The Importance of Being Signe


Magical vodka at the BeFilm screening

On Wednesday, Feb 20th, I noticed an intriguing Facebook News Feed item that wasn’t a meme, paid-ad, or desperate-cry-for-help.  Signe Baumane invited people to hob knob with animators in a free screening with a free drink.  The evening was a celebration of New York animators. In the Disney Screening room of all places, which is fun secret corporate theatre on Park Avenue.  I hesitated, because technically a good boy would go to that night’s ASIFA meeting and try to learn more about how to reduce your taxes, but I managed to talk myself out of it.

The theatre, seating maybe 100 people, is tucked away on the ground floor of an unassuming skyscraper.  Everybody gets a comfy chair inside, and there’s a little waiting area dominated by a column.  This layout makes networking challenging, as it creates a dark eddy next to a halogen lit couch.  I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but I saw Signe scurrying around with a clipboard.  Soon, a turtle-necked Russian (possibly a model) set up a few drinks, complete with a bottom-lit Pravda vodka bottle.  When that neon light clicked on, I knew I really hit the big time.  “I’ll have a Pravda-Coke please.”  “What?” he said.  I realized I just wasted two semesters on Russian.  I switched to my Queens accent: “I’ll hava VODKA COKE. No wait.”  I was easily impressed by the drink choice of the older, more mature looking animators standing around.  “On the rocks.”

Laurence Asseraf burst into the room.  She is the founder  of the “BeFilm” festival, and runs “A Taste of Art” gallery in Tribeca. Signe started off as an animation adviser for her, and after some time they became good friends. BeFilm usually takes place in April, but they like to stay in touch with their audience so they have a few other screenings throughout the year. Signe and Bill Plympton used to do yearly screenings of select animations for Kodak, but Kodak went out of business last year. Now Signe puts on a BeFilm screening, usually near Valentine’s Day, which she says is because they know Signe has a knack for sex films (I’m gonna have to do more research on that!). In fact, last year she had some sort of Cross-dressing Animation program, which sounds good as gold.

Laurence urged everyone to save a seat, and to please, feel free to take their drinks inside.  “Would you like a program?  It’s last year’s, but we just want you to get an idea…”  Pravda truly is a good vodka, because I was suddenly inspired to take a truly terrible Instagram photo of a phone, and a plastic cup.  I really apologize for lowering ASIFA’s journalistic standards.  Even worse, I think there will be a press photo of me hunched over my phone posting it to the internet.  I have photo-shopped the original for your viewing pleasure.  Soon everyone was seated, and my friend and I fought back terrible-stares as we saved someone a seat.  Which was really difficult because by then even the aisles were full.  Two woman had a Upper-East side tiff because someone was rudely pushing their way into the row (allegedly).

The show really started and ended with Signe Baumane.  She looked like the real city, not a hipster thank God, but something more true to New-Yorkers who messily smile through life. She became this Fellini-esque MC of the screening, which I never expected.  Signe has a talent for spinning information out of the filmmakers: always making sure that they explain their production process, and she tries to get at the root of the story.  When I asked her about it, Signe said “I feel it connects the audience (hopefully lay people) with animation like nothing else can. People LOVE hearing about films they just watched. And I LOVE giving spotlight to each filmmaker right after his/her film was shown. And I don’t necessarily need amazing strong work to make the program work – it is all about the talk after each film. And I love that in NYC we have so many amazing animators that could sensibly and intelligently talk about their work.”
I hope her Latvian accent never becomes Americanized.

“Drunker than a Skunk” by Bill Plympton

The show promised us clips of 3 feature-films in progress, and the debut of 3 new works, (“We have taken so many virginities!” Signe cried triumphantly).  But there were other, more experienced shorts as well.  The first was “Feral” by Daniel Sousa.  I did not enjoy this film when I saw it in Ottawa, but a second viewing gave me fresh perspective, and I really have to highlight the scene where a white wolf passes in and out of shadow.  A bird’s eye view of the rotating light craning down to eye level with the animal is amazing, and while SOME people might think it’s rotoscoped, I believe it’s real.  Signe warned us that it was a bit of a depressing 12-minute way to start the evening, but she believed we needed a “funny sort of fluffer” to get us in the mood.  I see…

“Head Over Heels” by Tim Reckhart was next.  It’s nominated for an Oscar this year and hopefully you saw the free version online while it was available.  It’s a stop-motion film about a man and woman in love, living in the same house, but tragically doomed because their gravities are literally opposite.  Signe is really excited that stop-motion is getting so much critical acclaim this year because “people love hand-made shit!”  She told us that when she was getting in touch with Mr. Reckhart, she discovered that there was another short, live-action film made at the same time with generally the same story concept.  Sometimes, Signe said, “sometimes we just reach out and grab the same idea.”  More than one person nodded and smiled into their vodka after that.

We got a sneak peak at “Grand Central Diary” by Andy and Carolyn London.  It will be appearing at the MTA museum for their centennial, and it is a continuation of the theme of “Lost Tribes of New York.”  “London Squared Productions” had that film featured at MoMA in a design exhibit alongside some MTA work, and wham-bam-thank-you-networking they got a commission.  Mr. and Mrs. London explained the differences between written proposals and reality, and how the film came together out of many ideas, many on-the-street-interviews, and a few re-scripted interviews.  One of the voices had a Latvian accent.  I’m just saying.

I’m sure I’ve talked about “Based on a True Story” by Jacob Kafka before, back when I went to NYU’s last student showcase, but I was glad to see it again that night.  Fortunately Jacob was there in person, and through the audience’s questions I was able to figure out how his story got that special brand of humor.  Turns out that several of the voice actors trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and some of the lines were improvised.  In her little interview, Signe was careful to point out to everyone that Jacob’s freshly graduated and ready to provide (paid) high-quality animation work just for you!

"The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead & Roundhead" by Elliot Cowan

“The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead & Roundhead” by Elliot Cowan

The big-name of the night was Bill Plympton.  ‘What are you doing besides making movies and making babies Bill?!’ Signe asked.  Why, he’s making a short film!  There was a rough-cut of “Drunker than a Skunk” which is a cowboy film about the ‘jealousy and violence of the west.’  Bill had always wanted to make something with his friend Walt Curtis’ poem, so he recorded the author reading it and produced an amazing ball-point pen animation that many people believed looked like a finished film anyway (it just lacks color, says Bill).  Bill handled all questions while handling his adorable baby.  After that we got a sneak at “Cheating,” Bill’s new feature.  It is the story of the perfect couple, and the town who drives them to destroy their love and cheat on each other.  In the scene we saw, the couple has just had their honeymoon and their morning-after breakfast turns into an opera.  For such a famous drinking song, no one could remember the name of the brindisi from La Traviata but it really set the mood for a surrealistic dance through the room, while the man and woman’s bodies twisted, not grotesquely, but not sexually either.  Bill returns to his roots, adding new schemes of color, that he says were inspired by the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” scene from “Yellow Submarine.  It was the kind of distortion of the bodies’ proportions that doesn’t emphasize sex but triggers the intimacy of the moment.

Moving on!  I’m disappointed to find out that Morgan Miller is not actually the guy in “Twiller Parkour” and from the History of Animation video he made for Ottawa.  But that Twiller probably has a big Klout score anyway.  Mr. Miller worked on “Parkour” and “Lady who Hates plants” throughout the year, since he prefers to lose interest in one project and pick up another, to keep his ideas fresh.  Signe was really, really upset that any woman would hate plants.

“You say Queens, I hear Brooklyn.”  Turns out Elliot Cowan is the only animator currently working on a feature film in Queens (learn something new everyday, EH SIGNE?!)  He showed us a sneak peek of his film “The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead.”  His production is an amazing story that starts in New York, LA, Canada, and ends with the Romanian Film Department financing the film.  Elliot still animates each character part with AfterEffects masks on layers, which is like, totally daft, but I totally understand that sometimes you just have to express yourself individually.  Elliot animates the bodies first, so this clip was unique in that the characters had no faces yet. I loved to see his process, since I’ve always loved the slapstick of his shorts.

Nick Fox-Grieg made an appearance, with work in progress “Voles & Shrews.”  he took a comedic Youtube rant about birds, and turned it into a fascinating experiment of Kinect motion-capture married to AE-puppet-pin-animals.  Nick does his own acting, coding, and i-Pad sketching!  Funny story… Signe introduces the film “Walls and Shoes.”  Ok, I think.  What’s a walls, she asks.  “They are tiny rodents!” some people shout out from the back.  I’m confused.  I guess it’s a story about a mouse named Wall.  Kinda meta, I think.  But soon the title card appears and clears up the whole matter.  Just a little bit of silliness.  We were all drinking.

Rocks in My Pockets by Signe Baumane

“Rocks in My Pockets” by Signe Baumane

Finally, Signe presents a sneak peek of her own to close out the evening.  She showed a clip of “Rocks in My Pockets” about the story of Miranda who wrestles with depression.  It looks great with her hand drawn animation composited over real tiny paper mache sets… there’s just a hint of magic there as the characters clap their hands to make orchid vines turn slowly.  Her already captivating narration-skills were brought to higher levels by her vocal director.  And the color shading somehow reminded me of “Fantastic Planet.”  The whole movie promises to be a powerful emotional arc.  Huzzah!  For her own Q&A Signe invited us to grill her, ensuring us she was very tasty.

After the screening everyone gathered for one last drink.  I met Paul Johnson who described himself as a lenticular animator.  I’m pretty sure he will be one of the jury members of the BeFilm festival, and he told me about how BeFilm is the only festival in the world to have a category just for stereoscopic films.  He also gave me a hot tip on some lenticular Hobbit photos at the Museum of the Moving Image that I will have to check out.

Overall, I found this screening particularly enjoyable since it gave me more than just a cut and serve dishing of animation.   Signe really interacted with the filmmaker right after showing their film, and told me “normally people think of screenings as straight screening with a Q&A afterwards. But it was never satisfying to me – I wanted to tap into immediate screening experience, while the film was still fresh in the memory of the audience. It just is much better.” A good host can really make the difference.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she had her own talk show one day.


1 Comment

  1. himzvora
    February 24, 2013