In the first in our two-part series on the artists involved in Puppet Place’s press team, we meet animator and filmmaker Emma Windsor. Emma’s passion for motion and monsters has led her to create some devilishly dark animated shorts that have screened at international film and music festivals worldwide. She also runs her own company, White Rabbit Animation, and has produced commercial work for clients including Girlguiding UK, BT and the BBC. Josh Elwell sat down with her to find out more about her portfolio, puppetry and her fascination with fear.
Your work spans the commercial, creative, educational and entertaining. Your website and showreel demonstrate what a versatile animator you are with such a wonderful mixture of styles and techniques. Can you tell us about what the main themes are in your work? What is it that most attracts you and what is it that most inspires you?
I’m definitely attracted to the darker side of storytelling – to folklore, cautionary tales and things that go bump in the night. My earliest memory of animated film is Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’ and how disturbing it is in places, in particular what happens to the boys on Pleasure Island. Another mesmerising sequence for me was Dumbo’s ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’; the surrealist images, twisted lounge music and bright colour against the blackness. There’s something very compelling in all that oddness for me. So, I think the core thematic or recurrent exploration is fear – the unsettling, the macabre, and the downright odd – and, underneath all that, real-world horrors like climate breakdown and destructive behaviour like greed and bullying.
Aesthetically, I like to mix things up. In the public eye, stop motion is all too often associated with puppet animation, but there’s so much more stop frame has to offer; from object animation, cut-out, timelapse and pixilation. I love to blend styles within a piece, to add a sense of uncertainty and mischief. No rules please!
As well as creating your own work, you have created some wonderful bespoke pieces for many organisations, groups and businesses. Which are the kinds of projects that you most enjoy and which are the most challenging?
I often find the most challenging projects are the most enjoyable – well eventually. If there’s an opportunity to learn new or extend skills, then that makes for a satisfying experience. For me, it’s important to keep exploring, and that might be another reason why I’m drawn to several animation forms, rather than concentrating on a single style or technique. Some of my most successful work has been made under pressure. The Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017 trailer, which I’m particularly pleased with, was made in a tight time frame whilst I was also curating the film programme for the same festival! Similarly, the animated projection work for Green Ginger Theatre was an intense and dynamic project, produced in small wooden buildings in the remote wilderness of Northern Norway. Adrenaline can be a great motivator.
Within your own film making you have a very clear vision that is both humorous and unsettling. This can be seen in films like ‘MiLK HaRE’. How do you go about balancing these two elements?
I’ve no real formula for this, to be honest. I do think comedy and horror are very closely linked, maybe degrees away from each other and as such they can work incredibly well together. Both require a twisted imagination and the shock of the unexpected – and both processes are ‘delightful’ in this way, even if the subject matter isn’t. I think the balance comes from the rise and fall of the narrative. In horror, there’s a certain emotional journey for the viewer that requires tension, then relief, then repeat. That tattoo provides a good framework for balancing laughter and horror.
Your work at Puppet Place has placed you alongside many other animators and puppeteers. Can you tell us how puppetry in particular has influenced your work?
For me, it’s all about puppetry. That’s the core discipline, if you will. For many years, I worked in web design and animation, but digital production lacks the tactile nature that physical art forms have; that connection with a sense of real-worldness that is important to me. So after 10+ years of being in industry, I went back to university in 2010 as a mature student and studied for a Masters in Animation at UWE with a focus in stop motion.
With stop motion it’s clearer to see how puppetry is the root art form. A stop motion animator manipulates a marionette, an object or cut-outs, etc. frame-by-frame, building the animation as s/he goes. This process is the same as live performance, where a puppeteer’s hands work the puppet directly in a continuous sequence. But I also work in 2D, so you might be wondering how that ties in with puppetry. What is interesting is that this process of object manipulation can now happen in the 2D digital space with character rigging and movement. Essentially, 2D digital artwork can be rigged like 3D CG animation, so a 2D ‘puppet’ can be created using rigging systems like DUIK, and then manipulated in the same manner as any other puppet. As said, all roads lead to… puppetry!
In terms of future projects, without giving too much away, can you tell us what you would like to explore next and the kind of work you would like to create?
Well I have a passion project, The Bone House, which I’ve been picking up then having to put down for years now! It’s a musical penny dreadful that will be presented in glorious stop frame animation. It’s a long haul, but we’ll get there. I’ve commercial projects on the go, but I’m also currently working on a puppetry project with some folk musicians from Kent. I’ve worked with these artists before, so they’re aware of my penchant for ghost stories. When Linze Maesterosa approached me about creating the visuals for a bone-chilling folk tune, I couldn’t really refuse! As said, I’m a huge fan of live performance and always want to collaborate with performers on stage, something that seems bonkers as animation and music are worlds apart production-wise. But my experiences with Green Ginger and Pickled Image have taught me that it can be possible, and when you get it right, it can really pay off. So this will be a traditional puppet piece that can be performed live, and will involve incantations, haunted objects and shadow puppetry.
That’s all I can say, it’s very hush-hush… You’ll have to wait until Halloween for more..!
Interview with Josh Elwell