Award-winning filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming, whose body of work includes the animated biography The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (2003) and the adaptation of Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2010), has recently finished work on her first full-length animated feature Window Horses, which saw its premiere at Annecy this week. Having gathered production funds via IndieGogo, the film features Ann Marie’s long-established animated avatar Stickgirl ‘starring’ as Rosie Ming, a Canadian poet whose cultural horizons and perceptions of her family history are broadened when she finds herself invited to participate in a poetry festival in Iran.
While Window Horses is primarily animated by longtime collaborator Kevin Langdale, in a manner reminiscent of last year’s Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the film draws upon the talents of multiple artists in the visual depictions of its poetry, including Janet Perlman, Louise Johnson, Jody Kramer and Lillian Chan, with Sandra Oh and Ellen page amongst its voice talent. Skwigly spoke with Ann Marie to learn more about the genesis of the film and its real-life roots.
It’s a great start for the film to be premiering at Annecy, were you pleased to hear it got in?
I didn’t think it would be ready for Annecy, actually! I do a lot of different typs of films, both animated and live-action, but my animated films haven’t really done the animation festivals so much, they’re screened at more general festivals. So I was really excited and surprised to be invited to the competition, it didn’t really occur to me that that could happen!
You’ve been using this same character Stickgirl in some form or other for many years, where did she originate from?
Well, the long story is that when I went back to art school to go into animation I was hit and run over by a couple of cars. I was quite damaged, everybody was trying to get me to quit school and lie on a beach in Mexico to recover so I could walk again. But I’d sacrificed so much to get back into school and it just meant so much to me to finish this animation degree that I was trying to take. I didn’t have a lot of power, I was in a wheelchair and I would just come in for maybe a couple of hours a day. That was the only strength I had, and I created this little character, my little avatar Stickgirl, as a gesture. She represents all the power I had in my body at the time.
She’s been with me for almost thirty years now and she’s sort of my better self – she’s more open, she’s more curious, more sanguine about things, she can speak to things that I can’t. She’s had a lot of life, she’s got an iPhone app, she’s had some mobisodes, she’s done lots of short films, but for this film I really wanted her message to be amplified and get out there in the world, so that’s why I approached Sandra Oh, who I’ve known for 20 years, to be her voice. She loved the story and became much more involved in it which really helped get this film off the ground. But for me it was super strange, because probably more people will see this than all my work together, and it’s not my voice, it’s someone else’s Also she’s drawn by a team of animators, so it isn’t my drawing, and she has a name for the first time – Rosie Ming. I made her half-Chinese like me, but also half-Persian which I’m not. So really she’s ‘acting’, this is her first dramatic role and she’s being voiced by this incredible actress. I speak about her in the third person, but it really is like a cognitive dissonance for me, in some ways – it’s like three steps away from me now, but I’m really proud of her, she’s really made her way in the world.
So previously had it been your voice?
Yeah, when she’s said the odd thing in a film. She’s mainly an observer, you can tell by her actions rather than her voice.
Regarding the other applications for the character in different forms of media, is that something you hope to continue to do with her?
Oh yeah, I mean she’s just so great to play with! She’s been digital for quite a few years now, I didn’t expect that to happen. She’s just so easy to morph into different things, in fact before this film I was working on a project where she was exploring astrophysics through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old girl’s diary!
As to this version, does the Rosie Ming character have any particular real-life roots?
In terms of this story, yes, everything in the story is true. It’s not one person’s story, it’s things that I’ve lived through, it’s people that I know, it’s things I’ve extrapolated, things I’ve read. It’s like my whole life is in this, even though it seems kind of strange that it happens at a poetry festival in Iran – I’ve not been to Iran, so why is it there? That’s a long story. But I think that if we take Rosie through her experience in Iran at this international poetry festival, it’s exactly what it’s like to travel with a film, right? You go to all these countries, you’re not a ‘tourist’ but everybody wants to show you the best places and you get kind of an inside view, but you’re surrounded by international artists and you’re having these lofty conversations. It’s just such a weird privilege and it’s very much how I remember, as a young woman, traveling around, never feeling like I should be there. So that’s not really a theme of the film, but it very much was my entry into this world of poetry and another culture and another country. That’s not how I got to Iran, but it’s probably the most personal thing.
So what was the appeal of the arts culture of Iran?
When I was in Annecy 19 years ago I was living in Germany, I was at an Artist Residency in Stuttgart all alone, trying to learn another language, surrounded by artists from different countries. I just absorbed all of their stories and also I learned a lot about Germany. I had to overcome a lot of negative thoughts I’d had about the country because of m own family’s experience during the war and I was hearing what it was like for Germans after the Second World War, the German diaspora. I also saw that, because of the war, there was this cross-generational divide with language, with culture, with this story that nobody wanted to tell. Originally this story started back then, and it was a German story, a father-son story, because that was what I was taking it from. It featured everybody I had met in Germany and it was about overcoming this chasm of culture.
That sat there for many years, and when I came back to Vancouver I was introduced through a friend of mine to the Iranian diaspora and learned more about that culture. I thought if I change this from Germany after the Second World War to the Islamic revolution and all of the hardships and secrets in that culture that I could make it contemporary. It is talking about acceptance and tolerance through understanding, through art and through poetry.
So reflecting the poetry in terms of the art style, from my understanding it was several different artists who contributed some of the segments. Was that always the intention, for it to embrace the collaboration side of things?
Yeah, I mean this is just an independent project, I always knew I was going to work with different artists and a lot of my films have been sort of collages where I’ve worked with different styles and different people. So I picked people I knew based on their availability; they’re all Canadian artists, people whose work I love.
To what extent were you involved in the overall visualisation of the film beyond the design of the main character?
I’ve been working with Kevin Langdale over many years, so we communicate really well. We were involved with storyboarding it together, he did 90% of the artwork for sure, but it’s been a very collaborative process. What I did with the segment animators is give them pretty much carte blanche, for the most part, to interpret the poem as they wanted to.
That makes for lots of really nice sequences. There’s one in particular, the Cows poem, I found very striking…
Isn’t that crazy? That’s Kunal Sen, he’s a Canadian/South Asian filmmaker and he said “Oh I’ll do this in two weeks” – and six months later and about fifty iterations later, he just went down this rabbit hole of, like, an art explosion! It’s so exciting. And that’s the first bit of animation that was actually done for the film, because he had to do something on his schedule. I had thought I was going to do this stereoscopically, and that’s why that design is the way it is, to take advantage of that technique, but after I’d put a toe in I thought God, that’s just way too much work.
How long back does your working relationship with Kevin go?
We’ve worked together for probably about a dozen years now. He made a large dust ball for me in a live-action comedy called The French Guy. I have a production company and he came by after art school looking for a job and there was nothing for him at the time, but I was just so struck by his design sensibility. He’s a really great collaborator to work with and he’s a filmmaker in his own right but he’s had so little time for that, so my wish really is that after this film everybody else is gonna want to work with him and see his vision. I hope he gets to make his own films soon.
An earlier work of yours that I’m sure many readers will be familiar with is I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, was that the first time you’d worked with the NFB?
No, but that was the first time that I was commissioned by them. They asked me to come in and adapt Bernice Eisenstein’s illustrated memoir and I thought Oh my goodness, how can I do this? A) I’m a writer, I don’t adapt other people’s work, B) I’m not Jewish and this is like the seminal Jewish story of the 20th century, how do I take this on? So it was really important for me to collaborate with the author, so she did do the voice-over. I really needed her to approve and support the film project. I worked with three animators – Kevin Langdale, Howie Shia and Lillian Chan, who also has a beautiful bit in Window Horses.
The animators really brought their sensibility to her style, so that also was a bit of a collage. I think it’s completely possible to be true to the original as long as you have the same sensibility, it doesn’t have to look the same, it still feels the same, so I think it was a success in that respect.
You’re planning to adapt Window Horses into a graphic novel, which you’ve done before with an earlier film – do you have a specific process for taking a film and converting it to a book?
When I couldn’t get any funding I got a storyboard together and turned it into a graphic novel. Then, based on that graphic novel we got the funding for the film, and now I’m going back and redoing the graphic novel with the finished artwork from the film because it’s so gorgeous. So I’m just using Comic Life, it’s a really cheap app but I love the sound effects, it keeps me awake!
Window Horses screens as part of the Annecy 2016 Feature Films in Competition at:
- 14/06/2016 – 16:00, Bonlieu Grande salle
- 15/06/2016 – 17:00, Cinéma Pathé Pathé 2
- 15/06/2016 – 20:45, MJC Novel
- 16/06/2016 – 17:00, Cinéma Pathé Pathé 2
- 17/06/2016 – 20:45, La Turbine