Wednesday, October 20, 2010

WAX MASK talks to Sally Cruikshank

Back in August I posted a short article about one of my favorite animators, Sally Cruikshank. Later, Max posted a video jam from 1984 which Sally contributed to. To our surprise, Sally commented on this post shortly after Max uploaded it. I got in contact with Sally, and she agreed to answer a few of our questions via email.

MAX: How did you come to define your particular style of drawing? There seem to be a lot of cubist influences, but also an element of early silent cartoons (such as Felix the Cat and Bosko) as well.

I watched a lot of black and white cartoons on tv when I was little. That's where I saw Felix the Cat, Betty Boop. and the early Van Beuren cartoons. I majored in art in college and spent a lot of time in the library just looking at reproductions of paintings, but Cubism was not an influence. I actually don't like Cubist art. I don't even like Picasso! Maybe you mean art deco--I got a lot of ideas for background detail from Art Deco books and objects.

M: It seems as though the time signature is constantly changing in your work—sometimes characters move in a very herky-jerky fashion, other times there's a lot of interstitial panels and so the characters move smoothly (Fun on Mars being an example of the former, and Face Like a Frog an example of the latter). Is this due to outside constraints or is this a conscious choice depending on the piece?

When you do all the work yourself, you get better as you go along. I used to advise people starting out in animation to start with a small project for just that reason--the first stuff you do will always look in need of replacing, improving, and if you're not careful you'll never finish. Fun on Mars is from 1971, Face Like a Frog 1987. I improved.

GREG: Kim Deitch is credited as “Special Art Assistant” on Quasi at the Quackadero (1975). How did you come to work with Deitch and what exactly was his role on the film? I find that your shorts from this period are consistent with Deitch’s work and the underground comics scene of that time in general. What, if any, connection existed between independent animation and comics the 1970s?

When I was in college someone showed me R. Crumb's Head Comix. It was so good I almost didn't want to look at it. How can this be? I was at Smith College in Massachusetts. I graduated early, after finishing my first cartoon, Ducky, and headed to San Francisco to take a film making course at the Art Institute and find out more about this underground comics movement. I became friends with underground cartoonists- everyone was young and excited about the work they were doing. Kim was my boyfriend. He inked and painted cels in the film, also did some voices. I was the only one of that crowd who was doing animation. I had a great job where I was paid to experiment in animation, so I had the resources to make a film on my own.

G: You’ve created many memorable opening title sequences for live-action films. This is an interest of mine and we’ve posted several such sequences. The sequence you created for Mannequin is a particularly strong memory for many filmgoers and in many ways defines the design aesthetic of the 1980s for people like me who are too young to really remember the decade. Your earlier shorts are very satirical in their presentation of the “me decade” and also predict the nascent 80s visual culture. Along with Haring, Lichtenstein, Nagel and others, your design sense—the particular colors, textures and patterns—has come to define the decade, at least in a nostalgic—perhaps revisionist— fashion. To what extent is the style of your 1980s work satirical, and to what extent is it an organic part of the cultural zeitgeist?

It's very odd to me that Mannequin was so influential. I was called in to do the titles because the plot line didn't hold together, and they needed to warm up the audience and explain how the girl got from ancient Egypt to contemporary Philadelphia. It was a tough sequence to come up with because I don't really like that parade of history kind of stuff- they wanted it to follow a time line with gags.

Ruthless People was much more exciting for me. I'd seen the "Memphis Design" style in books. It originated in Italy as I recall. The directors wanted to do a cavalcade of ruthlessness thru the years (sound a bit like the Mannequin idea, tho earlier?) but after I saw the rough cut and the decor of the film was all Memphis Design, which was very new then, I came up with the idea of titles designed in a Memphis style, and each credit treated ruthlessly. I heard that Mick Jagger, who sings the title song, hated the sequence. Thanks, Mick.

As far as the me decade, even in the 60's I thought hippies took themselves way too seriously, and was an outsider.

G. Doing research on animated title sequences for live-action films, it becomes apparent that animators are often not credited in either the main or end titles. While you seemed to avoid this problem, are there any high-profile animation jobs you were not credited for? Also, your sequence for Loverboy (1989) is not listed on IMDb. Are there are other projects of yours IMDb does not list? Did you have to push to appear credited for film sequences, and do you have any insight about why it was so hard for other animators to receive credit, either on celluloid or on the internet?

It's been a while since I fought those battles, but it was partly DGA and partly the studios. Front end credit wasn't allowed, and it couldn't say directed by because of DGA rules. I just looked at IMDb and see they have my Sesame Street pieces entirely wrong, and a number of other things are mixed up. I did titles for Greg Araki's Smiley Face but the timer must have been color blind because they look awful and not as intended. It's hard to change info on IMDb or Wikipedia. As I recall Wikipedia has better info on me but I haven't looked lately.

M: There seems to be a strong inclination to terrify the audience periodically with abstract imagery (i.e. Don't Go in the Basement and your work on Twilight Zone: The Movie). There's also the strong presence of reptiles throughout your work—what is it about these creatures that fascinates you?

Well I'm not such a white and fluffy person really. Right now I'm considering a praying mantis character as part of a strip for the Android phone.

M: You created a number of animated shorts for Sesame Street in the 90s. My favorite short that you produced for the show is “Beginning, Middle and End”. Aside from actually introducing core concepts of Aristotelian narrative, it's also just extremely fun and appealing. I want to ride a Pterodactyl taxi when I wake up! But was there anything you ever produced for Sesame Street that was cut due to content? How specific were the outlines for a particular short? How much creative freedom did animators have working for the show?

Arlene Sherman was the producer I worked with for Sesame Street and she was a wonderful person. So much creative freedom, unbelievable. She'd send a lyrics sheet, with a composer singing his own rough track. I'd do a storyboard and send it back. Very few changes ever. Then I'd do all the animation, shoot a pencil test and with approval, on to final coloring. I guess there were a few changes suggested but really very few.

G: You maintain a Youtube channel where many of your films are available. Other animators, such as the Chiodo Brothers, are doing the same thing. Having such a resource is incredible for those interested in the history of animation. Do you find that people are discovering your films for the first time through the internet? Aside from Youtube, is there a stable distribution system for avant-garde, experimental-narrative animated shorts in 2010?

I just sent off three crabby emails today to distributors who are renting my films and not paying me or in contract with me. But I actually think copyright is mostly over, you just have to accept it. The free content world. If peeps really like my work they'll buy the dvd because the quality is so much better. The audience that now seems to like my work the best is filled with Sesame Street graduates, who come to my youtube channel because of a childhood memory and then go through all the other films. They're so enthusiastic. But too many of them are studying animation as a major and expecting to make a living from that. Unless there's a great change in what we look at, the job they're most likely to get is teaching animation.

There's never been a stable distribution that pays money for short films since theatrical cartoons died out.

G: Finally, what are you working on these days, where can our readers find your work, and how can they contact you?

I made a video to the tune of "Night Owl" which I posted on Youtube. However, I got discouraged about doing videos with old tunes behind them when I don't have the rights. I had posted quite a few on BrightCove when that service still offered free space and better image quality. But even though the tunes I used were really obscure, BrightCove identified that they were not my property and removed the videos. Do you think it was software that does this?

Youtube is very serious and careful about not letting you earn money for any piece that uses music etc. for which you don't own rights. However, even the videos Youtube approved have yet to pay me a dime and it is incredibly labyrinthine trying to contact Youtube about where's the money!

My Youtube channel is laughingsal. I try to answer the comments people post there. Right now I'm playing around with code and a story for the Android phone. Bye!

1 comment:

  1. Great job here in pursuing this interview and backing it up with a lot of research into Cruikshank's technique and working history. As Max suggested, I recognize the style (and the name is familiar) but didn't know much about Cruikshank's work. Thanks for pointing me in this direction!