There are a number of what I call rogue geniuses in Halifax. Brilliant, eccentric, following their curiosities and obsessions in study or art and—on the surface anyway—unfettered by sartorial trends of the general populace. These people fill me with admiration and I’m comforted to know they exist and balance the lemmings of this world. I wish I could award no-strings-attached grants to them.
When Helen Wingard Hill comes into my kitchen, wearing a blue check shirt under a mauve sweater with a calico kitten appliqué, handing over a hostess gift of carrots and apple cider, I feel immediately that she is one of them.
Born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1970, Hill became interested in animation in the fifth grade. “A wonderful teacher would come in every Friday the 13th to teach animation to my class and would do self-portraits with little replaceable masks that would talk. It was so much fun. I took animation workshops in the seventh grade taught by independent animators, so I had exposure to non-industry techniques. I watched Sesame Street, but not much else. On career day I chose animation.” Hill’s voice is full of verbal italics and quick tempo changes. Indifference is impossible.
In Boston at Harvard University, Hill was in the English program. “My specialty was creative writing. I studied Southern women writers—Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers—and some poets.” I mention Helen Vendler, the poetry critic who taught at Harvard. Hill was in Vendler’s class in 1992 and her face lights up. “She was good. She would tell all these anecdotes, and then explain the poems line by line so you felt you knew how to read it after that. She was really good about giving you background so the poems weren’t just names in your head.”
Hill made three films at Harvard, in combinations of different techniques. “They were four minutes, five minutes long. I like to do different techniques—cut out puppets, drawing, object animation—because it takes so long to do animation and it’s nice to work with different materials.”
Over her chamomile tea Hill’s eyes rove the room, commenting on the colour scheme, a photograph on the fridge, the cats. She laughs easily and brightly. Helen Hill is, well, animated.
After completing a program in experimental animation at CalArts in Valencia, California, Helen Hill came to Halifax in July 1995. It didn’t take her long to find the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative and begin teaching there, thanks to the Women’s Reel Vision Festival. People seeing her work at the festival asked the Co-op to allow Hill to teach a course in experimental animation. Hill gets excited about her students. “Students come from all over, but a lot of the time they’re artists who have never made a film before. I stress learning animation through their own styles, unlike the industry. It’s 10 three-hour lessons, plus independent film and sound editing. They learn how to edit and add sound, so it’s really a lot.”
She’s taught the course twice and the next session starts November 14. The $200 fee includes all the film and processing. Hill is putting the finishing touches on a video anthology of her students’ work; it will be available at Critic’s Choice Video on Granville Street. FLIP, a collection of projects by women in her class, is part of this year’s Reel Life Women’s Film and Video Festival.
Two Helen animations will also be screened at the festival. The World’s Smallest Fair was made at CalArts with an inner school grant of $2000. “We made tons of cotton candy, and on Sunday we went to a grassy field with two cameras and had two machines going, making twelve flavours in eight colours. People made costumes and props and did performances. We took the footage, pixilated it—manipulated the motion—put it through an optical printer, and made a story about making friends from the gathered footage.”
Tunnel of Love was made to illustrate Accidental Romance, a song by the Calypso Orchestra of the Maritimes, Piggy. “It was made with a three-minute film grant from the Co-op,” says Hill. “It’s about a little girl who goes to a fair and gets a free ticket to the tunnel of love. She goes into it by herself and there are these lessons about love that she watches in the tunnel. It’s a romance activist film—it gives good advice about falling in love.
“It’s nice to have movement. Movement really intrigues me. A lot of artists take my course and they have their art work or their style—they’ve done a lot of work already—and they’re adding the movement to it. Fine art animation is a good medium for art—it’s not all industry cartoons. It’s really fun to see things move for the first time. Magic! I like film—drawing on film—using it as a little canvas. Or I can do sculpture, and move it, or move the paint—it doesn’t limit me. I can do anything.”
Originally printed in The Coast Issue 81, October 31 – November 14, 1996
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