By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
The National Film Board of Canada‘s (NFB) Hothouse Apprenticeship program for filmmakers specializing in the animation medium is very aptly named. The goal of this curriculum is likened to the structure gardeners use to create ideal conditions for plants, where new talents are mentored and allowed to develop in new ways. One purpose is to allow them to re-imagine ways of making animation that’s creative and technically marvellous to look at.
One such talent is Curtis Horsburgh, a mixed media artist from Calgary. He studied at the University of Alberta to find his calling. Eventually, he found a passion in experimental film and getting to know how the mind works in psychology. In art, he’s developed quite the style which can be viewed at https://skrowl.com
“I took this one class about human perception that was really interesting,” said Horsburgh. “[The professors] talked about animation and all these tricks that can be used to fool people, optical illusions, and I love that stuff. So that made me decide to move to Ontario and go to Sheridan College, which is a big animation school.”
After graduating, he looked at what options were available and discovered the NFB program. He applied to the 12-week intensive course and after get got accepted, he moved to Victoria, BC because there was a vibe here that he liked. He also appreciated the fact that this year, the program allowed him to work remotely. Applicants can live wherever they want in this country because there are mentors living nation-wide. The result is an animated stop-motion short called Fyoog. This video is on the NFB’s website, and for this artist, I talked to him at length about his career, the development of this short and his inspirations:
ES: Who inspired you to become an animator / artist?
CH: I always wanted to be an artist but when I was young, I didn’t know what that meant. My vision was da Vinci or Picasso. We live in such a different time now that’s…that’s not what an artist is anymore. It took me a while to figure out how to be one and once I discovered animation, I realized that’s my medium!
ES: What are the challenges you find with working in this medium?
CH: There’s a lot of animation being made all over the world and it’s becoming a bit disposable just cause there’s so much. I think people, their attention span isn’t as long as it used to be so things come and go really quickly. You can make a masterpiece and then even if it’s really embraced within a few months people are forgetting about it and moving on to the next thing. So that’s kind of tricky, you always have to be creating something.
ES: With Fyoog, because you’re creating the world with stop-motion and 2D, and you’re basing the short on a dream symbolism, how do you think all of that combines in terms of getting your work noticed?
CH: Interesting question. I guess dreams offer an ability to show people something very surreal, very weird, but it still has a narrative basis. If you did a whole film like that, it would just seem absurd, there would be no storyline. But if you frame it within the dream then you can do all sorts of weird experiments that you wouldn’t be able to do normally.
I think, that’s what animation is really for: to do things you couldn’t do in live-action, to do things you couldn’t in any other media.
ES: Do you find doing the stop-motion easier than, say, for example, going on a computer to render everything because you have more creativity in the digital realm?
CH: No, I think it’s much harder to do stop motion. I think CG allows you to cheat a bit and doing it in the real world can be much more work. But I think it’s worth it because you get real lighting and textures [to show]. I’ve done a bit of CG work and I just find if I’m staring at that computer (and I’m in that virtual space) for too long, it kinda kills my creative drive. But working with a real puppet and a real camera kind of like fuels me.
ES: While in school, at Sheridan College, did you know what kind of animation you wanted to really work in?
CH: The tradition there is drawing on paper but they really only teach you that for the first year and then after that, they kind of let you go your own way whether you wanna do 3D, it’s mostly computer based now, so you either doing 2D computer stuff or 3D computer stuff. I was the only person in my graduating class to do any animation on paper for my thesis film.
Sheridan College really serves the TV Kids animation market by teaching that kind of stuff and I wasn’t as interested in that. But they also focus a lot on life drawing. You can go to that every day if you want and draw for three hours. You have models there so that’s pretty rare and it’s a cool thing to have.
ES: Have you thought about taking courses in the schools in Vancouver to hone your craft further?
CH: I think Emily Carr [University of Art + Design] is a little more like experimental arts focused. I think the experimental animation world is kind of all over the place. There’s a lot more in Montreal because the National Film Board of Canada is there.
ES: How did you discover their Hothouse program?
CH: I love Norm McLaren‘s early work and Ryan Larkin is a big hero of mine. And when the NFB did a call for entries, I decided to apply. I wasn’t going to unless I had a concept I really liked and it took me — I had a lot of really dumb ideas [laughs]. And then, finally, the window and the train idea came to me and I said, “Okay I’m gonna do this!”
ES: Did that come before the program or…
CH: The theme was found sound. They sent all these found sound clips and one of them was a recording from inside the Toronto subway. For some reason, that one kept coming up; I kept coming back to that and thought about how I’ve always wanted to create an animation [about experiences that can be found] on a train. I think the idea came to me in the middle of yoga class. I should have found my inner silence [laughs] but instead, I was thinking about the film and the thing came to me.
ES: How long did it take for you to animate it?
CH: I was working every day. I also did a lot of work before, cause we had like a month before the program started. So the puppet was pretty much built by that time. And then everything else was done in that three months.
And then, I built the stop-motion set. I had to go through a lot of troubleshooting to get the puppet to work cause it has a wire armature inside. The wire kept breaking and I had to do surgery on the puppet.
There’s a lot of storyboarding that goes on, which is really the first step in any animation you make. Once you have a pretty good idea then you can move forward. After that, the first thing I did was paint the backgrounds that scroll by. And then I shot the stop-motion at the same time as I was doing the animation — the dream characters — that’s on top of the stop-motion.
ES: Was it easy to know what you wanted in the characters that danced about? One of them kind of reminded me of Spongebob Squarepants because of the shape. I’m sure it wasn’t.
CH: Those characters came to me and I was actually trying to get rid of them at some point. Cause it seemed like these three weird dream characters, I liked the shapes, like there’s a circle, triangle and a square. I don’t know. I think they just felt natural so I kept them.
The main character, the kid in the train, was definitely inspired by two friends of mine who I modeled him after. They have a certain style about them and I needed to capture that. They literally walk around with this look on their face like they’re always about to fall asleep [laughs]. So it’s like “okay I can capture that.” As far as the dream characters go I don’t know where those came from really.
ES: How much of your own life experiences do you think filters into your work?
CH: All of it, really. I guess that’s where it all comes from. Sometimes it’s in such a weird way that I can’t even tell. Like there’s certain features of every project where I know where that idea came from, or know where the inspiration is for that, but for some stuff…it’s like a weird alchemical processing. But I mean with Fyoog, I used to take the C-train in Calgary every day to high school, observe all the characters on the train, and look at the window. That’s definitely a huge part of it.
ES: And what about influential artists?
CH: [In film,] I really love Man Ray, he’s one of my favourite artists. And there’s also Salvidor Dali. He made some really cool experimental films. He had this technique for his paintings sometimes where he would (I guess) attach a bell to himself. And what he would do is he would sleep deprive himself and then he’d get into painting and he would try to paint in a sort of half-dream state. And so, if he actually fell asleep, the chime would wake him up and he’d return so he could like just kind of paint in this weird like limbo sleep deprived state (laughs).
In art, there’s a guy named T.Wei – his illustration style is something I’ve caught on to recently. I love Don Hertzfeldt‘s works. His films are just like … his sense of timing is so absurd, but like clinically exact. And there’s also David O’Reilly.
People sometimes say I draw like Sylvain Chomet. He’s a French animator. He made Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist. His character design style is very interesting. it’s definitely something I studied. And there’s Uli Meyer. I love the way he designs characters.
ES: What’s next for you now that you’ve graduated from the program?
CH: I think I’m going to try to do my first comic book. It’s going to be really short, and this has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Now that I have an idea for a story, I’m going to do it. I’ll make maybe 10 pages and put it online on my website. I might do a limited print run too.
ES: What kind of advice can you give to future aspiring artists?
C: Build connections. The internet thing, it’s so tempting to market yourself there, which is where I’m wasting a lot of my time doing. But I realize the real connections — if you really like to build a community of people who want to support you — it’s gotta be in person, you have to connect with those people and give them real value. #igottadoit
ES: And what would you say to them who are considering applying to the Hothouse program?
CH: Start making a lot of stuff. Create whatever you feel and put it on the web so you start developing a bit of a portfolio. Even if it’s just scribbles — characters on a napkin — the NFB likes seeing that kind of stuff and likes to know you’re doing this because you’re compelled to. If you can write a good proposal and fill it with interesting imagery with something they haven’t seen before, then you have a good chance of getting in.