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Sticky Situations: An Interview with Jeff Chiba Stearns

// Featured, Independent Animation, Interviews


JCS-hsA graduate of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, the multi-award-winning, Emmy®-nominated animator and documentarian Jeff Chiba Stearns is the founder of the Vancouver-based Meditating Bunny Studios. Amongst his body of work are commercials from clients such as 3M, Sharpie and Post-It, the animated short “What Are You Anyways?” as well as the multi-media feature documentaries One Big Hapa Family and the forthcoming Mixed Match. Notably amongst his work is the hit auteur short Yellow Sticky Notes, an autobiographical series of animated self-reflections that went viral when it launched online in 2008. More recently this film spawned a collaborative successor in Yellow Sticky Notes: Canadian Anijam, featuring a jaw-dropping roster of top Canadian talent including Marv Newland, Cordell Barker, Janet Perlman, Alison Snowden, David Fine, Malcolm Sutherland, Paul Driessen and many more. Having screened at over 130 festivals between them, the legacy of both pieces has inspired animation auteurs the world over to follow suit in the creation of their own and proceeds from the film have helped to fund the Yellow Sticky Note Foundation, which aims to create workshops for young animators. Recently Skwigly had the opportunity to speak to Jeff and have him self-reflect on these highly-praised labours of self-reflection.

What were the circumstances that led to your original film Yellow Sticky Notes?

I think I was going through a bit of a crisis because I had just finished a film, I was broke and there wasn’t a lot of animation work out there. All of this was being written down on sticky notes, and I got to a point where I was feeling really overwhelmed with the fact that these to-do lists were really running my life. I figured I’d take revenge on these sticky notes, make a film using these to-do lists and self-reflection based on them. It was a really organic thing because there was no funding, there was no budget, there was nobody saying it had to be done by a certain date, I just made it. And it was sort of off and on; If I felt like animating one day I’d animate, if I didn’t I wouldn’t. It just became very subconscious, this flow of animation that was coming out of my brain, so one day I’d go back in my life: “Today is September 11th 2001” which became a cartoon character of this rabbit, for example.

It became stream of consciousness, I could just draw and things would flow. Also there was no backlight, I just drew straight-ahead. It took me about nine months to do all the drawing and then I just sat myself in a dark room with a camera stand and just shot it. The editing took a few days because it was already kind of in a sequence, I just pulled drawings out here and there to make it succinct.

And how was the public response to the project once it was done?

It ended up winning for Best Animation at an Asian festival in Toronto, then when it hit Tribeca it just took off. Luckily it became a film that resonated with people.

YouTube had acquired it for its (now defunct) Screening Room back in 2008. I was kind of wary as I didn’t know if it would just end up on YouTube for free, but back then it was a pretty decent, non-exclusive license for six weeks, after which time you could take it down – but during those six weeks it just took off like wildfire! I think in the first weekend it reached hundreds of thousands of views, and after six weeks I’d gotten so much attention that I realised that I should just leave it up. Basically every single commercial opportunity I think I’ve ever had is because someone saw that film on YouTube. It launched my career, essentially.

When we launched Yellow Sticky Notes: Canadian Anijam with all the animators from Canada, that one went viral on Vimeo, as opposed to YouTube. Vimeo made it a Staff Pick, so when that happens it just catches on and gets added to all the other channels. It’s interesting to experiment with different online platforms, I always find there’s something every year and it’s really tough to keep track of all of it. I’ve been using IndieFlix for a bit now, too.

How do you define the term ‘anijam’?

Everyone asks that, even animators sometimes ask what it is! I think in animation school we used to do anijams, where we would get our student body together and you would do a piece of animation that someone would continue on from your last drawing. I guess it was like the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ of the Dadaists, where they would fold up a piece paper and someone would draw the next section. The anijam just took that to the next level because instead of one drawing it was obviously a sequence of drawings.

I was really familiar with Marv Newland and his 1984 film Anijam, where he brought together twenty-two animators from across the world to work on it. Marv lives in Vancouver, he would have all these garage sales where he’d sell all his animation stuff and, being an animation geek, I was always there, buying all his old stuff. We made friends, because Marv is a legend in the animation field, especially independent animation. In Vancouver he’s really the reason why there’s such a great animation community, because a lot of people who worked at his studio International Rocket Ship went off after it dissolved to start their own studios. So the long and short of it was that when I was thinking “OK it’s time to do an anijam” I liked the idea of seeing how other people approached using post-it notes the way I had in 2007, basically just picking a day in their life and self-reflecting on it, through that documentary kind of process, documenting that one day in their life.

How did you go about getting so many amazing Canadian animators on board?

Marv was the first guy who I sat down with, because I didn’t know if he’d coined the term ‘anijam’ but obviously his film brought that process of collaborative animation into the fold. I think he respected that I came to him and said it was what I wanted to do, and when I asked if he wanted to do a section of the film his first response was “yes”! I had a list of Canadian animators who I wanted to work with and as soon as I knew I had Marv, I knew I could get the majority of everyone else on board. In the beginning the list was more international, I was hoping to have someone from every major country in the world that are independent animation hotbeds, but what ended up happening was the majority of our funding came from Bravo in Canada, so the film had to have 100% Canadian content.

It actually worked out that Marv gave me the contacts for Paul Driessen, and I knew Alison Snowden and David Fine so it was kind of easy to get them on board. Cordell Barker, who did The Cat Came Back for the NFB, was in Winnipeg, he was really busy working on his own magnum opus, but the idea was that I didn’t give anyone a time-limit, you could do as much as you felt like, so there wasn’t any pressure to do a certain number of drawings. So I think a lot of people came on board because they thought it sounded like a fun, collaborative thing and that it wasn’t like Marv’s Anijam where the last drawing turns into the first drawing for the next animator; Each section in Canadian Anijam was bookended by a blank sticky note, that way everyone was working around the same time.

JSC-posterThe film, despite being a collection of so many other artists’ work, still retains the overall feel of your original Yellow Sticky Notes. What sort of production considerations were in place to make sure the project held together this way?

Everyone had the same materials, I basically gave them a kit of 400-500 sticky notes and a few black Lumocolor pens and a lightpad they had to use. We took the money from Bravo and split it up equally between the fifteen of us as well as the composer and the sound designer, so everyone got paid exactly the same amount. The rule was there couldn’t be underlying pencil sketches, it had to be straight-up ink. Some people might’ve done roughs first and traced over the top, but for the most part when I animate it’s rough, it’s raw, it’s sketchy and that’s what I like, so I was trying to get them to open and be free with that too.

Initially I organised it in chronological order, so Paul Driessen’s earliest reflection was when he was a kid and Janet Perlman’s is in the future, so it kind of makes sense that hers is the last sequence in the film.

Again, the response to this film has been very positive. What ideally do you hope audiences have taken from it?

I guess the biggest compliment I ever got was that it’s honest, there’s an honesty to the film that it is people’s lives. We’re all busy people and when people see other people’s lives as being busy as well they just automatically relate to it. It’s very voyeuristic too – I think people like voyeurism, especially in this day and age – but at the same time it’s reflective, because after reading someone’s to-do list you’re seeing how they visually reflected on that day through the animation process. Which is sort of what the 9/11 or tsunami or Columbine sequences and things like that were about. Taking in the world around us, for a lot of people that’s something very relatable for them which is I think why people gravitated toward the film as much as they did.

Part of the reason we all did Yellow Sticky Notes: Canadian Anijam was that any proceeds from the film would go into starting up a foundation that helped teach kids animation through the process of self-reflection, through the process of hand-drawn animation, keeping the art form of classical animation alive, so right now we’re in the process of structuring workshops. As animators it’s great to inspire the next generation through something that’s very accessible, and for me everyone has sticky notes, they’re everywhere, they’re like the perfect flip-book. Anybody can sit there and draw and create animation in the span of an hour, or three days or whatever it needs to be, and the anijam definitely helped inspire other kids to go out and do the same thing.

Visit the official site and Facebook page of Yellow Sticky Notes: Canadian Anijam for more information on the project. To learn more about the work of Jeff Chiba Stearns visit his website at meditatingbunny.com

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