by Edwin Rostron 

 Sketches for Help Me Help You by Isabelle Aspin

CG RIBS is a brand new animation collective made up of six of the brightest and most exciting talents in American independent animation; Calvin Frederick, Grace Nayoon Rhee, Rachel Ho, Isabelle Aspin, Brian Smee and Sean Buckelew. Between them they have made some of the most interesting animated shorts of recent years, with Brian’s Lazy Daze (2016) and Isabelle’s Rituals (2015) both featuring in Edge of Frame screening programmes in 2016, and works by all six artists playing widely at festivals around the world and garnering sizeable audiences online. 

CG RIBS’s first film Help Me Help You has just been released on Vimeo. Themed around the idea of self portraits, it eschews a literal interpretation of this initial concept, transcending it to become something original and ambiguous, yet somehow (perhaps surprisingly) cohesive and unified.

Help Me Help You by CG RIBS aka Calvin Frederick, Grace Nayoon Rhee, Rachel Ho, Isabelle Aspin, Brian Smee and Sean Buckelew, 2017

CG RIBS follows other recent animation collaborations like Swap Meet (2015) orchestrated by animator (and occasional Edge of Frame writer) Caleb Wood, and Late Night Work Club’s two anthologies Ghost Stories (2013) and Strangers (2016). Members of CG RIBS feature in those projects too, and such collective endeavours help make visible the overlapping networks of contemporary independent animation. Group projects can provide a vital impetus for animators to get their own personal work made and seen in the absence of other structures of support. The particular emphasis of CG RIBS is on spontaneity and impulsive creative energy, and using the group dynamic to harness this energy into creating something concrete. Spurred by the group’s “joke videos” (like this or this or this), made “partly as a way to blow off steam from working boring commercial animation jobs”, the six animators decided to try and approach an animated film project with the same sense of immediacy.

In the artists’ own words, the result – Help Me Help You – coalesced around a shared sense of desperation and the film can be interpreted as ‘a cry for help’. There is an unpredictable edginess about the film but also a lively, freeform spirit. Its pacing and subtly effective transitions carry us along, helped in no small part by the soundtrack and mixing courtesy of the artists and composer / sound designer Dan Eaton. Each animator’s style is discernible, yet there is a consistency to the energy that flows through the piece, and the film becomes much more than the sum of its parts. There is a distinctive and very current emotional resonance; a sense of crisis, of helplessness, of things running out of control which is all too easily relatable. Underneath this, though, is the unbridled energy, creativity and talent which has created the film, the spirit of collaboration and community behind it, so there is a powerful sense of hope and positivity too, and the overall effect is altogether more complex and rewarding than its “joke film” origins might suggest. I was thrilled to delve deeper into the background of CG RIBS with the six animators, who discussed the project with me via email.

Sketches by Brian Smee for his section of Help Me Help You

EOF: Could you give some brief background for each artist? How do you all know each other? Have you collaborated previously?

SEAN: We all know each other from going to CalArts around the same time, and have all since moved down to Los Angeles.  We’ve all collaborated with each other in one form or another over the years, but I think the first true collaboration with the six of us was a video called Flatulence Into Chocolate Fountain at 120 FPS.  That video contained such a concentrated blast of creative energy, the time between thinking of the idea, through executing it and uploading it to Vimeo was about 15 minutes.  And I think we learned a really valuable lesson on it about how we all enable each other to act on certain impulses.

Lovestreams by Sean Buckelew, 2017

CALVIN: I am from North Carolina originally. I dropped out of two colleges, then was a bartender for several years before coming to CalArts in 2010. Most of the films I make are abstract, stop-motion pieces using lights and devices I build from scratch.

RACHEL: I’m from Singapore! I came to the US to attend CalArts back in 2010 and have been fortunate enough to still be here making work in LA. All of us except Isabelle were in the Experimental Animation program at CalArts (Isabelle was officially in Character Animation but there is quite a bit of fluidity between these two programs.) While at CalArts and since graduating I kinda moved away from animation and got into multimedia performance. But I really wanted to get back to making animated work again so CG RIBS was the perfect motivation! I feel like we’ve all collaborated with each other in varying permutations, and it’s often been spontaneous but natural. A lot of stuff happened because of the A115 Film Club that a bunch of us ran at CalArts. Calvin and Sean have also performed with me on different shows.

Sleighting by Rachel Ho, 2014

GRACE: I studied Animation in Korea at Hongik University for BFA and came back to the states to do my MFA in Experimental Animation at CalArts, where I met everyone in the group. I have always loved everyone’s work and wanted to find a way to collaborate with one another and happy we got to do it all together!

ISABELLE: I moved to California at age 17 to get my BFA in Character Animation at CalArts, but I fell out of love with the program pretty quickly. I met Rachel and Brian through the film club they put on with Sean and other friends every week. Meeting these folks was a big part of me feeling like I could keep going at CalArts without dropping out or become an awful human being. They’re so cool. I love them!

BRIAN: I’m from Arizona. I worked at a movie theater across the street from Crazy Amy’s Baking Company and went to community college before moving out to California. I attended CalArts in 2012 where I met and fell in love with all my fellow ribs. We all collaborated on projects ranging from film screenings, gallery shows or animations.

Tabasum by Brian Smee and Isabelle Aspin, 2015

EOF: How did the idea of CGRIBS come about? What is the CGRIBS collective about for you?

SEAN: There was a conversation in the Spring, pre-Chocolate Fountain, about how we needed to do something together as a group, but we weren’t quite sure what.  Post-Chocolate Fountain, we started talking about this energy we all had that was going to these joke videos and wondering if we could reconcile some of that energy with our actual art/animation practices.  We wanted to take that energy and make an actual film.

CALVIN: The start of CG RIBS, for me, was about forming a system of pressure and support similar to the one we had at CalArts. This pressure helps motivate me towards actually getting my work done. After school, it became difficult for me to finish a longer film between jobs or at night after work, so CG RIBS was the perfect way to, bit-by-bit, see something from concept to completion.

Agrabagrabah by Calvin Frederick, 2014

GRACE:  I remember back at CalArts on my graduation week, we were all gathered in front of A115 (our studio) and were talking about wanting to continue to work and support each other and would love to do even after we leave school. After graduating it seemed to be hard to finish personal projects on my own and felt less motivated and inspired and was hoping to have that peer pressure and support from a group of people whose work I respect and love, which happened to be everyone in CG RIBS! Also, often I find myself working on a film for so long, which can take 1-2 years or more, and be totally out of the loop. With CG RIBS, we want to make something that we all enjoy making, but also put out little films and projects more often!

RACHEL: Since we already tended to exchange ideas and help on each others projects, I think CG RIBS was us wanting to commit ourselves to doing more and getting more out of that synergy.

ISABELLE: When you leave school, it feels like you’ve suddenly lost the resources to share and “crowd source” ideas. It seems to me that CG RIBS sort of came from a natural chemistry that this group had for coming up with sillier and sillier ideas, and then actually executing them.

BRIAN: We all met up pretty frequently but there was a need for a creative outlet that went outside of our own individual projects. There was also this need for structure to make something with the added support and input of close friends. From that, the idea of a collaborative project between us all that could be executed fairly quickly really stuck. Grace came up with the anagram CG RIBS in a group chat, and it was on that day everything changed…

Sketches by Rachel Ho for her section of Help Me Help You

EOF: What was your starting point for the film? How did the collaboration work? 

SEAN: The initial prompt that Grace came up with was “self portrait”.  We also imposed a limitation that each clip be about 15-30 seconds (mainly to make it manageable and something we could actually commit to and finish).  As was often the case with our previous collaborations, we would have group brainstorming sessions over couple weeks, sharing ideas and observing conceptual throughlines and trying to let the film structure itself in an organic way.  As we got more definite with our individual ideas, we would do a micro-collab with the person before and after to make the transition more smooth.  So like, once I had determined that a house was on fire in my clip, Brian would add a fire truck whizzing by at the beginning of his clip, and our two sections would have a little bridge.

GRACE: When we were thinking about what the initial idea for the project could be, I thought “self portrait” would be a perfect way to introduce who we are as a new group. It could either be something very personal about ourselves or a distinctive animation style we’ve built with our own work (or even a literal “self portrait”).

And funny enough we realized we all had a seemingly similar theme with our self portraits, which was a “cry for help”. I think we also agreed that we didn’t want the films to be sequenced like an “exquisite corpse”. And because we knew we had a coinciding theme and atmosphere, the transitions came more naturally as we wanted it to.

Triangle by Grace Rhee, 2012

RACHEL: So what happened was each of us developed ideas for our own self-portrait section, as well as what medium it was going to be animated in. And at some point when everyone was partially through their pieces, we collectively figured out the best sequence for the clips to be arranged in. There was a natural flow and order that emerged based on similarities in tone and imagery, and those conversations helped to further develop how we approached our pieces as we finished them.

ISABELLE: I came in at the point where Grace and Sean had settled on the theme of self portrait. I think we all quickly decided for ourselves- and as a group- that these self portraits would be an attempt to make the most “you” thing possible. Like indulging in your favorite things to animate or favorite methods, etc. Like self-parody but more desperate? Or something? Maybe that’s how the “Help Me” motif emerged. When you try to see yourself and your work clearly you always get sad.

BRIAN: Sean and Grace wrote out the email that really solidified the project and made it something concrete and less abstract. We wanted to pivot away from doing an exquisite corpsey piece and try to make something that represented each of us equally while also communicated with each other. Once we got going it became clear that we all gravitated toward desperation being a common theme so Help Me Help You was this plea to help one another.

Production still from Calvin Frederick’s section of Help Me Help You

EOF: Do you have future projects planned? What is your vision for CGRIBS?

SEAN: We’ve got some other projects cooking.  I think at the moment the grand ambition is just to keep making stuff, either more formally like with Help Me Help You, or in fun spontaneous ways, and have it all live under the CG RIBS umbrella.

CALVIN: The next big project is already in the works! The title is Spider in the Studio and it should be a great exercise in editing and variations on a theme. In the meantime, though, I imagine we will pop off little ideas that we just can’t resist seeing.

GRACE: If Help Me Help You was a project to establish and present who we are and what we make, the projects following from then on would be more of a way to explore and experiment with new techniques, mediums and so on! We have so many fun ideas already lined up, which will all have a different feeling or format in a way, but all something we can enjoy and have fun doing. I like the idea that no format or style is locked in and we can somewhat improvise on what we want to make on the go!

Sketches by Grace Rhee for her section of Help Me Help You

RACHEL: I think of CG RIBS as a big formal experiment and opportunity to be risky. I also think that parallel to trying to discover new things is a larger conversation about what it means to be an independent animator, who is our audience outside of this community, and how can we sustain ourselves? I feel like many of us are searching for alternative paths to continuing to make short-form animation, and if we can learn some useful things through all this it’s helpful for everyone.

ISABELLE: In my 5 year projection for CG RIBS, I predict our fingers will be in a lot of pies. Imagine how cool it would be if we could get a CG RIBS pie flavor at Pie Hole. As Help Me Help You proves, we are large, we contain multitudes. I think we will probably surprise ourselves as much or more than we will surprise anyone else.

BRIAN: We want to take people through the studio watching out for the cobwebs down a river with monsters to help realize that the badder it is the better.

Swap Meet, orchestrated by Caleb Wood and featuring artists Caleb Wood, Charles Huettner, David Prosser, Elli Vuorinen, Grace Rhee, Jonathan Djob Nkondo, Kyle Mowat, Lee Kyu-tae, Lilli Carre, Loup Blaster, Nicolas Menard, Nelson Boles, Shin Hashimoto and Shen Jie, 2015

EOF: Are there any inspirations or reference points in other works of animation / film / art, or collectives, that guided the formation of CGRIBS?

SEAN: I was inspired by the STZ collective and their STZAP series and projects like Caleb Wood’s Swap Meet project, which Grace participated in.  I like how both these projects have some formal constrictions, but also let each artist work in their own style (with relatively low stakes, so it’s easier to experiment since each segment is so short) and that it all comes together into a film that stands up on its own.

CALVIN:  Late Night Work Club and Swap Meet were definitely influences for me. I think all the little animation collaborations out there right now get me excited to be a part of one. My style and the techniques I use often make me think that my work might not fit into one of those collabs that are more 2D animation based, so it makes it easier to just start your own crew!

Late Night Work Club presents Strangers, by Alex Grigg, Loup Blaster, Caleb Wood, Sean Buckelew, Jeanette Bonds, Nicolas Ménard, Kirsten Lepore and Charles Huettner, 2016

GRACE: I’ve always dreamt of having a collective group with best friends who can influence each other and most of all, stay productive and have fun together! Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared was one of those projects that felt like the work is amazing, but also it looks like they had so much fun making it as well! Definitely Late Night Work Club and Swap Meet made me very inspired too!

RACHEL: I want to have my own “theater” company one day. I’m hoping to convert animators to performance artists. (I guess what I’m saying is that I’m inspired by performance groups.)

Soft Spot by Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson, 2014

ISABELLE: I’m a big fan of Soft Spot which is a very wonderful collaborative crocheted and animated variety show by Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson. It’s one of my favorite ongoing collaborations.

BRIAN: Making something that wasn’t afraid to add in fart sounds and never sleeping on any creative decisions was something that I really was inspired by.

Lazy Daze by Brian Smee, 2016

Trailer for Rituals by Isabelle Aspin, 2015


© Edwin Rostron 2017