Elizabeth Hobbs celebrates Carrington’s riveting story ‘The Debutante’ with an inventive artistic style of ink, paint and collage; accompanied by an evocative score from composer Hutch Demouilpied.
What has your creative journey been like?
I didn’t know much about animation when I was studying Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art. After my graduation in 1992, I pursued work as a printmaker, creating artist’s books that would be displayed in galleries and libraries. However, it wasn’t possible to share the work widely, and the books would easily become damaged when handled. So, I decided to experiment with telling stories in animation. I slid into this field with the help of a few friends, and I’m still learning how to do it!
So how did cinema happen to you? How did you think of putting your work out on the big screen?
I was always attracted to the dark space of the cinema. The focus and timing of moving image is important for delivering jokes and for surprise or drama, and that made me venture into this field. When people read my artist’s books, I noticed that they didn’t always read all the way to the end, or they read it slowly or put it down at some juncture so, you know, I wanted a bit more control on that front and I think cinema offered that to me. The narrative in film has a clear momentum, and if you’re sitting there with the audience, they kind of rustle or wriggle or put their head in their hands. As a filmmaker , you can really feel that visceral response and it’s really exciting.
What made you want to adapt The Debutante for the big screen? What appealed to you most about this story?
Leonara Carrington wrote this story in 1938 in French, which was her second language; which made the syntax extraordinarily spare. It’s just one-page long and yet it manages to pack a big punch. Carrington’s biography and perspective particularly resonated with me too; we went to the same school and the same art college and the themes and setting of her story are familiar to me in some way. In getting the film made, I had the support of my amazing producer Abigail Addison. We were extremely lucky to be given permission by the Estate of Leonora Carrington to adapt the story and funding from the BFI awarding funds from The National Lottery in the UK.
Your previous short, I’m OK deals with wounds from the war – as well as wounds of the heart through Kokoschka’s life. In both, I’m OK as well as The Debutante, the story moves forward, while erasing the last scene. There is this overlapping of creations, which adds to its dynamic sense. Can you discuss your creative choices in using this technique?
Yes, the technique contributes to the way it looks, because I draw under the camera rather than tracing one frame directly on top of another. The previous frame is on a screen in the corner and I’m watching that as I draw my new image. The eye and the hand are removed from each other which is why the lines of the image are very different from one frame to another. I also prefer the image to be wet when I record each frame, so it is in some sense alive and a record of the moment I painted it.
I tend to do a limited amount of planning, preferring a more intuitive process. In this way, I don’t know 100% what will happen when I start animating. I produce the material quite fast, and I work with an editor Mark Jenkins, who lives in Orkney. He’s really skillful, and I trust him to bring his own magic to the process. He cuts the shots dynamically or rhythmically and is a fantastic storyteller. The whole process, both my part, and the collaborations, bring a lot of surprise and joy for me.
What is the message you hope people take away from The Debutante?
The film is a feminist film about courage and taking your own path. I hope people appreciate the exuberance, and wildness. I hope it’s also inspiring because the protagonist smashes all sorts of stereotypes, rebelling against her mother, eschewing societal pressure, and running away with a wild animal – a rather smelly, and unpopular one too! So, yes I hope that the film is a shout or a protest against what is expected of us, whatever that might be.
Most of your work is heavily derived from historical figures or stories. Your website covers a wide range of topics, from personal stories to social and political commentary. How do you decide what work to choose?
My first few films were stories from history, often about men told from a new perspective. So, my first film called The Emperor in 2001 is about Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis which was sold at auction in 1969. I loved retelling the story of this grand dictator in the last few years of his life and imagining how the little piece of him ended up in a pickle jar at Christies hundreds of years later. I’m always looking for a new perspective or a way to challenge the way that history has traditionally been recorded. I also like to collaborate with young people to help them to tell their stories using animation, and I’ve done many films like that over the years with The Creative Research Collective, Emily Tracy and NIE Theatre.
Since your work strays away from the traditional, do you think the term ‘animator’ or ‘artist’ is a limiting term? And if you could, what term would you give to yourself?
I don’t quite feel like an artist. It feels a bit too grand. And I’m not quite a traditional animator because I never studied it. Perhaps I would say I’m an ‘artist/animator’ or ‘an animator with an experimental practice’. It definitely helps to have a label, so that people know what to expect when they see the work because the term ‘animator’ has such a great spectrum of approaches.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and artists?
It’s important to keep your practice going even if you’re busy working for other people, or if you’re busy caring for others. Even if it doesn’t feel like much, it’s important to find a bit of space each day to work on your own material and projects so that your connection with your artistic practice won’t be lost. It’s better to do that rather than waiting for funding or opportunities to come your way, because sometimes that takes many years.
Lastly, how does it feel to be on the Oscar Shortlist this year?
I was surprised because I really didn’t expect it.
But it’s a good sign. The shortlist is certainly more diverse than it has been in previous years (there is still some way to go) and it represents many independent members of the animation community, as well as a wealth of different techniques and styles. All this is really good for the development of the medium and better aligned with what’s happening on the animated film festival circuit. I’m also delighted for Leonora Carrington’s amazing story to travel far and wide and the Oscar shortlist definitely helps with that
About Elizabeth Hobbs:
Elizabeth is a London based artist working with animation. Her films are experimental in form and often centered upon real life people or events. They always explore and stretch the material possibilities of the medium, and often employ methods from her printmaking background. Her films have traveled widely on the international festival circuit, winning many awards along the way. In 2019, she received a BAFTA British Short Animation nomination for I’m OK, and in 2020, she was invited to become a member of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Elizabeth is senior tutor at NFTS and an associate lecturer on the MA in Animation at London College of Communication.