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The Man Behind "Hairyman"

Rhode Island Animator Steven Subotnick talks about animation and his recent award-winning short.

By Michele Meek

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"Hairyman"

Both abstract and narrative, wordless yet rich with sound, Steven Subotnick's "Hairyman" does exactly what a great film should do--make you want to watch it again, and again. His film won Best Animation at this year's New England Film and Video Festival, adding to a long list of festivals, galleries, and museums where his work has been honored. A graduate of UCLA and the California Institute of Arts, Subotnick now lives in Rhode Island, where he works on both commercial and noncommercial projects, including TV commercials, web animation, and live-action film, and also teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

ML: "Hairyman" is a fascinating piece. I watched it a couple of times--and each time I noticed something different. How did you get the idea for the film?

SUBOTNICK: The original inspiration was a folk tale from the southern US about a wild swamp man who eats children but who isn't too bright. However, my characters took me in other directions. It became a "quilted" narrative connected by the three characters.

steve.jpg (12608 bytes)ML: What type of materials/animation techniques did you use for "Hairyman"?

SUBOTNICK: The materials used were underlit etched cels rubbed with lithographic ink (sometimes one layer, sometimes two layers); also, some sequences were toplit ink drawings on paper. The film was shot mostly on two's (two frames per drawing), and the film is three minutes long. There are 24 frames per second, so that comes out to around 2,000 drawings.

ML: That's a lot of drawings! So how long did it take you to create the film?

SUBOTNICK: I animated scenes for the film off and on over several years, but the actual production time was about nine months.

ML: There's no talking in "Hairyman," but the sounds you use add so much to the film. How do you collaborate with sound designers to get this to work so well?

SUBOTNICK: That musical performance was by the late Caleb Sampson, who was a highly inventive and talented sound artist and musician based in Boston. He had worked on scores for a number of independent filmmakers over the years. His performance for "Hairyman" was actually edited from a score he made for previous film of mine which I ended up not using; it just happened to fit very well with "Hairyman." Caleb will be missed.

ML: Some animators refuse to work with computers. How do you feel about computers entering into the art of animation?

SUBOTNICK: I love the computer as a tool. It frees the animator from labs and prohibitive costs and comes with its own distribution system (the web). The problem is still playback speed.

ML: I read once that animation is liberating since the filmmaker doesn't have to worry about technical or budget concerns for camera angles, etc. Do you agree?

SUBOTNICK: Animation's appeal to me is that it can be made by one person working alone, and that it is completely plastic (everything is invented--picture, sound, movement style, drawing style, etc.). The main drawback is that you DO have to do everything yourself. You have to build every frame of film.

ML: When did you know you wanted to be an animator?

SUBOTNICK: Two animated films convinced me to pursue animation: George Dunning's "The Tempest" and Caroline Leaf's "The Street," both of which I saw while studying anthropology at UCLA as an undergraduate in the 1970's. I was most impressed by their ability to communicate on several levels at once (sound, picture, art medium, transition).

When I saw these films, I transferred into the film department at UCLA. Later, I attended graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts, where I studied with Jules Engel. Cal Arts taught me the aesthetic and technical lessons I needed to sustain myself as an independent animator. Jules was a very important teacher; his example and guidance were indispensable.

ML: So you moved from California to Rhode Island. For many filmmakers, it's the other way around! What led you to the East Coast?

SUBOTNICK: Los Angeles is dominated by the studio system; it is a wonderful place to work in the industry, but I felt it would be difficult for me to develop as an independent if I stayed there. Also, I like New England!

ML: I noticed that your works have been in a lot of festivals, museums, etc. What kind of experiences (good and bad) have you had?

SUBOTNICK: Most festivals are good experiences. It is best when there are many

filmmakers attending and the focus is on the art form. Some of the best have been the Hiroshima Animation Festival and the Ottawa Animation Festival. The worst experiences (from my point of view) are festivals that cater primarily to commercial interests.

ML: What advice do you have for those who want to be film animators?

SUBOTNICK: Become as educated about animation as you can (through screenings, books, festivals, and schools), and then do what excites you. Animation is an incredibly diverse and eclectic field with many more opportunities than most people realize.

ML: All right, I have to ask. What the heck was in the pipe that the older woman was smoking in "Hairyman"?

SUBOTNICK: Definitely tobacco.

f anyone is interested in purchasing a copy of "Hairyman" on VHS, they can contact Steven Subotnick by email (SSUBOTNICK@AOL.COM), or by fax (401-351-5763).