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Experimental Filmmaker Eric Leiser Takes Us Behind The Scenes Of His Animations

Experimental Filmmaker Eric Leiser Takes Us Behind The Scenes Of His Animations

Eric Leiser’s shorts and art have been exhibited widely, from film festivals, such as Cannes, and film venues, such as Anthology Archives and the British Film Institute, to museums and art galleries, including Goldsmiths, Whitney Museum, New Museum and Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). We spoke to Leiser about his passion for ecology and spiritualism, his lifelong obsessions, and the inspirations that led him to choose stop-motion animation as his primary medium.

Kinoscope: The animal forms in your films recall the modernist painters, such as Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet, and the later American painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Was your background mainly in the visual arts? 

Eric Leiser: My foundation is in drawing, painting, sculpture and ecology. I remember when I was four-years-old, the satisfaction and the sense of affirmed individuality I felt when winning a 2nd place in a coloring contest for Clover Dairy Farms in Petaluma, CA. The first prize had a more traditional approach while mine was very much my version, without compromise, intentionally drawing additional designs outside the lines, all with a wild color palette.

I was exposed to the arts and ecology while attending an immersive, hands on, art orientated public elementary school. Equally formative was being surrounded by the art and crafts of the local indigenous tribes, such as the Pomo, Coast Miwok and Wappo at the Sonoma County Art Fairs, along with comics and animation. I spent the majority of my childhood in Santa Rosa, CA, the home of Charles Shultz of Peanuts fame. I was exposed to experimental animation from all over the world on the Bay Area’s Arts channel, and introduced very early on to one of my heroes, animator Władysław Starewicz, also to Lotte Reiniger, Nina Shorina, Germaine Dulac, Yuri Norstein and Henry Selick. Sesame Street also featured lots of experimental animation in those days.

What impacted me more than anything though were the mighty redwood forests in the geothermal and seismically active area of coastal Northern California. Later on, in college, I did my undergraduate studies in General Education/Art History/Studio Practice. I was drawn to animal and natural forms and at SFMOMA discovered Paul Klee whose work I found very accessible, tactile yet mysterious and playful, to Dubuffet whose imagination and style synced with my own, and to Basquiat’s whose vital, musical work and life story was a real touchstone for me.

I would add that Haitian Art, William Blake, Lenora Carrington, Joseph Cornell, Egon Schiele, Bruno Schulz and the German Expressionists, especially Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Käthe Kollwitz, Lyonel Feininger were all influences before I began doing my own films.

After a brief detour of wanting to study medicine and working at the morgue/ local funeral home, I went to study experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). But even prior to CalArts, I made my first stop-motion animated short, Prelude (2001, included in the retrospective of my shorts on Kinoscope). I was watching the films of Jiri Trnka, Jan Svankmajer, Kihachirō Kawamoto, Maya Deren, Jiri Barta, Oskar Fischinger, Germaine Dulac, Quay Brothers etc.  At CalArts I was in the experimental animation department, which was founded by the incredible artist, animator and my mentor, Jules Engel. Jules gave me massive support and encouragement, along with film historian William Moritz who, after watching at least 100 hours of experimental films in his epic classes and expressing my love in particular for the duo’s work, introduced me to the Jan Svankmajer and the late Eva Svankmajerova at the end of my first year.

While diving deep into animation I came to the conclusion that only stop motion had the tactile, metaphysical poetry, and the time/space, magnetic qualities that I was seeking. The dual process of letting the history of the object speak through me and of imparting my own life force into matter was hypnotic while at the same time vaguely haunting. The meditative, even trance like, process of stop motion animating, along with the final result, has captivated me since. Also working with nature as in animating landscapes, living in national parks, such as the Olympic National Park in Washington State, studying the processes of the seasons through detailed observation and journaling over the years has helped me understand history as a hard to articulate, intuitive and tactile impression of time’s stamp on a place, and to contemplate humanity’s relationship to the land, all by touching i.e. working physically and plastically with the materials I spend my time with it, season after season, realizing both my finite place in nature and my infinite connection to creation.

What is your actual creative process like?

It is often mysterious. The various mediums exist simultaneously, but what grounds them is my deep love for the artisanal in its truest definition, the handmade tactility that creates an intimacy with myself and with the viewer.

My films tend to bleed, interweave and interrelate with one another. The materials I use vary from film to film, depending on each concept, while still allowing space for experiment and adaptation. For example, I have worked with found objects within landscapes and animated them, based on the natural patterns I felt or saw while making time-lapse landscape animation films. The most recent iteration of the land films is a departure from the previous purist form into more hybrid one: life-size objects made in the studio now find their ways outdoors and interact with the natural landscape that also moves.

I shoot with Bolex, Arri, and Digital SLR cameras, make my own rigs for complex camera moves that involve simple equations to work out timing with the sun etc. and create my own optical devices. With the work involving handmade anamorphic objects such as the stop-motion puppets and sets, my materials are often resin, clay, wire, foam latex, glue, plaster, wood, fabric, hair, acrylic, found objects etc.

Since childhood most of the ideas come from my dreams and spiritual life, and filter first and foremost into drawing. My formative experiences and obsessions (such as Christian saints, martyrs, desert fathers, miracles, hierarchies of infinity, the holographic nature of time, psychic twins, albinism/melanism, geomagnetic anomalies, paranormal phenomena, psychogeography, stories of Mu, Lemuria, Atlantis, the Hyperboreans, the subterranean oceans and potential life within the Milky Way galaxy and elsewhere, along with apocalyptic prophecies) set my mind ablaze and shape my ideas. 

For my holography, interwoven with the films, my materials are most often fired clay sculptures, dipped in silver or chrome, Slavich glass film plates with an emulsion sensitive to a ruby, green or blue gas laser, various optics, including beam splitters and photo chemicals for the dark room. I approach each film as an artist working in the studio would. This means that I’m predominately alone while working on short films, or for the feature films, with a small crew of people that are close friends. In all my work, religion, time and the infinite are foundational and very much a lifelong pursuit. My deepest innate dreams, thoughts and memories of fetal consciousness, from fetal to neonatal life, form the core of my work.

I love how you animate pre-existing drawings in Terra Incognita (2010), which we also feature on Kinoscope. What’s the story behind this short?

EL: Thank you, I’ve never spoken about that early collage film before. During my second year at CalArts my late best friend, artist Jacob Faust (who was the co-director, writer, lead actor and composed half the film score on my first feature film, Faustbook, 2006), along with Jorge Telleche, myself, my brother Jeffrey Leiser and I started an experimental theater group called Faust. It was formed in a strong surrealist vein, a satirical vaudeville variety format heavily featuring puppetry, animation and performance art.

Terra Incognita was a multi-plane animation made from photocopies of 19th century illustrations made during the race to the poles. It was flat-rod puppets on a proscenium stage with a screen behind them, onto which the animation Terra Incognita is projected. Many of the sea monster puppets and ships performed in sync with the animated ones, along with splashes of water and powdered chalk to mimic snowfall. These techniques came from my time studying puppet theater in Prague, in 2005, and learning from Svankmajer and Svankmajerova.  It was a lot of fun to both animate and to perform live. At the same time the film comments on the colonial race to claim the Arctic by various countries—a race that, in a sense, is still going on today, but this time for oil—and the murders of the Inuit people who had inhabited the land for millennia.

Puppetry and animation have historically been mediums that make it possible to address atrocity, through political activism and satire—The Bread and Puppet Theater, for example, has been my major inspiration, since I worked with them in my first year at CalArts. The co-existence of comedy and horror continues to beguile me. For my next feature film I am working again with puppets and experimental techniques to create my first fully animated feature film. I have finally worked up the nerve to work for over five years to see it through. It seems as if it has all been leading up to this new adventure.

Watch the Eric Leiser Retrospective on Kinoscope

About The Author

Ela Bittencourt

A writer, film critic and curator, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil. Her essays and interviews have appeared in publications including Artforum, Cineaste, Film Comment, Frieze and Sight & Sound Magazine. Bittencourt was the curator of the 2015 Neither/Nor retrospective of Polish nonfiction films at the True/False Film Festival, as well as the author of the accompanying monograph,Neither/Nor: Chimeric Cinema, Poland, 1970s-1990s. She also co-curated Stories of Transformation, a Polish film retrospective in Brazil in 2015 and serves on the selection committee for the It’s All True International Documentary Film Festival in São Paulo.

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