Miranda Javid is a writer, animator, and art-educator based in Los Angeles. She has shown at Commune1 in Cape Town, South Africa, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Mint Museum of Art in North Carolina, and Vox Populi in Philadelphia, PA. She is a Kenan Fellow, a member of the Drawing Center’s Viewing Program and a recipient of the Nancy Harrigan Prize, given through the Baker Artist Fund.
It is with great pleasure that Edge of Frame presents the online premiere of Miranda’s animated musical Smoke’s Last Thought, following a festival run that took in festivals such as Ann Arbor, Maryland, and a number of special Smoke Mixtape screenings curated by Miranda herself.
Alongside the film are a selection of accompanying texts, beginning with a conversation with Miranda about the film, its background and her working process. Following this discussion we are thrilled to present two fascinating essays written by Miranda, delving into some of the wider contextual issues around her work. The first essay, entitled All About My Girls, considers the ethics of representing a queer inter-racial sex scene in Smokes’ Last Thought. The second, The Skin is the Largest Sack, addresses the highly pertinent subject of labour in animation.
Ahead of these illuminating and thought provoking texts is the film itself. “A wisp of smoke rises through Los Angeles while mourning her imminent disappearance. In the midst of her nervous breakdown, she encounters other disenfranchised beings, the Other bodies of the city, and the intervening self of a form that is no longer singular.”
Smoke’s Last Thought (2018) by Miranda Javid
EoF: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you initially came to work with animation.
MJ: Yeah, I grew up in the American South where I felt like a real weirdo when I was growing up. I always knew I’d be some kind of of artist, but I’m totally self-taught when it comes to animation. In undergrad, I studied interdisciplinary sculpture in Baltimore, Maryland, which amounted to surrounding myself with performance artists. Back then, I was drawing with ink and using power point presentations to do these pseudo performances or short stories. Over the course of a couple of years, I started making the transitions between the slides go faster and faster, with slower and slower transitions. I don’t remember when I realized what I was doing what actually animating. I had other studio practices too though, and when a Baltimore gallery called Open Space burned down with some of my favorite work inside, I got really depressed and moved to LA. That was 2013.
At that point, I never would have considered myself an animator, but the LA animation community was a pleasant surprise to me, enabling me to learn more and more just by seeing ways of drawing I knew I couldn’t do yet. I taught myself how to animate using tracing paper and pencil, shading every frame and sequencing in iMovie. Then I switched to Toon Boom. I mostly still thought of myself as someone outside of the animation world, though, and got a graduate degree from UC Irvine on their very theory and writing-heavy Studio Art program. I was the first animator they ever had. I didn’t find myself interested in questions of what animation really is and what myriad histories had brought me to it until my research collided with my drawings and I started animating Smoke. That was four years ago.
Study for Smoke’s Last Thought (2018) by Miranda Javid
EoF: What were the key initial ideas that formed into Smoke’s Last Thought?
MJ: The key idea comes from Esther Leslie’s amazing book, Hollywood Flatlands. In the book, she outlines some of Walter Benjamin’s ideas from an unpublished fragment on Mickey Mouse from 1931. Benjamin thought that Mickey of the 1920’s was an incredibly hopeful, but modern take on the cruel and very adult world of post-war modernity. He wrote about animation as the place where a character could lose a limb and see it reattached without much stress on the character, something the post-war veterans would have loved to fantasize about. There are major critics to Benjamin’s view on animation, especially when in the 1930’s Disney started selling merch and becoming real family friendly, but in the book, Leslie focused on refining Benjamin’s ideas by exploring ‘elasticity’ in animation, in general—the idea that it is the infinite pliability, the stretchiness of the form, that made animation such a powerful medium. Rubber hose and the early animations of the 1920’s were especially stretchy, making those characters especially resistant to trauma and better advocates for the everyday underdog or mouse. But, Leslie warns, animation is always a contradiction, the same word that means ‘to imbue with life’ can often suck the life out of many humans, as told by the wild history of labor struggles in the animation industry that continues to this day.
I read this book in 2015, and was just starting to make animations ‘more seriously’ as well as to freelance and turn my own practice into something I could sell and in turn, get injured and exploited for. I found, in her text I could finally explain why I was pivoting so hard into animation. It was a subconscious instinct to try and re-access the revolutionary power of those early cartoons. This realization and a series of bouts of mental illness were inspiration for my main character’s depressive angst in Smoke, and her relative resilience as an endlessly elastic being.
Pretty amazingly for me, years later when I was touring Smoke for the Smoke Mixtape, Esther was willing to become my video pen pal. We recorded a series of q + a’s across the Atlantic, and played them alongside the other pieces in the lineup, including the various premieres of Smoke.
Gil, a central character of Smoke’s Last Thought, testing his elasticity.
EoF: Can you talk a little bit about how these ideas changed or developed as you went into production and your feelings on the end result in relation to those initial ideas?
MJ: Production can be hell. I think all animators go through these brutal periods. This film was no exception. The biggest moment of change came when I realized that a narrator-character I’d written in was totally distracting from the film. Given the timeframe of a film like Smoke (3 years to make) so much can change in the world while you’re in your studio. Particularly when Trump got elected in the US in 2016, I felt like, dang, this film really needs to say something big now, to try and fight the kinds of fights I believe in. So in response to that, my narrator grew to include all my politics, but then, it was really heavy handed and one-dimensional. In 2017, I had to take her out of the film (and reanimate a bunch of stuff) to let the other parts breathe. It was a classic, murder your darlings moment, that I owe some of the credit to Lilli Carré for totally taking me down a peg in a studio visit.
It’s also worth mentioning that, by the time I finished Smoke, I couldn’t watch it without crying, feeling like I’d given so much—years of my life and labor— to this unusually long, drone-ish short-animation that—of course, couldn’t meet my expectations. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I saw the thing again and thought, “Oh hey, it’s so weird that I made that!” Now that I can step back, I’m at peace with the parts that aren’t perfect and able to enjoy the ideas I was working with from the luxurious position of viewer instead of maker.
EoF: Can you describe your working process on this film? How has this differed (or not) from your working process on other films?
MJ: My process tends to be wildly different from film to film or project to project. I go with the research first and see where that takes me aesthetically. This film happened to be more conventional. I storyboarded, wrote a script, etc…
But! One thing about this film that was pretty wacky for me was the experience of doing all the sound. I knew it had to be a musical to fit with older animation ideas, but singing and recording is not something I normally do at all! Sam Owens co-wrote the songs with me. Thanks to him, I got to live out various versions of my singer-songwriter fantasy life, passionately belting on the floor of a studio we used after hours. I’m still shocked we didn’t have to auto-tune anything, but that’s maybe because there were so many takes for a series of 30 second songs. Later, I setup a choir of local senior citizens to perform reprises of the theme. Seeing the residents of the Senior Center take over and believe in the Smoke’s journey on the day we recorded the choir was, hands-down, my favorite day of production.
The Covington Senior Center Choir rehearsing for Smoke’s Last Thought
This film being tied to the history of animation, I tried to play with animation studio process. My human characters, for example, are all animated pose-to-pose, giving them more of a rigid skeletal structure, bound to the physics of our Newtonian world. Pose-to-pose made animation in teams possible. Alternatively, I animated the Smoke straight-through, traditionally, a method used by single-author animators. This duality showed the tension between animation styles, and animation industries: a version of the animator as Fordist production model versus just a woman in her studio doodling.
A big part of Smoke is the singular versus the group. There’s the internal, emotion-heavy first half of the film, and the broader, collectivized city in the second half. Because of this, equally essential to the process was walking. I take these long walks across Los Angeles, sometimes traversing a couple of miles and passing through supposedly un-walkable territories (where lots of under-represented Angelenos live, walk and work). I get ideas on these walks. I see things I couldn’t have thought of by myself. In a film that zoomed out on a larger Los Angeles in the second half, I found getting outside was essential, like working from life for painters or something.
Also gotta take breaks and rest my drawing hand…
EoF: Tell me more about Smoke Mixtape and your practice as a curator.
MJ: I premiered Smoke outside of the festival-circuit alongside a curation of fragments, youtube videos, and other experimental animations I felt touched on the same ideas of Leslie’s Elasticity. It was a pretty interdisciplinary lineup, which is how I like to do things. The show pivoted from content wildly, we had the interviews with Esther Leslie, experimental vocalist-recordings by Carmina Escobar, instagram mantras on hydration from Jamila Reddy, to Lilli Carré who’d given me so much feedback during production, mainstream classics like Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck, and a bunch more. Then, I took the show on the road, touring it to other cities in the US.
Poster for Smoke Mixtape, Baltimore
This was kind of a special situation where I literally curated myself into the program, in part to really get specific about the kind of conversation I was trying to have around Smoke: elasticity and radical plurality. Again and again, Smoke and the Mixtape opened me up to life outside of the studio. In the case of the latter, working with other artists and non-artists helped me to feel in context, in a larger global community. I like some pretty niche things—historical animation being one of them—but I find that if you show a couple examples of a supposedly niche topic expanded and made more relevant to daily life, suddenly it doesn’t seem so un-relatable.
EoF: Why did you write these essays, All About My Girls and The Skin is the Largest Sack?
MJ: I think a lot through research. While those ideas definitely inform the work when its something like an animation, I find it’s also useful to come at things from a more linear standpoint. Written text allows for this. In the case of All About My Girls, I wanted to really dig into what makes a shot, including making that invisible labor visible. Sometimes the labor is more than just drawing—its also questioning the ethics of how you draw people, which I dig into in the essay. In The Skin is the Largest Sack, I got to think a bit about the animation industry as a whole, not just my little part in it.
EoF: You seem to bring up wellness for animators in your talks and other interviews. Why is this topic important to you?
MJ: Well, about four years ago I hurt my arm pretty badly working on a freelance project. It happened at a time in my life that I was still young and healthy. I just didn’t realize how much repetitive actions can destroy your studio practice for a while, not to mention make you totally paranoid about how you’ll pay your rent. It took me a year or even two to fully recover. These days, I have a better strategy for using my body, I strangely feel like I have to take care of myself more like an athlete does, just to be able to work at a computer for a substantial part of my week.
Now, I’m teaching college students to animate, and I can’t help but think that if more professionals and artists talked about the importance of taking care of their bodies, taking breaks etc, that we’d prevent burnout and physical injuries for generations to come. When I was in school, there was always a strong emphasis on cultivating your genius. If that meant pulling all-nighters or being in emotional distress, it was all in good service of the art. I graduated about a decade ago and I feel like that model was severely misrepresented. I’m actually more creative when I’m taking care of myself, even if that means my output is less.
Animation is a particular beast though. There’s this inherent inequality with animation, where the amount of labor it takes is so disproportionate to what you can make in that amount of time. It’s especially hard for people who have to make their living doing it, cause it’s slow going but seemingly endless supplies of young people who will destroy their bodies without realizing the cost, thus driving down the rates. We’re either going to need radically new technology or a completely different attitude about compensating for animation.
Poster for Shhh, curated by Miranda Javid, at Human Resources, LA
EoF: Are you working on anything new?
MJ: Yulp! Next week I’m curating an event at a gallery in LA called Human Resources. The event is titled Shhh and, as usual, it’s a mashup of improvised music, magic-realist prose, and subtle animation. It’s called Shhh because all of the work deals with content that is not immediately reckognizeable and claimable by any one concept or movement. Among several others, Booker Stardrum, who mixed Smoke, will be premiering a piece for nine saxophones and great film-makers like Karen Yasinsky, Kim Collmer, and Alexander Stewart will be showing animation. These works are complex and quietly-paced, which is not to say they are slow-moving or boring. Rather, the work is pretty non-dual and penetrative, an antithesis of our modern world with all it’s TLDR headlines and quick-content. It’ll be a kind of restorative yoga-version of a variety show, with an emphasis on animation.
In my own studio, I’m working on a much shorter, improvised film that imagines the radio waves of the first television transmission of 1928, which, coincidentally was of a classic animation trope: Felix the Cat. That should be finished some time next year.
I’m also taking a clown class which is not explicitly for my animations, but feels possibly related. TBC…
Study for Smoke’s Last Thought (2018) by Miranda Javid
All About My Girls
It would be a mistake to think that received grammar is the best vehicle for expressing radical views, given the constraints that grammar imposes upon thought, indeed, upon the thinkable itself – Gender Trouble, Judith Butler 1
The two women upstairs gave me a lot of trouble. Good trouble, I guess.
Once I had decided the film needed a sex scene, because why shouldn’t life’s crisis and angsts also abut love and passion?, and once I had decided that I wanted to focus that sexuality on female pleasure in the sexual act, because I am very rarely satisfied with the representation of womens’ actual orgasm in film and animation (with Renata Gąsiorowska’s Pussy from 2016 being my favorite exception), 2 and then once I decided that the coupling should not be heteronormative, cause I want to see more-balanced representation of queer bodies in moments that are not excessively privileged, eg, films not about ‘gayness,’ but films that include queer peoples, and finally, after I realized that one of my characters would be the African American representation of Betty Boop, whose creation diminishes an homage to Baby Esther, the harlem Jazz singer whose performance inspired the catchphrase, ‘Boop Boop A Doop’, well, then I just had to draw it. In animation, there are no found objects, so I would be accountable for each design, prop, and bite.
Backtracking a bit: June 2016. I was holding my script and a sketchbook in McGorlick park in Brooklyn, way across the country from my home in Los Angeles. For the past week, I’d been working on the musical numbers for my new film, Smoke’s Last Thought, with my close friends, Sam Owens, Austin Vaughn, and Eli Crews. We only had access to the studio Sam works at after business-hours, so I typically spent my days that week storyboarding and fine-tuning the script. I mention this location because the early stages of a film are so often idyllic, while the final steps of film-making so rarely are. There’s a pleasure to the early stages, though it’s not always to the service of the ultimate piece.
Perhaps that pleasure lead me to reflect on pleasure, and so I included a single drawing in the boards. In the third scene, where the Smoke rises past the lower landscape before climbing higher into the Los Angeles ether, I drew an arm extending out of an upstairs window, the fist opening wide into a flat palm. To me, the hand’s posture was dainty. I basically laughed to myself for adding what likely only I would recognize as a moment of orgasm within my film.
Within a month, I was back in Los Angeles, and several things about the window-moment started to bug me. First, I realized I’d ripped off the orgasm-euphemism of Laura Dern’s character in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart.3 Second, I realized I had to ask myself why this moment was important to me, even when it was so confusingly vague to a viewer.That lead me to wonder why I hadn’t just been explicit, show the thing I wanted to show? I’ve always known that my work, and particularly this film, would have nudity in the early scenes. Why should an elderly human getting out of a bathtub be any less human and worthy of representation than a moment of sexual pleasure?
My solution was to adjust the animatic to cut back through the walls of the apartment building, so that a viewer finds themselves on a close up of a woman’s breast, being fondled. I decided I would be specific about the fondling, with a thumb circling the nipple. My belief was that this gesture made the moment seem geared toward the woman whose breast it was, rather than for the hand that got to grab it. Architecturally, I needed to get us back into the apartment to see all this. I’d used the cartoon logic of going through walls earlier in the film, so I thought it’d be fine to cut back into the building through the same mechanism. I composed the shot to include a bit of the woman’s hair and ear, revealing a dangling hoop earring styled after the iconic Betty Boop.
I’d recently learned about Baby Esther, an overlooked figure of the Harlem Jazz Scene who was uncredited for her contributions to Betty Boop’s development.4 The official story is that Fleischer Studios ripped of the then-celebrity, Helen Kane, with their depiction of Betty, but the Fleischers themselves were unaware that Kane herself had plagiarized until Kane sued Fleischer studios in 1930.5 Kane copied Esther’s ‘baby’ falsetto and adopted Esther’s ‘Boo’s’ to a ‘Boop Boop a Doop’ catchphrase. Kane was already a success in white audiences and she continued to have a performing career into the 1930’s. In newspaper articles from the Fleischer trial, Esther is often only referred to as a “negro girl from [a] nightclub.”6 While Helen Kane’s lifetime is easily tracked on Wikipedia, I struggle to find more information on what happened to Baby Esther. The most common search results conflate an image of a Russian model cosplaying as Betty Boop.7
Whether or not the New York-based Fleischers really didn’t know about Baby Esther is inconsequential. To me, this story is emblematic of the repeated erasure of Black and female bodies in animation-history. Nicholas Sammond outlines this history in his helpful book, The Birth of An Industry. On the level of representation, Black women, their innovations, and their very gestures were stolen for the profit of white men in the industry, and libidinous consumption for a heteronormative audience.8
I knew a Black version of Betty would appear in my film because Smoke collapses historical time into a Screen Memory, layering past references into a present context as if a message from the subconscious. In addition to the chronological storyline of the interdimensional line, I collapsed time by incorporating color palette, grain, and Merrie Melodies set dressings into a world with iPads, tent villages and the 101. A revisionist history allowing Betty to be Black echoed these choices. In earlier sketches, the Betty character appeared as a woman unwinding after a long day—drinking a beer and texting on her phone on the roof. Though Betty’s involvement in the film evolved, Betty’s self-care setting remains; a viewer encounters it at the moment where the Smokes form a chain and try to grab onto a folding chair. When I see that shot, I often muse happily on Betty’s life beyond her appearances in the film.
As I edited the animatic to include the fondling breast-iteration, I made two unconscious and sudden decisions. So often this happens in drawing. I set out with a few qualities locked, but as I begin to draw, I make additional choices that complicate the scene. A sentence about what you want to draw can never include so many details as an image of the same thing. I’d intended to show the breast in closeup, thinking it would zero a viewer into Betty’s experience and body. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple to zoom into a single action. An existential question unfolded: If a breast is being fondled, what is the hand that fondled it? The more details I included in the hand—polished fingernails, for example—the more I felt accountable to a whole identity of another participant.
For another six months that was all I had figured out about the shot. During this time, I showed the film to my trusted mentors and friends, always saying when I got to that frame of the animatic that I would have to, “figure that out a little more.”
An initial drawing for the scene, by Miranda Javid
In March of 2017, I began to transition the shot from animatic-sketch to fully-animated sequence. This usually starts with me redrawing the storyboards a couple times in my sketchbook. I do this to practice the gestures, and see if any drawing-surprises show up. In retracing the action, the first thing that was immediately clear, and sort of unrelated to the challenges of representation thus far was that going back through the wall would dilute the impact of the earlier transition moment between inside the bathroom and the night landscape of Los Angeles. My loyalty is to the film as a whole, and not to the individual shots. In structural terms, I wanted the first half of the film to be a literal interior with a singular smoke expressing her feelings and the latter half of the film to be an exterior with a myriad of new characters and ephemera. To keep with the film’s values, if the proportion between interior and exterior locations fluctuated to 55% and 45%, one would become privileged over the other. So in this scene, the camera had to stay in the wide, rising along the side of the building.
Yet, if I didn’t go back inside, how would I compose a shot of a hand groping a breast? Lots of erotic visualizations followed. Ok, so she could be on her elbows facing the window. But is prone really the position that says what I want here? She could be fucking against the window! First, that sounds unsafe. Second, then there’s nothing really specific about that depiction of sex that appeals to me. How would I show specifically female pleasure if I just showed a Black body getting pounded? (But hey, not saying there’s anything wrong with that, either.) Also, now that I’d made the hand of her other partner feminized, what would that mean as far as penetration? Strap on, maybe? Sheesh, this is getting complicated.
My back to basics revelation came in the form of again asking, what about sex was I afraid of presenting? Other than legitimate family awkwardness, [Sorry Mom and Dad, sometimes when I imagine you seeing my work, the little Bahá’í-girl in me gets really freaked out!] I asked myself why I was trying to keep things less explicit? Why had I been cropping out the other character at all? I realized the fear was of depicting sex in a way that verged on graphic–by simply offering up the female body for consumption, as it so often seems to be in porn. Porn’s all well and good, but it’s intentions are different from those in this film. After I identified that as the fear, at least because I was depicting and identify as a woman myself, the questions became more simple. After all, what do I, as someone with a vagina, like?
The scene became a woman receiving oral sex. I settled on my femme white hand-ed character growing into the body of a female white woman. I wouldn’t be coy with my cropping. I’d openly show the act in full-body-view. The limitation metamorphosed into a blessing. What worked so perfectly about the restriction of staying outside for the shot was that, by staying in the wide, the body of Betty would exist within the landscape. The shot wouldn’t obsess over her genitalia or breasts, but her as a full, complete woman in situ. Thank goodness for continuity issues; Before switching back to the wide angle, I hadn’t even realized that there were problematics in the close-up version of this shot!
Next, I built a maquette of the building to study the architectural lines in motion, as they’d be viewed from a cartoon camera. Then I built the scaffold-like structures of the big stuff (like the walls of the building) in Toon Boom with squiggles in place of the bodies. Once these monoliths could move, the shot looked ‘real’-ish and therefore I was ready to design the more nuanced scene-elements.
By March 2017, I began to design set-dressing and characters. Betty was easiest to resolve. Even when they’re challenging the laws of Newtonian physics, I draw my female bodies with weight. In the real world, when you see a conventionally gorgeous body in person–and when I was 14 I waited in line at Eastland mall with my friend Jamila to get each of Destiny’s Child’s autographs–they don’t look as glossy as they do in print. So when I cartoon, which by necessity means simplifying, I try to think about this principle. With Betty, who was now so familiar, I just had to ask myself questions like, how does she roll her shoulders back? What are the shapes of her nipples?
Betty’s partner was a tougher question, mostly because I didn’t know her so well yet. I kind of needed a framework, and since I already had Betty Boop in the mix, a character infamous for shameless lust…I thought I might as well drag down one of the puritanical Disney Princesses along with her.
To be honest, I would have enjoyed including Snow White in this little scene. When I think about femininity depicted by white men in animation, it’s hard for me to not think of poor Snow White. Though in 1940 when Snow White debuted, the film was lauded for its realism,9 in my opinion, the film hasn’t aged well. The primary reason I feel sorry for Snow White is the fragility of her movements. This is in part because Snow White’s character, more true to the source footage than the embellished dwarves, was rotoscoped.10 Though one would expect tracing film to create heightened realism in a piece of animation, rotoscope animation often looks uncanny.11 I believe in part this is because there’s no planned-weight or skeletal framework for the animation. Though animators can include incredible amounts of shadow and fabric movement in rotoscope animation, the figures do not exist in the same ground as their background. They are awkwardly realistic, without acknowledging or subverting a viewer’s expectation of physics. In the case of Snow White, she not only looks like an automaton, but she moves with the now outdated gender biases of the era in which she was drawn, adding another dimension of awkwardness to her gestures.
But Snow White just looks way too much like Betty Boop. The Fleischers and Disney both exploited this similarity in the 1930’s with a variety of domestically-minded films and Snow White themed cartoons.12 Yet I didn’t find homogeneity productive in this context. As much as I’m high minded about the underpinnings of my decisions, there are times where I need to alter an appearance based on visuals alone. I settled on Aurora, from Disney’s flop13 Sleeping Beauty.14 As an underdeveloped character also in need of a prince to save her, I thought, “she’ll do.”
While it seems like at this point, probably two weeks into truly animating, I had most of the ingredients sorted out, the next portion was undoubtedly the most difficult to resolve.
When I sat down to animate the act, the literal motions that composed Aurora kneeling down and giving Betty Boop head, I realized I was entirely out of my league on this one. I’ve had my share of female partners, so I’m not altogether unfamiliar with each of the roles in that exchange, but to be brutally honest, I still haven’t really got the hang of giving women all they deserve, with myself as a clear exception. These days I’m partnered with a man, and while it’s everyone’s choice to decided how they identify, I don’t think it’s accurate to represent myself as queer amidst a world of my relative privilege. To me, gender and sexuality are active conversations, and I reserve the right to change my mind, but I’d also like to admit my blind spots. These situational factors lead to a general insecurity on how lesbian sex should be depicted. Was it even different from heterosexual sex at all? I was going to need to do some research.
Like most Americans, my first solution to the problem was with pornography.For my particular project, I sought reference videos of cunnilingus, particularly so that I could study the act on the level of micro gesture. Where do the hands go? Where does the partner’s body come into play? How much neck movement is there really? What’s even pushing the neck forward if she’s only a few inches off the ground?
With the larger porn sites like Xtube and Pornhub,15 I suspect that using the I am (male/female) and I prefer watching (men/women) formats are disruptive to the search process. Additionally, because these are binary identifications, as searches, they likely limit the type of pornography one encounters.Call this small-batch artisanal data, but I believe the offerings for female-identified searchers preferring to watch women are never as diverse as the searches when I select that I am a man watching. If anything, the female-identified searches bring up less graphic, ‘softer’ videos, and far fewer of them at that. Where’s the search-fields for non-binary femmes who like power play? I did my best to use these sites to find cunnilingus but didn’t turn up much. What do you even put in the search bar? Most of the terms describing porn that I know are male-centered: cum shot, gang bang, creampie.
When I do find pornography on these larger sites with lesbian cunnilingus, the performance feels disingenuous to me. First, many of these videos end in some kind of heterosexual performance, typically one or both of the women having sex with a nearby man. Second, as an animator, I found that the neck motions of these performers were mechanical. There was always either too much ease at the end of the motion–like a figure intensely finishing each lick with a flourish–or a ton of repetitious movements for a short duration, followed by kissing, and then usually followed by the aforementioned man to come in and fuck somebody. Even as a mostly heterosexual woman, I didn’t see any cunnilingus on these bigger sites that remotely resembled my own personal experience of sex.
My next tier of resources came from what are typically referred to as ‘ethical porn’ sites’: places where one can feel certain that they are watching participants who want to be there, who are being compensated fairly for their work. My friend and writer of Good Sex, Jessica Graham provided me with a list of these.16 They do cost money, and so are a little harder to sample before purchase. The upside to this being getting off with a better promise of fair-labor practice, even in depictions of some kind of power play. My frustration with these sites is relatively minor in the larger scheme of sexual equality, but I do suspect that the performances in these videos are still in what Judith Butler calls ‘inherited grammars.’ Many of the sex acts seem to mimic the other porn sites. Even in ‘camming’ the camera becomes a sexual catalyst inspiring the performer, but still a stand in for the male gaze. The larger-porn-gestures reverberate down to amateur coupled pornography as well. If the rare movement of giving head to a woman in an X-tube video manifests as a short burst of licks, then ethical porn learns its conventions from its predecessor.17
A final note on traditional porn: With some of the questions I have about camming noted above, I will say that some of the most realistic videos of sex I’ve seen are on Chaturbate or Reddit.18 Realism to me doesn’t always mean true-to-life, but in the sense of realism in literature, realistic porn should advocate for the experiences of real bodies and people. Though even here, in genuinely amateur platforms, cunnilingus is never prioritized, partially because many of these are solo performances. I’ll concede that the physical interiority of the female body might be part of it, as well. It’s a lot easier to film an ejaculating penis, or hell, even the penetration of an asshole, than it is to shoot the exceptionally light but still active flick of a clit. So perhaps until Augmented Reality takes a further step in shared sensations, directional cameras will never be able to really ‘do much’ for the tastes of porn consumers who seem to prefer explicit (and often liquid) action.19 That said, statistics on female orgasms are notoriously hard to verify, but considering the percentage might be as high as 75% of women that can only cum from clitoral stimulation, why is the representation of it so minimized in the pornographic experience? If you’re thinking it’s because women don’t watch porn and so, it’s not for them, I’m here to confirm that’s incredibly untrue.
I found the best video-research for my film from OMGyes, a project which focuses not on pornography but the science and education of female pleasure.20 It’s not a pornography resource, but an educational one. OMGyes films women masturbating, then interviews them talking about their experience of pleasure. They also have an interactive touchscreen simulator of real (and diverse!) vaginas. It was really helpful for my research to see and simultaneously hear verbalized thoughts and sensations the woman in these videos experienced.
It was through the guidance of OMGyes’s episode, ‘Layering,’ and a conversation with a frequent consultant for Smoke that lead me actually to de-emphasize the role of the clitoris in the shot. Believe me, these are words I never thought I would type. Jamila Reddy is not just the woman I shouted out from my Destiny’s Child anecdote a few pages back. In addition to being my childhood friend, she works as a life coach, specifically for Black, queer persons, and spends her free time Instagramming about body shame.21 She is intimately familiar with my project. (In an early iteration of the film, Jamila played the role of a narrator who I later cut for reasons beyond Jamila’s ability.) Throughout production, I consulted Jamila about the questions where I thought she might kindly be willing to guide me toward an ethical solution. The layering episode reminded me of the interiority of the female body and made me worry a bit about a world where penetration is ignored entirely. In our particular conversation about Betty and Aurora, Jamila reminded me that it’s always specific to the people involved. She solved my question with humbling resolve. There’s no such thing as lesbian sex….at least not one general way to depict it. Because of her advice, I took a step back from the standardization of one kind of sexual act and again referred to my own experiences or firsthand interviews. Clitoral awareness might be part of a movement to empower women, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle of equal rights.
Jamila Reddy Recording for Smoke’s Last Thought
When I teach 2D animation, I include a lecture titled, ‘Representation in Animation.’ As with my evocation of Sammond’s text on the erasure of Black bodies in early animation, there are countless examples of one type of person misrepresenting the body of another person.22 I include a personal anecdote in the talk. As a woman with middle eastern heritage, I remember noticing as a child that the knife-wielding villains in Aladdin always had features that looked recognizably Arabic, whereas the two protagonists looked the most Anglicized. Today, I see the insistence of Jasmine and Aladdin’s barbie-esque features as a sign that a film like this was animated by a western audience looking eastward. Was it Disney’s story to tell? Sometimes the answer seems to be: write what you know. Following my anecdote, I like to conclude my lecture by asking students to defend or critique: Should an author only write about experiences that they can directly relate to? Students usually end up fighting a bit about this question, because there’s no perfect answer, especially in a field where an independent animator must invent 100% of the setting, characters, and story.
The question plagues me as well. Was it ever even my business to draw a Black body engaged in sexual activity with another woman? Because my practice hopes to evoke radical empathy, I feel I must logically ask myself this with each character, even if the characters are not human. It’s not as though I’ve lived through the body of a wisp of smoke either. But with the stakes as high as depictions of race and gender are in our world, I must admit, I feel animation is inherently imaginative and requires attempting the leap beyond the self. My personal solution to the problem of representation is to do my best, but acknowledge my shortcomings by asking for help from others, and to return to myself and what I do intimately know, even when it doesn’t translate synchronically. By Jamila’s advice, I needed to think of these women as complex holistic characters, but when in doubt to think about my own personal experiences.
So that foot kiss.
Well. My own life isn’t free of kink. While I’m not a foot fetishist myself, I’m an advocate for those who are. I know firsthand that decentralizing the body and appreciating even the lowliest appendage can bring unexpected feelings of love. In addition to lust, there is certainly also love between these two women. True, the act is sexual, but in some, if not many cases, having sex is about connection, admitting the limits of our flesh by pressing them against each other. The Aurora character is working very hard for Betty’s pleasure. She’s making eye contact, moving quickly in an awkward position, and even after such labor, she’s still gracefully loving to Betty’s feet. If I included a sex scene to lighten the mood, I hoped to garnish that pleasure with respect and adoration.
I finished the scene by drawing each of these elements, then including a series of carefully selected props around their bedroom. Austin Vaughn composed a piece of music that we pre-amped, making it a diegetic element. The women are listening to this song while they have sex, which I’m thinking they continue to do well into the next scene. In the viewer’s particular window into their delectation, it’s unclear whether Betty did finish.
I wasn’t done with them yet. I didn’t feel it would be fair to show Betty and Aurora just once, and only in the wide shot, nude and sexualized. They are that, but they’re also more than that. In May 2017, I drew a followup appearance. In the final montage of bats, Gil, and the ocean, we encounter Aurora reading an iPad in bed, while Betty scratches her cat’s tail. (Oddly, yet relatedly, if I make this same move for about ten minutes on my sister’s cat, Beauty, she actually squirts with pleasure.) The moment with the three of them in bed is relatively quiet compared to the earlier appearances. Despite the relative ease of creating the follow up shot after getting to know these characters for years, this shot is quantitatively a much longer duration than the one previously described. To this day, I smile seeing Aurora in a band shirt and reading glasses, both of them wearing their wedding rings, while Betty takes pleasure in making her cat purr. And all that really starts to remind me of living in Los Angeles, the many types of portraits that an animated film like Smoke allows for.
Betty and Aurora appear in-coitous for six seconds of my seventeen minute film. Not including the pre-production aspects, like storyboarding and building the animatic, the actual animation of this shot took over a month of full-time work. While not every shot required this kind of attention to detail, these particular steps, and recounting of them here is emblematic of the animation process. Part of the joy I find in animation is in the scale of elongated time. I get to spend weeks discovering the nuances of a movement that on a set-day I would breeze through. Sometimes I feel like a contemporary dancer. I spend much of my studio-practice musing over the implications of minute gesture. Even when the actions of my characters feel new to inhabit, the body remains my primary tool for synthesizing these ideas. I spend weeks trying to offer my consciousness up to experiences external to my own.
For me, animation allows to examine these ideas with a complexity that opposes the quick think-piece culture of our digital era. I’m happy to say that though at times very humbling, I’ve found the animative practice to be fairly helpful in deepening my experience of being a body in the world. Specifically in the Betty/Aurora dynamic, introducing new research into my own sex life, as during the creation of the coitus-shot, my partner was down to embrace my studio practice and my lack of work-boundaries. Beyond my film, I also appreciate how the process of animation—the supposed tedium that long-form projects take to execute–always leads me to question my own position in society. Some of the political aspects of my film live in these moments of crisis, where I start a shot patting myself on the back for being such a progressive animator, then end up realizing there’s no such thing as lesbian sex. It’s a powerful studio practice!
I’ve heard animators sometimes describe the studio practice as one of retreat, a place to disappear into a dark room to sketch out fantasy versions of our world. We animators joke about our strange work-habits, but I also find the opposite to be true. To draw the imagined body of another requires a deeper learning of what exists beyond a self. The space of animation is indeed that fantastical space, but it’s one of connection, where I get to hope we can do more than simply graze the surface of our lover’s skin. In the frames, we can try to go deeper, connecting beyond the flesh and willingly admitting our innumerable flaws.
Character studies for the character of Smoke, by Miranda Javid
The Skin is the Largest Sack
To Do List For “Gil Wide Angle Bathtub” (There’s one of these for every shot)
Thumb out the shot
Export audio track from animatic in premiere
Import the palette in Toon Boom
Build the scene, build the layers, name them
Sketch the poses
Draw the background
Draw the key poses on Gil’s front body
Draw key poses on gil behind the towel
Inbetween Gil back and front body
Fill in the colors
Body Wrinkles Pass
Face Wrinkles Pass
Face sheen pass
Face sheen highlight pass
Dripping water pass
Towel lines pass
Draw the water in the tub
Candle wick and sink materials
Flame flickering tendrils
Flame body and wax reflection
5-D line sketch
5-D line drawing (bitmap)
Export each layer individually
Reassemble in After Effects
Blur and layer Gil
Add glow to flame
Export from After Effects (will take 20 hours)
Import into premiere
Sync with audio
Watch it in the cut several times
Record sound effects
Add found sound (are there any?)
Part II: Imagining
Start small, nestled into dense folds and matrices. You grow, bursting through the membrane. You turn to look back at the lump. Its wrapper wriggles, and the organelle ekes out another mitochondrion. It divides. Around you, the city of the cell is bustling with vacuole, reticulum, and the haven of the nucleus. Each piece has its function, yet snuggles alongside another to form a whole. There’s no room for you now, as you grow again. Your head pokes through the cell wall, and there you see a hoard of cells gushing acid. It stinks here. The fumes dissolve incoming nutrients into energy, and the leftover gunk drips down the tubes. You grow, and climb through the stomach tissue to peer back at a hillside of guts. The endless rolling mounds make a bouquet of organs, packed tight, colorless in the dark of the body, but also wet, everything slippery. Are they rushing? No, they pulse. Waves of blood lap at the shores. Each mound connects through tissue, nerve, and vein. But don’t get comfortable. You are growing again and cannot rest. With the tickle of a hair follicle and the lubrication of a sweat gland, you pass through flesh, dense as an orange peel. You are almost out, but a foot is stuck in white muck. Sploosh! Your toes slip out through a puss-filled pimple. “Thank you for popping it!” A voice from above says. You glide through the weft fibers that encase a final sack. Your feet touch the concrete, and you stand looking slightly down at me, my animation desk, and the frame I am drawing.
The above experience could be realistic, if human beings weren’t so restricted by Newtonian Physics, if we could move at the scale of cells or permeate other bodies. A smell slips through a latex balloon.23 Why can’t we? If we could, we’d not just know but see: the body is just a series of sacks, all the way down to the cellular or even mitochondrial level. In the physical world, we prioritize the skin because it’s what we can see, but other organs also influence the whole of the self.
Transforming face study by Miranda Javid
A good lesson in mobility is the western foundational animation exercise of the walking flour sack. Before an animator can practice a full skeletal walk cycle, she must practice imbuing a sack with life to make it hobble across the screen. Through this exercise, an animator learns how weight pendulates not just on but inside of the figure. She will also learn to overlap actions. A walk cycle is not a series of independent gestures. Even with a walking sack, one must move all parts simultaneously. The faux limbs of the bag’s corners, the heaviness of the ‘guts,’ each has its own cycle of motion that overlaps slightly with the other objects. The student of this exercise must delve into the radically interior, to look for complexity where shallow observation eliminates the detail. Even the parts unseen effect the whole.
In the physical world, movement has a cost. A mobile body generates more capital. I know this intimately. In addition to my personal practice as an artist-animator, I also work for hire as a freelancer. When a client comes to me with a project, I charge based on several factors. First, is the cost of materials needed to execute the animation. The second is the finite resource of time. Time spent on a client’s project is time I will never have back for my own work or to spend with loved ones. The third feature I charge for is one that didn’t occur to me till later in my twenties when a repetitive use injury forced me to rethink my future in this profession. Animation is hard on the body. Repeating small motions for an extended duration strains the eyes, hands, arm, and back. The painful recovery period that followed my stressed scapula injury–familiar to animators–forced me to know that the body itself is finite, and just as I charge for the wear and tear on my car when I bill for mileage, I must charge for the expenditure of increasingly limited capabilities of my body. In my early twenties, I used to stay up all night working. Now, thirty, I must take frequent breaks. I must sleep. I have reduced the amount of time I can draw to an eight to ten hour work day. I anticipate more changes in the years to come.
How will I continue to build expertise and execute meaningful animations, when the cost of labor is prohibitive, to the point of being absurd?
It’s not just my personal body involved. Animation finds itself in an international labor crisis. At the scale of Disney, Pixar, or even independent studios, production is nearly financially impossible. The only reason these studios can continue to produce content is because they treat human labor as an expendable, constant resource. Don’t let it fool you, the promise of automated animation through computer-generated imagery is, at least at the time of this essay’s writing, not without a significant expense of human bodies. Most of the time, larger US companies export their animation labor to Korea or Poland. Shows like Summer Camp Island and Steven Universe are still written and carefully storyboarded in Los Angeles, but the drawing, color fills, and effects, the slow process of actually animating is handled by people who receive none of the credit, and hardly any of the pay.24 Why? It’s so much cheaper than paying domestic animators a living wage and if animation was any more expensive, it wouldn’t exist on larger networks or as broadly distributed feature film.
Isn’t that depressing?
I’ll change the scope.
In the cartoon world, the body is liberated. A stomach could break free and start its own homestead, maybe even have a family and kids. The body cannot die. Even dismembered arms have volition. There’s no conservation of mass. Mystery spinach appears in the back pocket of exhausted sailors. Magic is possible. Those who cannot speak are given a voice. It’s in the freedom of animation itself that I find a renewed spirit, and the motivation to work through these constraints of the physical body. As much as animation as a practice requires either abundant labor or sufficient capital–the actual space inside of the animated film is untethered. It’s a contradiction.25
In this nugget of confusion, I find the fraught optimism that inspires me to dedicate so much of my life to this form, this craft: animation. It is mainly with the resistance to the studio process listed above in mind that I tend to consider myself an ‘experimental animator,’ a catch-all term for those of us who animate beyond the commercial industry. But even with the designation of an ‘experimenter,’ for me, the labor of animation and the freedom of the animated world remain an aporia of the profession. I prefer to embody the contradiction, for even when the western business-model incentivizes the erasure of labor, animation is a resource for viewers to rethink the burdensome realities of our human world without restriction. In animation, the most labor-intensive practice unshackles the possibilities of bodies unskinned, pluralized, and stretchy.
End card for Smoke’s Last Thought (2018) by Miranda Javid
Further viewing – ‘Talking Smoke in 15 Minutes‘, Miranda Javid at Penland School of Craft
Visit Miranda’s Website
All About My Girls and The Skin is the Largest Sack © 2019 Miranda Javid