Celia Bullwinkel’s short film Sidewalk is a moving and humourous look at the different stages in a woman’s life and it was a fascinating short film to watch. After we were done we just knew we had to approach the filmmaker for an interview. You can read her thoughts on teaching animation, being an independent animator, and the reception to her film from men and women, after the film itself, which is embedded below.
How long has Sidewalk been in the making?
It took four years, from concept to completion. I work in New York as a college instructor and freelance animator, so I had to fit the production in whenever I had time off.
There is a thread of humour in the film that runs through all the stages of this woman’s life – is that a tone you consciously adopted or something that revealed itself as you developed the project?
Many find ageing to be not funny, which was an obstacle. I love old slapstick cartoons, so my approach was to exaggerate the follies of growing older, without having it be mean-spirited. Growing older is inevitable, so why are there so many surprises? Somewhere in that area is where the funny lies, and I did my best to capture that.
It was lovely to watch, after a long time, an animated film with a jazz score.
Thank you. Joshua Moshier wrote the score.
What was the inspiration for the score?
My inspiration for the score went in a few directions until I settled on Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby. The song has been around for 53 years, but the tone and pacing was perfect for the project. Josh is very knowledgeable about jazz, so he knew how to instill the song’s spirit in Sidewalk’s score.
Are there any particular stages in the film whose score you’d like to talk about?
I’ve always loved jazz piano, and wanted the instrument to be constant throughout the film. Josh Moshier pitched the idea of the saxophone replacing the piano as the girl reaches maturity, but I wasn’t on board. I felt the sound of the saxophone was too masculine. After hearing Caroline Davis’s saxophone recordings, I knew the saxophone could be feminine, and it really anchored the film’s score.
Our compliments to you and the music team – your score is beautiful and works perfectly. The cues are never too ‘on the nose’ – how do you stay on the right side of using music to underscore emotion?
That skill belongs largely to Joshua. I sent him a version of the film while in the rough stages of animation, and he composed the music based on the animation’s timing. Knowing the emotional kernel of each scene was essential, and we made sure we were on the same page.
What have been some of the most interesting/intriguing reactions to this film?
Some viewers have told me that the film brought them to tears. I wasn’t aware my ideas or drawings could do that. It’s quite an honor.
Do men and women react differently?
Yes. While I find that both men and women appreciate the film, a few male viewers have confronted me about a certain scene of the film. For the most part, they aren’t fond of the part where the girl misplaces her anger and swats a blind man with a newspaper. I knew the injustice could tarnish the girl’s likeability, but I chose to leave it in.
Tell us a little about yourself: why animation? How did it begin for you? And how long have you been working in animation?
I have loved animation all my life. I watched cartoons on the television like most kids, but MTV’s series “Liquid Television” made me realize I preferred independent animation to the standard Hollywood fare. I moved to New York, where I had the chance to work with great independent filmmakers like Bill Plympton, Emily Hubley, Nina Paley, and John Dilworth. From them, I learned how to make films independently, and work the festival circuit.
I have been working in the field for 14 years now. While attending the School of Visual Arts, I learned animation the “traditional way” which involved shooting on actual film or VHS. Nowadays, I work exclusively in digital software, which, incidentally, is how Sidewalk was made.
How do you incorporate the real world into your work? Do you memorize/record people’s walks/laughs/nervous tics for use in future projects?
A good story begins the process, whether it be as a conversation, a news story, or a personal event. I love how all digital communication devices have a camera, because I can record reference videos at the drop of a hat. Before that, I usually had to act everything out in front of a mirror.
How does your experience as a teacher of animation influence you as an artist?
Students aren’t jaded by the industry yet, which is a virtue. They love making films, and can serve as a reminder of why you got into the industry in the first place. Students entering college nowadays were born in the mid 1990’s, and their artistic voices are so new and different from those from my generation. Guiding in shaping these emerging voices is very exciting.
What is the best thing about working in animation?
The best part of the animation is the control. You don’t have to deal with actors or locations. The thrill of seeing your drawings move never gets old (at least for me), so the tediousness of the animation process doesn’t get me down.
And what is the worst (or hardest) thing about animation?
The worst part of animation is the cost and time it takes to make. Sidewalk was fully self-funded, so I more or less paid myself to make the film. I believe that qualifies it as being a labor of love.
Is there an animated film you wish you had made?
Ha! That list is much too long for this interview, but I can share a few films I watched while I was making Sidewalk:
Geraldine by Arthur de Pins is a brilliant little film about a man waking up to discover he’s a woman. I’m even more impressed that it’s a student film!
Skhizein by Jeremy Clapin is a beautifully melancholy film about mental illness. It handles a subject where animation rarely goes, and does a wonderful job.
I love all of Richard Condie’s short films. His frantic humor never ceases to make me laugh.
What projects are you working on at the moment that you’re looking forward to?
I’m currently working on my second film, which I hope to have completed by the end of the year. The film is being made in 3D software, which I’m learning as I go. It’s a comedy about our relationship with cell phones. I look forward to learning more about 3D animation, and telling compelling stories with it.