Joanna Priestley: Discovering where the magic is

The Portland filmmaker, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, calls animation a “fascinating combination of art and science”

Joanna Priestley’s animated film, “Jung & Restless,” was scheduled to premiere this weekend at the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City, but fell victim to the COVID-19 outbreak when the showing was canceled. Priestley, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis, promises she will eventually make it happen. We talked with her about her work as an animator.

Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards.  Photo by: Tim Sugden
Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards. Photo by: Tim Sugden

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Priestley: I was born in Portland, a third-generation Oregonian. I spent some time away, but I always come back to Oregon because Oregon is the best. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, got my undergraduate from Berkeley, and in my 30s, went back to get a masters at the California Institute of the Arts. That’s the school Walt Disney founded.

Did you go to school knowing you were going to be a filmmaker?

I always really, really loved films. I watched everything I could. In high school, I connected to the Multnomah library system and they had a fabulous collection of animated films.

How did you discover it?

My teacher showed them in school. That’s where I was first exposed to animation as an art form.

I’m guessing animation has changed by leaps and bounds since?

It has and it hasn’t. It’s changed technically. People have much more sophisticated technology and techniques of creating animation. But the basic way you create animation is the same. It was invented in late 1880s. It’s been refined, but still, the basic idea is the same.

What is the basic idea?

The basic idea is you study and learn how movement is created. Animation is this really fascinating combination of art and science. You have to understand both. If you look at sports, for example, you see loads of interesting movement. Like in boxing, there’s a preparatory action where you pull your arm back and clench your fist and then you push your fist and arm forward and slam into something, and then there’s a reaction where your hand snaps back a little bit. As you study that motion you can begin to understand how to break it down into individual drawings — or sculpture, if you are doing stop-motion animation.

A forest of hands is among the stream-of-consciousness images in Joanna Priestley’s new film, “Jung & Restless.”

That seems like it would take so many, many drawings.

You just decide how many drawings a second you are going to do to create your motion. You use 12 drawings a second, or 24 a second, if you are a Disney studio. I use 12 drawings a second. Some use eight drawings a second, some, in what we call limited animation, use four. You decide at the beginning what you are going to use. So then, you just go about calculating how far to move things with the drawings. If you’re using stop-motion animation with puppets or sculpture, you have to figure out how far to move the puppet or sculpture. And that’s where the magic is.

You made your first film using rubber stamps?

I did. I was living in Sisters, in a very remote place, and I decided to start experimenting and teach myself how to animate. I went to the grocery store and I bought some index cards. And I had a very big collection of rubber stamps, because I was trying to make my own stamps and sell them commercially, which really meant I was going to Saturday Market in Portland with a little box of stamps and trying to sell them. But this was a very good way to learn.

What I did was stamp on successive index cards to make the motion, and then I could flip the cards and see if the motion was working. And it was easy to do, so I could throw it out if it looked bad and try again. Eventually, I got tired of my small collection of stamps and was able to contact stamp collectors in Portland, and they leant me a huge amount of stamps, so I had a gigantic number of images to work with. That was a very experimental film. It’s called The Rubber Stamp Film. It was more about seeing what I could do experimentally. I figured out how to fade them in and out by just not re-inking the stamp.

Where are you now?

In 2018, I finished an abstract feature film, and I think that really has been a turning point in my career. It’s called North of Blue. It was started on a residency just like the one I am in now at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. I’m just profoundly grateful to these places that provide us with wonderful place to work and stay.

Priestley calls “North of Blue” (2018) a completely abstract film, about line and color and shape.

North of Blue is completely abstract. It’s about line and color and shape, and it has some of my other concerns, like playing with depth of field and shifting focus. But I also use a very classical cinematic structure with it. Even though it’s completely abstract, it definably feels like you are going on a journey. I also use repeat characters, so that you became familiar with characters. Even though they were just abstract shapes, there was a strong sense of familiarity, because it was also my goal to draw people into that abstract world.

How was that received?

It was well received. I think people were very much afraid of watching an hour-long abstract film. But once they relaxed into it, I think everyone appreciated the journey. I even had kids coming up and telling me how much they enjoyed it.

Tell me about your latest film, Jung & Restless.

I was seeing a Jungian analyst and at a certain point I stopped dreaming. I did not realize she only worked with dreams. So I started doing stream-of-consciousness animation experiments and showing them to her. She analyzed the animation and told me what she thought it meant, which completely blew my mind. Eventually, I had all this animation and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to try to make a film. I took that material and I also looked at the notes I had from her dream analysis, and I spent about a year and a half shaping that into the movie.

The cast of Priestley’s most popular film, “Missed Aches,” includes this trio of asses.

What has the response been to Jung & Restless?

It’s never been shown. I’m hoping it will still be at the Bijou. I am super excited to have the premiere in a little movie palace with a great sound system. That would be perfect. I’ll also present a retrospective, and I am going to include my most popular films, including Missed Aches, which was written by the famous slam poet Taylor Mali. It’s about the crazy mistakes we make with spellcheck. The idea here was to support Sitka Center, and I definitely want to set something up later.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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