Interview with Animator Angela Steffen

Interview by Greg Carlson

Animator Angela Steffen visited Fargo for the 2010 Fargo Film Festival, where her animated short “Lebensader” won the award for Best Animation. While she was in town, she collaborated with a group of documentary makers on “Lines of Communication,” which was made for the International Documentary Challenge. Angela spoke with Greg Carlson about her background in animation and her work on “Lebensader.”

You spent some of your childhood in Saudi Arabia. How and why did you get into illustration and animation?

I grew up at the Persian Gulf, in Ras Tanura, a little camp in the middle of the desert. I loved it there. It was like paradise for me. I went swimming in the ocean every day, and that was just the best thing to do. For many hours of the day it was just too hot to go outside, and we had a big table, lots of pencils, and paper at home.

I remember waking up extremely early in the morning with my sisters and little brother, not to miss the cartoons on the only TV channel we got. We just sat there waiting, and at one point, the screen finally showed the first picture: a handsome portrait of King Fahd. I knew that after seeing him, for half an hour, there would be cartoons. And every time, the television made an electric sizzling sound when I kissed him for that.

Until the Gulf War in 1990, I think I had the best childhood ever. When we left for Germany, I was defiant. I didn‘t speak the new language for a long time, but I did keep on drawing, and that still feels like the best way to communicate and express myself.

Animation came as an accident, actually. At first I studied graphic design in Hamburg, but I dropped out of it. I wasn‘t sure what I was doing when I started drawing this little story at home. It turned out to be a straightforward animation. I was absolutely willing to go to school for this! I went to animation school in Hamburg and after that I specialized in 2D animation at the Filmakademie.

Are you inspired by pop culture?

The truth is, I have not had a TV for about 8 years now, but I do love documentaries, especially when they are about animals. I love going to the movies and I love old cartoons. I have read everything I could find about Chuck Jones and I admire Norman McLaren.

I like reading scientific literature more than comics, but my biggest inspiration comes from my family, my friends, from music, wild animals, and from being outside in nature.

What was the animation training like at the Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg?

It is a really great place to learn and work on 3D animation. The facilities are almost not comparable to other film schools worldwide. The problem for me was that I was way too interested in 2D. I had the plan to find out more and to explore this field.

There is so much still to be discovered, you know? Even though I felt the energy it‘d probably be good to swim along, just to be able to find work after graduation.

I am too idealistic and naive, and sometimes I wish I could be different, because going against the flow was kind of hard. I have to say I love this school. I had a studio, a drawing table, and best of all, the chance to make my own films in total freedom.

The films I made there taught me everything I know now. I also had advisers on my side, like Andreas Hykade and Ged Haney for example, who questioned my stories and from whom I learned some animation tricks. They have become very important to me over time and it‘s good to have someone to look up to. We are all different but we do, for example, love David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Neil Young!

The creatures in your movie bear a resemblance to Pacific Northwest Native American iconography and art. How did the idea for “Lebensader” evolve?

You won‘t believe how often I‘ve heard that. It’s good, that makes me happy, but “Lebensader” didn‘t come from researching the books and museums, although that‘s what I‘m into now because I‘ve heard it so often. It started like this: I had the chance to make another film that would be my diploma at the Filmakademie.

So I looked inside myself and I looked outside. I ended up in the woods and meadows around my home, in uncountable walks. Then one day I found a leaf that was different from the others. It struck me with all its colors and I picked it up as a souvenir.

What happened next was the reason I made “Lebensader.” I turned the leaf and saw it was sick. It was from a sick tree. In that moment I knew I had to cope with my father’s disease, which until then I was good at hiding. I knew I‘d be spending a whole long time with whatever subject I chose, and nothing else made more sense then this.

How much time did it take to complete “Lebensader” from conception to completion?

It took longer then I thought it would. I think I spent at least half a year getting the story straight, inventing the world for “Lebensader” in all its facets. There was so much more invented then what you see at the end, but it was really important to do.

The time of development is always the toughest for me. Finally I dove into the animation. That was great. Everything was planned out in storyboards, and I knew exactly what I wanted in my head. Only the transitions were much more difficult than I thought they would be. Fortunately, it was exciting to the end. In the whole it took about three years to complete.

How many drawings did you make? Do you save all your materials?

I have no idea! They‘re all in boxes and I don‘t know what to do with them yet!

How important are computers in your animation process?

They’re not. Only the story is important. My favorite way is still to animate with pencil on paper. Then I need the computer as the tool to test, build and color it. I‘ve been working on a Wacom Cintiq recently, experiencing digital drawing and doing some crazy stuff without thinking so much. The computer is fun and faster for some jobs, which is good, but I do miss the drawing table. And the passion that comes with old-fashioned ways.

Have you traveled much to promote “Lebensader”?

I‘m definitely excited to be in Fargo now. Thank you for having me! You know, I‘ve been hiding away for so long while making “Lebensader,” and I love the autonomy of it, but now it‘s taking me out suddenly and I‘m not used to it. I get really homesick when I am away.

I love to be with audiences and to meet with other filmmakers. I loved this about the Ottawa International Animation Festival. I visited the Star School, near Flagstaff in Arizona, after being in Canada, and I showed “Lebensader” to a group of Navajo children. That was amazing. I won‘t forget that.

What’s next?

I tell you, it can be really cold and tough out here after school. I‘m working hard to make a living in freelance animation. I need to be digital and fast on one side, and on the other I‘m really longing to do something new again. I need that too.

There seems to be a new energy in Baden-Wurttemberg, where I have lived since graduating from the Filmakademie. They might start helping young filmmakers like me to keep them from leaving the country. I have tiny, tiny and really big upcoming projects in my head. It is just a matter of how to set the frame for them. We’ll see!

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