Quarantine has had different effects on different people. Some have been productive, some have picked up strange hobbies, some have been feeling (somewhat) small amounts of existential dread, and many have learned that once you change yourself into a potato on Zoom, there's no turning back. How have some experimental filmmakers of the Ann Arbor Film Festival been dealing with it? The AAFF's Outreach Assistant, Jake Feeman, recently spoke with Kathrin Steinbacher, whose film In Her Boots was presented at the 58th AAFF, and Emily Downe, whose film The Redness of Red was presented at the 57th AAFF.
This pair of filmmakers founded and run a London-based animation boutique, Studio Desk. During quarantine, they created a 90-filmmakers strong collaborative project (including a few more AAFF alums), #FlattentheCurve. What started as a call to animators to send in a short clip of something positive during the COVID-19 lockdown evolved into a 3-part series directed by Downe and Steinbacher with filmmakers from around the world submitting irreverent, colorful, and quirky short films. Jake caught up with the pair about how their collaboration began, experimental animation, being an artist in quarantine, and how #FlattenTheCurve was created.
What is your background as artists and animators?
Kathrin: I come from a graphic design background. Before I moved to the UK, I was working as a graphic designer. In the UK you have to do an art and a science foundation in order to be able to study, so that's what I did. And then in this year, you have to try it like several different things. So you have to try it like graphic design, illustration, animation, fashion, 3D. And then I didn't really draw before and I didn't do art for my art foundation because it basically wasn't possible in Austria. And then I started drawing and I really enjoyed drawing. So I decided to study illustration, animation, and at Kingston, you start with illustration. So that's where we both went. You start with illustration, and then in second year, you have to decide if you want to do illustration or if you want to do animation, and I never really thought about animation before, but I guess for me personally, it was just the next step. Because I really enjoyed illustration. And it just made a lot of sense to me to go a step further and to basically make your illustrations move.
Emily: Yeah, we both met at Kingston on the illustration course. And I initially hadn't really thought about animation. And not in the sense of...making drawings move. I was always really interested in observational drawing and rapid charge initiation. And that's kind of where I saw myself going, and that's why I went to Kingston. We had to try animation in the first few weeks. I was really nervous about it because I just didn't have a clue how it worked. But as soon as I started, I just fell in love with it. So then I kind of had to hold myself back, I didn't really want to go down the animation route. My teachers were like, “You’ve got to because you're a natural at it.” Then I just really loved the filmmaking process and I realized, I think we both realized, that directing was something we're passionate about. Making the whole film, not just animating it. So yeah, and we both worked on a project together in second or third year. We really enjoyed working together and I knew that we had similar interests. We both went to the RCA to do the Master's Course in animation, where it was more about directing films.
What led you both to get into the experimental side of animation?
Kathrin: I would say Emily was definitely always more experimental than me. I was always very interested in storytelling, and in designing. And then, I guess I got more interested in the experimental side of it when I went to the RCA because it is more experimental. At Kingston, when you do animation, you have to do a character turnaround first and then you have to do an animation. There were like certain rules you had to follow. At the RCA, it was much more experimental. And you could do whatever you wanted to do. Like everybody had a different process. I think we get to the end of a project or to get to the end of a film, and it still works. And I think it's really good because you kind of learned that you can actually trust your instincts sometimes, I don't know Emily, for you, I think it was a bit different.
Emily: I think when I started, like, making my first film, and again, like Kathrin said, Kingston was very, you know, you need to catch it turn around and you did an animatic every detail animatic and kind of production. I just wanted to experiment the timeline with sound and different images, so I took a different kind of route to that, which teachers weren't exactly happy with until the end, when they realized what I was doing. I think that was just my natural way of doing things and working with sound and editing. I'm just kind of expressing something for a film however it needs to be told rather than in a specific way. And I think both of us are really interested in like, documentary or real topics, but both of us want to explore that in a very abstract way. So I think that was definitely how both of us got into the stories we wanted to tell. And then we realized, “Oh...you can express it however you want to.”
Tell me a little bit about your recent #FlattentheCurve project. Was it a way to deal with the quarantine?
Emily: I think Kathrin had the initial idea that we should collaborate somehow and, you know, thought that is a really good time to get everyone to be positive. We both were talking to each other about how negative everything is out on social media as soon as the pandemic hit. I think Kathrin mentioned “Oh, we should try and do something positive” and “Why don't we just put out a call and see if anyone wants to make something.” And because also people might want something to do with their time, they might want to distract their mind, and just try and think about the positives. We kind of started this call on Instagram. We just set up our Studio [Desk] Instagram at that point and we didn't really expect to get that many people responding to us. We had bigger followings on our personal accounts. I think we got 140 people in the end sending stuff in. Initially we just wrote a brief that said, “Please send in something that depicts a positive experience you've had over the pandemic, unabated.”
Kathrin: We initially wanted to make one film. And then like we ended up making three films. We had to make a series because it just would have been too long to make one film.
You mentioned that the genesis for the project was trying to create some kind of positive experience in the midst of the world being on fire. Do you hope this project can inspire positivity?
Emily: Yeah, definitely. I think we got a lot of really positive feedback, like, especially on the first one. When we first got launched people saying, “Oh, that's really what I needed that day,” and all that, so that was really encouraging. And people just saying it made them put a smile on their face and made them laugh. And that's really down to the individual clips. And then the second one, like played on the kind of weirdness of the time and then going crazy, which was also like, quite something we wanted to kind of portray, as a lot of the animations went with [it], you know, as animation is quite bizarre and weird and kind of electric. We wanted to portray that we're all in it together.
Kathrin: We kind of like wanted to connect with a lot of people because everybody had to stay home, right? And a lot of people had time so we just wanted to connect them to do something positive and to focus on some positivity.
So we’re all at home a lot and I’ve found myself running out of things to do. So do you guys use that [animation] as kind of a stress reliever?
Kathrin: For us, it was actually quite a stressful time because we were working on a couple of things. You can produce animation at the moment, since you don't have to social distance, as opposed to a live action film. So I think we were quite lucky to work on a couple of commissions. During the time, obviously, at the beginning, when we had the idea for the film, it was a bit more quiet, but then we just set up our studio and we became quite busy.
Emily: I think at the beginning when we decided to start the project that was a chance to kind of keep our minds busy, keep our hands busy, and do some different animation. I did mine with paint and paper, and I’ve really wanted to do that for a while, so I just had time to do it. But yeah, I think as Kathrin said, we got a bit more busy, but I definitely think that that's really helped in the kind of pandemic, to have animation to do. And to focus my mind on something else.
Kathrin: Especially in our generation, we always want to do something, right? For me personally, it's like really tricky to not do something. Whereas this would have maybe been quite a good opportunity to just like, like, sit down and relax a little bit. Then on the other hand side, like I do illustration and animation to relax as well.
Emily: Within animation, there are different kinds of levels of mental energy that you need. Like if you're doing coloring, you can just put on some music and it's quite relaxing. In some complicated animation, then you need more brain power, but there's kind of different parts to it. That really helped me.
I've seen a lot of stuff like, “Use this time when you're at home to be productive - work on this next project that you're doing or get ahead on this thing.” And for me, it's kind of been a struggle in between school and just trying to be social with the friends I'm living with. So is the idea of being productive and using that as a way to cope with this whole thing necessary for certain people?
Emily: Yeah, there were a lot of people saying definitely at the beginning, “why not learn those new skills.” And I found that really stressful because you just feel like you’re constantly going to fail. I definitely found I really needed to rest and just time to be still. I think that's why we, as a studio, we're trying to not overwork and keep our weekends and evenings and like be productive in the day. I think definitely [in] the beginning when it was all fresh, it was like your mind is trying to cope with what's going on and it's actually trying to over work. It's not going to help you.
Kathrin: Yeah, and we definitely just wanted to work on like, a fun project and to connect with other people. I think that was our main idea at the beginning. So we didn't want to put any pressure on us or other people. It was basically just an experiment and we didn't know at the beginning if it was gonna work or not.
Has this time at home changed your work or at least how you work in any way?
Kathrin: I mean yeah, definitely because everything is happening online, right? At the moment we're working with some freelancers. One is based in France, one is based in London, and we still can't see them, but it doesn't make a difference if somebody is in France in Austria or in the States. Before we worked at the same place, we worked in the studio. So yeah, it definitely changed the way we work.
Emily: It also, in the less practical sense, changes my perspective on what it was like having that time to realize what's important. Coming from a very intense Masters and being like, your work is the most important thing in life. It was quite good to realize when the world's in a crisis actually, you know, connecting with people is the most important thing.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Kathrin: What has been really nice for me was the support and everybody in the industry supporting each other. I think that's really, really important to do, especially in times like these, to collaborate with each other and to make new connections and to build up the network. I think that has been really nice and really important.
And with Flatten the Curve, it was just so nice because it was almost like creating a community, a network, and everybody is really excited and supporting each other. I think that's very important in general. And it was really nice to see that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity