by Adam Gibeault*
While chatting with Pixie Cram over coffee, we spoke about how long it takes to produce an animated short, specifically, her piece titled Joan (2014). Her reply? “One month for six-and-a-half minutes.” Bringing your imagination to life on a celluloid strip of film is no easy task, but time and time again, Pixie succeeds in bringing her ideas to life on the big screen.
Beginning with short stories as a young girl, and gradually finding her way into film, Pixie has found her way into many exciting facets in her artistic career. Around age 10 is when Pixie stepped into the world of creative writing, and from there on it became “a big part of [her] life”. Moving forwards a couple of years, and Pixie attended Concordia University in Montreal, QC, where she studied theatre, scriptwriting, and acting. Towards the end of her studies, Pixie “gradually figured out that acting wasn’t right for me – that I was more comfortable behind the scenes”. After graduating from Concordia, Pixie returned to Ottawa. She was introduced to a film program held by the Independent Filmmakers Co-operative of Ottawa (IFCO), and this is where she first worked with 16mm celluloid film. Curious about her bond with film, I asked why she preferred film to digital: “…when I discovered shooting film with film, I enjoyed working with it because the images are really beautiful and you never know what you’re going to get. There’s sort of an element of surprise.”
In looking at the style of Pixie’s filmmaking, it’s readily apparent that she takes some big leaps into various ways of filmmaking. When asked about where her ideas come from, she replied, “My sources for the films are often dreams, sometimes I go back to the creative writing that I did when I was younger. I used to write a lot of science fiction, so I have a whole lot of dystopian narratives – which [a] new project is based on. Some are finished and some are not, and I always felt like there’s something there to be plucked. That tends to be where I draw my ideas from.”
One aspect more noticeable about Pixie’s work is that they are all short pieces. Interestingly enough, “the fiction that I have been turning into shorts films; a lot of [them] are projects that I’ve written myself.” But short films aren’t all that’s hiding up her sleeves, as she notes that her films “gradually got longer and longer”, the longest being 30 minutes. As her films grew and delved deeper, the question of “feature length film” comes into view: “…I have been wanting to do a longer project for at least ten years, but it’s very challenging to get funding if you want to stay independent”. Pixie also hinted that, at the moment, she is working on something that may end up being feature length
A majority of the projects that Pixie has spearheaded show that she has a definite love for the art of animation. In my interview with her, she mentioned a Czech animator by the name of Jan Švankmajer, whom she dubbed as one of her inspirations for delving into the stop-motion world: “I love the aesthetic of it, I thought it was fascinating; you’re doing the animation [and] the effects in camera essentially with film, and you’re shooting as well, you’re shooting your scenes with them…I don’t know, [it’s] very human, I think.” Pixie also turned her attention to auteurist cinema as being a strong influence, and she specifically mentions her love for the style of Robert Bresson: “I love [his] films, I love the fact that he works with non-professional actors, and I love his framing, and the starkness of the storytelling. To me it’s very poetic”.
In addition to animation, Pixie has also worked in the world of documentary filmmaking. One of her major works, titled Dreamcoat, follows key players in the 25th anniversary theatrical production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Pixie, hired by executive producer Michael Ostroff, took on the directorial position for the project. Pixie, who was “flabbergasted” by the request, took the job. Although documentary was not her forté, Pixie describes her time with the project as an educational experience: “as an art form it was interesting to discover. The way that I started to see it was, with fiction, you are projecting your imaginary situation and manifesting it in a way with actors and crew, whereas with documentary, you’re working with the raw material – which is life – and you go into reality, you turn the camera on, and you see what comes of it.” Pixie went on to further quote Chris Newton, the sound recordist on the project, saying that “documentary was like jazz, and fiction was like playing classical music. The idea that everything had to be perfect in fiction, because you couldn’t give away the illusion, whereas in documentary, it’s like jazz music; you’re improvising and you’re following certain melody lines. I’ve developed an appreciation, and since then done a lot more of that format.”
In regards to her time as a filmmaker and the challenges that she has faced, Pixie states that her “biggest obstacle is [her]self, where [she] compromised too much.” She describes locations as something that she often struggles with, forgetting about the perfect location for one that is “good enough”. While reflecting on this, Pixie also found that she was too accommodating of her cast and crew, referring to an instance where she allowed everyone to go on break during a cold day, and ended up losing the daylight for an important scene; “I think, just respecting people’s boundaries, but also knowing where I shouldn’t budge on certain things, like ‘yes we’re going to stay in the cold for another ten minutes and get this shot before you go in and warm up’. It’s a balancing act.” To follow up with this, I asked Pixie if there was any advice she has for aspiring filmmakers: “I would say just be true to yourself. I think it’s really easy to look outside and compare to other directors and filmmakers, but the best thing you can do is to listen to your inner voice, that intuition or your own imagination, because there’s this creative source in everyone, and sometimes you just have to be very quiet and let it out.”
Not only does Pixie have an affinity for experimental film, but she has also shown a similar likeness towards experimental exhibition. In 2008, Pixie approached one of her colleagues, Roger Wilson, with a project called the Windows Collective. Pixie describes the concept of the project as “doing projections in the city – nothing new about that, of course, there’s a lot of people who do this kind of work – but the original idea had been to project films through windows, hence the name Windows Collective.” Pixie, Roger, and four other filmmakers received funding from the City of Ottawa and were able to do the project in six locations across Ottawa; “some were projections through storefront windows; we would line the windows with really heavy diffusion paper that we use for lighting, and it made a really nice screen. Then against walls, we [also] projected against heritage buildings. Each location was different, but the idea was to get the attention of the passerby.” The project became popular enough that, in September of this year, the Windows Collective completed a cross-Canada tour. The tour extended to North Bay, Thunder Bay, Kenora, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Sioux Lookout. The end-goal for the project was to “bring the art to the people, rather than expecting people to come into the institution and get passed the elitism of art galleries or the admission fees; let’s bring it outside to people who wouldn’t normally access it.”
Alongside her work with the Windows Collective, Pixie also works with a project called Youth Active Media, which is a city-wide mobile video production program where youth/young adults, ages 14-25, learn the processes behind video production. [It’s] been a big part of how I’ve been earning a living, teaching and working – I love working with beginners, and I love working with that age group too; they’re so enthusiastic about learning something new, and also having the opportunity to express themselves. The more that I’ve done this work, the more that I’ve seen the value in supporting and inspiring the next generation.” Pixie also works with SAW Video as an instructor for certain workshops they offer. Most recently, she instructed a ‘Cinematography 101’ course.
A few times during the interview Pixie mentioned a new project that she’s been toying with. She reveals “It’s a dystopian fiction, in the post-apocalyptic genre, but my interest in making this film is not to explore the traditional theme of man vs. man, survival, people fighting for the last barrel of oil, or whatever it might be. My take is in a different direction: it’s very much a utopia, set in a dystopian context – that’s what I want to explore. For a long time its something I’ve been interested in social structures; a lot of the science fiction writing I did when I was younger was creating these dystopias. It’s the idea of creating this fictional community that’s come from a dystopian place, but is actually developing into a new picture of society. It’s very optimistic, I think, but we’ll see; when I make it might not turn out to be quite so optimistic.”
For those looking to check out some of Pixie’s work, her stop-motion piece Joan (2014) will be screened on December 5th, 2015 at the Mirror Mountain Film Festival in Ottawa.
*Adam Gibeault is a Film Studies Major at Carleton University, with a Minor in Communication Studies. Currently in his fourth year of his undergrad, he is interning at SAW Video for the Fall Semester of 2015.
1) Photo by Mariana Lafrance
2) Still from Joan (2014) - Pixie Cram
3) "Untitled – Drinking, Colour 16mm , 20 second film loop"
4) Photo by Chris Redmond