Born in 1970 in Lublin, Poland, Jarosław Konopka is an animation director and puppet animator who works in both the commercial and arts sectors. His award-winning independent work has been screened at film festivals worldwide, gaining him a reputation for beautifully-crafted yet macabre animated works. His latest work, ‘The Escape’, which screened as part of our Bristol Festival of Puppetry film programme in September, is currently gaining momentum on the international film festival circuit. We grabbed some time with him to find out more about his background, his interest in dark subject matter and some very disturbing puppets.
Can you explain how you became a puppet animator and animation director? What attracted you to this work? How did it begin?
In the mid-90s I studied painting, drawing and printmaking at Academy of Fine Arts (ASP) in Krakow. On my second year I signed up for animation classes led at the time by Jerzy Kucia. What attracted me to animation was the merger between artistic image, sound and movement creating one message. To me, that connection makes a powerful impression.
While experimenting with a celluloid camera on different animation techniques, I realised I am most fond of three-dimensional animation techniques: clay animation, pixilation or even using… living snails! Unfortunately, due to different personal choices, it took me 10 years to find my way back to making animation. With a digital technology revolution, I could finally experiment on stop motion at my in-house studio in the attic. I created new experimental stop motion shorts. I’ve been also training my stop motion animation skills and preparing for my debut film, “Underlife”. I’ve learned to animate by myself, by observing movement of characters in favourite movies and using my knowledge and drawing skills gained in High School of Arts and Fine Arts Academy.
Combining the work of animator, director and other creative functions in art house film seems natural and inseparable to me. It’s like painting, where each piece of the image is the emancipation of the artist’s mind. To me, animation is not just a technique, but an act of bringing to life and there’s a deeper, metaphysical character to it.
Your artistic animated short films are quite dark and abstract. What is it about darker themes that appeals to you? Why is puppet animation a good medium to express disturbing and strange stories?
Both “Underlife” and “The Escape” focus on a topic of death. I am interested in emotions and feelings that are connected to it and I try to bring them to the film through image, sounds and music. The characters in my films are therefore unreal creatures, who are a balance between life and death. They only live in memories.
Puppets, who are “dead by nature” represent that state well. Big puppets used by me have different expression than an actor. They can communicate that state in a more realistic way by strange movement and their inner duality of being dead and alive. An animator-director can control their movement fully in each and every second of the film. At the same time that moment of frozen movement on the puppet animation set gives more space for improvisation and allows elements of somehow controlled accidents.
My films are set in a low-key lighting. Back in my student’s times I was fascinated by the work of tenebrists, including Georges de la Tour and Rembrandt and their way of bringing reality from darkness through light.
Puppet animation is often associated with children cinema, which is caused mostly by commercial aspects of animation market, but the technique can be as well used to express any kind of stories. Including dark and surrealistic ones, especially as it is still evolving as a medium.
The design of the puppets in both ‘Underlife’ and ‘The Escape’ is quite distinctive. Can you explain how you came to the design? (Why all the sand?)
Characters in my films are fully my creation, but at the same time they evolve from one film to the next one and adopt new characteristics. Of course, they are also an agglomeration of my different, often unconscious fascinations.
The women remind me of a person, whom I remember from my childhood and was terrified of. As a boy, I spend my holidays in a little village, playing in sandpits, created in a field when a large amount of sand was dug out. These are also the times that caused my fascination with sand as a “liquid matter”. Sand, to me, has a natural purity to it, like water, one can’t really get dirty with it (unlike with soil).
In my films, it suggests a kind of imminence, entropy and decay. It can carry a lot of meanings. It also clings to the characters’ bodies and creates their surface.
Do you have any future projects in the pipeline for audiences to look out for?
In my next project, that is currently in script-writing stage, I’d like to focus less on the dark topics and more on psychological observations. My inspiration is a story by Abe Kobo entitled “Woman in the Dunes”. Beside the large amount of sand, it is full of contexts and topics that I feel inspired by.
To find out more about Jarosław Konopka’s latest short film, ‘The Escape’ (‘Ucieczka’) visit the Animapol Film Production Blog.