Finding Life in 'Corporate Art' — an interview with Rachel Reid

Plus: three anime anthologies, an Eastern European classic and more.

Welcome to the first installment of the weekly Animation Obsessive newsletter! We hope you’ll enjoy.

This newsletter is a companion to our Twitter account, but it serves the same core purpose: putting a spotlight on animation from all around the world, including the unsung gems. If you like our Twitter account but find yourself wanting to dig even deeper, this newsletter is for you.

Our main feature this week is an interview with the supremely talented animator Rachel Reid. You’ll also find highlights from the animation news of the week, tips on what’s streaming and a brief look at the Yugoslavian classic Tifusari. It’s all organized into easily-digestible sections below.

Rachel Reid, an animator between industries

Earlier this month, we shared a stunning piece on Twitter called The Dojo by animator Rachel Reid, best known for her work at the Detroit-based motion design firm Gunner. The tweet blew up.

In fact, the response to The Dojo was so huge that we decided to reach out to Reid herself. She was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about the piece, her work in commercial design and her upcoming projects. Catch our chat below. (The conversation has been lightly edited for formatting and clarity.)

Animation Obsessive: What's your background as an animator and motion designer?

Rachel Reid: Well, I’ve always been interested in animation ever since I can remember. I grew up admiring the Disney classics and became immensely inspired by Hayao Miyazaki and French animated films. I was also super inspired by video game cinematics, which opened my eyes to a more stylistic approach to animation. I studied traditional animation at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and took a few 3D character animation courses at some online schools.

I don’t consider myself a motion designer. I’m not proficient with After Effects nor does shape animation interest me. In fact, when my college gave us a brief introduction to motion design and what it entails, I remember thinking, “Wow, I have to make sure I avoid that!” I didn’t see the appeal of shape animation or lack of narrative. But of course my first job out of college was in a small motion design studio here in Detroit, and little by little the industry opened up my perspective on what can be possible while working in motion design.

The Dojo is a fantastic piece — it has this really thrilling, visceral feel even after a dozen rewatches. How exactly did it come about? What was your inspiration for it?

The School of Motion, an online motion design school, asked me if I was interested in doing a short, 12-second intro for a class they had in mind. They told me the piece would be called The Dojo and I could do anything I wanted with it, as long as it incorporated some of the Photoshop/Illustrator tools and kung fu. I had the freedom to express these themes however I wanted.

I grew up watching kung fu films and had been looking for ways to incorporate martial arts into my work: so I was happy for the opportunity! I was so excited because I was itching to do something that could push my animation, as working in motion design can often be limiting, depending on the style and its commercial nature. I was given two months to complete it, so I spent the first month designing the characters, studying and gathering reference, and completing an animatic. Then I spent the last month animating and coloring. And that was it!

I was working at Gunner at the time, so all of the work had to be done after hours and on weekends. (Don’t worry, Gunner has a very open freelance culture in the studio, so I didn’t break any code of ethics.) Granted, I should have taken into account that the name of the piece was The Dojo and incorporated Japanese martial arts instead of wushu. Nevertheless, I’m still super proud of this piece.

When we shared The Dojo, some commenters mentioned that they'd disliked the look of motion design before, but felt that your piece kind of broadened their perspectives on the style. Do you think motion design gets underestimated in certain traditional animation circles? Or are the two worlds really not as separate as some might assume?

I definitely think motion design gets underestimated in traditional animation circles! But I completely understand the sentiment. Even now, after working in motion design for five years, the aesthetic is not my first preference.

I find the most rewarding part of working in motion design is collaborating with talented designers, and the challenging task of assimilating to their style and making it move. I think that has broadened my skill set and helped me find new ways of animating. I see now that there are some motion design studios that are exploring style and creating something new. Which is exciting!

The two worlds don’t have to be as separate as they are. If I can be honest, I feel as if I’m somewhere in between the traditional animation and motion design worlds. While I am grateful for the steady flow of work as a freelance animator in commercial animation, I long for the emotion and narrative that traditional animated stories provide. While characters are often props to promote a product or app, or to help rebrand a company website, I try as much as I can to add nuance and meaning behind the characters. I personally don’t get any satisfaction from animating just for the sake of motion. If that was the case, I wouldn’t animate at all.

For The Dojo, I felt as though I had to conform to the usual motion design style. However, for the sake of my own personal fulfillment, I did not compromise on the quality of the animation. Until I cross over into more traditional animated work, I will continue to try to bridge the gap between motion design and traditional animation for my own selfish ambition of finding meaning in every project I work on. As a result of working in motion design, it is now my goal to create animation that is different; that cannot be categorized into one industry or another but that lives completely and uniquely on its own.

What are you working on now? Any projects on the horizon that we can look forward to?

Right now, I’m working on a special project with Gunner. The project has been almost two years in the making, but I’m excited for everyone to see a film that could redefine what motion design studios are capable of. It’s definitely a crossover into more traditional work, but still very unique in its own way. You’ve gotta stay tuned!

We want to thank Rachel Reid for taking the time out of her schedule to speak with us. If you’d like to see more of her work, samples are available on her Vimeo page and personal website. You can also follow her on Twitter (@ReidRachelll) and Instagram (@rachelll.reid).

Headlines of the week

Animated shorts at the Oscars

Tuesday brought the announcement of the animated short films on this year’s Oscars shortlist.

The longlist had been crowded — 96 animated shorts reportedly qualified this year. Of those, only ten have advanced to the shortlist. They are:

  • Burrow (Pixar), dir. Madeline Sharafian

  • Genius Loci (Kazak Productions), dir. Adrien Mérigeau

  • If Anything Happens I Love You (Gilbert Films, Oh Good Productions), dirs. Michael Govier and Will McCormack

  • Kapaemahu (Kanaka Pakipika, Pacific Islanders in Communications), dirs. Dean Hamer, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu and Joe Wilson

  • Opera (Independent), dir. Erick Oh

  • Out (Pixar), dir. Steven Clay Hunter

  • The Snail and the Whale (Magic Light Pictures, Triggerfish), dirs. Daniel Snaddon and Max Lang

  • To: Gerard (DreamWorks), dir. Taylor Meacham

  • Traces (Les Films du Nord), dirs. Hugo Frassetto and Sophie Tavert Macian

  • Yes People (CAOZ), dir. Gísli Darri Halldórsson

Two films from Pixar’s SparkShorts series made the list — it’s possible that both will become nominees. Pixar is a perennial favorite in this category. The Snail and the Whale, animated in South Africa, comes from two-time nominee Max Lang. Meanwhile, the gorgeous Genius Loci was spearheaded by Adrien Mérigeau, best known as the art director of the Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea.

Calamity continues to shine with César nomination

Calamity, A Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary has nabbed a nomination for Best Animated Feature at this year’s César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars. It took top honors at last year’s Annecy festival.

Director Rémi Chayé (Long Way North) has broken new ground with the visuals in Calamity. It’s not clear when an English-language version is planned, but we’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, check out the trailer.

Blue Sky shuts down

This week brought sad news for the animation world. On Tuesday, Disney announced its plan to close Blue Sky Studios, the company behind Ice Age and The Peanuts Movie, this April. Disney acquired Blue Sky when it purchased 21st Century Fox in 2019, as part of the ongoing consolidation in the entertainment business. The move will cost around 450 jobs at Blue Sky.

Disney has faced financial turmoil in the last year. At the same time, though, its need to own Blue Sky was never clear in the first place — Disney already owns Pixar and its internal studios. Buying up and closing a popular, veteran studio like Blue Sky simply damages the health of the animation industry overall. Case in point: Blue Sky’s soon-to-be finished Nimona, reportedly 75% complete, is now canceled. Both the closure and the cancellation were met with widespread blowback inside the industry.

Animation Obsessive wishes Blue Sky’s crew the best in this difficult time.

What’s streaming

This week, we’re highlighting three anime anthologies from three different decades, on three different platforms. Each one is linked in the titles below. (Fair warning: some of these may not be available for readers outside the United States and Canada.)

Robot Carnival (1987) — YouTube via RetroCrush

One of the canonical anime anthologies. The rights for this film from A.P.P.P. were picked up by RetroCrush a while back. If you’ve missed it so far, now is your chance to see early work by Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, Hiroyuki Kitakubo and more.

Memories (1995) — RetroCrush

Arguably the best anime anthology released to date. This is due especially to its first film, the 40-minute Magnetic Rose, directed by Koji Morimoto and written by a young Satoshi Kon. Magnetic Rose by itself would be enough to recommend Memories — but stick around for Katsuhiro Otomo’s Cannon Fodder, a truly unusual piece that’s made to look like it was shot in one take.

Modest Heroes (2018) — Netflix

The newest anthology here, but by no means the least interesting. Studio Ponoc, a company founded by ex-Ghibli alumni, pulls out all the stops for the second two films in the bunch: Life Ain’t Gonna Lose and Invisible. Both are must-watch projects — particularly Invisible, which was remarkably popular when we shared it on Twitter last month.

From the vault — Tifusari

Writing about mid-century Yugoslavian animation is tricky because it stands in the center of so many currents. That, and the country no longer exists — today the land is divided into a number of smaller nations, including Croatia and Serbia.

Yugoslavia was communist for most of its existence. The animators at the Zagreb Film workshop received state funding to make their art. While state funding for animation was normal in Soviet countries, it came with fairly severe stylistic restrictions for most of the 1950s. Since Yugoslavia was independent of the USSR, conditions were different.

A generation of mid-century Yugoslav animators followed after UPA’s design style, particularly the work of John Hubley. One of the films to come out of this, Ersatz, was the true inspiration for that famous bit about Soviet animation on The Simpsons — even though Ersatz wasn’t actually Soviet.

The 1963 film Tifusari descends from this movement, which is often called the “Zagreb School of Animation” by historians.

Tifusari — or Typhus — is a dark, gothic film that brings to mind both expressionist woodcuts and UPA’s Tell-Tale Heart. It adapts a poem about typhoid fever by the Croatian poet Jure Kaštelan. As a commenter pointed out when we shared the film last month, this was far from unusual in post-war Yugoslavia:

Vatroslav Mimica, who passed away last year at the age of 96, handles the direction. It’s quite different from some of his earlier work, like Alone (1958) and The Inspector is Back (1959). But it maintains his streak of strange, meditative films with an otherworldly quality. You can see all of Tifusari, with English subtitles, over on YouTube.

Last word

And that’s the end of this week’s newsletter. If you enjoyed but haven’t yet subscribed, please consider joining the mailing list and catching next week’s installment. The Animation Obsessive newsletter drops every Sunday.

This newsletter is a work in progress. We’ll be fine-tuning it based on reader feedback going forward. In addition, we’re always on the lookout for exciting animation that we haven’t heard about — and any tips from readers in that direction would be highly appreciated.

Until next week!