Craft Month: An interview with Em Cooper

Mon 14 May 2018

Week three of Craft Month sees us diving head first into critically acclaimed director Em Cooper's mesmerising animations. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, Em has enraptured audiences globally with her hand oil painted, rotoscoped animation. Her work has been screened internationally and shortlisted for numerous awards including major festivals such as EIFF and London Film Festival. 

We picked Em's brains about how she got to where she is today, where she gets her inspiration from and the documentary she recently wrapped, ‘America ReFramed: Deej,’ (the story of nonspeaking young man with autism and his journey), which has just won a Peabody Award. We’ll let Em take it from here: 

“I came to animation from live-action filmmaking, from a frustrated feeling that the medium of live-action was limited, especially in its ability to convey ideas about internal states…”


Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you became an animator.

I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about identifying myself as ‘an animator’. I came to animation from live-action filmmaking, from a frustrated feeling that the medium of live-action was limited, especially in its ability to convey ideas about internal states. I wanted to forge a medium somewhere between live-action and animation, which felt like memory, thought or feeling - an internal vision. For me the texture and flow of the oil-paint gives an emotional or subjective quality to the work, which the camera lacks.

How would you describe your style?

‘Painted film’ might be a reasonable description, but I would always prefer to show someone a clip rather than describe my work in words. I have been known to talk for almost an hour trying to explain it, only to find that showing a six-second clip gave a clarity that my words had failed to express.

Your oil painting and rotoscoped animations are awesome – how have you honed your talent?

The biggest leap forwards for me was at the Royal College of Art. I shot my films on 16mm and developed my oil-paint technique on their film rostrum in the basement of the tower. Somehow everything came together for me in that room. I worked so hard in there that I occasionally used to sleep on a piece of polyboard in the corner. Since then I have been working, pretty much non-stop, so I continue to develop through practice.


"I begin animating, and the paint starts to move, and I lose my self-consciousness..."


What’s your creative process when it comes to animating? Where or who do you find inspiration from?

I think inspiration never feels like inspiration until you retrospectively identify it. At the time it just feels like either being stuck, or suddenly coming loose. Often a stuck idea will go round and round my head, especially in the night, presenting itself over and over in different scenarios. Perhaps the best inspiration would be getting a good night’s sleep, but when this isn’t possible, I try to go right back to the foundations of the project and think clearly about what this particular shot is for, and what am I trying to convey. 

Another, almost antithetical approach is simply to trust: instead of trying to define it all in advance, I just leave room for what I feel the shot itself needs once it is underway. If I am allowed enough freedom on a project, this can really come into its own. I begin animating, and the paint starts to move, and I lose my self-consciousness. I feel like I am just a witness, facilitating where the paint itself wants to move. I know that sounds strange, but some of my best sequences have come when I allow the paint to take over and move with the flow and rhythm that it seems to want. 


"I wanted to try to give a sense of the way one sense can slip into another, a colour feels like a sound, a sight becomes visceral."



Your work on the documentary DEEJ – about a young man with autism – has just won a Peabody Award in the USA. How did you go about approaching this brief? Did you have any setbacks / difficulties?

Deej was a beautiful film to be involved with. DJ Savarese, the young poet who is the subject of the documentary, is a brilliant writer. My aim was to not only to give his poems a visual presence on screen, but to weave in as much of his internal experience and associations as I could grasp, using the texture and movement of the images as well as their content.

During the period of creating the animation, he and I chatted every week, using google chat, discussing the detail of possible images and his associations which sprang from the lines of the poems. I felt strongly connected to his synesthetic experience, which he describes most lucidly in his poem ‘Swoon.’ I wanted to try to give a sense of the way one sense can slip into another, a colour feels like a sound, a sight becomes visceral. The film documents his experience as a non-speaking autist on a mission to change the way neuro-typical people think about autism and other forms of neurodiversity, and the animation was important as a way of balancing the live-action shots, which depict DJ from the outside, with a more internal, subjective viewpoint.

Any exciting projects coming up?

Some exciting projects are in the pipeline. I am looking forward to working in fiction film as my previous recent work has been predominantly documentary.

And last but not least… you’re on a deserted island. What three things can you not live without?

Can I take my family? I assume not. I would take lots of paper and pencils. I hate being without a way of getting stuff down.