Third generation Portlander, Joanna Priestley talks about sand and meat animation, meeting Andrei Tarkovsky, and breaking into the app world.
Catch a screening of Priestley’s work on January 28th, at 7 PM in the Whitsell Auditorium.
You worked at the Film Center in the 1980s before going to grad school. How did you get involved?
After college, I lived in Sisters, Oregon, where there were no movie theaters. This was before VHS and DVD too. So a friend and I started our own screening program, “Strictly Cinema,” and it became very successful. We brought over Portland filmmakers like Bob Gardiner and had a big animation festival.
After doing that for about a year and half, I saw a job listing for a film librarian in The Oregonian. I drove to Portland and interviewed with the Film Center’s director, Bob Sitton. I wore a crazy hat with a gigantic plume in it. He was quite charmed by the hat and offered me the job.
What was the Film Center like then?
The atmosphere was just electric. People were really, really excited about cinema. There were a lot of screenings with guest filmmakers and cinematographers. I worked day and night, every evening, all weekend, at all of the programs. I really got to know a lot of animators like Marv Newland, Jane Aaron, George Griffin, and Bill Plympton because many of them stayed at my house. My social life and Film Center life were one.
How did you actually start making animated films?
My first animation class was at the Film Center with Roger Kukes, and my first film was called RUBBER STAMP FILM. After I finished it, Bill Foster said I should send it to the Telluride Film Festival. Amazingly, it got in, and I went. One of the guests that year was Andrei Tarkovsky—STALKER is my favorite film. There I was with my biggest hero! Once an experience like that happens, you keep going. Now I’ve made 24 films.
You have used different methods over the years. What do you like about the different forms of animation?
Canadian animator Norman McLaren championed working with different techniques, and that is what I have based my career on. There are a few that I would never do again, like sand animation or meat animation, but each has its own fascination. For the last seven years, I’ve been w
orking almost exclusively in Flash, two-dimensional computer animation. Before that, I did mostly hand-drawn work and very often on index cards so I could flip them to see if the motion looked right.
What does a normal workday look like?
I arrive at my studio in the morning and animate until it’s dark—maybe squeeze in a ten-minute lunch. I don’t want to take too much time away from animating! When I’m between projects, I’m miserable. You can ask my husband, who’s also an animation director.
How do collaborations factor into your work?
I’ve co-directed numerous films with other filmmakers: Joan Gratz, who has a studio right next to mine; Karen Aqua; Steve Subotnick; and Jules Engel, who is my mentor. But that is sort of unusual in the animation world. People often ask if I get lonely working by myself here. But I love what I do. It’s endlessly fascinating for me. Lance Limbacker is my long-time sound design collaborator, and I think he is a genius.
How do you make a living as an animator?
It used to be grant and fellowship funding, royalties from annual touring shows like the Festival of Animation and International Tournee of Animation, teaching in Europe and elsewhere, and personal appearances with my films. Nowadays, people expect everything for free—thanks to YouTube—so it is harder and harder.
You’ve done a whole series of shorts about women in different stages of life, from young adult through menopause. Now you’re working on one about getting ready to turn 60.
I decided to take stock and reflect on my life every decade, to see if out of that process an interesting film would emerge. It has so far. It’s not particularly linked to being a woman, but I am a woman and that is an important part of my perspective. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about making a
film about old age. So I’m planning to interview a whole bunch of elderly people now. I might not still be making films when I’m 80.
What else are you working on?
I just finished a PSA for Create Plenty, a local nonprofit that works to create awareness around reducing single-use plastic. I’m a gigantic fan of Vector Park, Patrick Smith’s website with Flash games. I had an intern who knew how to do the programming, Jed Bursiek, so we just started experimenting. Now, five months later, I’ve finished 60 little discrete animated things. I’m hoping
to make it into an app for the iPhone and iPad. If you click on all 60 elements, you get a surprise.
What do you think about the Film Center’s 40th anniversary?
I’ve done shows and taught all over the world, and the Film Center is one of the best places. I don’t think
I would be an animator if it weren’t for the Film Center.
I think it’s very important for young filmmakers (andfilm lovers) that we have such a world-class cinema
resource here in Portland.