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Interview with Malcolm Sutherland, Mentoring Director for the NFB’s Hothouse 11

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Beginning today, the National Film Board of Canada will be showcasing six new micro-shorts produced as part of the eleventh edition of their acclaimed apprenticeship scheme Hothouse. The scheme has been a valuable means of allowing emerging Canadian filmmakers (previous participants include Howie Shia, Patrick Doyon and Kevin Langdale) of all ages to produce a  film in the professional environment of the NFB’s Montreal-based animation studio.
This year’s edition re-uses the theme of “Found Sound” from the previous year, with applicants asked to select an isolated clip of miscellaneous audio and interpret them however they wish.
Over the next week Skwigly will hear from each of the selected filmmakers on their experience, beginning today with Curtis Horsburgh’s
Fyoog. Each year the scheme runs, the NFB select a filmmaking mentor to assist the upcoming filmmakers throughout the three-month filmmaking process. With past mentors including such acclaimed NFB talent as Janet Perlman, Torill Kove and Chris Landreth, for the eleventh edition previous Hothouse participant Malcolm Sutherland was on hand to supervise. We caught up with Malcolm to find out more.

msutherlandYou originally participated in the very first Hothouse apprenticeship scheme yourself. How did you first get wind of it back then, and what motivated you to get involved?

Back then, in its first year (20022003), it was all a big experiment and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I’d made a little film called Robot City that got into the Ottawa Animation festival, where I met Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby. We hit it off and I showed them some other work I’d done, and then a few weeks later I got a call from the NFB office in Montreal asking if I was interested in being a guinea pig for this new Hothouse thing they were trying. Amanda and Wendy were living in Montreal at the time, and they’d suggested me for the filmmaker from the Prairie region. I was bonkers for animation, I had the fever big time, so of course I jumped at the chance and quit Art College in Calgary and moved to Montreal.

According to your bio you originally studied astrophysics – can you explain how your path led from this to animation directing, and did this inform your work and approaches in any way?

The short version is that I’ve always wanted to be an explorer, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve moved from external exploration into a more internal/spiritual kind of exploration. Moving on from astronomy, at every turn the real frontiers seemed to be the “here and now,” the internal, perceptual, spiritual things… and not necessarily things that were somewhere else out there. When I hit on animation, it blew my mind. It was at once like a kind of science… an exploration, a meditation. It (still) seems like some kind of magic cosmic mirror that I get to play with.

Looking back, what were the main advantages of being involved in Hothouse as far as your subsequent career/process is concerned?

It was absolutely key in my case; I would not be in the place I am without it. Without any proper animation training I think I’ve always been a bit of a hack, but initially Hothouse really helped me find some sort of confidence that my methods, my voice, might have a place. It also introduced me to the animation scene out east, which is much more robust and varied than the scene back in Alberta.

This year is the first to carry over the same theme as the year preceding it. What was it about the theme of “Found Sound” that made it so appealing to work with again?

It wasn’t my choice to carry on with the found sound theme, but I was certainly excited by it nonetheless. It’s frequently claimed that sound is at least half of a film, and I would totally agree. I’ve always found sound to be a powerful ally in animation, both in terms of communicating a specific message, but also as part of the creative process. Perhaps it is the way that sound frames time, which is something you are constantly dealing with in animation—maybe there is a natural connection?… I don’t know.

Are there any films in particular that took on the theme in an interesting or unexpected way?

Yeah, I think they all did! I found the interpretation of the sound in each film quite surprising. 

Generally speaking, what did your role as Mentoring Director see you responsible for?

I helped the filmmakers with any directorial concerns, which can be quite a broad spectrum of things—especially in animation. Things like concept, timing, pacing, visual design, animation techniques, technical problem solving, managing schedules, production pipelines, working with an expanded crew, creative exploration… basically navigating all the stuff an animation director has to wrangle with, with an emphasis on the creative side of things. Basically, I was the creative support there to try and help them realize their individual vision.

Did your experience with your own 20032004 mentor, Chris Hinton, play a part in how you took on the role with this year’s filmmakers?

The thing I recall most about having Chris Hinton as a mentor was his no-nonsense, just-do-it kind of approach to making a film. He was very hands-on, which I loved because that’s how I felt, I just wanted to dive into things and figure them out as I went. He always had ink on his hands, and you would always find him working at his desk whenever there was a down moment. It was pretty inspiring. I think just being around him during that early part of my animation life definitely affected me—made me feel like it was OK to be a bit wild and direct.

From your perspectives on both sides of the looking glass, so to speak, how has the Hothouse scheme evolved over the past decade?

Well, that first one was so long ago I’m not sure I remember it very accurately! It was really experimental in its first year. They were figuring everything out as they went along, whereas now it is a much more streamlined and focused experience for the filmmakers. A major challenge this year, which we did not face in year one, was that the participants produced their films remotely as opposed to being together in the Montreal animation studio. Remote production had its own advantages and disadvantages, but one area that may have suffered was the social side of things. Getting to really know each other and having those random epiphanic hallway conversations were all things that were spread rather thin in this edition. But as always, it was an experiment, and the filmmakers forged connections anyway, and we ended up with a strong batch of films! Looking back, I guess year one was like a rickety thing held together with masking tape that wobbled a lot when it moved. Now it’s a seamless boxcar racer with fresh paint and racing stripes, bearings all greased up and ready to roll. Maybe not all the kinks are worked out… but it’s a pretty smooth ride.

You can watch this and previous years’ Hothouse films over at the NFB website. Keep your eyes on Skwigly over the coming days to hear more from the Hothouse 11 participants. To learn more about the work of Malcolm Sutherland visit

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