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Andy Smetanka // An Interview with the Missoula Sorcerer
by Aaron Zeghers // Published to Cineflyer // Feb 14, 2012
Silhouette animator Andy Smetanka will be in Winnipeg this Friday, Feb. 17th to introduce a program of his work. He will also be leading a workshop on Saturday, Feb. 18th through the Winnipeg Film Group. Smetanka started making Super 8 movies in 2002 after an inspiring trip to Winnipeg, and since 2004 has been working chiefly in animated silhouettes. His work can be seen in the music videos of The Decemberists, and in the 2007 Guy Maddin documentary feature My Winnipeg.
Below is a phone interview that Smetanka did with Cineflyer’s Aaron Zeghers.
AZ: Why not start off where it began? I read somewhere that you had an inspirational trip to Winnipeg near the beginning of your career?
AS: Yeah, it kind of was the beginning in some sense. I was absolutely obsessed with the movie Careful [Guy Maddin, 1992] and I just took it in my head that we had to go to Winnipeg, and we were going to meet these guys and we were going to get to the bottom of this whole thing. (laughs) My friend Sarah and I still refer to it as a pilgrimage, but you can kind of call it a stalking as well, since we just decided to go out there and try to track Guy Maddin and George Toles down. But in the end George Toles invited us so it doesn’t qualify as a stalking I guess. But that was in 2001, just about two weeks before 9-11, and so it was kind of a special trip. I’d met all these great friends and we’ve fulfilled our quest and we got to meet Guy Maddin and became friends with George Toles and just had a great time. And then it was kind of sealed off in memory by 9-11. So I’m excited to get back to Winnipeg.
AZ: Why silhouettes?
AS: Strangely enough, I can’t draw. I’ve always had some sort of artistic hankering visual-wise, but I just can’t draw to save my life. With drawing there’s the surface of the thing, and there’s texture and shading and cross-hatching. It’s just basically all these things that can go wrong if you draw as shitty as I do. But I found when I had an exacto knife in my hand, the thing was either there or it wasn’t. That was sort of my way into animation. I realized I could just be this guy doing silhouettes. That was an important lesson.
I’m always at a loss to describe why Careful took such a hold over my mind at the time. This was like 1999 to 2001. I watched it literally probably 125 times, sometimes twice a day. It appealed to me on a lot of levels, but something that I really got instinctively was that this was a movie that somebody made without much money, but a tonne of work and a tonne of inspiration. And in part for financial reasons, Guy Maddin just managed to specialize his way into this unique corner that nobody else was doing. The technology that was most affordable to him was the same technology that was affordable to people in the 20s and 30s, and that was the style in which he chose to shoot his movies. And it’s kind of brilliant because he exists in a really unique sort of place, and that was an important lesson for me to take early on. You know I didn’t want to be in a category where I was competing with other people. Or where everyone was doing exactly the same thing as me. But the short version is that I liked it, it just kind of appealed to me. I don’t know, it just satisfies me on many, many levels.
AZ: When you think of silhouette animators, inevitably Lotte Reiniger comes to mind. Was she the first?
AS: She was the original, as far as I know. There is some evidence that there was an animated silhouette feature from Argentina a little bit earlier, but no one really knows for sure. So you can credit her with the birth of the silhouette movie for sure. And she was a big piece of inspiration for me as well. I saw her movie [The Adventures of Prince Achmed] and likewise it captivated me. By looking into some documentary materials I was able to see her setup and how she did it. And through trial and error I was able to make a much smaller size scale of the same thing. She’s definitely something to aspire to. She’s just so fabulously talented. I think every silhouette animator is sort of destined to labour in her shadow.
AZ: Do you find that there are many silhouette artists like yourself out there?
AS: There are! I think you can safely say that silhouettes are making a comeback. People send me links to this stuff all the time on Facebook saying, “Hey, I thought of you!” People will send me trailers for video games with the characters in silhouette, and little silhouette promos for this film festival and that film festival and silhouette music videos. And there’s a lot of them and they’re really good, but I’m not doing quite the same thing as any of them are doing. They’re using digital video for starters which gives their stuff a completely different look. And I’m still slugging it out with Super 8. So it’s kind of a scary nature reserve to be in, because I’m always scared that the technology could go extinct at any minute. And I don’t want to join this legion of digital animators just yet. But in the meantime I’m seeing silhouettes just pop up every place. Maybe I’m just more in tune with it now, but I think there’s a resurgence in silhouette popularity.
AZ: You’ve done stuff for Guy Maddin. You’ve done a music video for the Decemberists. But it’s hard to find stuff online that is explicitly your own concept and creation. Will we get to see some of this on Friday?
AS: There’s going to be a lot of never-before-seen stuff on Friday. What I’m showing this Friday is a program that kind of captures the arc of my career, if you want to call it that so far. It’ll start with the first ever silhouette movies I made. I scampered back to Montana after visiting Winnipeg and started making these. They’re not silhouette animations, they’re little dioramas and little pipe cleaner figures and stuff like that. But I’m showing my early attempts and then my most recent attempts. In that span there’s going to be a couple time-lapse things, but mostly silhouette art and animation. Among the things that have never been seen before are a couple of little orphaned things that I did for Guy Maddin. I’m not totally sure what their future is. They are two little fanciful remakes of films that were somehow lost. So while Guy’s off playing in Paris, Winnipeg’s going to get a little peak in his laundry drawer as it were.
AZ: I know you did some animations for The Hauntings, a project that Guy was working on to remake lost films. I saw some cloud silhouettes you did that I believe were for the remake of Hollis Frampton’s Clouds Like White Sleep, which he apparently lost on a New York subway. Is this what you’re talking about?
AS: Right, you’ve seen that one. Sorry, Aaron, you probably know more about this than I do. I started making these three little remakes when he was shooting The Hauntings, which was at the same time he was shooting Keyhole. I was still labouring in Missoula. It takes me a while to do this stuff, as you can probably imagine. So I was still just kind of working on my part and I get this sense that the project had kind of moved on and made why I was doing not really relevant anymore. But you know I kept right at it because I’d gotten started and I wanted to finish and show something for what I’d been paid and now I think maybe they’ll be useful again. I’m not really sure how up to Maddin’s doings the Winnipeg readership is but what I’m going to show are a couple of not before seen bits from that project that I’m talking about, that concept.
AZ: Is there anything in specific that you’ve been exploring in your own personal work that you’d want to tell us about?
AS: Well you know I haven’t had much of a chance to make my own stuff. It was only a few years ago when I made my first movie that wasn’t somehow a music video or a commission or something that was totally of my own volition, like a project that I was just doing because I decided to. Those are relatively rare and recent. I mean, I’m psyched and I feel like a lot of what I want to express as an animator and as an artist is totally revealed through the work of other people, but I’ve never been 100% in charge. I still have their music to work with or their idea of what they want to see. But I am getting to do a lot more of that now. I have sort of this frustrating wish list of private projects I want to get around to. But I keep postponing them myself to do other things that strike my fancy or some other work just kind of comes up.
I will tell you though, that this spring I’m going to be launching a Kickstarter campaign. If you’ve seen My Winnipeg you maybe remember the Happyland Scene where there’s some Canadian soldiers fighting in WWI. Just a brief little battle scene. Well that was really fun, so I’m going to do this little Kickstarter campaign and in fact it’s already done, we’re just waiting until I get back from Winnipeg to launch it. It’ll be working my way up to making a silhouette feature over the course of a year and a half or so about Doughboys, about the American experience in WWI. The voiceover is going to be all oral histories and interviews with the Doughboys, some that have been passed down. What I’m kind of hoping for is like a silhouette version of the Thin Red Line, except set in WWI instead. It shows the American involvement from 1917 onward.
AZ: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Andy.
AS: No problem Aaron.