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Unique frame of reference

“That’s probably the only cartoon ever made just for women over 50,” says independent animator Joanna Priestley of her 2007 film, “Streetcar Named Perspire.” The 6 1/2 -minute computer-animated roller-coaster ride takes viewers through the ups and downs of a little-discussed phenomenon -- menopause. The “change of life” may seem like an unusual subject for an animated film, but it’s par for the course for Priestley, who has spent the past 25 years pushing the boundaries of the genre with inventive, often irreverent shorts on topics such as relationships, aging, prison and plants.

“When one thinks of Joanna, one thinks of a body of works that express a multiple range of ideas,” says CalArts professor Maureen Selwood, who curated a retrospective of Priestley’s films, titled “Fighting Gravity,” that screens on April 20 at REDCAT. But, she adds, the works “still come back to what’s expressed by a single person -- an individual’s concerns and issues.”

Although Hollywood feature animation employs large teams of highly specialized animators, independent animation is often the product of one very determined artist. “There’s not a lot of income that comes from making these films,” says Priestley via phone from her Portland, Ore., studio, “Most people fund them through grants, so it’s usually people with strong visions.”

On average, it takes Priestley two to three years to complete a film, so her subjects are usually things that have made a big impression on her. “I try to draw in other people’s experience. Very often I’ll interview friends and get their ideas,” she says, “but the core inspiration usually comes from my own experience.”

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One of her early films, 1985’s “Voices” -- made while she was a graduate student in experimental animation at CalArts--is a four-minute self-portrait in which her hand-drawn visage morphs into myriad shapes: a Minnie Mouse-like character, a green, cone-headed alien, a Picasso-esque abstraction, a wrinkled old woman. These fluid transitions are accompanied by a first-person voice-over about her fears of aging, strangers and war.

On the heels of a bad break-up, she created “All My Relations” in 1990, which follows an abstract, though distinctly feminine figure through the stages of a romance, from infatuation to disillusionment, pain and renewal. Her 1993 film “Grown Up” extols the virtues of turning 40, and “She-Bop,” from 1988, is an ode to the Goddess and female power, set to a poem by writer and performer Carolyn Myers.

Priestley often incorporates poems into her work, as sources of inspiration and directly, as soundtracks. “I am in love with the short form,” she says, when asked if she will ever make a feature-length film. “I identify more with the poets.”

Her latest effort, making its world premiere at REDCAT, is a collaboration with four-time National Poetry Slam champion, Taylor Mali. “Missed Aches” is Priestley’s interpretation of Mali’s “The The [sic] Impotence of Proofreading,” a poem that demonstrates how the shortcomings of spell check can result in some unexpected (and often sexually explicit) double entendres. Priestley first heard Mali perform the piece at a Portland literary conference and says it “made me laugh so hard I thought I was going to be sick.”

Priestley is equally invested in making films that use animation to explore abstract imagery. “I was first a painter and a printmaker, so the relationship for me is perfectly natural,” she says, “There is a joy as I get older in simplifying what I’m working with, to just pare it down to line and color and shape.”

Her latest abstract work-in-progress is an experiment driven by the structure of the computer program Flash. Initially designed for animation on the Web, the software has become Priestley’s medium of choice since the last 35-millimeter film lab in Portland went out of business.”

Yet even before computer animation became a widespread phenomenon, Priestley was experimenting with techniques. Her first film, completed in 1983, was created entirely with rubber stamps on index cards. For segments of the 1991 piece “After the Fall,” she propped up a sheet of clear Plexiglas at various outdoor locations and shot the animation by placing sequences of drawings in its center. In the finished film, the smooth hand-drawn animation is framed by stuttering approximations of live-action backgrounds.

She attributes her penchant for technical experimentation to the work of Academy Award-winning animator Norman McLaren, which she first saw in high school. “He was one of the great pioneers in paint-on-film and scratch-on-film,” she says, referring to camera-less animation techniques that involve manipulating the surface of the film by hand. “He did scratch a whole film with a needle into opaque black leader -- not an easy way to make a film.”

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Another key influence was Jules Engel, the founder of CalArts’ program in experimental animation. “He really encouraged women,” Priestley says, unusual in a field traditionally dominated by men. She worked closely with him during her time at CalArts, collaborating on some early experiments in computer animation.

Engel, who died in 2003, was a veteran of the Disney films “Fantasia” and “Bambi,” a creator of cartoon characters, including Mr. Magoo, and an abstract painter. “Jules really felt so strongly that the life of an artist and the life of being an animator could really be joined together,” says Selwood, who teaches in the department.

In fact, the Priestley retrospective came about because Selwood was asked to put together a program coinciding with the Jules Engel Centennial Celebration, a commemoration of the influential animator’s legacy. Priestley was an “obvious choice,” she says, not only because she was close to Engel but because her career proves “it’s possible to be an independent artist.”

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