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Femme Filmmakers Festival Interview: Morgan Gruer Mixes Animation With Live Action

Just hours ago, female filmmaker Morgan Gruer was given The Maya Deren Short Film Innovation Prize in the Femme Filmmakers Festival prize hand-out. A well-earned feat, the animation director has exceeded with the genre, most notably with the short film Reflections, which was extremely well received during our festival. Morgan has also exhibited her flair for the motion capture within the live action field, including several music videos. Morgan was kind enough to take a break from working on no less than three videos when we met.

Robin: We may as well start with the music videos.

Morgan: Of course!

Robin: Where does the passion for that come from? Or is it something that comes with the turf?

Morgan: I stumbled into the music video world quite accidentally, actually. I had been working across graphic design, illustration, and animation, when I began working with a music video production company doing animation. At the time, I had just finished up a personal short animated film, titled Reflections. It had no dialogue, and was sound design heavy, so was often considered to be in the realm of a music video.

One thing led to another, and I found myself starting to direct with the company I was working with. I come from a background of art and design, play music myself, and have studied cinema and acting extensively in the past, so ironically, I have realized that music videos are the perfect combination of all the different art forms I love.

Robin: So as a kid, say, did you watch music videos with the kind of envy that would inspire you to go into filmmaking? And what else growing up influenced you to follow this dream?

Morgan: I definitely watched MTV quite regularly as a kid. I remember the frustration of turning on the TV in the middle of a music video, and having to wait until it cycled back around an hour later to read the title card (the title cards only appeared in the beginning of the video!).

However, I actually never anticipated that I would get into filmmaking. For a while I was into acting, and thought I would enter the film world on the other side of the camera. However, I ultimately realized that I wasn’t very good at acting, and then I should direct my focus elsewhere.

I’m very fortunate that both my parents really value the arts and supported all of my creative endeavors growing up. Growing up outside of NYC, we regularly went to museums, Broadway shows, and concerts, and I was brought up with an arts education outside of school that allowed me to see the potential of various different creative careers. When it came time to figure out my own career path, my parents were able to understand and morally support the non traditional path I’ve taken (in the sense that I do not work a typical 9-5 job).

Robin: That’s pretty great. To have that support system. So you mentioned Reflections, which I am eager to talk about. Terrific two minutes. I know animation and music videos can cross over, but what in your creative eye are the fundamental differences of the genres?

Morgan: Thanks for the kind words about Reflections! The primary difference with music videos is that you are working with a client – another artist, who may or may not have their brand built already. You are not making a video solely to satisfy your own personal or creative needs; you have to take into consideration the artist’s brand, desires, and creative input. Even though you may be putting your blood, sweat, and tears into the video, ultimately, it is for the artist, and that has to be respected.

Animation for music videos is a lot of fun, due to its creative nature, but often times live action may suit a song or brand better. Each music video is approached with fresh eyes; the style and concept should depend on the song itself.

Robin: So, Reflections. Is it true there are over 1,000 drawings in those 2 minutes? Did you draw / paint them all?

Morgan: Yep! There is somewhere over 1,100 drawings – after that I lost count. I drew each frame (at 8 fps), with a combination of analog and digital materials. The drawings typically started out analog on paper, and then were brought in and finished up digitally.

Robin: How long does that take?

Morgan: I worked on it over the span of 4-5 months, but not full time. It was a weekend/ nighttime passion project. When I was about 2 weeks away from finishing, I injured my hand quite severely, and had to wait for it to heal before finishing!

Robin: That must have been painful in more ways than one. Animation still astounds me, the unimaginable work that goes into it. When I watched Reflections, I was taken by the motion of it. The flow of the woman dancing for example seemed very natural. How do you see or handle the pacing of that finished product when designing the images? When does the idea become reality too?

Morgan: At the time, it was really frustrating, but in retrospect, that additional time allowed me to re-think key scenes and come up with the ending. So with animation, one has to edit the piece before it even begins, so that you don’t waste time animating something you won’t use. I filmed all of the scenes, including the dance, and used the footage for rotoscope reference – a process where you trace the footage to get the bodies looking anatomically correct.

So, I filmed everything, cut it together leaving space for transitions, and then was able to see the overall picture. From there, I went in to see which moments in the film should have color (since color was used sparingly and intentionally), and worked out the pacing and rhythm.

Robin: And the music choice? Was that tricky?

Morgan: The music was actually created before I started animated. I pitched the concept to my good friend & sound designer, SPAER. I sent him an overall narrative and structure that I envisioned, and he created the sound specifically for the project.

Robin: Is Reflections in any way biographical?

Morgan: Yes, it is a personal project inspired by narratives and emotions I have experienced.

Robin: Is Reflections the type of project you want to do again? What is next for you?

Morgan: At the moment, I’m immersed in creating music videos of different styles. The fun thing about working within that is that each video enables you to experiment with a different style, depending on what fits the song and artist. This past year, I’ve transitioned from animation into the live action world, and my main focus right now is combining the two worlds to create something new and unique.

Reflections

The Venus Project – “Won’t Hurt”

The Decemberists – “Severed”

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