Galveston-based animator Kelly Sears talks horror, humor and blending the two inadvance of Sundance
High school can be creepy. Filmmaker Kelly Sears delves into the eerie landscape of adolescent captivity commonly known as high school in her filmOnce It Started It Could Not End Otherwise, screening at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 20 through 28.
I first met Sears while she was a fellow at the MFAH's Core Program at the Glassell School of Art, and I have followed her career eagerly ever since. The now Galveston-based collage animator re-purposes found images to create her own distinct scenarios.
Her work is as witty as it is ironic. I wanted to know more about how she weaves these pictures together, so Sears revealed her DYI process before heading into the Sundance glow:
CultureMap: High school has freaked people out since the beginning of time. What brought you to this subject?
Kelly Sears: A couple of years ago I found a high school yearbook in a thrift store and was struck by how many students looked freaked out in the candid photos. Ostensibly, they are caught off guard, not ready for the picture, but I started thinking of other things that could have put these students on edge.
Slowly, a story grew about coming of age in a time of Watergate, the end of the Vietnam war, in a moment of the failure of hierarchical power, of when the social collectivity was dissolving and new age movements were asking people to turn inward to themselves.
In my new film, photographers across the world are struck by a strange phenomenon. Imagery from their unconscious desires appears in their photographs, and they begin to ask questions that lead to more and more complicated answers.
This was a cultural climate I projected onto the cutouts of these kids. I then photographed the interiors and exteriors of a high school and used the architecture as a way to have this psychic energy seep into the students.
CM: I like Kelly Klaasmeyer's term, "homemade horror," in describing your film. Have you always been interested in horror genres?
KS: I shape my animations with film genres, such as science fiction, documentaries and conspiracy thrillers. I use these genres, and fiction in general, as way to write back into historical narratives to reframe moments from our past and events from today.
Using film genres and found images gives me a lot of structure to make up new stories. Since the images I used for this film were from 1970s yearbooks, I started thinking about films like Carrie that used high school as a setting for a horrific story, as well as books like The Virgin Suicides and comic books like Black Hole that deal with some kind of coming apart within the environment of a high school.
I make these films by myself, so they end up having a homemade quality. The fun part is to find the balance between crafting a story and crafting the animation, which is done through finding the right mix of analog stop motion and digital compositing and masking.
All the drips in this movie were made from a home-cooked recipe for fake blood that I turned into a matte to composite onto the cut-out characters, which were shot frame by frame.
CM: The tone is menacing with a hint of camp. How do you see those two qualities working together in your film?
KS: I try to walk the line between darkness and dark humor, telling a disaster story with elements of black comedy and, hopefully, using humor in a critical way. I like it the best when people tell me that they’re unsure if they should laugh or not while watching the films, if this is a plausible story or not, if this is a fiction or something else.
CM: The sound score contributes to the paranoia.
KS: I think that sound is the psychic space of films. With animation, sound design helps the illusion that this world could really exist.
I like to use images from the past to connect to the present. A lot of the fiction and the genre storylines often function as a metaphor to discuss social or political elements without naming them directly.
CM: Tell us more about the film's last quote, “As the school year ended, the students carried the trace of what happened into the outside world, where it quietly continued to spread.”
KS: I like to use images from the past to connect to the present. A lot of the fiction and the genre storylines often function as a metaphor to discuss social or political elements without naming them directly.
I was thinking of tracing back to some legacies of neoconservativism and other moments of corruption onto these metaphorical bodies.
These bodies are inscribed with this dark matter and then go out into the world and grow up and spread it around, perhaps through the Reagan era of the '80s, through the for-profit military economy, irresponsible corporations, environmental destruction, erosion of civil liberties and other horrors we have today.
But with all that said, I was looking to make a horror animation. While this project grew out of a conceptual approach to a horror film, I'm happy if people just watch it and enjoy it as a strange and unsettling story. It's always scarier to not know everything.
CM: How did you develop your found footage style?
KS: In college, I made layered 16-mm films and used the optical printer, animation stand and hand processing facilities. When I got to grad school, I didn’t have the same access to those resources and had to reevaluate how I made films.
I love the visual texture of film and working with my hands while I make movies. The half tone of scanned images, along with cutting them up, really satisfies those production needs.
I was also trying to find an economically sustainable way of making films. The shorts I make don’t cost much since the images come from books in thrift stores, second-hand book stores, library sales — all sites where books and images are being unloaded.
CM: Once you get the idea for a film, do you then go about scavenging for footage? Can you give us a glimpse of how a film comes together?
KS: Scavenging is a really important part of the process, since so much of the making involves me holing up for a long time. I will come across a book or even just an image in a book that will launch the idea for a film.
While I’m hunting for more books, the story starts to get formed by what I come across. At the same time, I’ll start researching the area around the images I’m collecting and develop both a narrative and critical relationship to the content. At a certain point, I’ll write a voiceover for the piece. That gives the film a backbone to animate around.
I like it the best when people tell me that they’re unsure if they should laugh or not while watching the films, if this is a plausible story or not, if this is a fiction or something else.
CM: This is your fourth film to screen at Sundance. What does it mean to go to Sundance?
KS: Sundance means a lot of different things to different people. For me, they’ve been incredibly supportive, and I think it’s fantastic how they carve out niches for art and cult films among the more traditional categories. I’ve had some amazing experiences there, meeting and getting to run around in the snow with some truly outstanding filmmakers and seeing some really great work.
CM: What are you working on during your Galveston Artist Residency?
KS: It’s the perfect place to make layered animations that engage with dark readings on historical narratives. When I walk to my studio, I see Victorian and industrial buildings from a century ago.
I’m also aware of the Ike water line that would have been over my head. I live two doors down from a second-hand bookstore, which has been very helpful with the new film. I’m currently working on a short film made exclusively from images from 35-mm instructional photography books.
In the film, photographers across the world are struck by a strange phenomenon. Imagery from their unconscious desires appears in their photographs, and they begin to ask questions that lead to more and more complicated answers. I also just finished a treatment for a feature film, which should keep me animating for a good 50 years.
Let Sears unsettle you with the trailer for Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise.