Interview by akka b for dragonframe
Unapologetic gobs of paint and clay, twist, stretch, ooze and dance Allison Schulnik's fantastical characters to life. Her dynamic use of color and texture dress her moody cast of misfits in a style that is rapidly thrusting the Los Angeles based artist/filmmaker to the forefront of her field. A prolific master of many mediums; including painting, drawing, sculpture and animation, Allison, we suspect, has countless more 'tricks' to bequeath the world, from up her alchemist's sleeve. With a BFA in Experimental Animation; an impressive resume that features installations from San Francisco to Rome; and internationally screened animated films — this fearless storyteller's lust for making the inanimate come alive, appears to be paying off.
akka b Allison, you have become known as an artist, but you studied animation at CalArts. What led you to the CalArts animation program?
AS I knew I wanted to make animated films and learn to use a 16mm camera. I had been driving up to LA from San Diego with my brother a few nights every week, helping him promote these dance parties he was throwing there. I would hand out flyers all night and become immersed in the dank Los Angeles night world as a young 16 and 17 year old. I completely fell in love with LA and knew I wanted to move there. I saw the CalArts promotional booklet because a friend had one, but had no idea what it was all about. I just loved that it was bright orange and weird looking and had all these cool photos and they had an animation program, with great alumni and teachers with these crazy resumes.
AS I didn't realize you could just apply for an animation/film program without having ever made a film, so I applied for the art school, knowing I would transfer over. When I got there, it was confirmed-the art school was not for me, but I drooled over this great magical program run by Jules Engel - Experimental Animation. Meanwhile, I also struggled with not being in the dance program and began sneaking into dance classes every day, that is, until I got yelled at and kicked out by the dean in front of the whole class. So, I started spending all my time in the Experimental Animation - room A115; eventually I switched over in my second year and found a home in the great Butler Building. Of course, while there, I came to drool over the Character Animation program and took as many classes in that as I did in Experimental Animation. It was a priceless journey.
akka b Can you tell us about your influences in childhood? Were your parents supportive of your art?
AS I was always painting, drawing, and making things in my youth, because there were so many artists in my family. It was a way of life. My mother is a painter and also worked as a muralist and illustrator when I was younger. My father is an architect and my aunt and uncle are both painters and illustrators. In fact my aunt was one of the top fashion illustrators in New York in the 60's. So yes, they were supportive of the arts, actually, that was really all that was acceptable.
akka b How does music play a part in the designing of your films?
AS It influences everything. I like to choreograph the animations as though they are ballets. I love how Jules [Engel] taught us about the importance of dance in animation. That rings completely true for me. I like to start with a piece of music, then edit beat-by-beat the shapes, forms, colors and movement of the characters and scenes.
akka b You direct and animate. Do you enjoy the animation process?
AS Yes. I love that as an animator, you can, if you want, make an entire film by yourself. It's hard to do that in live-action because you need actors, etc. I love animating; building, I love it all. The technical aspects are my least favorite, maybe because the left side of my brain is pretty much non-functioning. I've always been technically challenged.
akka b How is the animation process for you, different, or similar to painting?
AS I think it's similar for me, with the exception of the immediacy factor. Painting is great because of the immediate satisfaction you can have from finishing something in one week, one day, or one minute. Animation doesnt allow for that. Although finishing even one second of animation in one day can be thrilling. I think it's equally rewarding. Visually, I treat both the same—it's all intertwined. Animation is really exciting, because compared to painting, it's a much newer medium and it seems like a lot hasn't been done yet. That element excites me.
akka b What inspires your characters as far as design and emotional expression go?
AS My characters are inspired by my need to create something that moves and breathes, whether it's still on canvas or walking on a screen. Their expression and emotions are somewhat gestural, and found in the clay. It's just a guttural straightforward approach to making inanimate things communicate.
akka b You have a prolific body of work and you seem to be an unstoppable creative force, do you ever suffer from artist's block? If so, how do you press reset?
AS I like to cycle through different mediums. I have a short attention span and get bored easily, so it's how I seem to work best. I rotate between painting, making film work and all it's different processes, sculpture, pottery, drawing, looking, dance, music, etc.
akka b Do you prefer to work alone on your productions? Do you ever work with a small crew?
AS I have to work alone. But I do know where my skills are lacking. With painting, I work alone entirely; in film, it's harder. I write, direct, build, sculpt, animate, edit, choreograph, all myself—save for the great Helder King Sun, my cinematographer. He does things with lights that I don't even understand. He has a million little magic boards, dimmers, mirrors and color gels that create all these masterful in-camera traditional lighting effects. It's really an art in itself. I've been really lucky to have him working with me.
akka b How do you feel about showing your work online VS projecting for a live audience?
AS I think it's great to have a wider audience. I am a populist and give a lot of credit to where I am [in my career] now to the Internet - as I think a lot of independent animators and artists probably would. Of course there is nothing like projecting it for a live audience. It's the best to get to see your work on a huge screen, every little thumbprint, fingernail mark and hair-in-the-clay. I wish everyone could see it that way.
akka b Can you give a brief description of your recent films and what they meant for you?
AS Hobo Clown was the first film I made in 2008, after an 8-year hiatus from making films in school. During that time, I worked in commercial studios, painted at home every night, and was lucky enough to get to show my work in galleries. Hobo Clown was this great little burst of filmic energy that helped me rediscover my love of filmmaking and clay. Forest I made two years later, which was a music video for the band Grizzly Bear. Mound was the last film I made, completed in 2011, and was the most 'dancerly' of the three in my opinion; inspired by a series of paintings I did called The Funeral Party (*nerd note: named after the Cure song), and the Performance series of paintings as well. Mound is kind of performance—living vicariously through video. It probably has a lot to do with my [own] strange relationship to performance and my dance background. All my work probably does. I think all the films are like wanderings, where what they retain in traditional material and methods, they avoid in narrative structure. To me, they are an uncertain account of what exists somewhere between tragedy and farce.
akka b How do you feel about shooting digitally VS film?
AS I love film—everything about it: the look, the smell etc. I used to consider myself a film purist. I can't say that anymore,(although I am probably somewhat of an animation purist). My first films were shot on 16mm. The last three I shot on a digital still camera. I think part of the reason for my 8-year film hiatus was that I just couldn't afford to shoot on film, and I kept waiting and saying I was going to start collecting all this 35mm equipment and shoot on that. It never happened. So I decided to shoot digitally because it was easier and cheaper at the time, and I just wanted to animate something. I got tired of making myself excuses. So, although I love the look of film, I do shoot digitally. I am an impulsive, immediate kind of person and I don't like my medium to get in the way of my making. I think more about what I am putting on the screen, rather than what I put it on with. Is that correct English? Probably for this same reason is why I use cheap paint and brushes. I achieve what I need for myself and for my characters, and that [to me] is most important.
akka b Do you enjoy going to the festivals to present your films? How (if at all) have the festival screenings affected your work?
AS I entered a lot of festivals with my early 16mm films and attended some. I really enjoyed getting to go to the Slamdance Film Festival back in, I think 1999, with my first film. That was fun. (Never order nachos in Utah). I haven't done too many festivals with these new films though. I don't get into many so I have pretty much stopped entering. Also, it seems some of the really good festivals want a 'world premiere', which I always forget about, and then I post my film online before the entry date. However, getting them seen online is great! And I have been lucky enough to show them in galleries and museums. It's fun to create an installation of a video piece in a room, and create a conversation from painting - to video - to 'thing' on a pedestal. I was really happy to get to screen Mound on a big beautiful screen at LACMA last year, as part of the Female Surrealist show.
akka b What advice would you offer aspiring animators/artists? Anything you would have done differently in sculpting the career you have today?
AS I would not have done anything differently. Keep your integrity, stay true to yourself, work hard, let go when needed, don't listen to people you don't trust,and don't take shit.
akka b What or who have been your biggest artistic influence(s)?
AS Everything. There is so much out there to be influenced by—I love borrowing—I love a lot from the long dead past. I love to collect stuff. I am a collector of collections and I am inspired by relics, once loved, but then discarded. I give them new love. Sometimes they end up in some form in my work; I could go on and on. I just like things.
* Just as Allison paints and sculpts with generous amounts of material and texture, so she also indulges our question with a delightfully thorough and eclectic list of influences. Here's what she shared:
CLASSIC PAINTERS: Bonnard; Guston; Balthus; Dix; Ensor; Neel; O'Keefe; Van Gogh; Schiele; Peter Saul; Basil Wolverton; Ivan Albright; Saul Steinberg.
TEACHERS: E. Michael Mitchell (probably my greatest teacher), Corny Cole, and Jules Engel.
ANIMATORS: Ub Iwerks; Bruce Bickford; Adam Beckett; Harryhausen; Starewicz; Svankmajer; Rankin Bass and Quay.
EARLY DISNEY MOVIES: Snow White, The Old Mill and Sleeping Beauty.
FLEISCHER STUDIOS: Their work with Cab Calloway; Yuri Norstein and the movie Wallace and Gromit. MUSIC: Scott Walker; Sabbath; Thrones; Harvey Milk; Melvins; Babs; Michael Jackson; Richard Harris; Peabo Bryson and anything Bacharach.
DANCE: Pina Bausch; Bob Fosse; Ray Bolger; Vera Ellen.
CINEMA: Horror greats like Suspiria and Hausu. Anything: Mel Brooks, Klaus Kinski and Paul Thomas Anderson. Also, Edward Scissorhands; The Princess Bride; The Hobbit.
CLASSIC MOVIE MUSICALS are among my biggest influences: An American in Paris; West Side Story; Sound of Music; Wizard of Oz and the movie version of A Chorus Line with Michael Douglas.
CARTOONS AND EARLY COMICS SUCH AS: Winsor McCay. BOOKS: Anything Poe JUNK: Flea markets
AND: Photography; literature; folk tales; illustration; plants; anything Halloween or Christmas; naturally black flowers; gnomes and furry creatures.
"I love that as an animator, you can, if you want, make an entire film by yourself."
Mound, a short film
Forest, a music video for Grizzly Bear
Hobo Clown, a short film