A Conversation w/ Steven Heath
The following email conversation took place in October and November of 2014, upon the acquisition of Star And Cyprus (2014) by Steven Heath for active Video Out distribution. An excerpt from this work will be shown as part of a Recent Acquisitions Screening at the centre in February of 2015.
Still from Star And Cyprus (2014).
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: Our distribution technician Sebenem Ozpeta and I were immediately struck by the uniqueness of form in your new work coming into distribution — so I want to start things off by asking how you first became interested in silhouette animation and why you chose to work with the process to tell this story?
Steven Heath: Essentially, I was looking for the simplest way to tell a complex story. I used silhouette animation because it’s a derivative of one of the crudest (and oldest) forms of storytelling: light and shadows.
However, I wasn’t fully aware of the term (or concept) until partway through the experimentation process. I discovered some online footage of traditional South East Asian shadow theatre; this in turn led me to the early 20th century, and to the pre-Disney children’s films of German animator Lotte Reiniger.
I came to understand that using aspects of these simple, old-fashioned techniques (combined with modern after-effects) allowed me to create something fairly unique.
VO: I understand that you started to make shorter music video-like works after finishing art school. Are there points of departure for you and your ideas that come out of your student days? Also — how might your earlier shorts inform this longer narrative piece?
SH: Although I studied media art (and ultimately completed a masters degree in this area), I have never felt like a video artist. I am far more comfortable in DIY / bedroom / lo-fi culture; everything I do is influenced by the understanding that potentially amazing things can be created from — basically nothing — craps of cardboard etc.
I learned to make ‘animations’ (if you can really call them that) by way of a few short 3 – 4 minute music videos. It was in this period that I became comfortable with the process of ‘making for’ an already existing song / narrative structure. So when it came to Star And Cyprus , I approached it in a similar way. First I recorded the dialogue, then the foley sounds and finally the music. At this point I had something like a rudimentary radio-drama – something that almost worked as an acoustic-only piece, which allowed me to layer on simple, crude silhouette-scenery and (hopefully) tell a story with just enough visual structure to keep it moving.
VO: The narrative in Star and Cyprus might suggest a parable or fairytale, and the almost-monologue throughout most of the piece, along with the very independent, reductive economy of means, had me thinking at times of period film noir, performances by Spalding Gray — even some Chris Marker films. What was your approach to the writing and did you have any creative models or goals when you started to develop the project?
SH: The narrative of the film was very much dependent on the limitations of the silhouette style — I was provided with story-direction simply by realising what I could not do. Being aware that I had to work with simple, almost ‘tapestry-like’ visual imagery allowed me to write in a similar way; i.e. short, instructional, first-person monologue.
It was my intention that Star And Cyprus would communicate the mood of a contemporary parable. I have always admired the minimal, biblical structure of traditional illustrated children’s books, especially the technique of using plain, accessible metaphors to establish mood (ie, the moon, rain, wind, nightfall etc).
I was really hoping to evoke the naive, sinister undertones of a fairytale in order to retell the ‘doomed lovers’ folktale (in a non-traditional setting).
VO: With your beginnings in Glasgow and an adult life making art in Melbourne, I’m wondering how and when you discovered VIVO — and also what you think of the organization?
SH: I think having a background in the UK but spending my teenage years in Australia has made me acutely aware of the concept of isolation (both geographical and cultural).
Much of my cultural influence is in fact North American (by way of film, television, music, etc) and I think this bled into my decision to set the film in a fictional, remote Canadian city; it’s an amalgamation of my own experiences and my cultural upbringing.
I discovered VIVO shortly before completing the film — tracing my way back to the organization by way of watching other people’s work online. I am so grateful for the work being done on behalf of filmmakers and media artists — especially with regard to archiving; thanks to the internet, so much of what is being created now feels fragmented, temporary — liable to disappear, and that’s why having a collective, curatorial organization like VIVO is so important.
VO: Can you talk about some current projects in development?
SH: I’m working on my first feature-length film, this time using ink-drawn stop-motion animation. It’s a much longer and more complex process, however I’m hoping the result will be worth the many months (and perhaps years) I plan to spend on it. Like Star And Cyprus, it will be a very DIY affair, and probably more hard work than it needs to be. But I don’t know how to work any other way.
VO: Thank you Steven for this great opportunity to learn more about you and your ideas. It’s great to have yet another engaged, independent media artist bringing their work to us for distribution and the library/archive – we’re looking forward to more submissions from you soon.