By Edwin Rostron
Amy Kravitz’s three films River Lethe (1985), Trap (1988), and Roost (1998) are powerful cinematic experiences which transcend verbal explanation and description. They are full of mystery and yet I feel a strong connection with them. Rather than depicting or creating worlds their effect is more like placing us inside some other kind of consciousness. By restricting her palette to monochrome, abstract imagery, Amy’s focus on tone, line, shape and movement becomes incredibly acute, concentrating the very essence of what she is trying to convey on a level more fundamental than external physical appearances. By combining this compelling imagery with carefully layered soundscapes, her films generate a profound emotional, almost physical, response. Their unique power comes out of Amy’s direct engagement with the processes and materials of animation. The depth of this engagement is tangible in every frame of her films. I would describe them as phenomenal, in the sense of relating to immediate experience, and also to natural phenomena. For me they somehow reveal something of our own consciousnesses, as vast and as unknowable as a storm or a river, as mysterious as the crow of a rooster.
Roost (1998) by Amy Kravitz
EoF: How did you come to work with animation?
AK: When I was four, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, I thought that meant I could change my state of being. I answered that I wanted to be a horse. I think of this as my first experience of animation. Animation enables you to physically empathize so deeply with what you animate that your identity merges with it.
I started animating for real when I was 11 years old. I took a class at a local summer creative arts program (taught by Yvonne Andersen of the Yellow Ball Workshop). I was not originally going to stay in the class, but when my first footage came back from the lab I loved it so much. Even though my animation was poor, the process was magical, and my strange artwork was alive. From that first awkward cut out close up animation has been a central part of my life. I continued taking classes and then assisting as a teacher in the classes.
I went to Harvard University, where I studied Anthropology. I did my graduate work at Cal Arts with Jules Engel. I now live in Providence, Rhode Island in the US, where I teach animation at Rhode Island School of Design.
EoF: I want to ask you about your working process. How much were the films planned out beforehand?
AK: I wish I could plan! I cannot storyboard my films – it just does not work. When I storyboard the life drains out of the work and the work process. I just find one thing I know and then figure out the next thing I know. I can’t know anything without direct aesthetic experience.
The initial exploratory work takes several forms. I draw or paint exploring different media until I find media that transform in some way when I work with them. Or, very simply I may get an electric feeling of “that’s it” as I am stumbling around. I also work on learning how to animate with the materials I have discovered, until they also transform when they animate. Finally, the screen has to transform them in some way. I make a lot of animation that I do not use in the final film. I have to learn to animate each film in its own way.
Simultaneously, I work on clarifying the film’s center. It may be based in a sound, a strong emotion, a narrative, or simply an abstract non-verbal aesthetic sensation. I do a lot of reading and research once I begin to understand the territory in which the film is taking place.
Finally I do a lot of editing and work with sound – again looking for a transformation process when shots or sounds come together. I like to feel the work changing on progressively deeper levels.
EoF: Did you work out the films’ structure before shooting? They seem to be structured in movements like a piece of classical music – was the music made to the films or vice versa?
AK: I spend a lot of time structuring the works in the editorial process. As for working with music the structuring process varies.
In River Lethe, I had made the basic animation and the late Caleb Sampson created music. But, I made more animation, and edited after the music was complete, so I could use the music to help me edit.
In Trap, I edited the film without sound so designing the sound was difficult. I went through two sound designs complete to mix and discarded both. Finally, I worked with Caleb Sampson again working many long hours creating sound live and mixing, live and remixing, live and remixing – layer after layer until we both felt the sound worked well.
In Roost, I again edited picture first then, Joan La Barbara gave me sounds and music she had written and I edited those sounds and others over about six months.
River Lethe (1985) by Amy Kravitz
EoF: The physical forms of the natural world seem to have been a great inspiration in your drawing and the ideas behind films in general (specifically River Lethe and Roost). Were the drawings based on actual physical forms or from your imagination?
AK: Both. I don’t really draw what I see though, I internalize the physical sensation of seeing and draw that – it is different than drawing from life. Seeing is a physical process.
I have a strong sense of identification with what I see and I can feel what I see as a physical sensation – which is for me both kinesthetic and metaphoric. It is not unusual. Many people cringe in pain when they see someone else get hurt – or even hear about another person’s painful experience – because their empathy extends to a deep physicality. My non-scientific guess is that this experience is rooted in our “mirror neurons”. These are motor neurons that respond to seeing movement as opposed to causing movement.
I look at a lot of images as I work. I have a collection of postcards from museums and bookstores that I find very helpful. I will assemble images that are thematically linked to the subject matter of whatever I am working on. I always have them on the walls or on my desk to look at.
You may also be asking this question because place, landscape, and location operate metaphorically in those films. “Place” is a metaphor of which we are often unaware. We often superimpose place and time – even in our language. In English, we can say “I will see you in one month” or “He was born on Monday”. Prepositions that we usually use to express spatial relationships can represent time as well. Following – perhaps a long way from this, but still following – place, space, and thus territory or landscape can be metaphorically related to experience. In film, especially in animation, the expression of space as movement can be particularly rich in meaning and metaphor.
As for my film, Lethe was one of the five rivers in the Greek Underworld. Its waters induced complete forgetfulness enabling one to erase one’s memory of earthly life enabling one to pass on. It strongly conveys the sense of loss that accompanies growth. It is a metaphoric place.
EoF: Can you describe your approach to working with abstraction in film – was it a conscious decision to work in this way? Why do you think you gravitated towards it?
AK: I actively resisted abstraction for many years because I did not listen to myself honestly. I had the mistaken idea that animation had to have a story, but every story I created felt emotionally hollow. I kept trying to draw “a picture of” rather than just create something that was itself. I became so frustrated one day I threw out several years of work and I just made a simple line on a piece of paper and said to myself, “I will begin again from here”. It is about in the middle of River Lethe. I animated forwards and backwards from that line.
EoF: The synopsis of the film Roost: “”Roost” describes, in abstracted imagery, a desolate place in which new life kindles belief in God”, and the quote at the beginning of the film suggest quite a specific idea. Can you elaborate a bit about the inspiration for this film and the way you made it?
AK: Long story. I had read a story by I. B. Singer called “Cockadoodledoo”. A rooster narrates the story. According to him roosters say everything with cockadoodledoo. He discusses his five wives, one of whom is his daughter. By the story’s end, it is the night before the ritual slaughter of fowl on Yom Kippur and the rooster hears a revelatory crowing from a neighboring barnyard. He knows it is “a cockadoodledoo that rights every wrong, forgives every sin, straightens all crookedness”. Beauty and salvation are found unexpectedly in the midst of tragedy.
This short story inspired the film. I was editing sound one day and had to insert a rooster crow into a track. I remembered this story and the sound went right through me.
It took me a long time to make the film. I had two children between the time I started it and finished it. One day I was holding my daughter as she was napping and the structure of my abstraction of the narrative came to me.
Trap (1988) by Amy Kravitz
EoF: The film Trap was inspired by a quote from holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel‘s book, Souls on Fire: “I try to imagine my grandfather in the train that carried him away”, and evokes this horror very successfully through limited means. How did you approach realising your idea solely through areas of light and darkness?
AK: I would like to say it was something more than trial and error – but the truth is, I think it was largely trial and error. River Lethe had been frustrating to shoot on film. I never could get the artwork to photograph the way I wanted it to look. When I started Trap, I decided to simplify and just try to get a velvety black and a sparkling white on film. I worked with an unusual print stock to achieve it. I also tested many drawing media and kinds of paper. Simplicity can give the viewer room to participate and interpret imaginatively.
Experimentation with materials has a lot to do with the physicality of the animation process. Different materials not only look different after they are applied, they feel differently as one uses them, so one is able to achieve different nuances in both the movement and the imagery. For me, even the smell of the materials has an influence – but especially important is the sense of touch – the softness, the waxiness of a drawing crayon or the tooth of the paper surface. Different papers engage the drawing process differently. Some papers fight you. Some papers reach out to you. I am sure that experienced athletes can feel such engagement with sporting equipment. Dancers work to find the exact shoe and then often alter the shoe. People who knit develop sensitivity for needles and yarns.
When making Trap, I had been reading Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo. Vincent goes on for several pages describing a piece of crayon to Theo in hopes Theo can find another. After reading the description I started looking for that crayon myself. The closest I got was a very soft lithographic crayon.
EoF: In making these abstract animated films how much were you influenced by or thinking about other animation, film or other art?
AK: Trap was influenced by Seurat’s drawings. I love animation and I watch a lot of animated films. I am inspired by moments in animation that capture deep humanity – it can be one frame, one sound, or one gesture.
Images in both words and paintings also provide me with a lot of nourishment. Stories – surprisingly – are very important.
EoF: You studied animation under Jules Engel and have since gone on to have a distinguished career as an educator. Can you say a bit about your approach to teaching animation (is the area you teach specifically ‘experimental’ animation?) and what you learned from Engel’s teaching methods?
AK: All my teachers have influenced my teaching style. Yvonne Andersen gave me the opportunity to teach in the first place. Dennis Pies (who goes by Sky David now) taught me how to structure lessons and introduced many key concepts of movement. Jules Engel believed in me. That belief was a miraculous gift.
Jules’ teaching method was to give the student confidence to cross rivers of doubt, to be completely objective, and to get right to the heart of any question with absolute simplicity.
I don’t teach experimental animation per se. I simply try to help students use the medium in a way that is right for them. I do have a long roster of lessons I have designed to help students learn about animation through many avenues of approach. For some students, experimental techniques are crucial for others traditional character-based approaches are equally crucial. I like to base every class around a question that is a genuine question for me.
EoF: What are your feelings about the term ‘experimental animation’? How do you feel about the opportunities for exhibiting this kind of work and the potential audience for it?
AK: I like the word experimental because in an experiment you ask a question and investigate methodically. Experimental animation has a small audience. In my experience, audiences have been kind and receptive when I have presented work in person and have been able to contextualize the process.
Opportunities for exhibiting, or sharing such works are growing through several methods. Web based distribution enables people to see works they could not see easily before. Experimental techniques are appropriated commercially and in the gallery world (also commercial) and people start to get used to seeing animation in new ways.
Through her films Amy Kravitz reveals to us powerful unseen forces, using the processes of animation to create immersive, direct experiences. There is a power to this work that comes from its uniqueness and its honesty. It does not try to simulate or depict that which we have already seen, but instead creates a deep connection with us through something more primal, something beyond the rational mind. By letting the process of making the films take its own time, and giving each aspect considerable care and attention, she allows the film to become its own thing, without any conventions or external structures being imposed on it. In her synopsis for the film Trap Amy refers to ‘the language of pure animation’, and that is exactly what she has mastered in her work. For anyone making animation to any end, her work can act as a shining beacon of what is possible in the form.
© Edwin Rostron 2013