Association Internationale du Film d’Animation
International Animated Film Association

The New American Golden Age of American Independent Animation

Author: Emmett Goodman | Date: 1/4/19, 4:50 PM

Every so often, the American independent animation scene has a surge in popularity and productivity. These surges have often been the result of outstanding filmmakers such as Don Hertzfeldt and PES, or showcases like Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation, MTV’s Liquid Television, and The Animation Show (founded by Mike Judge and Hertzfeldt). However, culture changes and time moves forward. Independent filmmaking continues to evolve with new technology, such as digital DSLR cameras, and software for editing and post-production. Even mobile devices are being used to shoot feature films now. And while indie animation continues to evolve under the same conditions as well, the output often dips. But today, independent animation is gaining strength again in the U.S.

In the last 10+ years, the independent animation scene has changed dramatically. There are fewer animators pursuing the path of a “full-time” independent filmmaker. Full-timers such as Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane, and Don Hertzfeldt eschew working in the studio system in favor of producing their own short films and features, and finding their audience on the film festival circuit. In order for animators to pursue this path, however, their output must be consistent. And the consistency is also contingent on the audience their work can draw in. But even with a cult following and popularity on the festival circuit, money is still a necessary factor. Fewer animation artists are willing to give up the financial stability of studio/agency jobs, teaching positions, and (to a certain extent) freelance gigs to pursue the life of the full-time indie animator.

Clangs For The Speaking Body by Angela Stempel

Angela Stempel is a graduate of the Experimental Animation program at CalArts in California. She continues to develop her own style, which combines character animation with experimental techniques and surrealistic imagery. This distinctive style carries over into her commissioned work, including an episode of Viceland’s Party Legends, as well as several music videos. Her personal works include Clangs For The Speaking Body, and Common Insects of North America. Angela funds her independent work through her commissioned projects. Angela reflects: “Someday I hope to figure out the balance of working a number of months during the year and making a personal film for the remainder of that time.”

When asked about continuing on the indie path, Angela responds enthusiastically. “I think there's still so much to discover about animated movement, storytelling, and abstraction, through making personal films. Unfortunately, sometimes those discoveries have to get overlooked in industry work, because of money or clients taste or target audiences. I don't think that's a problem, it's just something that motivates me to make my own work, and hopefully will continue to motivate me in the future.”

But today, animation students straight out of college might only pursue the film festival circuit for job opportunities within the industry.

Jiro Visits the Dentist by Gina Kamentsky

Gina Kamentsky has been creating animation since the early 1980’s. Her recent independent work involves hand-painted imagery on found footage, as well as kinetic sculptures. She is also an animation instructor at Rhode Island School of Design, and has observed the changing tides in indie animation.

“Most students graduate from animation programs with one indie film and have to find housing, healthcare and start paying back huge tuition costs.” Gina goes to explain, “The outcome is to find work in commercial animation as a regular full-time job, which leaves no time to make independent work. The path to creating independent work as an animation artist doesn’t really exist unless one is independently wealthy. There’s no grant money, there is crowdfunding and I know a few people who do this but it’s very limited.”

Funding for the arts is disappearing from the U.S., although there are still grants available internationally. Animators on the indie path have fewer financial resources beyond their own earnings. Crowdfunding might be becoming more the go-to for independent filmmakers. Even filmmakers with established reputations have found success with crowdfunding, such as Signe Baumane, who is currently in production on her next independent animated feature.

“Funding is no longer a huge issue for me,” Kamentsky weighs in, “I keep things simple, within my own financial limits and work independently. Occasionally I work with people who create sound and the work becomes a collaboration between myself and the musician and we share ownership of the film. I support myself through a number of means; teaching animation part time at the college level and commissioned work....” Gina also acknowledges applying to artist residency programs: “Private foundations such as MacDowell give artists studio space, time and supply room and board at no cost.”

The lack of support for indie animation is not lost on Jeanette Bonds, an independent animator and graduate of CalArts Experimental Animation program. Along with fellow animator, Einar Baldvin, Jeanette co-founded the GLAS International Animation Festival in Berkeley, California. According to Jeanette, GLAS was founded to provide a platform for International animation in the U.S. While this may not restore funding for the arts in the U.S., it has played a part in restoring recognition for independent animation on the West Coast, where the animation industry has always been strong.

Doxology by Michael Langan

Michael Langan, a filmmaker with a particularly strong voice on the current indie scene, has acknowledged GLAS’s influence. “I have seen some amazing films in the past few years in the indie animation world, and new festivals like GLAS in Berkeley are bolstering the next generation of independent animators, and challenging all of us to create more and better work.”

Making a name for yourself as an independent voice involves having a personal style and a distinct voice. Langan is a modern example: a filmmaker whose personal style involves manipulated cinematography, mixed with stop-motion techniques such as pixilation. Langan’s style is most apparent in his short, Doxology, which went on to win several awards, and gained a Student Academy Award nomination. Langan himself has acknowledged that his style “...adapts itself well to potential commercial work…” But even Langan has paid tribute to his influences: his short, Choros, shows a clear influence of Norman McClaren’s film Pas de deux (1968), Edwaerd Muybridge and his use of “chronophotography.” Choros also went on to be a big festival player.

Langan has found financial support for his work through a number of means, including foreign grants, and crowdsourcing. “A few of my films were entirely self-funded, which occasionally breaks even with income from licensing fees after release (Canal+, Arte, Showtime, Adult Swim, Channel Four). In general, the most reliable funding for independent short films is in Europe, from my experience.” On following the “indie” path, Langan says “I think the majority of indie filmmakers are independent by definition, not by choice. If we want to continue making the kind of work that we do, that's just part of the deal. If a major studio suddenly wants to fund that work, then great! But until then, we're all independent.”

Lovestreams by Sean Bucklew

Animator Sean Buckelew stands out among today’s indie animators in his focus more on subject matter, and less on experimentation. Sean’s short, LOVESTREAMS, explores gender and online relationships. The short presents a relationship through the use of AOL Instant Messenger (RIP), and later manipulates the identities of the couple through the use of avatar imagery. The film presents one’s true identity as a vulnerable topic. The ambiguousness of the user’s gender is not treated as shocking or humorous, but as casual. A common thread of Sean’s animation style (both personal and commercial) is a focus on modern life. His personal films can not be called fantasies; they focus on perceptions of social culture, and how people react to the changing times.

The availability of software for animation, editing, and post-production has also contributed to greater output from indie animators. With the advent of online tutorials for such software, animators have an abundance of filmmaking tools at their disposal. And these tools allow them to work from home, on their laptops, at their own pace, and on their own terms.

New York based animator Ted Wiggin offers his opinion: “Personally I think independent animation began a new age in 2007 with the widespread adoption of Intel’s “Core 2 Duo” processor. It made animation software practical for anyone with a laptop. It allowed young artists to be expressive with a digital workflow in a way that was impossibly cumbersome only a year earlier.”

Stella Nova by Ted Wiggin

Ted Wiggin’s personal films (such as Stella Nova, and Terra Firma) have played at numerous festivals. “I consider myself an independent animator,” Ted explains, “I don’t think that will change. I’m happy to work in production settings for money but my primary interest in animation is what can be done by an individual creator as a reflection of his or her own creative impulses.”

Ted has also found a niche in the creation of software, such as Rose Engine, a tool for procedural compositing. “The reason I make my own software is that I think the most sure-fire way to make something that no one has seen before is to use a tool that no one else has. Any software will have an influence on what you create with it, by designing my own software I’m trying to reclaim some of that agency for myself.”

Some animators today are even finding new ways to recycle old mediums and materials. Experimental animators such as Gina Kamentsky and Steven Woloshen produce work by drawing and painting on film strips. This process, once coined “Cameraless Animation”, dates back nearly 100 years, and is still finding an audience in an age where celluloid has fallen out of favor. As Gina Kamentsky herself puts it, “All tools and techniques are available. Animation is invention, this should be how any art form evolves. Drawing on past techniques and creating new ones.”

In the age of the internet, artists are finding new ways to promote their portfolios. Vimeo and YouTube are now the go-to platforms for animators and filmmakers to present their work to a wider audience. Vimeo in particular has become highly popular for independent artists, primarily due to the HD quality Vimeo provides. After a festival run, artists use their Vimeo profiles to keep their older work publicly available, and use these playlist portfolios to continue building their audience. Michael Langan, whose work is displayed on Vimeo, lauds the site: “It's a community of supportive artists, it provides a pretty pleasant viewing experience, it embeds well, and it has a great means of featuring standout work via the Staff Picks. It will never replace the magic of sitting in a theatre at a festival, but it's a positive showcase for art on the Internet.”

“I love the network that Vimeo creates.” Angela Stempel, also a Vimeo user, weighs in. “You can discover new films by following strangers and seeing who they follow and who are following them. I like that I can trace an aspect of someone's work that I like through their followers to uncover more films by other filmmakers that explore that specific quality. I also like that Vimeo gives everyone the opportunity to be vocal with each other, to reach out to filmmakers whose work you like and actually make contact.”

An example of what Angela describes can be found in the collective known as Late Night Work Club (LNWC). Admittedly a loose connection of artists (both Buckelew and Bonds are part of the recent edition), the network gives encouragement for the animators to continue producing their own work. LNWC’s animators have the freedom to screen their work individually, but have also been known to present in collective screenings (the animators base their films on a single related theme).

And on that note, film festival culture has also adapted to the internet age. More and more film festivals today use online submissions, eliminating the cost of a mail service. This process cuts the cost of submitting to multiple film festivals, and makes it easier  and relatively cheaper to submit right under the wire of a festival deadline. Video hosting sites also allow the option of password protected viewing, which allows filmmakers to submit their work to festivals online, without making them publicly available.

Ambitions are still strong. Today, the independent animated feature film has become a more plausible (yet still difficult) goal for artists still dedicated to the indie path. And while animators still need to take on commercial work for financial support, the software and technology that is available has made it more efficient for animators to continue working independently. Indeed, some of the artists interviewed here have all said the same thing: “All you need is a chair and a laptop.”

Emmett Goodman is an animation artist and occasional writer based in NYC.