Stop-motion animation has always fascinated me. Anything from Wallace & Gromit to the Quay Brothers; it’s like a secret, sacred obsession I only indulge in when no one is around. In a world full of fanciful high-definition CGI creations and people with the attention span of goldfish, a special populace not only appreciates stop-motion, but also knows how long it takes. Two hours of work will produce 30 seconds of animation; it’s not a skill for those who want immediate payback. Keeping up with the underground animation community can be an intensely rewarding past time, especially when one comes across works such as the film “Blood Tea and Red String” by Christiane Cegavske. It was love at first sight. The medium film makes it possible for people to dip into another world for a good span of time. Everything else is suspended while you float in the vision, in the reality and world of another person; a most perfect act of escapism. Christiane Cegavske’s marvelous microcosm is one you will want to stay in and experience long after the hour is up.
The first picture is a portrait of Christiane by photographer Robin Laznak, and the first two film stills are from her upcoming film, “Seed in the Sand“. While “Seed in the Sand” is filmed digitally, “Blood Tea and Red String” was filmed in 16mm, and has the loveliest colors and grainy texture that only 16mm can deliver. It has been shown at 30 film festivals globally, has won awards, and has received incredible reviews from the New York Times, as well as many others. “Blood Tea and Red String” will satiate any craving you have for the surreal and strange.
Justine: Your work is incredible on its own, but to fully comprehend that you not only wrote and directed Blood Tea & Red String, but also animated it, did the costumes, the sets….it’s mind blowing. Where did you learn all of the techniques that you so skillfully wield? How has your personal background supported the birth of such a beautiful creation?
Christiane Cegavske: I’ve been making dolls, puppets, costumes and stories since I was very small. I learned to sew with the help of my mother and grandmothers, and spent a lot of time with my father helping him make things in the garage. My parents provided me with plenty of craft materials and I spent my free time making dolls, doll clothes, doll houses, doll food and other items. I was also encouraged to draw and make stories. By the time I headed off to art school, in my late teens, I was well grounded in many forms of craft and art. My studies at San Francisco Art Institute helped me to develop a mature sense of aesthetics and conceptual thinking.
Many people are unaware of the particular process involved in making a stop-motion film. It’s a vast undertaking; how did you manage this project from start to finish?
The first step for me is to let the ideas grow in my imagination and my sketchbook. Once I start to fall in love with my characters, I begin the puppet making process. This helps me to get to know them more fully. They help to inform the story development and the sets and props that will come next. Work on the script happens as the puppet making and set building happens as one informs the other. For Blood Tea and Red String, I completed all of the puppets before starting the sets. For Seed in the Sand, I made the puppets for the first scene and then that set. The sets for Seed in the Sand are much larger than those for Blood Tea so they must be made as needed.
Blood Tea and Red String took about 4 years to animate. Final editing and sound took a few years because I needed to involve other people in that process. When you have little to no budget, it can be a tricky time in a production to overcome. At first I tried to do all of the sound myself, but found that my skills were too rough for the job.
Your aesthetic is very specific and wonderfully honed. When I first saw your film, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite animators, Jan Svankmajer. What inspires you? When did your style start to appear? Do you have advice for artists who struggle with developing their own style?
I did not intentionally create my aesthetic. It developed as I developed, incorporating influences without being overly conscious of doing so. I gravitated towards some influences that became important because they validated and reinforced the way I was already working, maybe showing me another step or a deeper rabbit hole. Svankmajer inspired me to take the leap into animation when I was in the painting program. I was already interested in bones and strange old found objects, but seeing how he made them live was really exciting. Crocodile Street by the Brothers Quay had a similar but smaller impact. The work of Frida Khalo was important to my early development too, as it validated my exploration of a deeper personal narrative and of the artist using herself as a subject. The dream logic of her fellow women surrealists like Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Remedios Varo is also infinitely inspiring. The Masks of God series by Joseph Campbell was very useful as inspiration and grounding for my dreamed and invented mythology in a cross-cultural historical collage. Films like Juliet of the Spirits by Federico Fellini and Santa Sangre by Alejandro Jodorowsky, encouraged me to consider less traditional narrative forms based heavily in personal symbolic systems and nonlinear storytelling techniques.
As far as advice for emerging artists seeking their own style, what I have to say is that you already have your own style within you. Make work from your heart and it will be yours. If your work is authentic, your audience will find you. Don’t be afraid of the critics and don’t try to please everyone because you’ll just end up not pleasing anyone, not even yourself.
Follow your muse and see where it takes you.
Your talents are obviously very multi-media based, and animation seems like a perfect step for you to take. What first started you on the stop-motion animating journey, and do you remember the first stop-motion film you saw?
Alice by Jan Svankmajer was the primary trigger along with the influence of my friends Christine Shields and Dame Darcy whose wonderful animation projects created in Larry Jordan’s animation class made me eager to take the same class the next year. Larry Jordan was an inspiring teacher and mentor. His encouragement made a big impact on my devotion to animation and faith in my process.
“Blood Tea & Red String” has been interpreted in many different ways. When I first saw it I couldn’t help but think how much it embodied, albeit surreal, the experience of being a girl. Not only the romantic, lovely side, such as pretty dresses, admirers, tea, and cake, but also this idea of being created, molded, and owned. Your poem “Doll” also seems to echo these concepts. Were gender roles something you were exploring with this work? Does the doll signify your self in any way?
I did not enter into the project intending to explore gender roles in any specific way. As a female artist telling my own story, it is something that enters into the narrative on its own. I let the story develop with very little self censorship. When I am in the creation phase of a new project, whatever wells up to the surface becomes part of the whole. Most of the content is autobiographical in some way but not precisely. I think the doll signifies the public self. The construction that protects or hides the tender inner self. The doll is the mask that is mistaken for the real face. She may be me in some small part, but is meant to be a symbol that goes farther than an individual frame of reference.
Another thought that occurred to me as I was watching Blood Tea and Red String was the idea of birth and creation. The strange raven creatures care very much for their sunflowers and for the doll, they created, and she in turn gives birth to the splendid blue harpy girl. Since you conceptualized, conceived and created not only these characters, but also this world, it seemed incredibly intimate. How do you feel about the label “artist” and “creator”? Is there a God-like concept tied to being an artist?
I don’t pay a lot of attention to labels. I consider myself an artist, but the label “artist” seems somewhat inadequate when applied to creation of an entire animated world. I use “creator” as a film credit that brings writing and producing together with artistry and because it is a pre-existing term used to signify the person who initially comes up the foundational idea of a piece. God-like? I don’t know. What is a god, really? A patriarch? Maybe, while I think I’m creating and controlling everything, it is really my characters who are guiding the story.
The costumes for each character were made with exquisite detail. Even the mice had tiny little pearl buttons on their sleeves! How do you create an identity for your creatures? What is your character building process like?
The characters first appear to me when I am daydreaming and sketching in my sketchbook without direction or expectations. They will keep coming back to add more details and eventually some of them become part of a story concept. From there I’ll refine them in both character and concept. When they feel like they are fully realized and ready for existence, I’ll make the puppet. For costuming, sometimes I come up with it all in my imagination and sometimes I do some historical research to work it out. Usually some combination of the two.
Are there any artists, filmmakers, designers, or the like that you aspire to work with in the future?
Not that I can think of right now. I’m a loner.
Your next film “Seed in the Sand” is in the works. I watched the video on your website and it said you expected to have it finished by 2022! I look forward so much to another look into this marvelous world you’ve created. Is there anything your followers can do to support the process? Do you need interns? Funds? Lovely letters or Fan mail?
I’m giving some serious thought to bringing in an intern or two for the fall. My next scene involves a huge sand ocean that will need to be in constant motion, so that would be more easily accomplished with some help. If someone wanted to offer financial support they could become my patron on Patreon. For a pledge of $2 or more they will have access to a monthly unlisted Google+ video Hangout On Air session hosted from my film studio where they can get an inside look into the creation of Seed in the Sand and ask me questions about production, animation or anything really.
Encouraging letters are always helpful. I love those.