by Lilly Husbands
Lizzy Hobbs’ delightfully vivacious animations are pervaded with playful, offbeat humour, technical ingenuity and a striking painterly beauty. Lizzy often works with unusual techniques and materials that present certain limitations that she finds creative ways to work around, whether it’s manoeuvring still wet watercolour across a white bathroom tile, as in The Old, Old, Very Old Man (2007), bringing butterfly prints to life on the pages of a notebook in Little Skipper (2010) or creating recognisable shapes from typewriter typeset in G-AAAH (2016).
Many of the ten or so films that she has made since the early 2000s focus on very odd, yet real, historical stories and (in)famous figures. They tell curious tales regarding such things as the sudden death of an ancient man after his visit with a king, the preservation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s manhood and various strange happenings with reputed vampires, cannibals and witches. Lizzy’s attraction to the eccentric is mirrored in the witty expressiveness of her style, and, for me at least, the resulting combination produces a keen sense of tragicomic wonder at the human condition.
G-AAAH (2016) by Elizabeth Hobbs
Considering their formal constraints, Lizzy’s films always manage to convey an impression of worldly space. Especially in her painted films, her imagery magically combines key figural points of action with precise suggestions of setting, often embellishing the scenes with the shadowed traces of the figures as they move within them. Lizzy has an uncanny sensibility when it comes to capturing the essence of a thing in the simplest of strokes/lines/shapes/drops, be it bodies in tango, a pickled penis or an aeroplane in flight.
She has been known to make her experimental animations in a bathroom-cum-studio in her house in east London, and while I’ve never seen this space in person, I love imagining Lizzy working away in a cluttered creative cabinet. This idea is somehow entirely in keeping with the exuberance that her films display, as if in their compactness is condensed all the energy in the world.
Lizzy’s award-winning films have been shown across the world at festivals, and her recent film I’m OK (2018), based on the life of Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, was nominated for a BAFTA. She regularly collaborates on projects with artist Emily Tracy and works with organisations like The Creative Research Collective and the NIE Theatre. She also teaches at Anglia Ruskin University and University of The Arts, London. Over email, Lizzy was kind enough to answer some questions about her work.
Excerpt from I’m OK (2018) by Elizabeth Hobbs
EoF: How would you define your animation practice in terms of its relation to fine art traditions, experimental animation or the (historical) avant-garde? Its relation to commercial industry?
LH: When I make animation, my aim is to be playful in relation to the material possibilities of the medium and also to create a situation in which I’m not sure what might happen. The process feels a little bit like magic to me every time. Perhaps in that way my practice bears a relation to other artists and makers who might work in a similar way, and that could be across many disciplines, including painting, literature, music, textiles, print and ceramics.
EoF: Who/what are your strongest influences?
LH: The films of Robert Breer would absolutely be my strongest influence. To me his work contains so many clever ideas relating to continuity and perception. The experience of watching his films is so enjoyable, both for the sense of being lost in the work but also making discoveries at the same time. In 2008, when Breer was interviewed by David Curtis at the brilliant ‘Aurora’ festival in Norwich, he was asked how he begun a piece of work. He said that he enjoyed feelings of a heightened sensibility, looking forward to something that’s unpredictable and not knowing the outcome. I can very much relate to his description of that process, especially the feelings of heightened sensibility.
EoF: You’ve been making experimental animations for nearly 20 years now, but you started with printmaking. How did the transition come about?
LH: After I graduated I was using printmaking to make small editions of artist’s books. I took them to artist’s book fairs and sold them to libraries and collections like New York Public Library, MOMA, New York and The National Library of Scotland. I made books and prints for 10 years, and then I found that I wanted to share my work with a broader audience, and also to have more control over the way that people engaged with the stories, so I started to experiment with animation.
Imperial Provisor Frombald (2013) by Elizabeth Hobbs
EoF: Are there elements of printmaking that you think are carried through in your animation work?
LH: I think there are many similarities between printmaking and animation. They both demand a fairly methodical approach and they both contain the potential for magical things to happen by chance. Working with print to make animation also creates some limitations which I like: it can take a while to print one image, so to produce 12 frames per second it’s necessary to be quite spare with the line and the movement and to use loops plentifully. In making Imperial Provisor Frombald (2013) with hand-carved rubber stamps, I had the further restriction of size of the 35mm frame (1.5 x 2.5cm). This summer, I made a signal film for Ottawa International Animation Festival (2019), which I created by printing letterpress on paper and filming the prints under the rostrum.
I teach a module in animation with print for MA students at LCC (thanks to Kim Noce). The print department at LCC is wonderful and they are very open to new ideas and research, so there I have been granted a great opportunity to explore print and animation with the students to see how we can work with the two mediums together.
Printed animation test with fruit (2019) by Elizabeth Hobbs
EoF: Your work often portrays real, albeit very unusual, stories of historical events and people using equally unconventional techniques and materials. What draws you to these subjects?
LH: I’m always on the lookout for good stories that might be presented in a new way. The Emperor (2001), which was about Bonaparte’s pickled penis, came from a newspaper article about the pickle being resold at auction in 1969. Imperial Provisor Frombald (2013) sprang from an official document in an archive in Vienna. It was an original account of the first exhumation of a vampire in Serbia, and Imperial Provisor Frombald was the administrator in charge. The letter documented his apology to his superiors for not managing to prevent the exhumation. I like to spring from a true story because there’s a type of tension between the truth and the parts in-between which can be exploited for humour.
EoF: How do you conceive of the relationship between subject and material/technique?
LH: I haven’t always managed to create a coherent relationship between the subject and the technique, but when I have, it can present an opportunity to work with new or unusual materials and I like the challenge of that. An example is G-AAAH (2016). I depicted Amy Johnson’s journey from Croydon to Darwin with a typewriter because she was a typist before she was an aviatrix. It was too hard to use the typewriter to register the aeroplane on the background on each frame, so I surmounted the problem by using flicker to join the foreground and the background within the shot. People are surprised to hear that foreground and background are never in the same frame together.
EoF: In your recent animation I’m OK (2018), you’ve done a brilliant job of evoking Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka’s frenetic brushstrokes and vibrant sense of colour, conveying his passionate despair over the rupture with his lover Alma Mahler and the horrors of the First World War. The film references well-known paintings such as his 1913 Self-Portrait and The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest) (1913-1914), how did you approach drawing inspiration from his paintings, drawings and lithographs?
LH: Thank you. It took a long time to get the funding for this film, but in retrospect, it was really helpful to have such a long production period to make I’m OK. I had time to go to visit the archive in Vienna, and to read and look at everything that he had written, drawn and painted. For each shot, I had one of his paintings or writings in mind, and then I painted under the rostrum, frame by frame, using new pieces of paper for each frame, to see what might unfold over the course of a few seconds. I didn’t have a storyboard or a plan, I just animated as much as I could on a certain theme and then stopped when I’d run out of steam, sometimes it was a couple of hours, sometimes a few days. I cut together those exported sequences to the musical score as I was going along. Then at the end, my fantastic producer Abigail Addison and co-producer Jelena Popovic and I sat down together to make sure it was loosely coherent.
EoF: You’ve worked with voiceover narration in works like The Emperor (2001), The Old, Old, Very Old Man (2007) and Imperial Provisor Frombald (2013), but your most recent works G-AAAH (2016), I’m OK (2018) and The Flounder (2019) tell their stories largely with music, sound effects and images. Do you find these storytelling methods very different? If so, how?
LH: I’m becoming more interested in the aspects of animated film-making that are specific to animation, rather than working with the shots and traditions of live-action, which is what I was doing in my earlier films. This applies to the sound too, so instead of using narration and actors, and adding the sound effects and music at the end when the picture is locked, I now try to have sounds and music in mind at the beginning, and work with those sounds in the same way as I would with the other parts of the film. If that means the film is a bit more rough and ready, that’s okay with me.
The Old, Old, Very Old Man (2007) by Elizabeth Hobbs
EoF: For The Flounder, you worked with composer Carola Bauckholt, Tricky Women/Tricky Realities, and Klangforum Wien, what was it like to make a work paired with such a rich orchestral score?
LH: Yes, it was brilliant to have the chance to work with Carola Bauckholt and Tricky Women/Klangforum Wien. Carola is a very well-known composer, she was so generous and experienced, so I learnt a lot from her process. It’s a very different experience to make a film that will be performed with a live score. The image has to be fairly powerful to hold its own in that context because the performers and the instruments provide such an engaging spectacle. I made The Flounder with a big brush, with large bold imagery and I tried to keep the narrative really simple.
EoF: Over the years, you’ve been involved in collaborations with fellow artists like Emily Tracy, NIE Theatre and sociocultural organisations such as the Creative Research Collective, how do you see your work with these organisations operating culturally? Politically?
LH: The work that I’ve created with Emily Tracy, NIE Theatre and the Creative Research Collective have all primarily presented the chance to get out of my studio, to meet people in the community and to find ways to make animation accessible. In these projects we work with researchers, scientists, teachers, children in hospital, musicians, young people in care, actors, children, more children! Apart from being really brilliant to be able to learn from collaborators from different disciplines, the animation produced in these contexts is usually somehow communicating something useful; for instance Facing Shadows (2015), which was a collaboration with young people who had had experience of depression, or My Name is Joe (2013) co-created with young people in care and used to train adults who will become foster carers.
EoF: You recently completed a very ambitious project on Instagram and Twitter where you made 100 very short films on 100 books published over 100 years by A.M. Heath literary agency. Can you tell us how that project came about and what your experience was making so many very short animations on so many different book titles?
LH: In 2018, A.M. Heath contacted me about making a film to celebrate their centenary this year. They have an amazing list that includes books like Animal Farm, On the Road, Well of Loneliness and Wolf Hall. So I asked for their top 100 books over the last 100 years and I proposed that I make 100 mini films that would be published over the course of a few months on Twitter and Instagram. The process was quite lively because when I proposed the idea, I hadn’t made the films, which in retrospect was probably a bit risky. There was no consultation, no editing, no reviewing, I just sent three films a day and they put them online in chronological order. It was a pretty exciting process, though it got tougher as the weeks went on because the authors began to be living authors and I began to feel conscious of their opinions.
One of 100 very short films made by Elizabeth Hobbs for A.M. Heath literary agency and published on Instagram and Twitter.
EoF: What are your feelings about using online social platforms as distribution sites?
LH: I think it’s amazing, especially for a project which revolves around a lot of very short content.
EoF: What are you working on next?
LH: I’m developing a project of my own which is still confidential, and I’m also making animation for NIE theatre show called ‘I Will be Everything’ which is a big project in which 6 European theatre companies have co-created a touring theatre show with a hundreds of children about what the world might be like in 50 years.
Although I would be a hundred years old, I hope I might have made another 15 films by then!
©2019 Lilly Husbands
Lilly Husbands is a Lecturer in Animation and Visual Culture at Middlesex University. She has published book chapters and articles on experimental animation in journals such as Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ), Frames Cinema Journal, and Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media. She is an associate editor of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She is the co-editor of a book entitled Experimental Animation: From Analogue to Digital, published by Routledge.