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Animation Magazine - North of Blue

12 Questions for ‘North of Blue’ Writer-Director Joanna Priestley

By Ramin Zahed    Published on August 24, 2018


Next month, indie animation artist Joanna Priestley’s latest project North of Blue debuts at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. The dynamic 61-minute-long abstract animated piece was nominated for a Cristal Award at Annecy and marks a new chapter for the Portland, Oregon-based artist, who is best known for acclaimed shorts such as Voices, She-Bop, Utopia Parkway and All My Relations. Joanna was gracious enough to answer some of our burning questions about her splashy new feature:


What was the inspiration for this work?

North of Blue began in February 2012 when I was invited to be filmmaker-in-residence for a month at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. I photographed the environment and began animating snow, ice, braided rivers, spindly trees and crows. I layered images and experimented with using photos as long, horizontal backgrounds that I could pan under the animation. The views of this vast wilderness dotted with jagged white peaks, tiny black trees and lakes of turquoise ice were completely mesmerizing. I fell under the spell of the far north and this journey was a major influence on North of Blue.


After a month in the Yukon, I returned to my studio in Portland, Oregon and struggled to make sense of what I had created. I kept adding new animation and moving scenes around but nothing worked and nothing coalesced. I finally abandoned the project. I returned to it months later and began by removing all the browns and greens and reducing the palette to blue, white and black. I deconstructed the animation by extracting small elements from semi-realistic scenes and combining them into new compositions. Suddenly it became an abstract film and I continued to pare down each scene to only lines and shapes, like simple blue balls and abstract totemic aggregations.


What prompted you to make an abstract animated feature?

I started experimenting with abstract animation in 1984, in the first computer animation class at Cal Arts, taught by Vibeke Sorensen. One of my graduation films, Jade Leaf, was the first computer film made there. I went on to make five more abstract short films and an abstract iOS app (Clam Bake). The app had the biggest influence on North of Blue because I found that the repetition of simple geometric shapes could surprise the player/viewer with increasingly strange metamorphoses. I used seven scenes of transforming blue balls as a repetitive anchor in North of Blue. The original title-in-progress was Blue Balls.


Discarding representation in my work has increased the joy level of my animation. When we see objects, we often subconsciously label them and that creates a familiarity that can shut down further visual and intellectual exploration. Abstract animation cannot be labelled and categorized by the brain. This puts off some people and they are not willing to look at it. If you’re willing to relax into North of Blue and just look, I think you will be surprised.


Which animation tools did you use to create the animation, and how long did it take to make?

North of Blue contains about 43,250 drawings and it took six years to make. I used Adobe Animate for the animation and drew everything by hand with a digital stylus on a medium sized Wacom tablet. After animation and editing were complete, digital artist Brian Kinkley used Synthetik Software’s Studio Artist 4.0 for the paint effects. Brian also designed and animated the title sequence.


What do you love about the final results?

The first time I saw North of Blue on a huge screen with an excellent Dolby Surround sound system, at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, I was shocked with how immersive the experience was. I had only seen the film on a small screen. A couple of sections put me in an altered state and after the show, many people told me that it was like a drug trip and that they experienced a trance state while watching it.


Can you address the design influences on North of Blue?

While working on North of Blue, I attended a lecture about Hilma af Klint, the Swedish abstract painter who lived from 1862 to 1944. She has been excluded from art history, and she was a new discovery for me. Af Klint made over 1400 paintings and 26,000 drawings and she was the first abstract, non-Chinese painter, even though Google continues to attribute that title to Wassily Kandinsky and abstraction in Chinese painting goes back to the 12th century. I was profoundly inspired by af Klint’s large, colorful paintings and the mathematical and mystical elements of her compositions.


I was also influenced by several pioneer abstract animators. Mary Ellen Bute (1906 –1983, USA) directed and animated 14 films and developed an oscilloscope to use for drawing. Oskar Fischinger and Jules Engel (my mentor at Cal Arts) are two important abstract artists and friends who both worked on Disney’s Fantasia. Abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944, Holland) was a major influence on the palette and the compositional structure of several scenes in North of Blue, especially his work with black grids and primary colors. I also researched blue and white classical Delftware.


Music always plays an integral role in your work. Can you tell us a little bit about the music for North of Blue?

I was thrilled when composer Jamie Haggerty threw himself into this project. We worked together on three of my earlier films: Dew Line (2005), Relative Orbits (2004, documentary) and Utopia Parkway (1997). I had to wait for him to retire to work with him again. Jamie is a true Renaissance man: composer, sound designer, animator and editor. It took him 11 months to compose the music and complete the sound design for North of Blue, using Ableton Live and Pro Tools.


Most of the music was composed to picture and I truly loved everything Jamie came up with. Fragments of his music would become ear worms that played in my head for days — always a good sign. I animated four sections of the film to temp music by Seth Norman, and Jamie did a brilliant job of matching the rhythm and mood of those sections. Jamie also did the sound design and Chris Barber assisted with wonderful sound effects. Jamie and I collaborated during the mix, but I had very minor input, occasionally asking if we could reduce layers and simplify an area to match the starkness of a scene. I like dubstep and I begged him to add big bass drops, which he wisely limited to two.


What was your ballpark budget?

The budget was around $19,000. Most of that was for sound and compositing and it does not include my salary or studio rent. The expenses were spread over six years so it was affordable. I paid $2160 ($30/month for six years) to use Adobe Animate and Photoshop and, as Brian Kinkley says, we are all Adobe sharecroppers.


After making about 27 amazing animated shorts over the past three decades, how do you keep finding new inspirations to create your art?

Inspiration is not a problem for me because I am inspired by so many things. For All My Relations (1990), I spent a lot of time in the filthy, potholed street next to my studio, picking up trash to make frames for the animation. Those smashed screws and giant cigarette butts look interesting onscreen. Nearly everything in Dawson City, Yukon was inspiring: people, plants, parkas, landscape, frozen rivers, birds, dog teams, weather, architecture, Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, library display of children’s art, ice crystals in street puddles… Looking carefully when traveling is good for inspiration. I always carry a small sketchbook, make notes and drawings and take photos.


How is your methodology different for a long-format project?

Working on a short film is like a lovely hike in the woods. Working on North of Blue was like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with side trips. It was a deeply joyful process and it felt like an extension of being under the spell of the far north. Every morning as I arrived at my studio, I had this delicious, expansive feeling of being in a vast, wild landscape, with all the time in the world to explore new territory and experiment with unfamiliar imagery. Intriguing challenges in design, composition and content emerged organically and many became new strands of inquiry that resulted in scenes that surprised me.


I usually do a storyboard for a short film, but I did not do one for North of Blue. As the film got longer, I made a large wall of images to organize all of the scenes. It contained a small island of images from tests and experiments that did not fit anywhere. I enjoyed working alone but was lucky to have four interns who worked with me for two months each and I was inspired by their energy and creativity. I have had amazing luck with interns who have found their way to my studio.


My longtime collaboration with brilliant digital effects artist Brian Kinkley was also a fun and energizing part of the process. Brian generated a lovely new look for the film. North of Blue required a long term commitment from my dear friends who did the sound and compositing. It is much easier to do a short film if you are free lance and working on other projects at the same time.


What is your take on the state of animation today?

It is very exciting that many women are making animated features. I absolutely loved The Breadwinner (2017) by Nora Twomey and Seder-Masochism (2018) by Nina Paley.


What is your go-to advice for people who want to make personal animated art—rather than work in studio factories?

The most interesting animated films are by individual artists and their work inspires the animation and advertising industries. Go online (or to film festivals) and look at lots of films by PEZ, Regina Pessoa, Michaela Pavlatova, Nina Paley, Chintis Lundgren, Steven Subotnick, Joan Gratz, BLU, Konstantin Bronzit, Janet Perlman, Marv Newland, Candy Kugel, Alison Snowden & David Fine and Wendy Tilby & Amanda Forbis. Then make a personal film about something that you are passionate about. Enter and go to lots of film festivals. The best ones are free to enter. Set up your own screenings at nightclubs, bars and art galleries if you don’t get into film festivals. Keep in mind that making a film can jump start your commercial animation career but it won’t make money, so keep your day job. Don’t get discouraged and keep making films.


How about some tips for surviving the coming apocalypse/World War Three?

It is important to be as creative as possible, especially in the face of despair over the failure of humanity and possible demise of the human race. Finding joy and nourishment in creative expression and making things is essential and sharing your work can inspire many other people. I immerse myself in creativity by going to see friend’s shows, visiting lots of art and science museums and watching theater, movies and media. My husband, Paul Harrod, was production designer of Isle of Dogs for two years, and it gave me the opportunity to spend months in London visiting their wonderful museums (faves: Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery and Barbican Art Gallery). Paul’s long absence gave me extra time to finish North of Blue, but I deeply missed having my best critic c.


How would you describe North of Blue to someone in order to make them want to see it really badly?

Stretch your head by diving into a lush, color-crazed, immersive, relaxing abstract feature. It will rock your world and lower your blood pressure!


See more of Joanna Priestley’s work at

Willamette Week

The First Feature-Length Film By A Prolific Portland Animator Is A Trippy Symphony of Images

In "North of Blue," which premieres this week, Joanna Priestley dives even deeper into abstraction.

By Dana Alston | September 20, 2017 

North of Blue is kind of like the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey if Stanley Kubrick had a sense of humor. The first feature-length work from Portland animator Joanna Priestleyis completely abstract. Instead of any kind of narrative, North is a collection of shapes and colors that shift together to create a trippy symphony of images. Made with 2D computer animation, lines whizz across the screen and form geometric structures. Humming blue dots pulse in and out of frame. It's backed by a dreamlike soundscape of synths and glass-like clinks.

Priestley doesn't operate within the ordinary. The Portland animator has been making films since 1983, when she used rubber stamps to create a seven-minute moving canvas. Since then, her vow to make a film a year helped her create a huge portfolio of 27 films. But in North of Blue, which premieres this week, Priestley dives even deeper into abstraction. At almost an hour long, it's a lot to ask of even a patient viewer.


Thankfully, North has plenty of personality. A structure of triangles morph into a collection of red patterns, while a rainbow of flower petals combine to form clock-like architecture. Priestley  frequently imbues her work with a sense of humor—one of her works is titled Blue Balls. While North is devoid of direct jokes, there's a childlike sensibility throughout. Some objects are personified into faceless characters, like a red rectangle that laughs as it slinks off-screen, or a green blob with red tentacles that releases a whale-like moan.

North works on a purely aesthetic level thanks in part to the score and sound design by Portland composer Jamie Haggerty. As the geometry onscreen morphs and turns, Haggerty adds noises like record scratches and the gentle drop of marbles to make each of the forms feel like living abstractions. North is more concerned with being transfixing than gripping. But as a visceral experience, it's calming and endlessly interesting. North is fascinating to watch, if only to gain a peek into Priestley's imaginative mind.


SEE IT: North of Blue is at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 7 pm Thursday, Sept. 21. $8-$10.

Animation Magazine

Joanna Priestley to Appear at Stuttgart, British Film Institute

Mercedes Milligan Apr 27th, 2017

Acclaimed indie animator Joanna Priestley will step away from her Portland, OR home base for a series of international appearances over the first week of May. First, the Stuttgart International Animation Festival will present “In Persona: Joanna Priestley” on May 3 at 8 p.m. (Metropol 2) and “AniMovie Special Preview: North of Blue” on May 5 at 7 p.m. (Metropol 3) in Germany. Then, the British Film Institute will toast the award-winning filmmaker at “The Queen of Independent Animation: A Focus on Joanna Priestley” on May 11 at 8:40 p.m., at National Film Theatre 3 in London.

The AniMovie Special Preview will give the audience a first-look at Priestley’s new abstract animated feature North of Blue. The project is inspired by the mysterious winter landscape the director encountered while a fellow at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. The film grew into an exploration of the non-objective idiom that that plays with shifting focal points, suspension and tension of two dimensional patterning and trance.

The film’s design hearkens to Delft ceramics, 19th century Northwest Coastal masks, the paintings of Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian, the abstract animations of Mary Ellen Bute and Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera. Fellow Portlander Jamie Haggerty did the sound design and score for North of Blue, Chris Barber did additional sound effects and Brian Kinkley did the title design and paint effects.

The ITFS In Persona and BFI programs will be retrospective showcases of Priestley’s short films, selected from the 27 award winning works that she has directed, produced and animated. Attendees will be able to take in a dozen shorts including Voices (1985), Pro and Con (1993), Dew Line (2005), Split Ends (2013) and Bottle Neck (2015).

Priestley has also had retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Center for Contemporary Art (Warsaw), American Cinematheque (Los Angeles), Hiroshima Animation Festival (Japan) and Jenju International Film Festival (Korea) and she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, American Film Institute, MacDowell Colony, Fundación Valparaíso and Creative Capital. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

British Film Institute: Woman with a Movie Camera

The Queen of Independent Animation:

A Focus on Joanna Priestley + Q&A  Thursday 11 May 2017 20:40 NFT3

Exclusive presentation of Priestley’s short films over 30 years and a rare chance to hear from her in person.

With retrospectives, awards and a significant body of work under her belt, Joanna Priestley is a distinctive and pioneering director and producer. Despite extensive international acclaim for her work in short film, her work has been criminally underseen in the UK. We are delighted to present an exclusive look at a dozen of her finest short films spanning over 30 years in the industry including Voices (1985), Pro and Con (1993), Dew Line (2005), Split Ends (2013) and Bottle Neck (2015).


The screening will be followed by a rare opportunity to hear from Joanna in person about her career to date and future projects.

Programme (TRT: 60.5 min.):

Voices (1985) 04:07 min. 

She-Bop (1988) 08:00 min. 

All My Relations (1990) 04:50 min. 

Pro & Con (1993) 08:15 min. 

Streetcar Named Perspire (2007) 06.50 min.

Dear Pluto (2012) 04:13 min. 

Missed Aches (2009) 4 min. 

Utopia Parkway (1997) 05.00 min. 

Dew Line (2005) 04.25 min.

Eye Liner (2011) 03:53 min. 

Split Ends (2013) 03.37 min. 

Bottle Neck (2015) 02.39 min.

Animation World Network

Animators Unearthed - Joanna Priestley| Monday, January 30, 2017 
Every Monday, Chris Robinson serves up Animators Unearthed, a brief introduction to prominent and not-so-prominent indie animators.
By Chris Robinson 

There was a time when Portland animator Joanna Priestly was the undisputed Queen of indie animation. While prominent women animators like Evelyn Lambart, Caroline Leaf and Suzan Pitt were making indie animation earlier, Priestley’s films were unique in that she was the one of the few - maybe the only - women animators to use the medium in a direct, autobiographical matter. In films like Voices, All My Relations, Grown Up and Streetcar of Perspire, Priestley has tackled themes of personal fears, relationships, aging, and menopause in a humorous and intimate manner. Priestley makes her films using an array of techniques including rubber stamps, candy, index cards, sand, puppet, cut-out, computer and collage. The uniqueness, intimacy and power of Priestley’s voice creates a body of work (now upwards of twenty films) that is as comfortable, surprising and reliable as an old friend.

The animation scene has changed dramatically since Priestley first started. “When I began making films, there were hundreds people doing independent animated short films. It was considered to be very arcane, marginal activity that did not lead to a “real” job. Now there are tens of thousands of indie animation filmmakers making wonderful short films and features and their efforts can lead to an “A list” job in the commercial world.” 

As diverse as Priestley’s body of work have been the one constant is a search for balance. Throughout the personal narratives, she searches for a sense of personal balance. In the experimental and abstract works, Priestley seeks it on an environment level. Ultimately, Priestley’s sense of balance and harmony is derived from making films. “I make films because I enjoy the process.  I love going to my cozy studio every day and exploring with color, line, texture and sound. Animation is a way to create “life” and new movement and to explore new worlds. Life is good!”

Tricky Women Festival

FOCUS ON JOANNA PRIESTLEY Thu, 03.3.16, 21:00 Sun, 06.3.16, 19:00

“Priestley has spent the past 25 years pushing the boundaries of the genre with inventive, often irreverent shorts on topics such as aging, prison and plants.” – Sharon Mizota, Los Angeles Times


We are happy to present the oeuvre of an exceptional artist who deftly turns issues such as relationship problems or the different stages in women’s lives into humorous animations. In the first part of the program Joanna Priestley presents some of her narrative works, while the second part is devoted to her abstract films and latest animations. Duration: 65 minutes

Voices  1985,04'00

A humorous exploration of the fears we share: fear of the darkness, of monsters, of aging, of being overweight and of global destruction.


She-Bop  1988, 08'00

A movie about power, rage and seizing control of your life. The star of the film in the film is cartoon Kali, the great destroyer/creator goddess. She-Bop combines drawings on index cards and puppets, abstraction and character animation. 

All My Relations  1990, 05'00

A series of sculptural assemblages emphasizes the message implied by the archetypal characters whose dilemmas may be familiar to those who have bought into the “American Dream”.


Grown Up  1993, 06'50

A humorous and poignant look at what it means to be turning 40 and growing older.


Pro & Con  1993, 09'00 with Joan C. Gratz

Life in prison through two monologues: one by a corrections officer, the other by an Oregon State Penitentiary inmate. 


Streetcar Named Perspire  2007, 06'23

A wild roller coaster journey through the mood swings, hot flashes and brain fog of one of life’s great transitions.


Dear Pluto  2012, 04'00

A tribute to everyone’s favorite planetoid, written and narrated by Manhattan slam poet Taylor Mali. The movie blends 2D and 3D animation to explore Pluto’s unfortunate demotion in our solar system.


Missed Aches  2009, 04'00

A witty commentary on ignorance, idiocy and our over-reliance on spell check. Written and narrated by Taylor Mali, this dirty ditty animates text and plays up phonetics with hilarious results.


Utopia Parkway  1997, 05'00

An abstract and symbolic film about covert forces and mysterious containers. Inspired by the boxes of US-American artist Joseph Cornell. 


Dew Line  2005, 04'30

A rich abstract tapestry of biomorphic forms that hints at the loss of botanical diversity. 


Eye Liner  2011, 04'00  The Eye Liner Trilogy

Using luminescent layers of organic abstract animation, “Eye Liner” delves beneath archetypes of the human face. 


Split Ends  2013, 03'30  The Eye Liner Trilogy

Luscious colors and delicate lines playfully construct animated full field patterns and reference mass produced ornamental designs of the industrial era. 


Bottle Neck  2015, 03'00  The Eye Liner Trilogy

A luminous crush of still life silhouettes, abstract shapes and complex, interlocking patterns, the movie renovates the commonplace objects of a classical painting genre in a modern setting. 

Cartoon Brew

“Clam Bake”: Award Winning Indie Filmmaker Creates Whimsical Animation App

By Chris Arrant | 08/16/2012 7:24 am


Portland, OR–Acclaimed indie filmmaker Joanna Priestley has released Clam Bake, an interactive iOS app for iPad, iPhone and iPod that features her iconic style of animation. Priestley has directed, produced and animated 24 award winning films and has been called the “Queen of Independent Animation” by Bill Plympton.

Priestley, based in Portland, Oregon, spent six months creating sixty sequences of animation for Clam Bake, an entertainment app. About the process, she says “I loved coming into the studio each day and creating a totally new animated sequence. It was exhilarating to be free of the narrative structure of filmmaking. This was my first experience with interactive animation and I let my imagination go berserk, but I was always conscious of building Clam Bake into a cohesive experience through design, style, color and shape.”

“Clam Bake was inspired by a wonderful painting workshop that I took from (Portland painter) Flora Bowley. It was about letting your preconceptions, goals and expectations fall away and simply immersing yourself in the joyful experience of exploring with paint. It was also focused on using as much rich color as possible. The vivid colors in Clam Bake are completely different from the limited palettes I use in my films.” The app begins with clicking on a clam shell, which opens to reveal an animated treasure with a little soundtrack. Once the participant has clicked or pulled on all the shapes and interior elements in the composition, a lovely animated sequence plays out for the participant.

Work on Clam Bake began when Priestley hired Portland State University student Jed Bursiak as a summer intern. His programming skills made it possible for Priestley to explore interactive animation and together they created a mobile device application. Priestley found the complex process of getting her Flash app into the Apple App Store to be daunting: “It was a big challenge to decipher their uber-geeky vocabulary and navigate their dense technocracy. I was extremely grateful that Jed could figure it out.”

Composer Seth Norman, of Portland’s Dubstep band Triage, created a rich soundtrack for Clam Bake, which escalates as multiple elements come to life. Norman has created the soundtracks for three of Priestley’s films. About scoring for an app, Norman says: “I think of Clam Bake as the virtual equivalent of being like a child rummaging through another kid’s toy box. My focus as a sound designer was on creating small, attention-grabbing snippets of audio that give the user a feeling of surprise and discovery with each click as they dig further into the app. Creating the sound for Joanna Priestley’s unique interactive world was a great opportunity to explore a wide range of techniques, sources, and styles.”

​Los Angeles Times

Joanna Priestley will have a retrospective of her work at REDCAT  4-12-09

The artist, an alumna of CalArts, draws inspiration from her real life.

By Sharon Mizota

"That's probably the only cartoon ever made just for women over 50," says independent animator Joanna Priestley of her 2007 film, "Streetcar Named Perspire." The 6 1/2 -minute computer-animated roller-coaster ride takes viewers through the ups and downs of a little-discussed phenomenon -- menopause. The "change of life" may seem like an unusual subject for an animated film, but it's par for the course for Priestley, who has spent the past 25 years pushing the boundaries of the genre with inventive, often irreverent shorts on topics such as relationships, aging, prison and plants.

"When one thinks of Joanna, one thinks of a body of works that express a multiple range of ideas," says CalArts professor Maureen Selwood, who curated a retrospective of Priestley's films, titled "Fighting Gravity," that screens on April 20 at REDCAT. But, she adds, the works "still come back to what's expressed by a single person -- an individual's concerns and issues."

Although Hollywood feature animation employs large teams of highly specialized animators, independent animation is often the product of one very determined artist. "There's not a lot of income that comes from making these films," says Priestley via phone from her Portland, Ore., studio, "Most people fund them through grants, so it's usually people with strong visions."

On average, it takes Priestley two to three years to complete a film, so her subjects are usually things that have made a big impression on her. "I try to draw in other people's experience. Very often I'll interview friends and get their ideas," she says, "but the core inspiration usually comes from my own experience."

One of her early films, 1985's "Voices" -- made while she was a graduate student in experimental animation at CalArts--is a four-minute self-portrait in which her hand-drawn visage morphs into myriad shapes: a Minnie Mouse-like character, a green, cone-headed alien, a Picasso-esque abstraction, a wrinkled old woman. These fluid transitions are accompanied by a first-person voice-over about her fears of aging, strangers and war.

On the heels of a bad break-up, she created "All My Relations" in 1990, which follows an abstract, though distinctly feminine figure through the stages of a romance, from infatuation to disillusionment, pain and renewal. Her 1993 film "Grown Up" extols the virtues of turning 40, and "She-Bop," from 1988, is an ode to the Goddess and female power, set to a poem by writer and performer Carolyn Myers.

Priestley often incorporates poems into her work, as sources of inspiration and directly, as soundtracks. "I am in love with the short form," she says, when asked if she will ever make a feature-length film. "I identify more with the poets." Her latest effort, making its world premiere at REDCAT, is a collaboration with four-time National Poetry Slam champion, Taylor Mali. "Missed Aches" is Priestley's interpretation of Mali's "The The [sic] Impotence of Proofreading," a poem that demonstrates how the shortcomings of spell check can result in some unexpected (and often sexually explicit) double entendres. Priestley first heard Mali perform the piece at a Portland literary conference and says it "made me laugh so hard I thought I was going to be sick."

Priestley is equally invested in making films that use animation to explore abstract imagery. "I was first a painter and a printmaker, so the relationship for me is perfectly natural," she says, "There is a joy as I get older in simplifying what I'm working with, to just pare it down to line and color and shape." Her latest abstract work-in-progress is an experiment driven by the structure of the computer program Flash. Initially designed for animation on the Web, the software has become Priestley's medium of choice since the last 35-millimeter film lab in Portland went out of business."

Yet even before computer animation became a widespread phenomenon, Priestley was experimenting with techniques. Her first film, completed in 1983, was created entirely with rubber stamps on index cards. For segments of the 1991 piece "After the Fall," she propped up a sheet of clear Plexiglas at various outdoor locations and shot the animation by placing sequences of drawings in its center. In the finished film, the smooth hand-drawn animation is framed by stuttering approximations of live-action backgrounds.

She attributes her penchant for technical experimentation to the work of Academy Award-winning animator Norman McLaren, which she first saw in high school. "He was one of the great pioneers in paint-on-film and scratch-on-film," she says, referring to camera-less animation techniques that involve manipulating the surface of the film by hand. "He did scratch a whole film with a needle into opaque black leader -- not an easy way to make a film."

Another key influence was Jules Engel, the founder of CalArts' program in experimental animation. "He really encouraged women," Priestley says, unusual in a field traditionally dominated by men. She worked closely with him during her time at CalArts, collaborating on some early experiments in computer animation. Engel, who died in 2003, was a veteran of the Disney films "Fantasia" and "Bambi," a creator of cartoon characters, including Mr. Magoo, and an abstract painter. "Jules really felt so strongly that the life of an artist and the life of being an animator could really be joined together," says Selwood, who teaches in the department.

In fact, the Priestley retrospective came about because Selwood was asked to put together a program coinciding with the Jules Engel Centennial Celebration, a commemoration of the influential animator's legacy. Priestley was an "obvious choice," she says, not only because she was close to Engel but because her career proves "it's possible to be an independent artist."

Animation Magazine

Joanna Priestley: Goddess of Independent Animation

Animator Joanna Priestley celebrates 20 years of innovation, imagination and squiggly lines with the recent release of her two-disc DVD anthology, Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits.

By Gregory Singer | Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 12:00am

"I have enjoyed her work for years. You have to see this." -Gus Van Sant

The world does not want for creativity. People are inherently creative beings, whether as cooks, gardeners or artists. The limiting ingredient is, if not time or resourcefulness, most often money.  The common perception is that big time animation has its center in Los Angeles after all, thats where the money is and that indie animation has its fingers dug into the gritty scene of New York City. In the United States, Los Angeles and New York are the foci of the entertainment business, whether one is doing television, features, commercials or public service announcements.

And yet, in the forgotten outposts of other cities and towns, the lamp of animation burns just as brightly. Paul Fierlinger comes to mind, having worked as an independent animator for the last 30 years in Philadelphia. And, with the recent release of her two-disc DVD anthology Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits Portland animator Joanna Priestley also deserves a note of celebration for her 20 years of experimental film.


Opening up the anthology, Priestley does not waste any time: a paper insert falls into your lap, and happily reports, How to Make an Independent Animated Film. The ideas and inspirations are a dime a dozen. But where is the magic genie to fund the project? For those willing to investigate and pursue fellowships and sponsorships, there is hope.


Now, Priestley's films are largely experimental in nature, meaning she is more concerned with the technique and process of creating her work than in remaining beholden to narrative expectations. So, switch your thinking caps. As she animates candy, meat, glass and sculpture, in addition to such mundane media as watercolor and pastel drawings, there always emerges a kind of warmth in the stories she shares.


Priestleys artistic origins were as a printmaker and painter, and her first film was made using rubber stamps. She says that she has been strongly influenced by the work of Canadian animator Norman McLaren whose films were each different, technically and thematically, covering everything from mathematics to dance. Since each short film (5-7 min.) takes upwards of two to five years to create, Priestley continually explores and challenges her own imagination through subject matter that is personally rewarding.


The 16 short films and four mini-documentaries of the anthology comprise almost two-and-a-half hours of viewing. Relative Orbits has eight of Priestley's earlier films, and Fighting Gravity has eight of her newer works.

Relative Orbits

All My Relations (1990) utilizes drawings on index cards to satirize the pitfalls of romance, upward mobility and other dilemmas of buying into the American dream. As a characteristic of much of her work, Priestley likes to frame her animation within a pixilated milieu of found objects or the organic world. In part, this technique adds another layer of possible meaning to the animation, though, more simply, Priestley is interested in the boundaries of things, where realities meet and come together. Regardless, All My Relations leaves a knowing smile on ones face. (The film was supported by a grant from the American Film Institute in association with the National Endowment for the Arts.)


Pro and Con (1992) is an interesting collaboration with Joan Gratz, briefly discussing the world of our penitentiary system and the need for reform. A corrections officer offers her pro(fessional) perspective, and an inmate offers his con(vict) perspective. The film uses a variety of techniques including object animation, puppets, drawings on paper and clay, and includes self-portraits and contraband weapons and crafts confiscated from inmates. Some of the puppets were made out of gum wrappers and chunks of paint. (The film was funded through the Metropolitan Arts Commission of Multnomah County, Oregon.)


Grown Up (1993) is also a highlight of Priestley's compilation of classic films, humorously discussing the wonders and horrors of, egad, becoming middle-aged. At the ancient age of 40, issues of friendship, career and body are somehow more poignant, yet the narrator remarks at her relative amazement for how alive, comfortable and brave she feels in her autumn years. (The film was produced through a grant from the Independent Television Service, with additional funding through Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowship.)

Fighting Gravity

Surface Dive (2000) was inspired while exploring an underground river in the Yucatan, Mexico. Priestley wanted to recreate the feeling of observing such a fantastical, alchemical world. During brief moments in the film, Priestleys homemade multiplane stand is shown as three layers of artwork are invisibly brought to life. More than 200 glass pieces, 600 sculptures and 2,200 pastel and watercolor images were used for the films drawn, object and replacement animation. Watching the movement through bits of glass provides an interesting, watery effect, and Priestley rummaged through dumpsters, contacted stain glass suppliers and picked up broken windshields off the street to find her materials.


The sculptures were made from Sculpey and surrounded with a silicone mold, and then 15 to 25 duplicates were made with Magi-sculpt to make an animated sequence for each. The sculptures were sanded, gessoed and painted with acrylics. (The project was funded through the Creative Capital Foundation for the Arts.)


Andaluz (2004) was created with Karen Aqua while part of a fellowship at Fundacíon Valpariso in Spain. Using prismacolor pencils on paper, Priestley and Aqua worked with a lot of improvisation and spontaneity. The final film is a beautiful love letter to Andalusia, Spain, which Priestley describes as a powerful intersection of desert landscape, cobalt sky, golden sun and turquoise sea.

Joanna Priestley's whimsical short films cover a variety of subjects, both social and personal, Dew Line (2005) is her most recent work.


Lastly, Dew Line (2005) represents Priestley's growing experimentation with computer-based animation. Using Flash, the film grew out of Priestley's interest in botany and a series of photographs she took for the Oregon Zoo while camping at an abandoned radar station in the Arctic Circle of Alaska. The title of the film therefore refers to the lines and shapes created by condensed moisture, as well as the DEW (Distant Early Warning) stations built during the Cold War. (The film was made possible by a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.)


Priestley is the founding president of ASIFA-Northwest. Her production company, Priestley Motion Pictures (, has an active apprenticeship program and she teaches animation at the Art Institute of Portland. In addition to festival screenings and retrospectives at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, her work has screened on both PBS and the BBC.


All in all, if you are an animation lover, and if you don't mind someone calling you that to your face, then I whole-heartedly recommend picking up Priestley's anthology. Either that, or encourage your local library to purchase a copy so you can borrow it (with the added benefit of allowing the rest of the community to see it, as well). It is the Golden Rule of Animation: support others in their craft and journey, as much as we would hope others to do the same for us.


Fighting Gravity and Relative Orbits: Films by Joanna Priestly, 2004, Primo Pictures, 67 min. and 79 min, respectively; $20.00 each; $35.00 for two-disc set. Available at and at select independent retailers.

Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.

Creative Capital

Surface Dive By Patricia Thomson  2001

The day Joanna Priestley went snorkeling in an underground river in the Yucatan desert, she knew she’d entered a living fantasy world. "It was like swimming in a bowl of moss," the Portland animator recalls. "It had all these plant roots coming out, and it was filled with brightly colored tropical fish. This happened to me in the early ’70s, and I’ve never forgotten it. They use the term ‘rapture of the deep’ for diving in those places, because people go off into those tunnels and it’s so incredibly beautiful, you forget the time and pretty soon, you run out of air." That vivid experience inspired Priestley to become a licensed scuba diver. What’s more, it has infiltrated her world of non-narrative animation.


The filmmaker’s latest short, Surface Dive, is teaming with iridescent pulsating creatures that seem scooped off the ocean floor. "Surface Dive is about three things," the artist explains about her fifteenth film. "My experience diving, abstraction (color and line, shape and texture) and experimenting with technique." For the first time in her two decades as an animator, Priestley used a multi-plane animation stand, which in fact is glimpsed in one shot of Surface Dive. Developed by  German animator, Lotte Reiniger,  in the 1920s, this stand allows you to animate several levels at once. "Normally, when you put different layers of artwork under the camera at different levels, it’s all the same kind of artwork. I wanted to use that technique with a variety of different media," she says.  For the dominant layer, Priestley sculpted abstract, marine-like creatures that mutate before our eyes through the magic of replacement animation. She spent a year creating these 600 sculptural pieces, each as shiny and brilliant as ceramic, but made from Magi-sculpt, an epoxy-based material developed for special effects in Hollywood films.

Their movements are echoed by a second layer of animation made from 2,200 watercolor paintings. (Not surprisingly, Priestley’s artistic origins were as a printmaker and painter. She trained at the Rhode Island School of Design and University of California at Berkeley and worked in a print atelier in Paris before moving into animation, getting an MFA at California Institute of the Arts, the school founded by Walt Disney.) The ballet of abstract squiggles, hatchings, and geometic shapes recall motifs in Priestley’s earlier animations, as does Surface Dive’s third layer, made of found objects — another Priestley calling card.

"I’ve animated meat, candy, and my first film was all rubber stamps," she notes. Grown Up (1993), her whimsical musing on turning 40, combines drawings with bubble wrap, her own hands, and a surgical scalpel. Her widely distributed Utopia Parkway (1997), named after the Queens street on which artist Joseph Cornell lived, has a magical sequence with animated drawings inside small glass bottles, like some strange and delicate specimens captured inside a jar.  "That’s what inspired Surface Dive ­ working with the bottles in Utopia Parkway," Priestley says. "In that film, I was really interested in creating a magical, alchemical feeling — the feeling I get when I look at Cornell’s work. Then when I saw how that looked, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is so interesting to see animation through pieces of glass.’ That’s when I started collecting all different kinds of glass."

When assembling the shards and clear glass pebbles for Surface Dive, Priestley donned leather gloves and rummaged through a glass company’s dumpster, collecting fragments of industrial and architectural glass. She also contacted stained glass suppliers to get remnants of Craft glass, once abundant in Portland’s homes. She even picked up a broken windshield off the street. "It turned out to be one of my favorites, because of its size and the way it reflected the drawings underneath."

Surface Dive and Priestley’s award-winning films have traveled widely to festivals and museums, and were highlighted in 2000 at a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. In 2001 Surface Dive was included in the Sundance Film Festival’s special program A Celebration of Portland Animation. The artist is currently in the process of assembling these experiments in animation on DVD for international distribution. Looking back, Priestley has no regrets about leaving printmaking for the world of animation. "As a painter and printmaker, when I saw the possibilities of movement, it was like adding dance to sculpture. I could not go back."

SPLOG: Michael Spoorn Animation

Independent Animation 16 Aug 2011 07:37 am

Joanna Priestley is one of the most consistent of the Independent animator/filmmakers.

Her work has gotten stronger as she goes on, and the number of films seems to grow more and greater with every year. Starting with THE RUBBER STAMP FILM in 1983, she hit the ground running. Her film VOICES (1985) won International acclaim and made her something of a star on the Festival circuit. To date she’s made some 24 animated shorts.

This interview excited me and made me want to work. Her investment in animation should be an inspiration to anyone wanting to make a career of it, and I hope young animators will take note of the direction she followed. She always seems to have fun in the films she made, which all seem to successfully hide hard work of filmmaking. Her love of the work is obvious.

Q. Can you tell us what brought you to animation.
A. When I was seven years old, my parents gave me a tiny zoetrope on a beige, plastic turntable for Christmas. I loved that toy! I read mountains of comic books and watched Warner Brothers cartoons on television every day. In high school, I saw several films by Norman McLaren from our city library and fell in love with his personal style and his experimentation with various media and animation techniques. But I think the main factor was seeing La Jettée by Chris Marker at U.C. Berkeley. After I saw it in class, the professor let me borrow the projector and the16mm print, so I could look at it over and over. La Jettée led me to producing multi-image shows and that led to animation.

Q. What was your initial training?

A. After living in Paris, I moved to central Oregon and settled in Sisters, a tiny, lovely cowboy town. In Paris I went to the Cinématheque Française everyday, so I was horrified that there were no movie theaters near Sisters, in an area half the size of Nova Scotia. Martha Kelley and I started Strictly Cinema and showed 16mm movies at the local high schools. Then we put on film festivals and I was able to see lots of independent animation. At one point, I went to Safeway and bought a pack of index card and started experimenting. That led to a job at the Northwest Film Center (in Portland, Oregon) where I took an animation class from Roger Kukes. My index card experiments resolved into The Rubber Stamp Film, which led to the Experimental Animation MFA program at Cal Arts.

Q. Who and/or what films were early influences?

A. I am very lucky and have had wonderful mentors. That’s why I run an internship program. My teacher at Cal Arts, Jules Engel, was a brilliant abstract artist. He was always pushing the envelope into unknown territory and I got to know the Head of the Cal Arts Film School, Ed Emshwiller, who was an inspiring, lovely man and extraordinary artist who experimented in a variety of media.


Faith Hubley was a tremendous influence. When she married John Hubley, they agreed to make an independent film every year, and they did. When her husband died, Faith continued to make a film every year for the rest of her life. I find that truly amazing. I attempt to make a film every two to three years and when I get discouraged, I think about Faith and John.


Other influences: Andrei Tarkovsky (especially Stalker), Werner Herzog, Hidao Miyazaki and Chris Marker. Remains to be Seen and Traveling Light by Jane Aaron, The Man who Planted Trees by Frederic Back, Lineage and Viewmaster by George Griffin and Blade Runner. Blab! Magazine was a huge influence (especially work by Tom Biskup, Esther Pearl Watson, Gary Baseman, the Clayton Brothers, Ryan Heshka and Mats!?) as were the Pictoplasma books, Linda Barry’s What It Is and The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker.

Q. You started with films that animated non-traditional media. THE RUBBER STAMP FILM, as its title indicates, uses rubber stamps to create the art, and THE DANCING BULRUSHES utilizes back-lit sand animation. What drew you to these forms as opposed to the traditional drawing?

A. I was deeply influenced by Norman McLaren’s deep exploration of multiple techniques. At the very beginning of my career, I began experimenting with new techniques, new subject matter, new color palettes and new genres with each film. I want to learn as much as possible with each new project and it is very important to me that my work evolves and pushes into unknown territory. With each film, I challenge myself to learn something new. That’s what keeps it interesting.

Q. You tried your hand at computer animation working on some hi-tech computers at CalArts making JADE LEAF (1985) and TIMES SQUARE (1986) on this system. Did you find the computer all that you’d hoped for back in those early days?

A. I had no hopes or dreams about computer animation because it was such a complete novelty. Only a handful of people had access to the big, beige Cubicomp that Cal arts bought. We turned it on and there was a blank screen. We had to find a programmer to make it possible to create and save the digital animation we made with the keyboard. He also set up a program that would shoot single frames on a 16mm Bolex set in front of the Cubicomp’s monitor.

That is how I made two computer films at Cal Arts, Jade Leaf (1985) and Times Square (1986) co-directed with Jules Engel. Collaborating with Jules was so much fun. We were always trying something new and every day that we worked together he would say to me: “Honey!! How can we do this differently?!” Jules always said he made another film from the footage that we shot, but I’ve never seen it.


Q. You went completely in the opposite direction with CANDYJAM (1988) with the very low tech object animation of candy. It must have felt very different working on this film?

A. Candyjam was born when Joan Gratz and I met for the first time at the Hiroshima Animation Festival in 1985 and traveled together afterwards. I was collecting gorgeous Japanese candies with delicate spirals, autumn leaves, dots and colored grids. Joan and I talked about animating with candy and we thought “Wouldn’t it be amazing to ask different people from all around the world to do something with the candy from their area?”


So we asked filmmakers from several countries if they might be interested in contributing sequences and were stunned when everyone we asked said yes (David Anderson, Karen Aqua, Craig Bartlett, Elizabeth Buttler, Paul Driessen, Tom Gasek, Christine Panushka and Marv Newland). That’s one of the amazing things about the international animation community. People will share their talents and their time and they are willing to work together. Candyjam was a joy to make and also a bit of a nightmare because it mixed multiple techniques and two formats (35mm and 16mm).


Q. SHE-BOP (1988) is a stunningly beautiful film combining 3D puppets with drawn animation. It mixes mythology with cartoon on its way to telling this story of controlling your own destiny. Again it’s very different from CANDYJAM and a strong, stylized design. Any comments?

A. She-Bop (1988) is based on a wonderful poem by Carolyn Myers about the Great Goddess. I heard her perform it at a women’s gathering in the Oregon forest. I decided to experiment with puppet animation, even thought it was a bit intimidating to have the best puppet animators in the world a few blocks away at the Vinton Studio. I made a simple puppet with copper plates and lead wire and a set made with foam core board and duct tape. All of my films use very simple, inexpensive materials. Jazz composer Dave Storrs did a lovely soundtrack.

Q. PRO AND CON (1993) combines drawing and clay painting. It’s a teaming between you and Joan Gratz. She obviously did the clay painting to work off your drawings. The film investigates life within a prison, featuring monologues by two people within that prison: an inmate and a corrections officer. You used drawings by the inmates and object animation of some of the weapons and crafts from that same prison. It’s a daring and informative film. How did it come about and what more can you tell us about it?

A. Pro and Con came about when Joan Gratz and I applied for a Percent for Art funding that accompanied the construction of a new prison. We sent out several hundred questionnaires to inmates in Oregon and Joan selected a response which became the basis for her half of the film, which she animated with clay painting. We also toured many prisons, where we met a very interesting African American corrections officer. I based my half of the film on interviews with her. In the McLaren tradition, I used a variety of techniques, including object animation, puppets, drawings on paper and cel animation. I selected media, like animating freshly ground hamburger, that could be seen as a metaphor for incarceration. The hamburger was a pain to animate because it gradually turned brown and stinky over the course of the two day shoot. I contacted the teacher of the art class at Oregon State Penitentiary and he asked his students to draw these wonderful self-portraits for the film. I also animated with contraband weapons and crafts that were confiscated from inmates.

Q. You worked on some of the earliest computer animation done at Cal Arts, working with older systems and programs. Obviously, you’ve adapted to the digital world in drawing your films. What programs do you like working?

A. I started working with Flash in 2002 and fell in love with it. Thank you, Macromedia! I find it easy to navigate and I never forget how it works. I also use Photoshop. I spent four months doing After Effects tutorials and trying to create work with it. Sadly, after a hiatus of six months, I’d forgotten everything.

Q. You originally used multi-media in making the films. Cutouts, cels, 3D puppets, even candy were all used to do your animation. Do you miss these different forms in making the more digital films?

A. I miss the elegant wheels and knobs and the clickety clack of my beautiful cameras. I still have a 16mm Bolex that I found under a table at a flea market. It came with several lenses, fabulous little metal accessories and a leather case. I also have a beautiful, stout, white, 35mm Mitchell camera. But it was expensive and exhausting to send cans of film by Greyhound bus to the lab in Seattle and then wait for weeks for them to process the film and send it back. They would always bump my little jobs for bigger commercial work. I miss working with watercolor and felt pens on paper and I miss moving around and using more muscles than just my right hand, wrist and arm. But the immediacy and ease of use of Flash makes up for all of that!

Q. In ANDALUZ you teamed with Karen Aqua in making this valentine to Andalucia. The film was done on paper in 2004, which means it was more traditional in style. This is rather late for a hand-made film. Was this intentional? How did the teaming of you and Karen come about and how did you break the workload?

A. Andaluz began when filmmaker Karen Aqua, her composer/musician husband Ken Fields and I were all chosen to be artists-in-residence at the Fundaçion Valparaiso in the village of Mojacar in southern Spain. To honor that synchronicity, the three of us collaborated on a film. We began with a ritual honoring the land, five directions and ancestors of Mojacar and then we decided to do a film about that environment.


That gave us license to hike around outside and draw the architecture, animals and plants, study the sky, go swimming and study the water. We sat side by side and did about 1200 drawings together, sometimes drawing on each other’s drawings. After the residency, the three of us traveled together and lugged those drawings everywhere. We didn’t want to take a chance on losing them.

Karen was in Boston and I was in Portland, Oregon and we found that shipping drawings back and forth made us both nervous. So we had two additional residencies, at the Millay Colony and the MacDowell Colony where we finished the artwork together. Then we turned Andaluz over to Ken Field who produced amazing music with Juanito Pascual and Lance Limbocker who did the sound design. Andaluz took about four years to make. During the process, Karen was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemo several times, so there were a lot of challenges to face. Karen died on May 30, 2011 and I miss her terribly. She was a wonderful woman and a brilliant filmmaker/artist. I feel so lucky to have had this collaboration with her and Ken Field.

Q. OUT OF SHAPE uses iconic graphic imagery that playfully moves about the screen. You’ve moved to complete abstraction, yet you give it such a personal lively, light sense of humor. The abstraction gains a personality and becomes funny. You seem to do this so naturally.

A. Thank you. I made Out of Shape ( in two months. I was lucky to have a friend, Marc Rose, who had the time to do the soundtrack. I had just spent two years completing another soundtrack and was demoralized with how long the process took, although I love how it turned out. To refresh my enthusiasm, I made Out of Shape very quickly and joyfully and immediately posted it on YouTube.

Q. In some ways MISSED ACHES seems a bit different from your other films. It’s a play on wordplay, but you treat it almost like a Warner Bros cartoon with bright, bubbly, cartoon music. In some ways it feels more like a Chuck Jones cartoon. It’s the obvious way to do the adapted story, but I wonder how you felt about it while doing it?

A. Missed Aches is based on a poem by Taylor Mali who led teams to four championships in the National Poetry Slam. He was absolutely wonderful to work with. His words are so inspiring that the images just seemed to fall into place. I think it also helped to work at the onset with a friend who is a great storyboard artist (Dan Schaeffer). The challenge for me was to make a funny film with character animation. I am not funny. My husband, director Paul Harrod, is hilarious. Humor is extremely important to me and I think it’s the best way to cope with life.


I had a group of collaborators who made the process a great joy. I worked with a former student, Don Flores, a great character designer and animator, and with the famous Canadian sound designer, Normand Roger, Pierre Yves Drapeau and Denis Chartrand, who made the soundtrack. Major treat! While making Missed Aches, I saw Brian Kinkley’s graduation announcement on Facebook. He did this extraordinary animation of text, which is now constantly imitated. His text animation became the perfect background for the film.

Q. Anything you want to add?

A. I love what I do. I love coming to work everyday. I try to stay open, curious, follow my intuition and always try new things.

Animation World Network

Joanna Priestley: A Continuing Dialogue  9-01-97

Rose Bond interviews Joanna Priestley and reveals the unique relationship between the filmmaker and her films

By Rose Bond

"Whimsical, personal, charming, experimental, delightful" - all words that have been used to describe the work of independent animator, Joanna Priestley. Over the past seventeen years, she has produced a coven of films (that's thirteen for the uninitiated). Priestley has made animated films using rubber stamps, sand, puppets, cut outs, computer paint programs, found objects, and her signature, white index cards. Diverse in technique, Priestley's films seem bound together by a continuing dialogue of personal exploration. They dance playfully along the narrative of her life.

Where Do the Ideas Come From...

"My primary ideas come from what is going on in my life at the time. But that's just a starting place. It has to be something that I'm totally focused on." Turning 40 was an event she focused on. As a result, working collaboratively on a script with writer Barbara Carnegie, Priestley fashioned the images and reformed the incidents to create Grown Up.

But ideas don't always come so easily affixed to road marks in her life and it often takes time for ideas to "compost." "There are times in my life when it takes six or eight or maybe ten months of just being open-hearted and seeing what comes." Priestley credits a show she saw in 1995, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by French sculptor Annette Messager, as a current inspiration. "I'm realizing now, two years later, how that show is manifesting in my work. It takes that amount of compost time for ideas to sort and rejoin in new forms."

"Occasionally, I will hear a clear voice about subject matter for my films. Once I had a dream that was an entire film from start to finish and that became After the Fall. But that is exceptionally rare." For Priestley the idea sorting process is not a straightforward one. She muses whether that's not part of the reason why she's on the planet. "I see what a learning process it is in terms of listening to my intuition, my inner voice, voices, and following my heart." She concludes, "It's hard. Sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes it's muddled, but it's definitely what I'm trying to do."

Abstraction as the Medium
Living with ambiguity and unsettled thoughts appears to be no impediment to Priestley's creativity. She continues to experiment with new methods of animating and talks about her latest film, Utopia Parkway (1997) as a new direction. "It's totally different. I'm combining different techniques in the same film...much more dramatically." In the five minute film she introduces replacement sculptures inspired by her stylized drawings. These 3 dimensional pieces, used in sequences and animated in boxes, work in combination with drawn, pastel, and water color animation.

To pull off this blending of techniques, Priestley turned to abstraction and found inspiration in the work of several pioneers of abstract animation: Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Jules Engel. "Abstraction has really begun to appeal to me. It's taken awhile to get to this point." Priestley elaborates, "There have been certain things I wanted to say and now I'm sort of moving beyond that."

Utopia Parkway is a definite move beyond for Priestley. She had been working on this yet untitled "abstract film" when she happened to see a documentary on the artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). Cornell was a reclusive artist who lived most of his life with his mother, younger brother and two sisters in a small, white frame house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York. When his mother died and his sisters moved away, Cornell stayed on, taking care of and fashioning boxes for his invalid brother, Robert, until the brother's death in 1965.

Today Joseph Cornell is thought by many to be America's premiere assemblage artist. His legacy is a collection of small boxes. Cornell managed to combine objects that intrigued him in childhood stamps, marbles, soap bubbles, butterflies, and seashells with his adult interests references to 19th century Europe, ballet, sky charts, cordial glasses and wooden drawers. Though his point of departure is the reality of an eclectic collection of objects, it is the metaphysical nature of Cornell's vision that sets it apart.

Priestley chanced upon a showing of Cornell's boxes at the Seattle Art Museum. "I began to think about incorporating that format into the new film. I've always worked with frames within the frame, so it was a kind of evolution of the type of work I've been doing." Indeed, you could line up Priestley's films, All My Relations, After the Fall, Hand Held and Utopia Parkway, and see the rectangularization and containment of images within images. "It's something I've worked with as a painter and printmaker," Priestley comments. "I think we all carry with us certain shapes and forms and symbols that we're very close to... it's only when you get older that you realize what they are."

Priestley's imagery in Utopia Parkway may differ from Cornell's flaking ephemera - old engravings, canceled postcards and science magazine clippings - garnered from second hand stores along New York's Fourth Avenue; but she too mines her images from what has come before and casts them in a metaphysic reality of her own creation. Experimental animators like Faith Hubley, Paul Glabicki and Jules Engel, as well as Copper Age Goddess art, spark her imagination. The images are freshened and made whimsical with a primary color palette. Priestley underlies her Utopia Parkway with a percussive soundtrack by Jamie Haggerty that evokes the tribal. It's as if Priestley is suggesting a connection between the glyph and the glimpses, and delighting in the interplay of the organic and the spirit.

Art on the Web
As a full time independent film artist, Priestley is a force for promoting animation as an art form. Her films are even distributed by the Museum of Modern Art. She has recently created a web site featuring her work. What was her intention in putting up a web site? "I wanted to put some art on the web. I'm not selling anything. I just wanted to put something interesting in the ether, because from what I observe, 98% of what's on there is just advertising and dull information." What she hopes for quite simply is that "someone stumbles across this and is thrilled."

Priestley worked with David White and Al Hooton of Level Seven Communications to create the site. As Priestley explains, "It was much more complicated than we thought initially and they spent many, many hours putting it together." The result is an outstanding site located at To see it in full motion, you'll need Netscape 3.0 or higher and the Macromedia Shockwave plug-in, which can be downloaded from buttons on the site.

An Expression of Life
Clearly, for Joanna Priestley animation is an artistic form of expression. An incredibly prolific animator, Priestley talked about the importance of that work in her life. "In the past five years a lot of things have changed for me, yet the one constant thing through it all has been my work. No matter how chaotic or how jubilant things are, there's always this constant, wonderful place I can come to."

"I sometimes wonder, and I guess everyone does, how this work relates to what I see as a worldwide environmental and social crisis going on. What I've really come to realize is that the most important thing we can do is make peace with ourselves and our lives in our own communities." For Priestley, animation is the gift she brings to the world. Without fail, at every showing there will be several people who come up and tell her how much her work has meant to them. "That's what keeps me going."

Priestley lives a life full of art animation. Besides creating films, she tours with them, judges at international festivals, and is a member of the Short Film branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She remains a working spokesperson for the art of animation. "It's really important to show animation in art galleries. I've spent my entire career trying to educate people that this is an important art form." As animation writer Bill Givens penned recently, Joanna Priestley remains, "a leading light in the world of animation."


Rose Bond teaches Digital Animation at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon and is editor of the ASIFA-NW newsletter. Her award winning films, created by drawing and painting directly on film, are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

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