I think, at that time. Me too, perhaps, a little … and animation brought both of us out of our shells socially). In any case, a bizarre and wonderful situation emerged, where I had complete creative control over the films (which we soon began making on 16mm, and with sound) and my friend’s parents would produce them.  I drew the pictures and my friend colored them in; we met almost every day after school, it seems in my memory. We showed them at school and at a couple of local film festivals and even got a nice review in the newspaper, which in turn got us a nice letter of encouragement from the school principal, all very nice things.

Now, these high school animations were hardly works of genius, but I am pleased that at the age of 18 or so I already had a substantial body of work as a filmmaker. In college I was less productive (I went to Columbia University in New York, where I studied English literature; I have never studied film or art), only making two films on my own time. But from a very young age I was convinced that I would keep making animated films as my life’s calling. It seems very strange and fortuitous in retrospect.

EoF:  I have read that you spent eleven years making The Fetishist. Could you describe something of that time?

JT:  The Fetishist is the film that put me on the map, so to speak; although I like my juvenilia just fine, I would say my career as a serious filmmaker begins with that film, which I finished in 1997. After graduating from college I began working on another long animation project, called Oceania, which I never finished. It was a high-minded but kind of arty thing, and after a while it turned into a kind of artistic dead end for me; but during the course of making this failed project, I did develop a fast and crude drawing style for animation. No need to go into the details of the failed film; but around that time, in the mid-1980s, I met and became friends with a slightly older filmmaker and animator, named Lewis Klahr, who became something of a mentor to me. He was way ahead of me, not in years-of-filmmaking, in fact, but in the seriousness and complexity of his work, and he had a great influence on me. Around that same time I began reading a lot of true crime stories, serial killer books and the like, and I became especially fascinated by one sad case history I had dug up in an old psychology textbook. One day I told Lewis about this story, and he told me that I should drop what I was doing and make an animated film about the thing that I was truly interested in. So I did, and I am very happy about that advice; it seems like a second completely fortuitous good thing to happen to me.

Yes, it is true that The Fetishist took me eleven years. I chipped away at it very slowly. I piled up thousands of drawings for several years without even shooting them.  My animation stand was disassembled and I had an odd, technophobic disinclination to put it back together again, but I figured I could draw the pictures and find a way to film them eventually. At the same time all kinds of other things were happening in my life, normal things for a person in his mid-twenties: girlfriends, awful or boring jobs, going to parties, etc. I wasn’t in a rush and in fact I was perhaps afraid to finish this work, which I thought was good and substantial but still, with its excesses and grim subject matter, I was afraid to knuckle down and finish it and present it to the world. Before I knew it I was in my mid-30s with a huge pile of un-filmed animation drawings under my bed. But eventually I got it finished. As I had always suspected it would, The Fetishist turned out to be a good film; it showed widely, got a few good critical notices, and I came to regret that I didn’t finish it sooner. Nowadays, I am quite proud of the film, although my interest in serial killers has waned; but I am surprised when I look at the film now at how hard I worked to keep the emotional tone of the film under control, its slow, sad, cold feeling, but with a little undercurrent of sympathy in it too. My later films seem somehow more authentic to my actual personality (they have humor, for one thing) but The Fetishist does remain to me my first important achievement, movie-wise.

Excerpt from Harmony (2004) by Jim Trainor

EoF:  You employ a deliberately basic, primitive animation process, with limited, cheap materials. Are you drawn to this way of working more because of the way the results come out – aesthetically speaking, or because of the way it impacts on your creative thought process during the making of your films? Am I right in thinking your process incorporates an element of improvisation, and if so, does your particular physical/technical process aid this way of working?

JT:  Once I started making films I never saw any reason to move past markers on typing paper. Nor have my drawings evolved that much over time!  I have always drawn rather simply. With The Fetishist, and later The Bats, I remember thinking the only important thing was to get an image down quickly, and animate quickly so that a certain emotional quality would be transmitted into the drawings. I got interested in a process of rote, uncritical tracing, where my drawings would get bent out of shape without much attempt to control them. When I flipped them I saw that a weird unpredictability to the movement and form was lending them a lot of character. I like Sharpie pens because the thick line, though unforgiving, goes down quickly; I can draw lots of pictures quickly. I stopped being concerned about their awkwardness. It didn’t hurt that the technique seemed to fit metaphorically with my themes – the twitching lines could suggest mental instability, which fit The Fetishist; or a nervous pulse of animal energy, in the case of The Bats.

You might say that my animation technique is improvisatory. I think it works for me because the process of drawing still allows for the pleasure of seeing unpredictable things happen. Animation can be deadening to execute, because often all the creative decisions are worked out in a storyboarding phase, and so the animation itself just becomes so much work. I didn’t make storyboards for most of my films; I simply drew lots of drawings, culled through them, and used the better drawings as the basis of improvised animation shots, which I typically executed through a process of manic tracing. Fortunately, though, I do think I have a good sense for narrative; and I am able to pull the disparate shots together, ultimately, to make a coherent film. Last of all, I add explicitly narrative shots when I feel they are needed for clarity. This is a slow and sloppy bottoms-up alternative to the typically top-down way of making an animated film, but it works for me; not least because it keeps me engaged with the images primarily, as I create them.

The Moschops (2000) by Jim Trainor (Part two here)

EoF:  There is a very intense, poetic quality to the voiceovers in your films. Could you describe how the writing of these voiceovers fits into your overall process; does it come before, during or after the drawing and animation? Do you write other material beyond the texts for your films? What kind of writing inspires you?

JT:  My films with voiceover narration are The Bats, The Moschops, Harmony and The Presentation Theme. I think that, after The Fetishist, my drawing style and method were set; but I am glad to have stumbled on the idea of written narration. The Bats started out as a poem. I don’t quite remember why I wrote it (bored at work, probably), or when it occurred to me to turn it into a film. When I made The Bats I thought, after The Fetishist, it was going to be a quick, funny, throwaway kind of thing. It only took me a year or two; but in fact it now seems more authentic to my personality and to my true interests than anything else I had done. Again I didn’t storyboard, but instead I simply illustrated each line of my poem (a prosy one, of course, but good enough) with an animated image or two. It was fun for me to figure out how I was going to approach each line of poetry, to turn it into something visual. Mostly I gave very literal interpretations, but sometimes I took an oblique approach. I used the same idea for the subsequent films, writing a text first and using that as my storyboard; with The Presentation Theme I felt the films had gotten too wordy, perhaps, and I have taken a break from that particular style for my latest project, The Pink Egg, which is wordless.

I am often complimented on my writing (in the films, that is). Of course that is mostly what makes the funny ones funny and also I am pleased with myself for being able to come up with a poignant line from time to time. I have never thought very seriously about writing but oddly enough I think it comes a little more easily to me than drawing. Recently I started writing a novel. I am not sure if I will finish it, and have shown it to very few people, but I do enjoy writing it. It’s about warfare in a tribal culture and is partly inspired by some anthropological writings that I like. In fact, I tried to use the same subject matter in a film and a comics project, but somehow these media didn’t work for it, and I realized that the only way for me to cover the scope of the idea is through fiction writing. For one thing it is nice to be able to write murkily about the visual makeup of this fictional world, whereas in a film these details would have to be made specific. Writing is slippery-er and mushier, somehow, in a way that suits this particular project. In any case I was working semi-seriously on the novel when I got the opportunity (i.e. money) to make The Pink Egg, and I do hope I will get back to it when that project is done.

As for writing that inspires me, there’s a lot; but I am not so broad or serious a reader that I can actually name influences in my own writing. Orwell was a favorite of mine some years ago, and Nabokov. More recently, Jane Bowles and Theodor Dreiser. That’s all over the map, I realize. I have a harder time with poetry, get frustrated by its obscurity; but I like Andrew Marvell and Emily Dickinson. I also like a certain style of plain but energetic non-fiction writing; the science writer David Quammen, for example, and I also like old natural history books and ethnographic accounts from the late 19th and early 20th century. So …Fabre on insects; FE Williams on New Guinea tribes; obscure things like that. Above all things I hate modern gloppy academic language and art-speak; I am surrounded with it, and it drives me crazy.

Excerpt from Harmony (2004) by Jim Trainor

EoF:  How do you feel about the term ‘experimental animation’ – does it mean anything to you? Do you feel your works fit into that category? Do you feel part of an animation (or film, or art) community, or more out on your own?

JT:  I am fine with the term ‘experimental animation’. I would hate to have to define it but it does cover the people I like most in animation. When I started making animated films in my teenage years, I was first fascinated by cartoons, Warner Bros. and Fleischer and Disney and the like. Then I got interested in a certain wing of art-animation, the kind that plays at international animation festivals, and followed that scene for a while. Lastly I got interested in avant-garde film, and especially its animation practitioners – Robert Breer, Harry Smith, Lewis Klahr. Those films, I found, pushed a formal and thematic edge much farther than the safer, film-festival animations that I formerly followed (National Film Board of Canada, etc). Nowadays my taste has coalesced and I still like the far wings of animation but not the middle so much. I love the best of Hollywood cartoons, and the edgiest of the experimenters; but I really dislike a certain middle ground of animation. These show up at international film festivals and seem inconsequential to me: cute allegories, arty design, self-consciousness, Academy Award nominees. I don’t think animation festivals are very good, generally. And I can’t warm up to anime style, or to computer animation. The Pixar and Dreamworks films seem horrible to me, so slick and charmless; ditto the Disney features after the first three or four. I am quite opinionated on the subject, obviously!

I’m not part of an animation community, exactly, but I am friends with a number of animators whose work I like and who share a certain sensibility with me. But experimental filmmaking is the broader field to which we belong, I think.

EoF:  Could you tell us about the new feature-length film you are making? In making a live action film have you worked in a very different manner to making your animated films? When will we see it?

JT:  You’ll see it in about a year and a half, I hope. It is called The Pink Egg, and the subject matter is insect life. I have actors (actresses, mostly) dressed in leotards and enacting the life cycles of various kinds of bees and wasps. I am almost embarrassed to report how fun this movie has been to make. It sounds strange to say, but now I am completely fascinated by conventional narrative techniques, such as reverse angles, and zooms and dolly shots, continuity editing, the works. It amuses me crazily to find places to put these things in my movie. You have to remember that I have no training in filmmaking and even at the school where I teach, which is a wonderful, vibrant place, there isn’t much teaching of conventional narrative. Yet, it is so wonderful and elegant when something works out! I enjoy editing especially, and it has fascinated me to try to find the bare minimum that a scene and action requires to convey clearly a narrative idea. And so, live-action does seem very different to me than making an animation – not only because I have a crew of competent helpers, as opposed to working alone – but a completely different way of thinking, somehow.

That said, the few people to whom I have shown the work in progress all say that it reminds them of my animated films. It does have the same kind of morbid humor as my animations, and the movements of the actors, which I directed to have a certain non-human quality, have turned out to have a stylized rhythm not unlike my nervous animation drawing style. I am very pleased with how it is coming out. I have some anxiety that people will find it too abstract and alienating for feature length, but I am working hard to keep it zippy and entertaining. Above all, I would hope that viewers will engage with the scientific heart of the story – how social behavior evolved in insects – and not merely view it as a peculiar story that I made up. But we’ll see.

Profile of Jim Trainor from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches.

As much as their subjects compel me and their technique inspires me, it is Jim’s own passion and curiosity that shines through his films and gives them life. There is a very strong feeling of a human behind them; his sense of humour, his sense of horror, and his fascination with whatever he is making the film about. His animations have a vibrancy and intensity that may be all the more powerful for his having hand drawn every frame, yet I have a feeling his upcoming live action feature The Pink Egg will be just as captivating.

Thanks to The Alpert Award in the Arts for granting permission to embed The Presentation Theme and clips from Harmony from their Vimeo site. Check out their great interview with Jim Trainor here


© Edwin Rostron 2013