Stacey Steers and the Power of Process

Stacey Steers (2012 Moving Image) takes pieces from the past to create original animated shorts. Through a labor intensive process, Steers bridges stories and characters from silent films of the early 20th century to now, with the use of thousands of handmade collages. Her work is both a result and a reflection of an extensive process of creating collages, choosing elements from the past, and creating a new story told through short animated films. Her Creative Capital, Edge of Alchemy, premieres with a film and solo exhibition at Catherine Clark Gallery through April 15, 2017. The film will also screen at San Francisco International Film Festival on April 9 and 16. Additionally, Steers has a concurrent exhibition, Trilogy, on view at Robischon Gallery in Denver through May 6. Steers and I spoke earlier this month about how her work with images and drawings has evolved over years of development.

Hillary Bonhomme: Like your other works, this project took a long time. I assume that you enjoy the process too much to consider going about it any other way, but do you have any wisdom to share about the value of taking your time with things?

Stacey Steers: I allow my work to develop intuitively. For me, the process of creating a film has to occur in the context of a sense of spaciousness, where I feel a poetic freedom to consider many alternatives and playfully attempt a variety of approaches to a problem. In this sense, time is critical to the outcome. I’m also not certain how long a film will need to be to pull all the pieces I put in play into alignment. With Edge of Alchemy, it took longer than I had imagined, but any project starts to take on a life of its own, and you have to respect the fullness of form ideas needs to resonate in the way you’re hoping. I learned that very early on. I’m very lucky to have had the luxury of working slowly.

Hillary: Was the length of the process of making these films ever an internal struggle?

Stacey: Of course, there a lot of times where I feel uncertain about whether I’ll be able to manage to give a film project the poetic integrity I’m seeking because I move organically through its making and I’m groping in the dark and creeping along one scene at a time hoping I can pull another rabbit out of a hat, so to speak. But any artist has to develop a certain confidence in their creative process, however singular.

I try to remind people that animation is not the individual images that you compose for a film, it’s what you see as a result of the persistence of vision phenomenon that occurs when you watch those images at 24 frames per second. As a maker, the motion you then perceive feels magical and transcends your original design. I experience a little of that surprising (and very satisfying) feeling every single day in the studio. Of course, I do wish my work could move more quickly sometimes.

Still from Night Hunter (2011)

Still from Night Hunter (2011)

Hillary: Did you start out in film?

Stacey: Yes. I was a fine art student, but I taught myself to animate very early on in the 80’s. I worked in 16mm film for about eight years and then moved to 35mm. My projects develop so slowly that each time I finish one the technical landscape has changed completely! I shot Edge of Alchemy in 35mm on an old Oxberry animation stand at the University of Colorado, but I then created a 4K scan and did all the color correction in post.

Hillary: Were your early works similar to what you’re making now?

Stacey: Not really. My early work was drawn on paper and hand-painted. I had an artistic crisis after I finished my film Totem (1999), and I knew I didn’t want to draw anymore. I was tired of the particular expressive quality of my drawing style, and I struggled to convey the ideas that interested me in drawings. I was searching for a new way of working, and with a nod to the filmmaker Larry Jordan, I began using elements of 19th-century engravings to create collages and placed Edweard Muybridge’s figures from his motion studies of the 1880’s into them as characters. Because of the technophobia, I took a very different approach to creating collage animation than most filmmakers. Early on, when I was teaching myself to animate using film cameras, I had lots of technical problems. My very first animation was a collage film made moving paper cutouts under the camera (the normal technique for that). I grew so frustrated with the camera issues I was having and the time that was lost re-creating scenes, that I resolved never to work under the camera again and always create individual works on paper. That way I could reshoot if there was a camera problem. With digital cameras, this problem has vanished, but my habit remains!

I think it’s quite difficult to talk about certain types of emotionality that are very central to our existence, but we can SEE it. We all recognize it. It’s one of the great powers of the cinema to allow us to behold those moments at a monumental scale.

Hillary: Can you elaborate on your research process? Where do you begin? What are you looking for?

Stacey: I start out searching for a landscape for a film, a vague sense of a way of beginning that seems to be driven by the materials I’m attracted to working with at the time. Then I’ll make a scene or two and the project moves in fits and starts for sometime. It’s always hard to get started, that is one of the difficulties of spending as long as I do on each film. I’m interested in very fundamental drives like desire (defined very broadly for me), how they resonate to inform experience, and our memories of the experience. I’m drawn to certain contemporary issues that for me have allegorical power. I’m struggling to find an internal metaphor I might use to illuminate a corner of the intersection of all this.

I think I’m attracted to actors who project a sense of interiority and psychological complexity. I always look for scenes where there is a kind of translucence to their emotional state that makes you feel drawn towards their experience. I think it’s quite difficult to talk about certain types of emotionality that are very central to our existence, but we can SEE it. We all recognize it. It’s one of the great powers of the cinema to allow us to behold those moments at a monumental scale. Of course, I’m re-contextualizing those moments and giving them a home in my world.

Still from 'Edge of Alchemy' (2017)

Still from Edge of Alchemy (2017)

Hillary: Is there a peace that you’ve found by spending so much time understanding people and cultures from the past?

Stacey: I do develop a relationship to my actors based on intimate scrutiny of their performances and things I learn about their lives while I’m working. I have tremendous respect for their work. As a very young women I lived for 7 years in remote parts of Latin America, and I think part of my poetic drive and the search for a timeless and otherworldly quality in my work comes from living where I did in close connection with people for whom the world moves at a very different pace, with very different aspirations and a deep well of knowledge that isn’t always appreciated by the modern world.

Hillary: Who was your composer for this project and how did that collaboration unfold?

Stacey: I always collaborate with a composer at the end of the project, when the visual material is complete. I worked with Lech Jankowski on this project. I knew his work with the Brothers Quay, which I admired, and I decided to try and reach him. I was quite surprised when I actually found him! He’s a very poetic and temperamental character, eccentric for certain, but he agreed to work with me and asked me wonderful questions about the visual material (for instance, “Describe your film as if you were a scientist, then as yourself and finally as if you were a child”). He always records his sound live; there is nothing that has been sampled. For instance, the sound of bee wings in the film is a long line of bicycle wheels attached to a tabletop that are all spinning simultaneously. The instrumentation is all recorded live in a studio. The score he gave me had many wonderful musical qualities, but my colleague and friend, the filmmaker Phil Solomon (also a Creative Capital artist) helped me to remix the sound and add a few effects, which brought the sound design to life.

Hillary: You talk a lot about re-contextualizing these films, what’s the goal when eliminating certain elements and keeping others?

Stacey: Animation is a very expressive medium, and I moved away from drawing because I was tired of the particular expressive quality of my style and interested in working with a more neutral image, something less directly my own. I’m very interested in the process and how it resonates through any project. There is something about the physical process of creating my animation – cutting found images, placing one beneath another or cutting into something to bring an earlier layer to the surface – that mimics for me the way we process experience and form memories. I find creating my films in the way I currently do psychologically liberating, and the process has made my work more personal and intimate. The technique itself also carries a kind of hyper-intensity that is a result of the flickering of all the image elements. The field of the film becomes energized. In animation, we refer to that as “breathing,” which implies that the images have their own life force in some sense.

One of the things I have learned working overtime in this way is that there is a charge to the displacement of the actors that occurs when I remove them from the original frame or bring unanticipated objects into a pre-existing space in a film. The Surrealists talk about this same idea and use it as a strategy. Like them, my working process is intuitive and allows for the unconscious and non rational to play a role. I unite elements with no obvious shared context and try to create an atmosphere where their alignment feels somehow natural and poetically sound. I think when I first started using these images of early silent film actors, it never really occurred to me, exactly how expressive they could be. I was attracted to them and an emotional immediacy I felt coming from them, but the discoveries I made about what I can focus on and utilize when I’m working with them, have continued to surprise me. I tend to like to find more ambiguous moments, because those interest me, and I’m drawn to actors who liked to add psychological complexity to their performances.

My collage technique makes it possible for me to linger over very fleeting expressions and extend them in a way that emphasizes a state of interiority I am interested in exploring. I’m curious about the nature of longing and how it provokes and mediates experience. In the case of Edge of Alchemy, there is also a sense of the complexity of the world pushing against the desires of the protagonist. She has the power to create but not to control her creation.

Stacey Steer’s exhibition at the Catherine Clark Gallery will be on view until April 15th, details here. Edge of Alchemy will also be screened at the San Fransisco International Film Festival on April 9th and 16th, for more information on tickets, see the festival’s entire lineup here.  In Denver, Steers’ 3 most recent films all relating to women’s inner worlds; Phantom Canyon, Night Hunter and her new film, Edge of Alchemy, accompanied by preparatory collages, photos, prints and installation objects are on view until May 6, more information here.