INTERVIEWS - Sam Decoste discusses her film "Mary & Myself"

I got a chance to sit down with Sam Decoste in April of 2013 at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival and talk about her film, “Mary & Myself”, which is her first film produced by the NFB.

We met up at the NFB office in Toronto on John Street and started out talking about orchards, farming, and a fish based CSA that was started in Nova Scotia two years ago through the Ecology Action Center. Then we got into a discussion about her latest animation “Mary & Myself” followed by a wide ranging interview that covered her passion for activism, seven years spent in Taiwan, her animation education, and finally where she is heading to next.

A short clip from Sam's film "Mary & Myself"

Grayden Laing: How did you get connected up with the NFB?

Sam Decoste: I had been living and working in Taiwan and met NFB producer Annette Clarke during a visit home. We made a very positive connection and she hired me to work as an animator on an NFB production called Waseteg (dir Phyllis Grant) back in 2007. 

GL: How did your film “Mary & Myself” get started?

SD: When I first got back from Taiwan I often went to a place called the Mulan Teahouse and Chinese Cultural Centre. The owner JiaTsu Thompson had a great way of relating anecdotes about her life. I thought it’d be fun to animate one but it wasn’t until she spoke about her experience in The Vagina Monologues that I thought “That’s it!”. It had to be something that I felt passionate about, as that passion would have to sustain the energy to work on the film for a couple years. So I recorded her talking about the experience, put together an animatic and submitted it to Annette. That’s how it came about.

Mary Mohammed, Jia Tsu Thompson and Sam Decoste

GL: Did you have other NFB producers, aside from Annette, while you were working on “Mary & Myself”?

SD: It’s always been Annette Clarke, she’s been very supportive. I’m very lucky.

GL: In ‘Mary & Myself’ I really enjoyed the way there was a harmonious coexistence of humour and serious issues beautifully juxtaposed with each other.

SD: Yeah, it starts out just with information and has a few funny dips, but then has a serious bit, and then it goes back to humour to finish. I know that pulls us in different directions, but I think as human beings we’re capable of that, because that’s life. Even when something terrible happens - there’s still humour.

GL: When did the world as a whole really find out about Comfort Women?

SD: It was in 1991, Korean survivor Kim Hak-sun spoke openly about her experiences. She agreed to testify publicly and initiated formal legal action against the Japanese government. Then two other women who survived the ordeal joined her. That was followed in 1992 with Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshida publicly exposing the comfort woman system in a major Japanese newspaper by publishing documents from the Japanese Defence Agency. 

I think it’s something really important for us to learn from. It’s not just about the surviving woman. It’s also about how, as a human society, we can look at what happened and learn from it - so we don’t do it again.

GL: And how many comfort women were there during the war?

SD: The accepted amount is 200,000, but no one really knows the exact number - the Chinese government estimates about 400,000. The majority were Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino. But they also went to Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand – basically any population in a territory occupied by the Japanese at the time.

GL: Do you find that using the term “Comfort Women” tones down what happened to these women?

SD: Yes. This wasn’t even prostitution, because in my mind prostitution infers there is some sort of a give and take - rightly or wrongly, there is compensation. This wasn’t even that. They were sex slaves. They were raped.  

I hope this film will allow people to have a curiosity to look up what really happened to these women - or that if they come across these references to comfort women again they’ll have an idea of what these women experienced. It’s not a be-all end-all film though, it’s only a six minute film, but I hope it contributes in a positive way to the struggle these women are facing.

GL: I hope so too and the more people who talk about it; the more exposure the story will have. 

GL: That being said, the images and animation style you’ve chosen really help to tell this story - because you’ve managed to create an activist film that can readily speak to a large audience without alienating them. You’ve crafted an activist film, about sexual abuse, without the use of harsh language or shocking images.

SD: Yeah, it’s not really in your face in that way, and it’s all true. There’s nothing in there that’s controversial, in my mind. It’s just education.

GL: Absolutely, I also found there was a theme of cleansing with the use of tea, rain, and tears.

SD: It’s nice that you noticed that. It was an intentional theme throughout the film. 

GL: How did you decide to move towards that theme? Was it because it was started in a tea house?

SD: From the beginning I wanted you to think you were moving into her world. I wanted the outside to be rainy, because it sets a mood you wouldn’t get if it was sunny. Then I just extrapolated from there.

GL: How did you come up with the colour palette, as a whole, for this film?

SD: I muted the colours quite a bit, especially at the beginning because I wanted to get them as close to black and white as possible. As the film moved on the colour got subtly brighter.

GL: The Tea Cup featured prominently in your animation. What made it become the main visual device in your film?

SD: Because I spent a lot of time at Mulan Tea House and we were always drinking tea. I think it just made a visual impression on me to have that be a part of the film.

GL: One of the animation techniques I really liked was when you cycled through all the people Jia Tsu was thinking of by putting their portraits in the picture frame by her head.

SD: Thanks, and it was a nice way to bring them in on the frame and transition to another scene. 

GL: Do you have a topic picked out for your next film?

SD: No, I don’t. I’m really torn. I have a few ideas, but I haven’t decided on one of them yet. I’m very interested in gender and transgender and how people are moulding their bodies in a way that they haven’t ever before in human history. I’m also interested in the water issue because I feel that’s fundamental to human survival around the world and it’s becoming more and more corporate. Those are the two main ones, I’m interested in a lot of different things, but it’s difficult to choose one. It depends on if a story surfaces that fits well with one of those issues – then it would make sense to move on that. 

GL: You are planning to pursue a masters in animation at NSCAD, do they have an animation program?

SD: No, but at the Masters level it’s self-directed. It’s a fine arts school. Animation - at least experimental animation - is the movement of a fine art: painting, cutouts, sculptured objects in puppet animation, and so on. So I expect to learn a lot.

GL: Ok, let’s go back a little bit, how did you start out getting into animation?

SD: I have a degree from Concordia in fine arts animation, but before I went to Concordia I had a degree in political science. During my first degree and before Concordia, I’d been working in film in various capacities and one was being a projectionist for a woman’s film and video festival. I don’t know if you know Helen Hill, but her husband was in  med school in Halifax. She moved to Halifax to be with him after finishing a master’s in animation at CalArts. I saw her work through the little projection booth window and I was just blown away.  And so, afterwards, I asked her “Can you teach me?” and she said “Well, I’ve never taught animation before”. We got funding through AFCOOP and the NFB and we did a short ten-week class. Next I applied to Concordia and did my animation degree. But, basically, it was because of her work, it was so poetic and beautiful (it’s quite different than what I do) it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Bohemian Town by Helen Hill

GL: That’s an unusual approach to get into animation.

SD: Yeah, well, you know, when you see cartoons it is such a different form of animation. You don’t really see much experimental animation on TV, or anywhere really… it’s mostly just cartoons.

GL: Who are some animators that inspired you when you were first studying animation?

SD: Caroline Leaf, Jan ŠvankmajerYuriy NorshteynAmanda Forbis  & Wendy Tilby. I’d say those are the main ones. Wendy Tilby because her work is so different in every film, which is at the heart of experimental animation. 

GL: And how would you define experimental animation?

SD: Any fine art that is moving: if you make a sculpture and you make it move, if you make a painting and then make it move …  I think from the animators perspective it’s not just telling the story, that’s part of it, but it’s also pushing your skill set - learning a new technique to tell that story. If you normally do 2D animation then the next film might be a 3D film. Because you’re always learning. I think any of the fine arts translate into experimental animation. Cartoon is just one of those. So, sand on glass, paint on glass, cutouts, I think anything playful works.

GL: What techniques have your experimental films explored in the past and what areas are you experimenting with for the future?

SD: I’d like to experiment with stop-motion, with puppet animation. I think that’s going to be tricky. I’m not terribly good at lighting sets – so that’s something I’d like to learn and get better at. I really like the aesthetic of puppet animation. This last film was 2D animation, but it was coloured in the computer. I tried to break that up because personally I’m not that fond of computer coloured animation. So I added in a little texture and tried to break up the smooth flatness that you get when you computer colour an image – and rather than drawing it in the computer I drew it by hand, which is a different feel I think. 

Previously, I’ve done cut out animation, and I’ve taught a lot. In the classes we did anything that was under a camera, pixilation, that sort of thing. 

GL: Have you heard of the Montreal Stop Motion Animation Festival (MSMFF) and/or seen the puppet films screened there? Do you have an animation festival in Halifax?

SD: Yes, I saw posters for the MSMFF while I was in Montreal, but I’ve never been to a festival.

There is a curated, one day, animation festival at Carbon Arc in Halifax.  I think it started at Centre for Art Tapes as Animated Anomalies and now it’s at Carbon Arc and it’s called Animation With Love.

GL: Where were you teaching?

SD: I lived in Taiwan for almost seven years where I taught animation. I had an animation studio with two Taiwanese animators and we had classes and workshops at a lot of elementary schools and high schools. We also did summer camps for children. 

In Halifax I also taught animation in different contexts - I just finished up doing a Water animation class in protest of Bill C-45.

GL: What is the Water animation Project?

SD: It was a way for artists from different disciplines to try their hand at animation for the first time. But also create a finished work that expressed their ideas about water and the value of water - less than 1% of our waters are protected in Canada because of Bill C-45. There was a sound person, an architect, a graphic artist and an environmental activist. It was a real mix of people and they were awesome.

GL: Where did you work when you came back?

SD: In 2007 I came back to work on a project called Waseteg, as an animator. It was directed by Phyllis Grant. I then did titles on live action documentaries and then got funding to work on my own film.

GL: When you were teaching young students animation, what did you find was the most effective technique to do so? 

SD: To give them the tools they need to express themselves – to take a background role. With kids, specifically, we did a lot of brainstorming and had the kids come up with the stories – and I think there’s more of an investment if it’s their idea. But we have to be there to catch the balls if they’re falling – you know, if they’re not able to do something technically – like they want the sound recorded in a specific way, but don’t know how to do it - then I’d make sure that was handled.

GL: Was there a particular technique that was used when teaching animation?

SD: Participants could use any technique that worked best for them. I did a project in Taiwan called ‘The Green Line” – it was for the International Green Festival in Taiwan. The idea was that each person (none of whom had animated before) could use any technique they wanted, it just had to start and stop with a green line. We had thirteen finished pieces - we had puppet animation, paint under the camera, computer animation, 2D drawn animation and so on. The film was screened three times at the festival. 

The Water project was a smaller group, but it was the same idea. The first piece was quite experimental: they used a photo of a real leaf, and many different types of media in the same film frame.The second piece animates a photoshopped character, and the third piece 2D cartoon-style. It all depended on the background of the person and what they had to bring to the table.

GL: Would you say activism is a large part of your work?

SD: Yes, in a way. It informs my work.

GL: At what point did you realize that you were interested in telling stories that commented on environmental or social issues?

SD: I think that came before I came to animation. As I said I have a degree in political science and when I was in school I was pretty rebellious. I was involved in with different non-profits. And then I worked for a social justice environment organization. It was a good place for me to put that energy. That said, I don’t actually sit down and think that I want to make a piece about a particular issue. I just gravitate towards material that interests me, that I’m trying to make sense of, and as a result I lean towards things that we’re grappling with as a society.

GL: And how did that transition into a career in animation?

SD: I like communicating in this visual form. I think we are more open to animation. We understand it, watch and listen to it in a different way than we do, for example, to information that’s communicated pedantically.

GL: How would you describe your process for animating “Mary & Myself”? 

SD: I started first with words, describing different scenes, then I jumped around a bit before it came to the visual stage of putting the pieces together. Then I drew the pieces, scanned them, and made the animatic in Final Cut Pro. 

GL: After the animatic do you do rough animation to figure out timing and moves or do you jump right to the final animation.

SD: In this case (Mary & Myself) the animatic I submitted was very developed. It was pretty much the blueprint for the film and it was easy to finish a scene and then immediately move to the next one. 

GL: Did anyone at the NFB help you refine your style while you were working on your film?

SD: Annette was really helpful from the beginning of the project right to the end. When I initially submitted the animatic it was all water colour stills. When I sat down to do the animation I realized that if I kept doing water colours it was going to take forever! So I talked to Annette about that and we came up with the idea to use Toon Boom to do the colouring, but I wanted to add some swatches of texture. Annette is a really good person to bounce ideas off of, she has a lot of really valuable creative insight. 

GL: How did you decide to use Toon Boom as opposed to the other options available?

SD: Toon Boom was recommended by the people in Montreal, because that’s what they were using. Toon Boom is also based out of Montreal which meant they could provide support in our time zone. I’d also never used Adobe Flash and from what I understand it’s a bit more limited than Toon Boom. So for what I wanted to do, to draw the animation and then scan it in, and colour it, I found that Toon Boom seemed to be the best option.

GL: Let’s talk a little about animation in Canada. Are there any particular trends in Canadian animation that you’re aware of?

SD: I would definitely say that animation coming out of Canada is distinctly different than the animation coming out of Eastern European animation or Asian animation. It’s hard to define. It’s easier to define Eastern European animation, which is mostly puppets and Asian animation is largely 2D or 3D cartoons. Canadian animation, primarily because of the NFB, has a lot more support so it can expand its boundaries and be more playful. It allows the animators to be more experimental and poetic in the stories that they’re telling.   

GL: Interesting, using the word ‘different’ to describe how animation has developed in Canada. Especially in relation to how the NFB has fostered experimental animation and allowed Canadian animators the financial freedom to explore outside of the realm of commercially animation production houses. 

SD: And it started with the work of Norman McLaren. He really set the tone for a good animated film to be an experimental film as opposed to an animator just being a master of one technique. To actually do a film like Caroline Leaf – do a film in sand animation, but then also do one with paint under the camera, then use scratch on film. She keeps moving and so does Wendy Tilby – using different techniques to make animated films. 

GL: Whereas in the United States its more about taking a particular technique and perfecting it. 

SD: Yeah, and I think it’s the same in Asia too. 

GL: Do you feel there is one Canadian animator in particular that is going to influence the world of animation?

SD: I would say Wendy Tilby, her work is very different than issue based or documentary based work. Technically I think she’s a real innovator in terms of pushing the limits in different techniques. Her first film was ‘Strings’, then ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’ where she videotaped characters and then painted the stills. And then, ‘Wild Life’, it was paint, but it was a different technique again. It’s a different technique each time. Who knows what she’s going to do next. And I would say, if Caroline Leaf was still making films, I’d say her too.  The same for Chris Hinton, if he was still making films. He really changed his style for ‘Flux’, I was really appreciative of that.

GL: After moving back to Canada, how would you say the culture of Taiwan differs from that in Canada?

SD: We take up space differently. I find that Chinese society is a very patient, a very polite society in the way that they interact with each other. But at the same time the cost of that politeness might be really delving into issues and speaking about whatever is one your mind.

GL: Using your life experience as a lens – how is life as an indie animator in Canada?

SD: I think it’s a good place, even though support to the arts has been pretty well gutted, we still have a lot more than in other countries. I think it must be very difficult to make indie animation in certain parts of the world. But, I mean, you’re not going to retire on it. 

GL: You make sacrifices, with other animators I’ve talked to, they make a film instead of going on a vacation.

SD: And it’s amazing to get any support. If you look world wide the NFB is a major supporter of experimental animation. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. When I talk to animators from other countries they say “you’re so lucky to have the NFB!”.  

GL: Indeed and I think that’s a good note to close on. Thanks again for your time Sam. It’s been a pleasure talking with you and I look forward to seeing more of your work down the road.