Annapurna Kumar

By Edwin Rostron

GIF from the production of Something to Treasure (2019) by Annapurna Kumar

Annapurna Kumar is an American independent animator and filmmaker based in Southern California. Her work is bold and completely original, and whilst each of her films is quite unique, behind the surface they share a consistent vision. Much of Annapurna’s work is interested in technologies; of image making and image capture, and in the personal and political implications of those technologies. These ideas are touched on in unpredictable and playful ways, using myriad techniques of animation and filmmaking, and there is a completely open and vibrant spirit to all her work. Her films are short and intense; concentrated blasts of sonic and visual stimulation with layers of potential meaning and overlapping strands of sensation. 

I have loved Annapurna’s work since I first saw it and its been a pleasure to include three of her works in Edge of Frame screening programmes (Gray Hairs, Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic and Something to Treasure). In many ways her work lies squarely in the centre of the nebulous area of practice that Edge of Frame seeks to champion. As a writer Annapurna has generously contributed two pieces to the Edge of Frame blog over the years, on Bruce Bickford and Paul Glabicki, and both have become important documents in the discourse of Experimental Animation.

I am really pleased to present this fascinating interview with Annapurna about her work, process and background. Her answers give some really interesting context to her films and the thinking behind them. Alongside the interview Annapurna has kindly shared some of her in-progress materials from a number of her films, which were a complete joy for me to see, so I am delighted to be able to present them here.

Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic (2017) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: Could you give a bit of biographical background about yourself? How did you get into making animation?

AK: I lived near Seattle in a town called Issaquah until I was 12. Then we moved to Northern Virginia and bounced around a little bit. Washington and Virginia were both very beautiful, very wooded, but visibly changing due to overdevelopment. As a kid my family went to Mt. Rainier a lot. That kind of alpine environment with wildflowers and frozen waterfalls is burnt into my memory as a kind of idyllic final resting place. The mountain in my film MCMFP is definitely Mt. Rainier.

My parents would say they were computer scientists, but they were really government contractors. Science nerds pretending to be working toward human progress but actually lending their brainpower to militarism and looking the other way. I still don’t understand how they could do that. Their philosophies and politics were really progressive on the surface. This contradiction had a big impact on me when I first realized what was going on. I felt like I was complicit because my life had benefited from the money they had made. The device depicted in Gray Hairs is something my dad worked on, and some of the photographic imagery in MCMFP is from a test my mom created to measure AI cognition. Depicting things in films obviously doesn’t absolve anything, but it helped me process my thoughts.

Image from the production of Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic (2017) by Annapurna Kumar

My interest in animation grew out of doing time-lapses of paintings. I was always frustrated that with painting, I only got to keep the final iteration of the thing, and lost all the versions of it that happened along the way. Sometimes I wanted to go back to a previous version, so I decided to document the stages. I was also interested in depicting motion and started painting things like a character whose movements were presented as a big worm of bodies, Nude Descending a Staircase style. After looking at the time-lapses I realized that I should start learning about animation.

After dropping out of my first college and going to community college for a while, I transferred to VCUArts in Richmond VA where I had a crew of old friends. Some of those friends were musicians, and I wanted to collaborate with them, so I got into creating projections for their shows. I experimented a lot with abstraction and repetition, breaking up my sequences into little clips that I could trigger, kind of like a visual drum machine. It felt so expressive then, but is pretty cringy now. My last year of college, I met a band called RYAT from Philly that wanted a touring projections person. We went on 3 tours together and moved to LA when they signed a record deal. Somewhere along the way I realized that I was ready to make freestanding video work of my own, about my own ideas, and featuring my own soundtracks. My favorite professor at VCU, Pam Turner, was really active with the Society for Animation Studies and the Iota Center. She had shown me a lot about the world of experimental animation, and was very pro CalArts. I think it was because of her that I considered applying to CalArts for my MFA and started focusing on independent filmmaking. I still work with musicians a lot too though.

Music video for Aziz-E-Man by Maral (2021) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: Your work combines multiple processes, do you feel more rooted or ‘at home’ in one particular way of working?

AK: Lately I’ve been embracing CGI more. CGI is really freeing because I can prototype scenes and build up detail over time, and I can change the framing and lighting whenever I want. I hate that with drawing I have to decide on the camera angle before I start making the sequence. That being said, most of my work does combine multiple ways of working. I think it’s just that different parts of ideas lend themselves better to different processes, and I enjoy doing multiple things.

Gray Hairs (2015) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: You studied on the MFA Experimental Animation programme at CalArts, and made your films Gray Hairs and Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic there. Can you talk a bit about how you feel your practice developed through the CalArts experience?

AK: Attending the EA program was a hugely beneficial experience. It was invigorating to be surrounded by people who have the same weird obsessions and interests as me, which had never happened before. Many of my closest friends now are people I met there. I was star-struck by Maureen Selwood and Paul Vester, who turned out to be very down to earth, caring mentors. Working with Pia Borg was eye-opening and brought me clarity about my filmmaking process. Billy Woodberry and Christine Hill‘s classes on documentary and nonfiction film were fantastic. And going through 3 years of critique with the same 11 classmates was such a wild gift. BUT obviously the price tag is way too high. The administration has been needing to address that for years now. Not only is it financially crushing to those who do end up enrolling, it causes a lot of talented people to not consider applying at all.

Images from the production of Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic (2017) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: I’d like to delve into the processes and ideas behind Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic. It’s a wonderful film, really beautiful and completely intriguing. Could you describe how it began, what your different ways of working were in making the film, and if there is a central thread or idea you would like to communicate through the work? Also can you tell me more about the ‘sprites’ mentioned in the credits?

AK: The film has multiple themes. One of them is about translating information into different languages and seeing if it reads the same or if the meaning shifts. The sprites are one of those languages, as is the drawing, and the photographs, and the CG. The other main thing that I was exploring is how holograms work. Interference patterns, the part standing for the whole, intersecting 3D information encoded in slices of 2D space… there is a lot that is cool about how they work. Did you know that if you smash a hologram, every tiny resulting piece of it still contains 100% of the information that was encoded in the whole? That got me thinking a lot about archiving information, and also semiotics. The features in the landscape are meant to be more like universal signifiers rather than a specific tree, flower, etc. A brambly bush is like a piece of information, a tree is a piece of information, and they can both live within a single hologram landscape, and a camera moving through that landscape is like the process of looking up a specific piece of information. This also led me to think about human cognition and memory. More and more scientists are saying that the structure of human memory functions very similarly to a hologram. There are also holographic data storage prototypes for computers – basically very fast hard drives. This led me to think about the similarities between human memory and computer memory, or human vision and computer vision.

“Thinking about holographic information slices”, a GIF from the production of Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic (2017) by Annapurna Kumar

Animation footage from the production of Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic (2017) by Annapurna Kumar

Regarding the sprites – I used a free sprite archive called opengameart.org to source those. I did make a couple of them myself. For those who aren’t familiar with what sprites are, they’re used for games, and they’re usually really small and drawn at pixel-scale. They come as sprite sheets, where all of the frames are presented side-by-side on one big image. I liked how it was a different way of looking at an animation loop, with all of the info usually experienced through time translated into one 2D slice. It felt directly related to the hologram structure.

Sadhana (work in progress) (2016-ongoing) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: I love your film Sadhana, but know next to nothing about it. Was that made while you were at CalArts also? Can you tell me something about the film and the film and musical performance within it?

AK: I don’t really consider it a finished film. I’m working on adding more to it. I started it in a class at CalArts called Bad Sound, which was co-taught by Craig Smith and Joshua Gen Solondz. It was mostly focused on making sound equipment like contact mics and oscillators. We did a lot of soldering. We also played with a reel-to-reel machine one day, which ended up in the soundtrack for MCMFP. Anyway, Sadhana is about the experience of watching 60’s Bollywood movies with my Dad when I was little. Since I never learned Hindi, I experienced them as these dazzling, colorful, abstract visions of Indian beauty with no plot. My mom was white, I don’t have any sisters, and my entire Indian family lives in New Delhi; I have always had a confused conception of which beauty standards supposedly apply to me and what the normal care routine for my kind of body is. My main connection to Indian femininity is through Bollywood, which is so unhealthy considering all of the makeup and jewelry and oppressive gender norms going on there. So Sadhana is about idealizing these sugary, pop-world women, and also feeling estranged from them, and trying to find some deeper truth in their constructed images. It’s also about experiencing this highly emotional, romantic music without the lyrics.

Something to Treasure (2019) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: You made Something to Treasure at the Film Farm independent imaging retreat in Ontario, Canada. Can you tell me a bit about your experience there and how the film came out of that?

AK: Film Farm is a very fun and beautiful place. I highly recommend it. Don’t go in the river though – there are leeches and they don’t want you to know! Since the residency is only a week long and is based around processing film by hand, which is really time-consuming, the whole experience was kind of frenzied in a great way. I used turmeric as a developer for almost all of my rolls, and a little bit of oregano. The shot with bubbles coming out of a shell was achieved using tablets of alka seltzer and a fish tank. I tried filming that shot in the leech river first with an underwater housing, but the roll didn’t turn out. The blue faces blowing in the wind were printed on a sheet of oversized acetate that I brought from home and reshot outside. The CG stuff I had started on before the residency and reshot in my room off of my laptop screen between processing batches. So I think the main idea of the film was there before the farm, but going there really influenced the look and treatment of the footage. It was also the perfect working environment for the mindset I wanted to convey- I think it helped the editing. I like the way the color turned out too. I’d love to work more with hand-dyed film mainly for those juicy colors.

Video Mix by Maral and Annapurna Kumar (2020) organised by dublab and Printed Matter

EoF: I’m really interested in your ongoing collaboration with the musician Maral. How/when did your collaboration begin and how has it developed?

AK: Maral and I met in middle school, and we’ve been friends since we were 15. We were actually in the same Girl Scout troop, which was an excuse for our friends to drink and smoke together while our parents thought we were being wholesome. Maral was always the one making the mix CD’s for our parties. She was known for playing T.A.T.U. and dub, lol. Eventually she started DJing, and after many years of coaxing, she started playing her own songs publicly as well. Throughout that process, I gave her feedback on her music and she gave me feedback on all of my stuff. Once we were both living in LA, she started getting more serious gigs, and we started a monthly party called No Rules at this club called The Lash and we played a bunch of amazing warehouse shows. A ton of work came out of that, and we got closer and collaborated more. Ever since then, we’ve pulled each other in on every project we can. A big chunk of the Something to Treasure sound effects are actually samples of me fast forwarding and skipping around on May’s first tape release. At this point, we have extremely similar taste, and working together comes very naturally. She’s the one who showed me David O’Reilly and Takeshi Murata for the first time. In my defense, I showed her Radiohead for the first time. She’s been there through a lot and she includes me in so many things. A true friend and collaborator.

An episode of FACT Magazine’s Artist DIY, featuring Maral discussing her inspirations and her work with visual collaborator Annapurna Kumar

Images from the production of Mountain Castle Mountain Flower Plastic (2017) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about? Are there any particular processes or ways of working you are keen to explore which you haven’t already?

AK: Right now I’m working on something for Pioneer Works for a monologue about free will. The talk is really long, so the creative director didn’t want something illustrative, but rather something more abstract that interprets the general themes of the lecture. It’s been really fun to go off on the ideas and see what kinds of metaphors resonate best. One of the central ideas I landed on is a slot machine in varying levels of abstraction, with human figures interacting with the fruit icons in increasingly absurd ways. A slot machine feels like a perfect metaphor for the question of how much choice we really have, how all of our actions are constrained by a set of starting values beyond our control, and how from some interpretations, everything you do is actually determined by chance. The full thing will be available on the Pioneer Works Broadcast website in early May.

I also have a separate idea involving drawings that look halfway between clouds and whipped cream, plus public domain audio from air traffic control talking to small aircraft having flight issues. I’m confused about the ethics of using recordings of people in distress. I don’t know if I can actually feel ok with making it. The audio is fascinating, but maybe it’s not meant to be a film.

GIF from music video for Aziz-E-Man by Maral (2021) by Annapurna Kumar

EoF: What films / art / animation have been particularly exciting to you recently?

AK: Josh Shaffner has been working on this feature-length sci-fi/comedy animated film for the past few years. He keeps re-editing it and adding new scenes – it’s a total monster. The last time I saw it I thought it was great and that he should release it. But he’s still reworking it and threatening to trash half of it. I think as a community we need to demand that he start showing it around.

Recently I finally saw Feels Good Man, the documentary about Pepe the frog, and thought that it was really well made. Matt Furie is a pretty cute protagonist. One of the animators for that film, Jenna Caravello, was my roommate for a while at CalArts. She’s been making a ton of great looking CG and interactive stuff. I can’t wait to see what’s next from her.

I’ve been reading the normal alt comics people – Yuichi Yokoyama, Oliver Schrauwen, Lale Westvind, Austin English. I’ve also been into buying artist books from Printed Matter for drawing inspiration. Two I particularly like are Stone/Star Bloom/Loop by Juli Majer and Dogs Bleeding Evil by Mark Mulroney.

GIF by Annapurna Kumar

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© 2021 Edwin Rostron