NY-SF International Children’s Film Festival: Interview with Laurie Hill (“Photograph of Jesus”)

by Peter Wong on September 21, 2010

How would you react if someone asked you for a photograph of the real in-the-flesh Jesus? Archivist Matthew Butson’s handling of such impossible requests is the subject of animator Laurie Hill’s short, “Photograph of Jesus.” Her piece beat the newest “Wallace and Gromit” short for the Tampere Short Film Festival’s Best Animation award. The veteran animator talked about the story behind her piece to Beyond Chron …

Beyond Chron (BC): “Photograph of Jesus” was done for Getty Images’ Short and Sweet Film Challenge. What was the Challenge about?

Laurie Hill (LH): I was one of ten ‘up-and-coming’ directors originally invited to take part – that became four in the end. The organisers knew my previous short film work, liked it and wondered if I’d be interested. Getty Images was offering access to their archive and gave carte blanche to create any film you wanted using this giant resource of material. After I saw the place and heard Matthew, I knew it was too tempting an opportunity to turn down. I could see there was a good little film right there in front of me waiting to be made!

BC: What restrictions did you have to work with?

LH: The only stipulations were to use at least 50% material from the archive and get it done in three months. I’d been thinking about found footage pieces for a while and the timing was right for me, so it was perfect, really.

BC: Did the Jesus photograph anecdote form the seed for your short, or was it something else?

LH: It was all on my first visit to the archive warehouse! Matthew made it very easy for me. He showed a group of us round on a guided tour and went into this amazing routine, telling us about the real requests they’d had for images over the years. It included the Jesus story and a bunch more. My jaw hit the floor. It was such good material and my brain started bubbling with the possibilities immediately. Plus the archive itself struck me as a fab location I’d love to rummage about in – a maze of corridors with old boxes all over the place and row upon row of files. Matthew gave me the perfect excuse and is a fantastic story-teller. I rang him back to pick his brains some more and we ended up taping a bunch of chats together.

BC: The material for one of your previous shorts came from accumulating television weather report footage over a year. How did you select the images you eventually used in “Photograph of Jesus”?

LH: I jotted down a bunch of rough ideas for each request and how to visualise each scene. Then it was a question of filling a huge long mental shopping list of potential ingredients. Luckily Getty Images gave me access to their online catalogue, which you can search through using keywords and so on.

BC: How many images did you have to go through before you found the images you needed?

LH: I spent a long time just sitting at my computer doing the research and downloading zillions of images and clips. Some scenes were more complex than others. Sometimes I was looking for parts of images that could be collaged together to get what I wanted. It’s difficult to say how many I browsed – thousands upon thousands. A lot of the time you’re feeling your way, trying out different options to see what works with what and discarding some. One of the trickiest was how to visualise Jack the Ripper. Do I
go for a generic look? What about the fact that the identity has never been revealed? In the end, the figure is a collage of probably 7 or 8 different images – a hat from here, an arm from there, a different arm for the front view etc., etc.

BC: You prefer working with stop-motion animation. What is its aesthetic appeal compared to computer animation?

LH: I’m not a purist. Some of “Photograph of Jesus” is computer-animated but most of it is by-hand, using stop-frame animation.

There tends to be a different look and feel to that hand-made stuff. For me the ‘second story’ is more apparent – there’s the story of what you’re portraying but also the story of how it was made and the labour and time that went into it – and that can be a compelling one too. If I wanted to, I could’ve cleaned up and painted out all the wires there are in the dogfight sequence but what’s the point? It would simply look cleverly composited!

I’m not that turned on by slick glossiness. I tend to value a more personal, home-spun flavour.

BC: Control versus unruly forces as well as dark humor and absurdity are constant themes and elements in your work. How did you keep a straight face concerning the people who ask for photographs of Jesus, Yetis, and even Jack the Ripper?

LH: Humour’s very personal and I try to find the right balance in my films. I like to mix up seriousness with humour if I can and being a bit po-faced about it can help too. There’s a lot of comedy value in how one responds to such requests. Do you use evasion, politeness?

I hope the film doesn’t come across as mean-spirited though. If anything, I’m trying to breathe some temporary life into these hopes and dreams and ride with them for a bit, however strange they may seem. I even try to end on an upbeat ‘who knows’ moment! I suppose it’s that old struggle between pragmatism/realism and imagination/idealism again. When it comes to extinct species, I wish there was a place dodos and so on existed.

(“Photograph of Jesus” screens as part of the NY-SF International Children’s Film Festival “Flicker Lounge” program at the Embarcadero Center Cinema (One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level, SF) on September 24, 2010 at 9:20 PM.)

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