“Light is thrilling for me.”— Jane Aaron.
On June 27, the animation community lost a trailblazer. Jane Aaron’s untimely death at age 67 is a heartbreaking loss for her family and for those of us who’ve enjoyed her whimsical animated films, her ABC’s and 1-2-3’s on Sesame Street, and her children’s book illustrations over the years. Her passing will also leave a hole in the heart of animation circles where her talent, vision and resilience continued to inspire young animators, most especially women, to follow their dreams… and transform the light.
Thirty years have passed since I interviewed Jane Aaron during my stint as Editor-in-Chief of Sightlines magazine. At that time, circa 1985, she was a rising star and one of only a handful of women who challenged and surmounted gender barriers in the world of animation.
By the age of 37, in 1985, animator Jane Aaron had already produced six independent, personal films; and she had some educational film and TV credits under her belt as well. She illustrated Oralee Wachter’s groundbreaking best seller, No More Secrets for Me (Little, Brown; 1983), which teaches kids how to avoid being sex abuse victims. And Aaron re-teamed with Wachter for Close to Home, a similar preventative book about child abduction published in 1986 by Scholastic.
Aaron’s Traveling Light was screened at every major international film festival in 1985, from Telluride to London. The two-minute film follows the play of light as it dances through interior space. In the end, the true identity of Aaron’s “light” is cleverly revealed to be tiny bits of paper, carefully arranged to mimic light. Traveling Light made a splash in the U.S. at the 23rd New York Film Festival, where it was programmed with Steaming, director Joseph Losey’s film about women who bonded in a bathhouse.
In my interview that follows, conducted on October 24, 1985 (condensed from the original interview published in Sightlines magazine, Winter 1985/86), Jane Aaron discussed her innovative animation technique, her commitment to the independent film scene, and her dreams of big bucks, mainstream venues and music videos.
Judith Trojan: Did you study animation in film school?
Jane Aaron: I never went to film school; I studied drawing and sculpture in college. I think, in my case, it was an advantage because I never knew the right way to do it. There are things that I do that I would not imagine I would do if I had traditional film or animation training. My first film, A Brand New Day (1974), was shot traditionally on an animation stand. It was done with the basic technique of repeating drawings. I learned how to do it from a friend. It ended up taking about a year; and, by the end of that year, I was committed to animation.
Trojan: How would you define your particular kind of animation? Is there terminology to describe it?
Aaron: I don’t think there’s any general way to describe it because I don’t know of anyone else who’s doing it. I actually take the drawings and go to the location and shoot them in the live setting. There’s no optical work involved at all.
Trojan: You don’t use any opticals? That’s surprising, given the look of your work!
Aaron: No, only rubber cement, scissors, and masking tape. I just take the drawings outside and shoot them the same way you would on an animation stand. It takes a couple of hours to shoot 30 seconds of film. What happens is that the real landscape or setting becomes distorted and gets speeded up, while the animation takes on real time.
Trojan: Would this be considered pixillation?
Aaron: Pixillation is time-lapse–shooting at intervals of time. My work is a combination of pixillation and animation. I create the movement through the drawings, and the background is pixillated. But it happens at the same time. It’s not like I pixillate and then do the drawings. In Interior Designs (1980), I took the drawings and the camera into a bedroom and shot them there. The drawings were small and situated so that they only took up part of the frame; and the room was all in. I changed the drawings and the room stayed still.
Trojan: Why not use opticals?
Aaron: I’m interested in doing the work in a much more direct way. When you get involved with opticals, you talking about a lot of laboratory work and communication with the lab, and lots of weeks of testing; that part doesn’t interest me. I truly enjoy being outside. It’s difficult and frustrating when it suddenly is windy and you can’t hold anything down; but there is something about getting the piece of paper out there, getting the character out in real space. It’s being affected by the light that’s there. There’s a scene in Remains To Be Seen (1983) where there’s a close-up of a head, and it’s totally wrinkled. It was a windy day, and I ended up recording the sound of paper wrinkling in the wind to reinforce the fact that it really was paper.
Trojan: You seem to be fascinated with light. It plays a big role in your films.
Aaron: I definitely do have a passion for light. It’s a very emotional thing. Light is thrilling for me. That’s why Traveling Light (1985) was very satisfying; it was a way to deal with that passion directly.
Trojan: How has your technique evolved over the years?
Aaron: I feel that my films now are a continuation of the first film that was shot on an animation stand. When A Brand New Day was finished and up on the screen, I felt that only a small part of the environment was represented; for me, there had been much more: my coffee cup in the window, and so forth. So, I brought the camera back and started to reveal what was around the drawings.
That was one of the initial impulses that led to In Plain Sight (1977). In In Plain Sight, there was a stationary camera and stationary artwork. I wanted to get the artwork to move through the environment, so I started experimenting with ways of integrating them more. With Remains To Be Seen, I was interested in creating artwork for a specific location. The film I’m working on now (sic), Set in Motion (1987), is actually quite a bit freer.
Trojan: How about Traveling Light?
Aaron: Traveling Light was a very precise film to make. I tried different approaches to represent light. We would shoot about four seconds a day, just moving those little pieces of paper around in real environments. We went to a real kitchen, a real living room. I don’t think anyone else would think to do it.
Trojan: Where do you get your ideas?
Aaron: They truly come out of experimenting. When I start a film, I don’t have a storyboard. That’s probably the hardest aspect of it for me. It’s really difficult conceptually because I start by getting involved with some images, just kind of to solve a problem. As it starts to grow, I begin to see what form it might take, and add another element and then try to continue on. I don’t start with a storyboard; but probably halfway through, I have more of an idea of how it is going to be. It isn’t like when the last shot comes in, then I suddenly realize I am finished.
Trojan: Your films seem to dwell on extending or restructuring space. It’s a very sculptural concept–jumping from three-dimensional to two-dimensional space and back.
Aaron: And even some of the systems that I use to shoot these films are sculptural in themselves. I have to build lots of things.
Trojan: Because your work is so unique, does the technique have any drawbacks?
Aaron: There are two things that I do that I haven’t seen anybody else do–I shoot outside, and I use life-sized, animated characters in real space. So, it becomes expensive. I have the high cost of animation, which is labor intensive–doing all of the work–and I also have some of the high cost of live-action–we go on-location, which necessitates per diems and car rentals. Most animators don’t have these costs; they stay in the studio.
Trojan: It doesn’t seem very profitable. Why not branch out and do more commercial work?
Aaron: I went through a period of being disgusted, but now I feel quite committed to making my own films. Among other things, I think it’s continually challenging not to repeat yourself.
Trojan: Have many women animators dropped by the wayside due to financial pressures?
Aaron: Women and men. A lot of people have become disillusioned with it as a field because the recognition is small compared to other fields, and the money is ridiculous. Even when animation plays on television or gets sold, people buy it by the minute. And we may be talking about a five-minute film. It doesn’t matter if it was a two-year endeavor. So, you can never get back the cost of production. I’ve come to terms with that; I don’t really expect wide distribution. …. I attract clients who are interested in an unusual approach. … I like it when my films are programmed with features. That’s my favorite way to show them, rather than on a program of short films. People come out of having seen 10 animated films, and they vaguely remember liking one, or can’t really remember one from the other. SL
In addition to her independent film career, Jane Aaron went on to channel her vision “in more mainstream ways” to reach “bigger audiences,” a goal she shared with me back in 1985 during our interview. She forged a successful career on MTV, Nickelodeon’s Nick at Nite, the PBS reading series Between the Lions and, of course, on Sesame Street, where her talent for whimsy was a perfect fit. She produced and directed more than 150 animated shorts for Sesame Street. Aaron also adapted and animated her own children’s picture book series, Sometimes I Feel… (Golden Books), for HBO Family; and she recently completed six shorts entitled Just Wondering for HBO Family as well.
Animator, illustrator and children’s book author Jane Aaron leaves behind her husband, filmmaker Skip Blumberg, a son, three siblings and an evergreen body of work. Her “bigger audience” encompassed “kids” from toddlers to centenarians. And her gift was priceless: She enabled us to see things we normally take for granted–ordinary things–in extraordinary ways. She will be sorely missed. –Judith Trojan