Note: All quotes are paraphrased because I don’t know how to record audio and my handwriting is illegible.
I’ve never met Signe before but of course I knew about her work in animation..
She made 3 shorts in her native Latvia before emigrating to the US where she found work at Bill Plympton’s studio. While there she learned how to be an independent animator in NYC and, after working for him, started her own “sort-of” studio. Currently she’s made 17 award-winning shorts. How many awards? A ridiculous amount.
Besides being a filmmaker Signe has also programmed short film programs for festivals.
Then she made the leap to feature films. Her second feature, My Love Affair With Marriage was eligible for Oscars in the Animated feature category. She continues to impress.
Here in NYC we have a handful of independent animators that have made a feature or two. Most notably Bill Plympton who is the king of the mountain with 11. Elliot Cowan, Nina Paley, Tatia Rosenthal and R.O. Blechman have all gone down that road. I know Michael Sporn was working on one about Edgar Allen Poe. There might be more.
We decided to meet at her studio and as I traveled to Sunset Park on a cold, dark January afternoon, past the adult dvd stores, tire-fix-it shops and Industry City. I only had a couple of questions for Signe and her partner, Sturgis Warner.
Why a feature?
Signe: “I had programmed the animation program at the Woodstock Film Festival for about 10 years and began to figure out how to create a flow for 90-100 minutes of animation for an audience. I also knew that I had gone as far as I could making shorts. And I had more stories to tell.”
Her first feature, Rocks in My Pockets, took 4 years to make and she told herself that the next one would be better.
She began the script for Love Affair in 2015. With that finished, the next step was getting partnerships.
At this point I have to point out that she and Sturgis are a great team. With his theater background he brings experience in long format storytelling. Signe said, “Before “Rocks In My Pockets” I had only short film experience. While I understand the steps of animation production and creative process, Sturgis understands casting, theatricality and lighting. He has carpentry skills and an excellent sense of design. He also is one of the film’s producers. Without Sturgis I don’t think “My Love Affair With Marriage” would have been as good as it is.”
We should all have a Sturgis in our life.
For these truly devoted entrepreneurs, the project was not a side hustle, it was their job. The money from a successful Kickstarter got them going and with that they decided to use SAG-AFTRA voice talent. It may have used up a large part of the budget but it really paid off because they were able to hire the best actors they could.
But they couldn’t spend that kind of money on everything. The carpenters in the neighborhood often threw out scraps of wood that were too small for cabinets but perfect to use for animation sets. A deal on some old but still working equipment from NYC animator, and former bowtie spinning Oscar winner, Jimmy Picker also saved a few bucks.
The Guggenheim Fellowship certainly helped. As did the funding from the other grants. While Signe was busy animating, Sturgis assisted in the process by applying to 40 grants. They ended up receiving 6.
Before I met Signe, given her impressive body of work, I really thought that she embodies what being an animator in NYC is. After this I knew it.
Do you think it was successful both artistically and commercially?
Signe: “Artistically, yes. The 25 awards it has won are proof of that. We made the film we wanted to make. Commercially, it’s still too early to know. For 2 days it outsold “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” and has been seen by thousands of people all over the world but it’s a difficult question.”
She said that while “60% of the production time was utter misery, 5% was euphoria and the rest was normal, everyday drudgery, we never took on side work to pay for it.”
This was their job and since 2015 it paid the bills and in that way it was successful.
On my way home I passed the former studio of Richard O’Connor’s Ace & Son Moving Picture Company, another independent that has made their own work year after year. I kind of thought that with the death of Michael Sporn a few years ago that a certain type of independent NYC animator had been lost for good.
I’m glad to be wrong.