Studio News from John, Part 16: Festival Strategies for 2021

I’ve been working with film festivals, in one form or another, for the better part of the last 25 years. They’re an integral part of the film distribution process, the final step on the journey of production, once you finish your beloved short film or feature it’s like a baby bird, and screening it at a film festival is the equivalent of pushing that bird out of the nest to see if it can figure out how to fly. Yep, that analogy works, because if you kick it out of the nest too soon, the film is like an egg and it will plummet to the ground and shatter on the earth below.


It’s September, so right now all eyes are on the Toronto International Film Festival, which over the last decade has become the breeding ground for all sorts of Oscar-nominated and Oscar-eligible movies. Last year’s TIFF line-up included “I, Tonya”, “Call Me By Your Name”, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, “The Disaster Artist”, “Darkest Hour”, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, “The Mountain Between Us”, “Stronger”, “Battle of the Sexes”, “The Breadwinner”, “Downsizing”, “The Florida Project”, “Hostiles”, “Lady Bird”, “Mother!”, “Molly’s Game”, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”, “Faces Places, and “The Shape of Water”, among many others. These were just the ones that got a lot of traction during awards season. So if you want to get an advance peek at the Academy Awards nominations for 2018, or an idea about what’s going to be in your Netflix queue at this time next year, TIFF seems like it’s the place to be. So far, people are buzzing about Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” and Ryan Gosling in “First Man”, but I have a feeling those represent just the tip of the old iceberg.

While we’re in production on “My Love Affair With Marriage”, screening the film at a festival seems like it’s a long way off. But it’s not too early to start thinking about strategy. And I often hear filmmakers who are just starting out, all asking the same questions: “What film festivals should I enter?” “Which are the best ones?” “Which festival screenings will be the most important?” “Which festival screenings will increase the film’s chances for distribution?”

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Some filmmakers seem to adopt a “dartboard” sort of strategy, or they enter every film festival they can think of and hope for the best. But every festival has different rules, and sometimes you have to think about geography or the calendar in order to develop the best strategy for your film. Also, there are some specialized festivals for animation, or documentaries, or LGBTQ films, or countless other subjects. Is it better to narrow the focus and target one of these festivals, or take a broader approach and hope for the best?

Obviously, there’s a top tier of festivals, and that basically includes the Toronto International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice International Film Festival. If you can get your film accepted into any of these, you’d be foolish not to follow through by screening it there. If you’ve got an animated film, then the Annecy International Animation Festival, Anima Mundi, Zagreb and the Hiroshima Animation Festival are probably in the top tier also. But they all have extensive rules to follow, forms to fill out, and a lot of metaphorical hoops to jump through.

Any of these top-tier festivals are so prestigious that they probably have rules regarding premiere status, meaning that they could choose to ONLY screen films that have never screened at another festival. So that means that a filmmaker has to pay attention to not only what month the festival takes place, but also what month their DEADLINE is. The Toronto festival takes place in September, but submissions open in February, and the deadline is in May. So if you’ve got your heart set on premiering at this festival, you’ve got to finish your film by late winter or in spring to have a serious shot at it. If your production drags into summer, then you’d have to either find another festival to premiere at, or wait 8 or 9 months until the next February. At that point it might be worth entering the Berlinale, with its October deadline, so you could be screening your film in February instead of just entering Toronto - that way if it doesn’t get into Berlin, you can still enter Toronto later.

One of the quirks of the rules is that the Sundance Film Festival only requires a U.S. premiere, not a world premiere, so your film could screen at one of those other big festivals outside the U.S. and still get screened in Park City. The last Sundance deadline is in September for their festival in January, so that’s another thing to factor into your calendar-based calculations. Signe and I worked together on the production of Bill Plympton’s film “I Married a Strange Person” and that film played in Toronto in September 1997, then it was in the Dramatic Competition in Sundance in January 1998. I remember driving up there with some of the crew (Bill, John Donnelly, Jen Senko) and staying at a cheap hotel, then meeting Trey Parker at a screening of his film “Orgazmo”. That was probably my first time at a big film festival, but Signe didn’t come along, because she was afraid that if she left the U.S. they wouldn’t let her back in. (You know they were very thorough at the Canadian border back then, with all the anti-Canadian sentiment in the late 1990’s - my, how things have changed…)


Then we went to Sundance twice - with “I Married a Strange Person” in 1998 and “Mutant Aliens” in 2001, then Slamdance for the U.S. premiere of “Hair High” in 2004. I remember that Bill Plympton had a habit of entering his films into both Sundance AND Slamdance, even though they take place in the same town at the same time. And of course, you can’t have a film in both of those festivals, but I think he figured if his film couldn’t get into one, then there was still a chance with the other. This is where things can get tricky, because one day the studio got a phone call from the Slamdance Festival, accepting his film - but they wanted to know RIGHT AWAY if we could confirm the film’s participation, and of course, Bill was out of town. In my mind I could just hear him saying, “But we haven’t heard back from Sundance yet…” even though Sundance had become tougher and tougher to get into, even over the course of just those five or six years. Slamdance was offering us the opening night slot, very prestigious, something that could generate a large amount of publicity, but this was a limited-time offer and time was running out. This decision couldn’t wait until Bill got back from his trip, so what could I do?

I decided to do something very unorthodox, I called up the Sundance Festival and spoke to a programmer. I knew that he couldn’t tell me whether Bill’s feature had been accepted, because doing that would be against the rules. But at this point in time I think someone had recently published an article which claimed that based on how many films get submitted to Sundance, and how few programmers they have to review the submissions, mathematically it was impossible for their programmers to even WATCH all of the tapes and DVDs they received. Thankfully, I didn’t mention this on the phone, I just explained that we had an offer on the table from Slamdance, and I knew Sundance wouldn’t tell me if the film was accepted for another week, but MAYBE he could give me an idea what our chances were. When the programmer heard that the Slamdance Festival was offering us the opening night event, he bluntly said, “You should take that offer.” OK, message received. Thanks for the hint. Bill came back in a few days and I was able to justify accepting Slamdance’s offer on his behalf.

In the animation world, as I mentioned, we have the Annecy Festival and the Ottawa Animation Festival. Annecy takes place in France in June, and doesn’t require features to be a world premiere, just a French premiere. (So even after screening “I Married a Strange Person” in Toronto and Sundance, we could still screen it at Annecy.) But their entry deadline is usually in March, so that’s something to consider when you’re close to finishing your animated masterpiece. It’s all about timing. The Ottawa Festival takes place in late September, with an entry deadline in May, so you can factor those dates into the mix as well.

But then you could set up another one of those Sundance/Slamdance situations, especially if you also want to enter the Toronto Festival, since you might not be able to screen your film in both Canadian festivals. And you don’t want to risk screening at NEITHER of them, which could happen if you take too long to accept the offer from one festival because you’re waiting to hear from the other. In that way, screening at festivals is a bit like dating, you can’t keep one potential mate on hold while you wait to hear from another one, that just isn’t fair. It’s better to move forward with one partner (or Canadian festival) even if you think the other one is smarter, prettier, funnier (or has more festival guests) because if you keep holding out too long for the perfect match, you could find yourself alone (or with no screening at all).

Signe told me that “Rocks in My Pockets” was completed in 2013, but the film didn’t get in to the Toronto Festival. Her next best option was the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. You may not have heard of this festival, but it is very well regarded in Europe - so she waited for nine months for this festival’s call for entries to come around again, and “Rocks” premiered at Karlovy Vary in June, 2014. But the film won the International Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI) when it screened there, so that long wait turned out to be a very smart decision in the end. Then the film screened at the ANIMATOR festival in Poland just a week later, and festivals in Switzerland and Greece just two months later, and this started a solid festival run of TWO YEARS that took it all around the world.

So sometimes even when a film is finished, it makes sense to wait for the right festival for the premiere screenings. That’s right, plural, because even though your film can have only one “World Premiere”, it can also have a European premiere, a North American premiere, a U.S. premiere (not to mention an Australian premiere, South American premiere, and so on…) Pretty much any time you can work the word “premiere” into your press release, it’s a good idea to do so. But by the time you find yourself promoting the “Central New Jersey premiere” it might be time to take a long hard look at what you’re celebrating. Still, that’s a nice problem to have.

Right now it looks like “My Love Affair With Marriage” could be completed some time in the year 2020. But the key question then becomes: during which month? Which film festival will it make the most sense to enter first? Believe me, it’s not too early to start thinking about this. Right now Signe has completed the animation for two segments of the film that could be released as individual shorts, which would then also function as sort of “teasers” for the entire feature. Would it make some sense to screen either of these in festivals, to try to get some advance attention or publicity for the feature? It’s one possible strategy. These shorts represent two of the songs in the film, and they’re called “Mother’s Song” and “Virginity Song”.


It’s still very early in the production process of “My Love Affair With Marriage”, but we are trying to keep good relationships with film festivals when they ask to screen some of Signe’s earlier films, because in just a couple of years, we’ll be filling out entry forms for this new feature and we hope that there will be some awareness and recognition, which could lead to acceptances. It’s impossible to predict what might happen, when or where the new film will screen, but I do like our chances.

Meet Our Studio Interns: John Vargas

Another great intern this summer was from City College of New York - John Vargas. I really liked his attitude - no task was too hard or too boring for him. Scanning drawings in 450 dpi can make one feel like bleeding from injuries of boredom, but John always saw scanning as an opportunity to learn more about animation. That's the right approach to work!

I asked John a few questions about this internship. You can watch the 3 minute interview here:


Please check out John's work on Behance:

And follow John on Instagram:

Meet Our Studio Interns: Max Tunney

Max worked at my studio from May 10th until last Friday. I was impressed with his persistence – when a task was a bit out of his field of expertise, he did whatever it took to see the task through to its successful completion. Showing up and doing the work is Max's strength. 

I asked him a couple of questions about the internship and here are his answers:

What were your tasks during the internship?

During my internship, Signe was working on her animated feature film, “My Love Affair with Marriage”. My responsibilities included coloring Signe’s drawings in Photoshop, compositing them in After Effects, creating exposure sheets and scanning drawings. I was also involved with paper mache-ing and painting 3-D sets and props that will be used in “My Love Affair with Marriage”. I also had the occasional opportunity to create graphics in Photoshop for the film.

How did you get this internship?

Last semester, my Animation Studio professor screened a few segments of Signe’s films in class - I enjoyed her style, humor and the subject matters she tackled on film. Soon after, when I was looking for a summer internship, I saw on Pratt’s website that Signe was hiring interns. I applied right away, and was called the following week for an interview. I was thrilled when Signe offered me the position!

(Signe's note on this: I interviewed about 12 students over the course of 3 months for three summer internship slots and Max was the only one (only one!!!) who sent a thank you note after the interview. When presented with a choice to pick from 12 equally qualified candidates (and considering my personal agenda to help young women animators) that lone thank you note made a strong impact on my choice).

What school are you from?

I am currently a rising junior at Pratt Institute, majoring in 2-D Animation.

Can you say one good thing about this internship?

There are many good things to be said about this internship – I enjoyed working in such a creative environment and was happy to have the opportunity to enhance my technical skills. I really learned a lot from Signe. She has a very interesting way of thinking and a unique process for making films. She inspires those around her to be creative. Additionally, Signe provided valuable insight on what it is like to be a working artist.  She often spoke about the business and politics of the industry and what it takes to be an artist /animator today. Working with Signe, you get a complete picture of what is involved in creating an animated film, and putting it out for the world to see.

One bad thing about this internship?

The only bad thing is that the internship came to an end.

Check out Max's work here:

Max Tunney.JPG




Studio News from John, Part 15 - Oscar Rules are Meant to be Broken!

PART 1 - New Rules for 2019 and Beyond

There have been a few recent news stories about changes being made to the Academy Awards - something about a "Best Popular Film" category, which sounds like it needs something else to distinguish it from "Best Picture", in my opinion.  Isn't the film that receives the most votes for Best Picture therefore also the "most popular"?  It got the MOST VOTES, after all!  Or is this award going to reward the film with the highest box office, because if you ask me, that blockbuster, whatever it is, has probably been fairly well rewarded already.  So I'm not sure I understand yet where the Academy is going when it's trying to make a distinction between "Best" and "Best Popular", unless perhaps "Best" rewards the creative process and "Best Popular" rewards the connection made with the fans, but even this sounds like a problem, because it's sort of admitting the majority of movie fans aren't knowledgeable enough to spend their money on whatever "Best" really means.  

Then there's the other issue raised when the Academy announced it would be relegating some of the lesser awards to a presentation that would take place before the TV cameras started rolling, or perhaps during commercial breaks.  So, if you've enjoyed seeing who wins the Oscar for Best Animated Short, it's possible that in the future, you'll have to read about it in the news the next day and you'll no longer see that award given out during the televised ceremony.  As someone working in the animation industry, and as someone who occasionally has a vested interest in which film wins the Animation Oscars, I strongly oppose this plan, to relegate animation to the same status as the craft awards, such as visual effects and sound mixing, which are given out now on a different DAY, but hey, at least those nominees get a lunch out of the deal, and a visit from a sacrificial hot actress. 

Now, my personal suggestion would be that if the time allotted to giving out the awards on TV is no longer sufficient, there are other methods of creating more time.  They could cut, for example, the detailed explanation of "Film Editing for Dummies", because we all know by now what editing is, so there's no need to over-explain it, or some of the vapid dialogue that passes for "jokes" spoken by the presenters.  Or there's usually some interminably long montage that's suppose to pass as a "Look at Music in the Movies" from 1920-2018, with many more clips used than the number necessary to prove a point.  We get it already, the movies have music in them!

Other solutions are also possible - start the award telecast earlier, for example.  What's wrong with 7 pm E.S.T., who says that the show has to start at 8 pm?  I realize it's a ratings game, but come on, let's make an exception for these important awards.  Or instead of a "Red Carpet Arrival Special", which serves no purpose other than as a long-format advertisement for various fashion designers, try giving out the awards right away.  Let the E! channel run all the red carpet footage they want, they're going to do that anyway, right?  ABC should start the show at 7 pm and give out the first award (and it can be for animation, or visual effects) no later than 7:05.  Oh, yeah, I think we should dramatically cut the host's opening monologue too, if it will get more of the award presentations broadcast on television.  

Anyone who thinks that the Oscar telecast should be ONLY three hours long (which seems rather arbitrary, all things considered, plus it always runs longer anyway) could then just tune in at 8 pm and catch the major categories they don't want to miss.  I mean, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture, you know they're going to save those for the end.  Maybe they can hand out Best Supporting Actor and Actress at 8:05 or 8:10 this way.  And the hour between 7 pm and 8 pm would then be devoted to things like visual effects and sound mixing and, OK, Best Animated Short, so those would no longer slow things down in prime time.  See?  Problem solved, just cut the red carpet crap and start the whole program an hour earlier.  You're welcome.  

The reason that I've spent so much time over the past two decades studying the Oscars is that I've been through their submission process almost annually.  I'm always working for someone who has an animated short or feature that they want to qualify for a nomination.  After all, a film can't win an award without a nomination - but most people don't realize that a film also can't get a nomination unless it first qualifies.  And there are many ways to DISqualify a film, and only one way to qualify it.  On top of that, each year there are slight changes to the rules for eligibility, so I have to keep an eye on them every year, figure out what the changes are, and then make sure that all of the traps get avoided. 

There are even other reasons to qualify a film, beyond the possibility of getting an Oscar nomination and then maybe a statue.  In the animated feature category, for example, the number of nominations given out depends on the number of eligible films, so even if you represent an animated that has ZERO CHANCE, creatively speaking, of winning an Oscar, and I don't mean to be cruel here, but pick your favorite terrible kids movie, like "The Emoji Movie" or "Norm of the North" - if you make that film Oscar-eligible, it could be a big help to the animated feature community at large, because it could tip the scales and make five nomination slots available that year, instead of three.  At least that would be good karma, if you're the director of a terrible film, maybe you'd sleep better at night or something.  

But the best reason to make sure your film is Oscar-eligible is still the possibility of getting a nomination.  Signe's last feature "Rocks in My Pockets" didn't get a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category, but it was eligible.  So following all the rules and submitting paperwork to the Academy helped insure that in the Oscars given out in 2015 (for the films released in 2014) there were five nominations instead of three.  "Rocks in My Pockets" was also chosen to represent Latvia in the Best Foreign Language Film category, so there was also a chance that it could have received a nomination there.  It didn't, but it COULD have, and that's almost as good.  

And so we're taking steps now to make sure that "My Love Affair With Marriage" will qualify for the Academy Awards in either 2020 or 2021.  Yes, believe it or not, that work has to start now, especially where the Academy's rules are concerned.  If I've learned one thing over the years by submitting applications for qualification, it's that the preparations have to start well in advance, like during production of the film, and that waiting until a month before the submission is much too late. 


PART 2 - Tips for filmmakers on how to follow the rules (and maybe bend them a bit...)

The Academy has a lot of rules and regulations, and it's better when submitting any film to be aware of as many of them as possible.  The rules define what length a film has to be for consideration as a feature film instead of a short, for example.  Anything over 40 minutes is a feature, for their purposes, and anything under is a short. (Which sort of suggests the question about which category a 40-minute film would be able to qualify in...)  There are also rules about what constitutes an animated feature, or in the case of an animation/live-action mix, the film has to contain over a certain percentage of animation in order to qualify in that category. 

Another important rule is that the film has to be released, not necessarily nationwide, but at the very least it has to be exhibited publicly at a real theater within L.A. County, for at least 7 days, with at least three showings a day.  And along with the submission form, the Academy now requires proof of this screening, which used to be just a letter from the manager of the theater, but now they also require a copy of the theater's billing block, which is what gets sent to the local newspapers to announce the screenings to the public.  This means that over the years, some people probably tried to either forge letters from the theater, or tried to screen a film without telling the public about it.  

What's weird now is that for short films, the Academy now requires that they be advertised in the newspapers, just like feature films are.  For many years I've been able to help animated shorts get qualified by calling up certain theaters in L.A., and asking them if they'd be willing to screen a short before one of their features for a week.  99% of the time their answer would be a resounding "NO", but once in a while I could find some helpful theater manager, or one that might charge $50 or $100 for his trouble, but that's just the sort of entrepreneurial spirit I admire.  This sometimes led to odd pairings, like I remember that we screened a film called "Nosehair" in front of the James Bond film "Goldeneye".  And I remember one time where we paid a theater $50 to screen a short before a feature, but it went over so well, they sent the check back.  

Back then, all we really needed to submit to the Academy as proof was a letter from the theater manager to say that this screening took place, but now the Academy requires that the short film appears in the newspaper billing, right along with the name of the feature.  This is very easy for Disney or Dreamworks to arrange, especially if their short film is screening with one of their own features, like the way they screened "Bao" with "The Incredibles 2".  It's much harder at the independent level to get a short film both screened AND advertised.  Plus, who goes to the movie theater to see a short film?  I don't see why this requirement exists, because it's highly unlikely that anyone would read the newspaper to find out where a film like "Mission: Impossible" is playing, and then suddenly change their mind based on the fact that a short film is playing before another feature, like "Christopher Robin".  

In conjunction with the Academy's rules, the film also has to be kept off the internet before the L.A. screenings start - the rules do allow for festival screenings before the theatrical run, but nothing streaming on Netflix or airing on cable, or posted on YouTube or Vimeo or any other web-sites.  Many films these days are produced by Netflix or Amazon or even premium cable TV stations, so this is a rule that may change over the next few years, but right now everyone still has to follow this to the letter. Even a film made by Amazon can't be played on their web-site until after it screens in an L.A. theater for a week, or it won't be eligible. 

Back in the day, we used to have to ship a physical copy of the film, on 35mm no less.  This was because there was a small, select group of people who watched all of the animated features and decided which ones deserved to qualify.  The rumors were that these screenings took place at Tom Hanks' house, but I don't know for sure if that's true.  Anyway, the best thing about the new digital age of filmmaking is that we don't have to ship a big, heavy 35mm print of an animated feature out to Los Angeles for the Animated Feature Committee to view.  Once in a while, I might get lucky with the timing, and there would already be a 35mm copy in L.A., like maybe I could have the print that screened in the L.A. theater sent over to the Academy in Beverly Hills, and getting it shipped across town is much easier to arrange than getting it shipped across the country.  

These days, the submissions (and the screenings) are done with DCP's, which are hard drives that contain digital copies of feature films in HD formats.  Shipping a small hard drive from place to place, like from NY to LA, is much easier and cheaper.  (However, smaller hard drives are more likely to get lost...)  But now there are more rules about making and sending the DCPs that need to be followed.  For example, a DCP can have up to 7 channels of sound, and the minimum necessary for Academy submission is 3 channels, though they prefer 5.  A couple of times, I've been asked to submit animated shorts for qualification, but the filmmaker was still using basic stereo sound, which is only TWO channels.  What to do?  Well, a couple of times we shipped a stereo-mixed film to a company in L.A. that makes DCPs, and asked them to make a new DCP with 3 channels of sound, only the center one of them would be BLANK!  It was a quick fix done at the last minute, and I got the film qualified, though I admit this was a bit of a sneaky trick. 

(To be completely honest, this trick solved a problem, but also possibly violated a basic Academy rule, which states that the copy submitted for qualification must be exactly the same as the version that screened in the L.A. theater.  In this case, the copy that screened in the theater had 2-channel stereo sound, but the copy sent to the Academy had 3-channel sound.  But since one of the three channels was BLANK, in my opinion, the two versions of the film were the same.  That allows me to sleep soundly at night, anyway.)  

For "My Love Affair With Marriage", since Signe is already aware of the Academy's rules about sound, that makes my job a bit easier.  The sound mix for her film is already done, and it's already been made in 5-channel sound.  So when the time comes, all we'll need to do is to make a DCP with this mix, and we should be fine where the Academy's rules are concerned.  Unless, of course, the rules change between now and 2021, or any new technology forces new requirements to be met. 

There are a number of different deadlines to be aware of, also.  There's the date that everything has to be received at the Academy - the form, the film, and all the paperwork - which is usually October 31.  But before that, the Academy has to receive an OSF (Oscars Submission Form) and a complete version of the film's on-screen credits within 60 days of the end of the film's run at a commercial theater in Los Angeles County. This means that if you screen your film in L.A. in January, let's say, you have to do some of your Oscar paperwork in March, when the main deadline is in late October.  Who the heck is thinking about the Oscar submissions in February?  That's when the award ceremony for the PREVIOUS year is held, but if you're a filmmaker, you have to be thinking ahead here.  And if you screen in January and you forget to fill out the paperwork in February, that's it - you can't change your mind or suddenly remember to do this in September and still qualify.  This is probably why most studios release their best movies late in the year, because when they released good movies in January, somebody kept forgetting to fill out the Academy paperwork until it was too late. 

Finally, there's a new rule about submitting a digital copy of the film, along with 300 DVD copies to the Academy - Hmm, I've never seen that one before.  I bet those will be sent out to the voting members of the Animated Feature branch, for voting purposes.  Those DVDs have to be in paper sleeves with no artwork or contact information on them.  Wow, that's a lot of work, making 300 DVDs.  Or even if you hire a company to make those, that's an extra expense in order to qualify your film.  Sure, for a big company like Disney or Dreamworks, that cost is considered minimal compared to all their other production costs, but at the independent level, that's a big unexpected expense.  And it's a write-off, you can't sell those DVDs for a profit, or do anything with them to get that money back.  

Let's say you follow all of the Academy rules to the letter, and you manage to make your film Oscar-eligible.  That's great, but then you're only halfway there.  There's no guarantee the film will get nominated, but as I said before, it's got to be qualified in order to stand a chance of getting a nomination.  In the case of animated shorts, the Academy hosts branch screenings in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for all the eligible shorts.  Any members that vote in this category can attend one of the branch screenings, watch all of the eligible films at once, and then vote for their favorites, which ideally narrows the list of Oscar-worthy shorts down to a list of then, which is known as the "Short List".  From this list, another round of voting picks the five shorts that get nominations.  

Ultimately, it's a long, complicated process that can be difficult for filmmakers to undertake, especially when new rules and requirements pop up that didn't exist before. The best we can do is pay attention each year and review the rules to see if anything is different, and then adjust our plans accordingly.  OK, so maybe I've never broken an Academy submission rule, but I've probably bent a few of them here and there. 

Meet our Studio Interns: Britt

Britt Sodersjerna worked in my studio  from late May until early July and she was a spectacular intern. I was impressed with her work ethics, focus and intelligence. With little explanation from my part she was able to correctly piece together the puzzle of what I intended to do with animation drawings in After Effects! But despite the reputation of her generation (they are not camera shy, I was told) she wasn't comfortable to give an interview on video. She preferred it in a written form. So, here it is.

What were your tasks during the internship?

For the most part, my job was coloring in Signe's drawings in Photoshop, and compositing them in After Effects. I occasionally had other roles too, including scanning the drawings, working on exposure sheets, and paper maché-ing and painting parts of the sets.

How did you get this internship?

During my spring semester in College, I was applying to just about every animation studio I could find in New York City. I looked through several different job and internship websites, as well as different studios own websites, but Signe was the first to respond to me! And I am so thankful that she did.

What school are you from?

I currently study 2D Animation in the Digital Arts Department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. 

Can you tell us one good thing about this internship?

I think the best thing about this internship is how much I learned. With Signe's guidance, I am significantly more efficient in the programs I thought I had known how to use well. Signe is a wealth of information about animation and the industry as well, and she taught me so much while I worked for her.

And how about one bad thing about this internship?

Frankly, I wouldn't say any part of this internship was 'bad'. Many aspects of the work I did were challenging, but I really enjoy problem solving, especially when problems appear in After Effects. The only thing that wasn't ideal was the lack of air conditioning on the upper 90ºF days!

You can find Britt's work on and 

Britt Sodersjerna


PS I wanted to explain that not having an air conditioner is a budgetary choice between cooling down  2000 sf space with 14 feet ceilings or making an animated feature film. I feel I don't really have a choice.

We do have 6 fans drying our sweat.

Studio News from John, Part 14: Anatomy of a Set - Jonas's Room

It's time to take a look at the next set that was constructed for "My Love Affair With Marriage".  This is the set for Jonas's room.  In the film, the character of Zelma, 17 years old, will take a train to another city and visit the art gallery, where she meets Jonas, an older man (33) who discusses art with her and then offers her some wine.  Zelma goes back to Jonas' room, and this marks a turning point in her search for a soulmate. 

But let's save the story details for when you see the film, OK?  Instead, let's take a look at how Jonas' room was put together.  Signe had the idea that there should be a large set of stairs, which could be a symbol for progress, climbing toward a goal that represents personal growth, or falling down, out of grace.  The stairs were made from the leftover curved pieces that were cut out to make the arches in the art gallery!  Sturgis doesn't waste any scraps of wood in the set shop.  The curved pieces were placed on top of each other to make a unique set of steps.  


The wooden pieces were then covered in paper-maché, and then given a base coat of black paint (though it looks blue here...) before the final pink color was added.  A little bit of the dark paint shows through the pink and this gave the stairs a different sort of texture created by the mix of colors. 


Then the room itself was constructed, with a window on one side.  In the script, Zelma lies in the bed in the morning with her head on the pillow and watches the curtains move as air comes in through the window.  Just like the stairs, the walls got covered with paper-maché and then painted pink.  In the next photo you can see where the platform is going to go that will hold the loft for the bed, and then the stairs will be placed in front, to lead up to that loft. 


And this piece will eventually become the bed that will be put at the top of the stairs.


Next, since Jonas is an award winning artist, and one who is not shy about it, he has all his awards hung on the wall.  The laurels on the awards fit in with the theme of plants and flowers, and even the ones that look like crowns also resemble the spreading leaves of plants.  So the flower design runs through the whole room, and this ties in to the story, based on what happens to Zelma in this room, get it? 


And the final element is a bridal veil, which I'm assuming will serve as the curtain for the room's window. 


When all of the pieces are put together - the walls, the stairs, the bed and the artwork on the walls - here is what Jonas's room looks like:


With some creative lighting, the room can take on an orange color, instead of pink, to reflect the look of a mid-day sun:


That's how Jonas' room came together, and next time we'll take a look at how another set is being built, so stay tuned!

Happy Summer Solstice!

Celebrating Solstice in an urban environment is a bit of a challenge. First of all, with buildings so high one can barely see the sky and tracking the path of the Sun while walking on a sidewalk can cause one fall into a pothole. 

Then  there are all those distractions - deadlines, Facebook and people who want to get together.

And of course, the tragedies around the world that happen to other people caused by other people make one's sky gazing and Sun-tracking seem indulgent and selfish. Why instead one doesn't call her local politician demanding to improve the matters of the World?

But the Sun is a powerful magnet that makes seeds forget the forces of Gravity and pull away from Earth towards LIGHT to greet the Sun with blooming flowers. The thought of light wakes me before dawn, full of inspiration and hope.

Without light like without hope one cannot live.

If we all purge our inner demons with a beam of light maybe that alone can make the World a better place?

Lets celebrate the longest day!

Welcome, Light!

Happy Summer Solstice!

Merry Solstice!
Solstice 001.jpg

Studio News from John, Part 13: Anatomy of a Set - Art Gallery

There's a new set in front of the camera here at the studio, ready to be shot, and it's an art gallery. Here's the step-by-step process of how it was created..   

First, it began as an idea. Signe says that "in the Soviet Union religion was banned and the Soviet government solved the problem of what to do with unused churches by converting them into atheist clubs or art galleries. There was an old orthodox church in Riga that was turned into a planetarium with an adjoining café where all kinds of bohemians hung out. The café's nickname in those circles was "Dieva Auss" which means "God's Ear". In the Latvian system of metaphors Gods Ear is a heavenly place to be - it's warm, fuzzy and your wishes are instantly heard."

In "My Love Affair With Marriage" the main character, Zelma, enters a gallery where she meets an older artist and she is instantly seduced by his aura of success and importance. Signe based the visual idea of this gallery on the converted church. The space of Art is sacred to young, inexperienced Zelma and people associated with it can do no wrong.  Since this gallery used to be a cathedral, it has some high arches and niches in the walls for art, where the religious statues used to be.

Before we take a peek at the finished set, let's go back two months to look at the set being built.  Ah, March, it was a simpler time, before the President was getting indicted and before the Avengers fought the Infinity War...

The whole set started with this sketch that Signe gave to Sturgis. From simple beginnings come very complex ideas! Sturgis used 3 kinds of saws to cut the shapes from wood found in a carpenter's trash bin.

The whole set started with this sketch that Signe gave to Sturgis. From simple beginnings come very complex ideas! Sturgis used 3 kinds of saws to cut the shapes from wood found in a carpenter's trash bin.

The constructed set, with high arches and niches for the artworks, gets covered in paper-maché and with bricks made of cardboard.

The constructed set, with high arches and niches for the artworks, gets covered in paper-maché and with bricks made of cardboard.

Signe places a sample piece of art to show us how the gallery might look when it's finished.

Signe places a sample piece of art to show us how the gallery might look when it's finished.

Close-up of the right wall of the gallery with a hand sculpture in place. The paintings and sculptures exhibited in the gallery are created by the intern Joon Young Park. He did an amazing job!

Close-up of the right wall of the gallery with a hand sculpture in place. The paintings and sculptures exhibited in the gallery are created by the intern Joon Young Park. He did an amazing job!

By mid-May the whole gallery had been painted, bricks highlighted to bring out their texture, and all of the artworks were put in place.  

The finished set, placed in front of the camera and lit for dramatic effect.

The finished set, placed in front of the camera and lit for dramatic effect.

The left side of the gallery, with artworks placed on the walls and sculptures placed in the niches. 

The left side of the gallery, with artworks placed on the walls and sculptures placed in the niches. 

The right side of the gallery, with artwork on the walls and the finished hand sculpture. 

The right side of the gallery, with artwork on the walls and the finished hand sculpture. 

And here's a short video, showing a pan over the entire gallery set:

Meet Our Studio Interns!

The one thing I enjoy about having interns at my studio is having lunches together. After hectic mornings of building sets, animating, writing exposure sheets or coloring in separate corners of the studio, we all come together at one table to eat, talk and laugh. These moments of getting to know my interns feel precious to me. The side effect of bonding with interns is that I feel sad when they have to move on. 

Frankelly has interned at the studio since January and today is his last day. In the video below we ask him 3 questions and his answers may give you insight on how to get an internship and what internships are all about.

Please check out Frankelly's work here:

Thank you!



Meet Our Studio Interns!

Internships are tricky, just like any other kind of human relationships. You have to find the right match to make it work. 

Our studio operations are small - we have only 2 up-to-date computers. And I am very busy working on 27565 large and small details that make the film, which makes me regard the idea of having another person in the studio as a distraction. That's why we are selective about who we let in the studio. 

The two interns who started to work at the studio in January 2018 - Joon and Frankelly - came to the studio by chance and by the strength of their interview. Their hard work, confidence and competence, as well as their sense of humor made them an excellent match to our studio. 

This is Joon and Frankelly's last week at the studio. They both are graduating from their schools and the internship and I would like to introduce them to you.

Here's a video with Joon. I ask him a few simple questions. If you are curious how he got the internship and what value he sees in it, here're his answers:

Please check out Joon's work on his website:

Thank you!


PS On Thursday I'll post the video with Frankelly